What Is It Like to Be a Film Critic?

I love it, but it's also harder than it looks. As someone who loves movies and loves talking about movies, it's amazing to be get paid to watch films and then tell you what I think about them. Some of my earliest memories of and contact with films was via Roger Ebert and the shows "Sneak Previews" and "At the Movies," and I never would've guessed that I'd be doing it myself some day.
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Answer by Mark Hughes, Film Reviewer for Forbes

I love it, but it's also harder than it looks.

As someone who loves movies and loves talking about movies, it's amazing to be get paid to watch films and then tell you what I think about them. Some of my earliest memories of and contact with films was via Roger Ebert and the shows "Sneak Previews" and "At the Movies," and I never would've guessed that I'd be doing it myself some day.

One great aspect of my film reviewing is, I get to see most of the bigger releases for free, since I attend advance screenings put on by the studios or by awards groups or other organizations (LAMCA has a terrific program that screens upcoming films way in advance, and they usually have the directors and others from the film on hand to do some Q&A, for example).

I spend a lot of time thinking about and discussing the films with other reviewers and writers, with friends in the film industry, and with my family and friends. I'll sometimes wait days or weeks to write a review after seeing a film, to process my thoughts and reactions, and to do a lot of rewriting.

It's not about merely offering a simple "it was entertaining" or "it was poorly made" assessment, for me anyway. I think all films say something -- about those who made it, about its characters or themes, and/or about the viewers and our world. How much a film has to say, and how well it says it, depends on the film, of course. But for me, film reviewing and criticism should be and needs to be about more than the reviewer's personal enjoyment or lack thereof. You want me to tell you if a film is worth seeing or not, and I think that if I'm going to really do my duty for you and offer you my best advice and assessment, then I need to try and see beyond the surface and think about what these movies mean to us, how the experience affects us and moves us, and if there's something to learn and take with us out of the theater besides that it blow'd stuff up real good.

No doubt, there are films that exist primarily as pure entertainment to give us two hours of escapist fun, and films that are vapid endeavors merely wasting your time and mine. But I honestly think that's rare, and that the existence of empty crappy entertainment churned out with no real quality or value is vastly overstated by folks just too lazy to look closer, too focused on their own "reputation" and public persona as "straight shooter" critics too cool to like anything, or just frankly (as is sadly increasingly the case with an awful lot of reviewers these days) too incapable of seeing and thinking seriously about deeper themes and what went into creating a film.

I assure you, if you take just about any movie that gets made, someone somewhere at some stage in the process loved that project. Someone had an idea, and they were surely convinced it was a great idea that would make a great movie. Nobody sits down in front of a blank page and says, "I'm gonna write something really s***y," and few actors step in front of a camera determined to make fools of themselves by delivering bad performances. Ed Wood thought he was making real art, he loved movies and desperately wanted to make good ones, and he was convinced of his own abilities even if the rest of us weren't.

Somewhere out there, every bad movie has someone who loved it once, and that simple fact is always on my mind when I watch films. Why? Because it helps me remember that buried somewhere in even the worst films, there is a purpose and meaning that someone tried to get across, however badly they might have done it. Art is an expression of something, always, even if we think that "something" is stupid or badly expressed, and so for any film if you watch it and pay attention and think about it, you will probably be able to find at least some basic idea or theme that someone was trying to get across to you.

This matters more than you might think, because if even the worst movies were someone's baby once and are trying to tell you something, then what does that mean about the films that are at some level above "bad?" They will speak to you if you listen, that's what. And the more you listen, the more you're likely to hear besides just what's most overtly being shown and said at any give time. And it's liable to have implications and meaning beyond the story being told, and likely to touch on the human condition and life an experiences in ways that might make you see the world a bit differently, or open you up to some new perspective you hadn't appreciated before.

I rarely ever regret watching a movie, however bad it might it. This year, for example, only a couple of films were so bad I honestly felt like I wasted time watching them (A Good Day to Die Hard and The Internship are at the top of that list, by the way). But even then, I can admit those films contained ideas and feelings, however much I hated the vehicle through which those ideas and feelings were being conveyed. And it's the job of a film critic to understand that, to find those things and perceive the films in their entirety, and to pass that along to the readers so that you can appreciate the artistic creation as more than just some sights and sounds moving quickly in front of your face.

So I work hard to find those things in every film I see, and I try to make sure to see the films I think have the best chance of being good while trying to avoid seeing the ones that I suspect will be bad. And to be honest, I often don't review some of the films I see because I didn't enjoy them much or feel that they were okay but didn't do anything very noteworthy in presenting their story and themes. Let me ask you this: how much fun do you really have telling people about things you don't enjoy? Would you rather do that, or talk about the things you DO like? Your answer is likely the same as mine, and that's why I'm more motivated to write and discuss the films that I did enjoy and that I think are worth spending time discussing. I have little desire to waste more of my time discussing something that I already didn't like to begin with.

The danger of that approach, however, is that I get a lot of flack from people who mistakenly believe that I either like every movie I see, or that I just always say good things about every film regardless of whether I liked it or not. I can think of at least five films that I really hated this year, and at least three that were big disappointments to me, and several more that were fair but otherwise nothing special. Why don't I write reviews of them? Because I take review-writing seriously, and spend hours thinking about and talking about films before I start writing a review, and then do rewrites to that review, and then have to add links and images and formatting etc. That's a lot of time and energy, and I'm usually not going to spend it on something that I just don't care much about. I'd much rather invest that time into writing about good movies that I did like.

Any reviewer gets complaints from readers, and the Internet tends to greatly enhance the sense of entitlement and outrage people feel and express when they come across a shocking instance of someone expressing an opinion about art that the person doesn't agree with. I try to engage my readers, for better or worse, and that includes those readers who don't like what I have to say about a film. Sometimes another reviewer/writer will engage me, and usually that's a good thing and I tend to enjoy such exchanges.

This is silly but I'll tell you anyway -- one of the coolest parts of writing film reviews, especially the first few times it happened, is when my reviews are quoted in the ads for a film. Last year, several films used my reviews in their Oscar campaigns, and sometimes I'll be quoted in the ads in the New York Times or LA Times. I still have a copy of the full-page ad for Zero Dark Thirty in which the quote from my review was at the very top, above even the quote from the New York Times reviewer. Again, it's silly, I know, but it feels good anyway.

Films can change you. They can expand your horizons, they can teach you and shape you and give you hope or help you understand yourself better. Films certainly changed me, they changed my entire life in fact, and as a critic I feel obligated to look closely and try to show you how these movies I watch might be able to change you as well.

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