One of the most marketable things for a journalist to do is become a reviewer. It’s a safe bet that everyone likes movies, is looking for a good book to read and when not feeling up to a book, have a television set hanging around. Though, that’s the traditional reviewers. In 2004, Dan Neil received a Pulitzer Prize for writing reviews of automobiles. This year, the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for criticism was an art critic for the Boston Globe. Me, I’m a film critic, who occasionally writes a book review (and poor attempts at novels) but until then, I’m a film critic. I was talking with my father about the idea that my reviews might be syndicated to newspapers one day. I said that it’s a safe thing to syndicate to newspapers, because everyone likes movies. People can debate columnists like George Will, but no one really can debate Roger Ebert. You might disagree with a review of his, but you don’t walk away from a review so angry that you want a bottle of gin. If you don’t believe, just look at how many people are going to go see the new Harry Potter film. It’s a weird thing that film has survived, I suppose. We have television, books, computers, cell phones, laptops, and information pills we can take that provide us with everything we need to know as we sit with our morning coffee preparing for the day (well, ok, maybe we don’t have that, yet). Anyway, as I was saying, movie reviews are a safe bet. As long as there are movie theaters, there will be reviewers. I like to think of what I do as a consumer guide. If you want to be a critic, too, I suggest these following tips.
1) Pick a topic- You need to pick a topic. This is probably the easiest part. What do you want your column to be about? Movies? Books? Music? Television? Or maybe you don’t want to write about mainstream stuff like that. There’s nothing wrong with being an art critic or a restaurant critic. Though, you’re more likely to get a national audience if you’re reviewing, say, movies, you can still have a good job reviewing local restaurants. Jonathan Gold, of the LA Weekly, writes a column about local restaurants in Los Angeles, and he won a Pulitzer Prize for that.
2) Tone- One of the dangers of criticisms is becoming a snob, but I’ll cover that in the next tip. Let me start by talking about the tone of your review. Your tone shouldn’t be condescending, and as a critic, there’s always a danger to that. Know what you are reviewing. If you are reviewing film, know that you’re not reviewing a political scandal. Your tone should be conversational, and shouldn’t talk above the heads of your audience. You should have a tone that conveys an ongoing conversation about the film or whatever you choose to review. Remember, you are the guide through your review, and you shouldn’t be lecturing your audience. You should be talking to them.
3) Don’t be a snob-You should be able to like both ‘Harry Potter’ and ‘Tree of Life’. I’m not saying you should be a critic who likes everything but show your audience that you are someone who can see the value in both entertainment and thought-provoking art pictures. Also, if you don’t like a film, give reasons that make sense beyond I was bored. If a kids film has a bad message for children, than warn your audience about that. If the picture is just a cute kids picture, and is somewhat harmless, than you sound like a snob if you write up a bashing of it. For example, in my review of ‘Cars 2’, I run the risk of sounding like a snob because I didn’t like a Pixar picture meant for children. It’s a picture about talking cars, for crying out loud. Not a biography of Gandhi. So, I explain early that while I didn’t like the picture, I take no enjoyment in writing up a bad review of a kid’s film, unless the film has a bad message for children. Though, you probably do know more about film than the person reading the review, don’t make them feel like you are some professor lecturing to them. You should make them feel that you, too, are a normal guy going to the theater. Though, you also want them to know that your opinion is informed. It’s a balancing act.
4) Make yourself trusted- It doesn’t hurt to put into the review things that show you know what you are talking about. You might have never picked up a camera to make a movie or started a draft of your own novel, so that’s a common thing lobbied against reviewers. What do they know? Well, I know a couple things. For example, I know something about film history, which I try to put into the review. I also know something about film news, the cast, the filmmakers and I try to put that information into the review while trying not to knock the head of my reader over with it. Roger Ebert does this well. Another thing I try to do in a review is give the reader some kind of suggestion of something else they could do instead of watch a film that’s not very good. Like for example, say you have a daughter who’s around eight, and she wants to see a movie called ‘Justin Bieber: Never Say Never’, and it’s a concert film about the newest teen sensation, Justin Biber. While I think Bieber is harmless, I do think there are better ways for your daughter to spend her two hours instead of some teen marketing campaign that tells her she should have a crush on the latest version of the Jonas Brothers. I try to make a better suggestion for the parent who wants to show their daughter something better than a movie about girls obsessed with Justin Bieber. I suggest they keep their daughter at home, and rent out ‘Kiki’s Delivery Service’, which happens to be on DVD, and is a wonderful animated feature from Japan (but trust me, Disney released it dubbed so your daughter doesn’t have to read sub-titles) about a young girl who happens to be a witch. She goes off on her own and comes of age. That may sound silly, but let give you a new way to think about it. Kiki is a strong female character. There, I just saved you 8 bucks, 2 mind-numbing hours and your daughter has just met a better role model.
5) Know what you are writing- You’re writing a review of a film or a book or whatever topic you choose to write about. So, your language should reflect what you are writing. You should keep the tone light if it’s a comedy or a fantasy adventure. You can get more serious if the film is a drama or a thought provoking piece of science fiction. That being said, your review is still a column. It should sound like one but also, it shouldn’t sound too much like one. One of the fun things about writing about a topic is that you spice up the language a bit with references. Take for example my review of ‘Paul’, where I end the review with the line ‘she knows a thing or two about fighting aliens.’ What political column could you end that with? And I mean actual aliens. Not illegal aliens. You should also be to the point, I feel. You’re writing a review. The person wants to know if they should see the movie or not. They don’t want to spend twenty minutes reading a review of a film. They want a break from the horror stories in the paper, by thinking about what movie they should see, or what car they should drive, or what art show they should see or what’s on TV tonight. You can provide a service by saving them money. Though, you also should show them you know what you are doing. You’re not trying to sway them to a political position or telling them which president to vote for.
6) Finally, remember, you are writing on something everyone can agree on. That’s the cool thing. While we might disagree on if a film is good or not, no one can deny we all like seeing them.