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Life Of A Film Critic

Life Of A Film Critic

Kevin Maynard (Film Critic and Entertainment Writer, Special to USA Today, Variety) gives expert video advice on: Do film critics see films before they're finished?; Do film critics confer with each other at a screening?; How do film critics protect themselves from being influenced by bad publicity or other factors? and more...

How does a critic decide what films to review?

The way a film critic decides what film should be reviewed is, it's usually not up to them; it's up to the publication. If you write for Variety or The Hollywood Reporter, you're covering everything, from the Afghanistan Film Festival to the latest Adam Sandler vehicle. That's your job. So that's what I mean when people say, “I could be a film critic. It's no big deal.” You're seeing everything, from the indies to the 7-hour foreign documentaries to the blockbusters, and you've got to write reviews of those. There are reviews you get to pick and choose, in the monthly magazines, the kind of high end, something like a Vogue. They'll pick 2 or 3 movies that they just think are really fantastic.

How does a film get reviewed?

The way a film gets reviewed is, well, film, studio publicists, and sometimes some movies don't have studios, so independent PR company publicists, invite critics to movies. They know who the major players are. It's their job to find out who the new ones are, people switching magazines. And they invite them to screenings. Sometimes "long lead screenings" if the movie is, you know, something that they think is gonna be helped by a good review. And then, sometimes, you have what's called an "all media screening" which happens the week the film opens where everybody gets to go see it before the film opens. Now in some cases, and this has been happening more and more, critics aren't being invited to a lot of major releases. That usually means a studio has very little faith in the movie in terms of a critical response. They just want to put it out there- they want audiences to see it, but they don't want anyone to get a whiff that critics think it's a bomb.

Can non-reviewers go to press screenings?

Non-reviewers can go to press screenings. Entertainment reporters frequently go to press screenings. In fact, I think publicists sometimes prefer it. Sometimes, if you're just writing a profile on the actor you get to see the movie before a critic will. They'll say things like, "This is not a screening for reviewing purposes, it's not a finished cut." Sometimes that means a film still needs a lot of work, sometimes it means one song might change. They just don't want critics to see it yet, for whatever reason. They want entertainment reporters to see it in case they want to write a profile for somebody in the movie, so that does happen. At the all-media screenings, it's entertainment reporters and people like that and not just film critics.

What is a "long-lead screening"?

A long-lead screening is a movie that is screened for a critic or reporter well in advance of the film's release. They get to see it early, capitalize and generate early buzz on the movie if they think it's good. A long-lead screening can really work for a movie's favor, and it can also hurt a movie if it's not good. I remember going to a very early screening of "Running With Scissors", which had a great cast and was based on a famous book, and the movie didn't connect with people. It didn't work, it wasn't good. I think people saw it enough in advance through a long-lead screening and it actually generated bad buzz.

How does a reviewer approach a film he's going to write about?

The process for a film reviewer when approaching a film he's going to write about is kind of tough. It's hard to simply take notes in the dark, that's true. Occasionally you'll meet a kind of neophyte film reviewer who brings a glowy pad that lights up, and everyone else tells them to turn it off. You can't do that, that's annoying. Sometimes people bring keyboards, and they type as they go, which can also be distracting. But I know some very established critics do that. I think it's always good for me personally, to go home and really collect my thoughts, look at the scrawl I wrote in the dark and try to put something together. It's also really important to try to stay away from reading any other reviews that are out there that are in advance. You really want to form your own opinion as a film reviewer; you really want to judge the film on its own criteria. A film studio will give you press notes so you have all the verified information of the film and don't get any of that wrong. I think it's also good to write your initial thoughts down and then let it marinate, and go back to it and see how you feel about the movie the next day.

Do film critics see films before they're finished?

Sometimes film critics do see films before they're finished. Sometimes they get early cuts of things and sometimes film critics are invited to a 2 minute presentation, a sizzle reel or something of some moments from movies. They do that with summer movies and they do it with Oscar hopefuls. Indeed, people frequently see unfinished prints, but they are told by publicists, "This is an unfinished print, please do not review." It doesn't mean that things don't get leaked out anyway as the studios love that kind of buzz, and they know they're going to get it anyway. So even though they say they don't want things leaked, they want things like that leaked.

What is a "sizzle reel"?

