Being a movie critic for the Internet is nice. Every morning, I drive down to Internet headquarters, punch the ol’ time card, and put in a solid eight hours. Then every Friday, the Internet writes me a check. The Internet is a great boss!
All kidding aside (the Internet is actually kind of a bastard to work for), those of us who make a living writing for online publications are a happy bunch. We’re also very, very lucky. We often get emails from people saying, essentially, “I’d like to be an online movie critic, too. How can I do this?” Here’s what I tell them.
5 Tips for Becoming an Online Film Critic
1. Be prepared to do it for free.
You may have noticed that the vast majority of non-porn websites offer their content to readers free of charge. If they make money, it’s through advertising and affiliate programs. Consequently, most websites don’t pay their writers very much, if they pay them at all. Film.com does. Some of the more heavily trafficked blogs do. But most don’t. A critic just starting out should expect to get paid jack squat for a long, long time. The vast majority of online film critics have day jobs and/or do freelance work for several different publications to make a living.
But let me make an important distinction here. If a website doesn’t have any money and doesn’t pay anyone, you can write for them for free until they become profitable (or until they shut down, or until you find something that pays). Do NOT write for free for a site that pays its writers and just doesn’t want to pay you. In that situation, you are being taken advantage of.
2. Start writing reviews anyway.
The mistake a lot of would-be critics make is thinking they don’t need to waste their time writing reviews until someone is paying them for it. Not only does that show a fundamental misunderstanding of how the online business world works (see above), but it also suggests a lack of commitment. Too many people start out gung-ho about reviewing, then get tired of it after a few reviews, or after the first time they’re forced to sit through something terrible. People who run movie websites don’t want to bring on a writer, even one who’ll work for free, if they think that person is just going to fizzle out. Having several dozen reviews already written shows that you’re serious about it.
3. Launch a blog.
Since no one wants you if you can’t show them multiple samples of your work, you might as well start publishing those samples yourself. Anyone can start a blog and post movie reviews on it. Even if the only people who know about it are your friends and family, at least it’s something. If you keep at it long enough, you’ll eventually have a sizable archive of material that can help you get a job at a larger movie site — or, who knows, your own site might become profitable on its own.
4. Be a good writer.
Anyone can start a blog and call himself or herself a “movie critic,” so it’s vital that you are able to express your opinions in a clear, intelligent, engaging manner. Otherwise, you’re just another fanboy who’s writing just to hear himself write. Writing well isn’t a guarantee that you’ll rise above the noise and distinguish yourself from all the other wannabes — a certain amount of luck is still involved — but if you don’t write well, it’s almost guaranteed that you won’t go anywhere. The people who are terrible writers who have managed to become well-known anyway are the exception, not the rule.
5. Read a lot of reviews and watch a lot of movies.
Think of the critics whose reviews you enjoy the most, the writers you always turn to even when you disagree with them. Pick apart their writing. What are they doing that you can learn from? What techniques can you emulate? And in the meantime, watch movies — and don’t just watch them, think about them. If you’re enjoying a film, why are you enjoying it? If you’re not, why not? Analyze the films the way you analyze the film critics: first let the initial impression wash over you, then ponder it to determine which elements, specifically, contribute to that impression. If thinking more deeply about movies takes the fun out of it for you, then this isn’t the job for you. As a movie critic, you can’t just say a movie is good or bad — you have to say how and why it’s good or bad.
Writing a review that’s appealing, persuasive, and enjoyable to read is harder than it looks. Getting someone to pay you to do it is even harder. That’s why the best film critics are people who simply love movies and love writing about them, and not people who took the gig because it was an easy paycheck. But if you have enthusiasm and a modicum of talent, you might emerge as someone that people listen to. And even if they don’t, at least you’ll be enjoying yourself.