FAQs about the ins and outs of being a movie critic.
Q: How do you see the movies early?
A: With my eyes. HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA
Q: I will stop reading RIGHT NOW if this is just going to be smart-aleck answers.
A: OK, OK. Most films have advance screenings before they open. Some films have press screenings, to which only press are invited (duh), usually held at 10 a.m. And then other films have promo screenings, held in the evening, to which press and the public are invited (usually via ticket giveaways on radio stations), where they tape off a few rows for critics.
For indie films and other arthouse fare, the studios often avoid the expense of renting a theater for a screening by sending screener tapes to the critics to watch at home.
Q: Screenings at 10 in the morning? With no audience? Doesn’t that make it hard to enjoy, say, a comedy?
A: No, but you’re not alone in thinking that. It took some getting used to, but once I’d been at it a few months, seeing films at 10 a.m. (some were even at 9 a.m., back in the old days!) didn’t seem strange anymore. I’ve been just as scared or entertained or whatever sitting with only four other people in a theater at 10 a.m. as I would have been in a packed house at 7 p.m.
In fact, since audiences tend to distract me, what with their whispering and their wrapper-rattling and their shuffling around and whatnot, I probably get MORE enjoyment out of a film that I see in a very small group, regardless of what time of day it is.
That said, the studios tend to think that with comedies — especially big, mass-appeal comedies — we’ll enjoy it more if we see it with an audience, that the laughter surrounding us will inspire us to laugh, too.
It doesn’t work. Often, we sit there in our cluster, glancing around the theater in amazement that these people are actually LAUGHING at this. And other times, we’re the only ones laughing, and we wonder why no one else is. I think if you watch movies for a living, you probably are past the point where hearing chuckles behind you subconsciously forces you to join in on the chuckling yourself.
Q: How far in advance are these screenings held? Days? Weeks?
A: Usually days. Typically, screenings are Monday and/or Tuesday and/or Wednesday for films being released that Friday. Sometimes we’ll see one the previous Thursday (eight days before it opens). Sometimes, if the studio feels particularly confident that early promo screenings will lead to positive “buzz,” they’ll have several screenings, sometimes starting as early as six weeks before the release date. (Strangely, though they encourage the public who comes to these screenings to tell their friends how great it is, the critics are still under strict orders not to print their reviews early — even if they’re positive.)
Q: Do you critics all sit together?
A: Yep. At promo screenings, it’s sort of by necessity, since the studio reps have taped off seats in a particular area for us. But even at press-only screenings, we still tend to sit close to each other, if only so we can chit-chat before the movie starts.
I’m told the critics in some other cities hate each other, see each other as competition, and so on, and won’t fraternize or even sit next to each other. Those critics are big babies. Here in the SLC, we’re all friendly, keep each other in the loop on upcoming screenings, have been known to socialize outside of work, etc. One of my critic buddies even helped me move into my new apartment, and I’m the father of another one’s child (but don’t tell him).
Q: Where do you sit?
A: We’ve grown fond of the first couple rows of the “stadium seating” part of the theater. I like the very front row of that section, as it allows me to put my feet up on the railing. The only theater we ever deal with that doesn’t have stadium seating is the Broadway Centre downtown; there, we tend to be toward the back, off to one side or the other. We always sit near the aisle, wherever we are.
When I go to the movies on my own (i.e., not at a “screening”), I tend to sit farther back, and in the middle (unless the theater is crowded, then I aim for the aisle). I’ll go back as far as necessary to avoid having anyone sitting behind me. I think I’m afraid of being attacked by predators.
Q: Do you stay through the credits?
A: Not unless there are hilarious outtakes or something. (By the way: I think ALL movies should have hilarious outtakes at the end. ALL MOVIES.) If they’re just straight credits, we tend to dash out the door as soon as they commence, to beat the rush. This means we’ve missed a few bits that come after the credits are completely over, but I consider the advantage of getting to the parking lot before the crowd does to far outweigh that.
Q: Do you take notes? What do you write? Does the note-taking make you miss important stuff in the movie?
A: Hey, one question at a time, Mr. Pushy. I do take notes. I’ll jot down a few key plot elements to make sure I get my facts straight, but mostly what I write are adjectives. As I’m watching a movie, I’m simultaneously processing it: What sort of movie is this? What are these characters’ personalities like? And so when good ways of describing the movie or the characters pop into my head, I write them down so I don’t forget.
The other major thing I tend to write down are events in the film that exemplify the movie or the characters: So-and-So does or says such-and-such, and if I reference that in the review, it will go a long way toward describing that character. (Amelie’s fascination with breaking the crust on creme brulee was the thing all the critics mentioned about her, for example, because it told us, in a nutshell, what sort of person she was.)
And no, I don’t tend to miss anything when I’m jotting. For one thing, I don’t jot much: At the most, it’s maybe 100 words over the course of the movie. But also, I’ve gotten used to finding a blank spot on my notepad in the dim light, setting my pen at the starting point, and then writing while I continue to watch the screen.
There is not necessarily any connection between note-taking and good film-reviewing, by the way. My Salt Lake Tribune colleague Sean Means takes pages and pages of notes, while Scott Renshaw at City Weekly writes almost nothing, yet they both write exceptionally well-structured, thoughtful reviews. So I suppose it’s different for everyone.
Q: Do you ever change your mind about a movie after seeing it? If so, why?
A: Meh, not really. Not drastically, anyway. A few times, I’ve given a film an A- instead of an A because I didn’t think it QUITE reached the level of “classic,” then watched the film again and realized I did, in fact, enjoy it just as much the second time (which is more or less my definition of a “classic,” a film that stands up to multiple viewings). “About a Boy” and “Moulin Rouge” come to mind.
For bad films, though, if I thought it was bad, I’m not liable to watch it again. I did find myself forced to watch “Resident Evil” and “Final Destination 2” each a second time, though, and found them both more tolerable than I’d first thought. In both cases, however, my subsequent slight change of heart can be attributed to watching them with a fun group on a fun night while eating fun pizza — external factors that it wouldn’t be fair to include when reviewing a film.
Q: How has being a movie critic changed your moviegoing experience? Do you find you enjoy movies more or less when you are actively critiquing them?
A: I get asked this a lot, usually more in the form of, “Doesn’t having to analyze a film ruin it for you?” Usually people ask this (or, rather, assume that movie-watching HAS been ruined for me) after I’ve negatively reviewed a movie they liked.
But the answer is no, taking notes and otherwise thinking about a film doesn’t taint the movie-watching experience. On the contrary, I think it makes me enjoy films more. The more I know about how they’re made, and why they’re made, and what they’re trying to do, the more I like them. For me, thinking about something makes it MORE fulfilling, not less. Even when I’m not reviewing a film, I still derive great satisfaction from considering it, looking at how it was shot, paying attention to details, and so forth.
Hollywood often makes films that it hopes you DON’T think about, and that wish is often granted, unfortunately. There is a difference between willingly suspending your disbelief because a film is creative or clever enough to have earned it, and simply checking your brain at the door and accepting whatever the movie tells you, no matter how stupid it is. I’m sorry, but Dennis Quaid walking from Philadelphia to New York on snowshoes in a matter of hours in “The Day After Tomorrow” just doesn’t make any SENSE. I’m not “over-analyzing” it; I’m not being a fussy movie critic who doesn’t know how to have fun; I’m just using basic human common sense. If a movie can only be enjoyed by refusing to employ even that minimal level of thinking, then it’s not worth your time.