A “sizzle reel” is just a kind of terminology for getting to see more of a movie than the trailer. The studio is letting you see 2 minutes of the movie, for example. Alternatively, a sizzle reel is the kind of thing where - they do this a lot for fans - you get to see the first seven minutes of “28 Days Later” before the movie comes out to build buzz and get you all revved up about the movie. Studios have been doing that a lot, too. It's a sizzle, it's to tease people into wanting to see more of the movie.

Do film critics confer with each other at a screening?

I think that really depends on the film critic, but I think a lot of film critics do confer at screenings. I mean, look, what happens at the end of every movie here with Oscars is that film critics associations get together and vote on these things, so people start talking about this early on. They mention other film critics, films they really think should be seen, they mention movies that they had high hopes for that suck, they mention what movies at what festivals they're going to check out. I think film critics do confer with each other. I mean, I think sometimes they don't, sometimes some people really keep to themselves, but I think it's such a solitary profession anyway that people do like to get together and kind of kibitz about what's good, what's not.

How do film critics protect themselves from being influenced by bad publicity or other factors?

I think some film "critics" are swayed by a little swag. I don't think they're necessarily great critics. They're the kind of people whose blurbs you see all the time with an exclamation point; you know they're loving movies that nobody else is loving, and they're really suspicious. I think a good critic puts all that aside. Some of these blockbuster movies come with such a built awareness and a, 'You must love this' quality, because they need to make their money back and, by and large, critics know better than to fall for that. As far as conferring with other critics goes, I don't think it's a bad influence. If an informed person who's versed in film history and film criticism talks to more people, it helps them form an opinion. I think these film critics have been hired because they have a strong opinions anyway. They're not going to be too influenced by someone else.

Why do film critics often write scathing reviews?

I think every film fan loves to have a movie that's just SO bad. There's something about an awesomely bad movie that we all love to critique, and it's fun to read those reviews. There was a review of a movie once called "At Long Last Love," this sort of botched musical starring Burt Reynolds and Cybill Shepherd, and one review said, "If this movie were any more of a dog, it would shed." There was a review, I think it was in "The LA Weekly," for "Over the Top," with Sylvester Stallone, about arm wrestling, and the review was two words: it was, "Raging bullshit." You can't deny that that's great. That's just so much fun to read. It's fun to take these down. Yes, some movies are inflated bombs that cost a lot of money. Now, unfortunately, these were movies that were not intended to be bombs. People did spend a lot of money and took a lot of care, and for whatever reason, they didn't come out right. So I'm sure if you're on the production end of those movies, it's painful, and you think, "Well, screw you. Let's see you do it."

Why are some films not reviewed until after they are released in theaters?

A lot of movies don't have critic screenings before their release because the studio does not have faith in them. It's a sign that the movie's being dumped or is going to be dumped, and they just don't think it's a movie that's going to gain anything by getting reviewed. Of course, these movies will get reviewed eventually, and people will find out that they're dogs. Maybe the studios are hoping that first weekend might be successful without a critic screening. The first two weeks are really the times when the studios start paying attention to the big box office, because after that there's drop-off and the figure critical attention can only hurt this movie, so they don't screen it ahead of time.

How many films does a staff film critic see each week?

If you are writing for a daily or a weekly publication, depending on how many reviewers there are, you are seeing probably at least five or six major releases a week. At least. Plus, you are seeing some of the movies that you will be reviewing later. You will see those earlier. It is not uncommon to see two or three movies a day as a film critic.

How long in advance will critics see a film?

In terms of how far in advance a film critic sees a movie, it really depends. It can sometimes be a couple of months, especially if it's maybe some kind of art house or some sort of mini-studio indie that you want to generate some buzz on. A lot of publications need time to see the movies because their print dates are significantly earlier than a daily newspaper or a weekly magazine. So some film critics get to see movies like three months in advance.Quite often with the big studio releases, you're seeing the movie a week or maybe two weeks, before it's released. That's usually because the movie just isn't finished or because they don't think it would help to have reviews that much earlier anyway. They don't want any spoilers, such as with a movie like "Spider-Man 3," that's a movie in a franchise that is fairly well-liked by film critics and audiences. They want film critics to see it before it comes out, but they don't want any spoilers. These movies have plot secrets and they don't want people to be revealing them way in advance.