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Being a Movie Critic in the Internet Age


I've been reviewing film for more than 10 years, which puts me in a position to offer some advice to those wishing to become a film critic. The last decade has seen a major shift that has been brought about by the rapid evolution of the Internet and its "adapt or die" effect on traditional news services. Having received a number of emails in which aspiring young critics ask me how to do it, I thought I'd put some words on "paper" to give prospective critics a lay of the land.

While there are more practical aspects relating to how to become a movie critic or "watch movies for a living", this article is more of a then and now, which should give you an idea of what's changed and where you're expected to focus nowadays.

My usual advice to critics is for them to start reviewing immediately and consistently to build a portfolio of movie reviews, which demonstrates their commitment, passion and budding talent. Whatever your blog, channel or point of publication, this becomes your hook to get your reviewing on bigger publications, serves as a platform to showcase what you're capable of and can eventually become an income generator if you manage to link with advertisers and sponsors. I'm sure there will be an article that delves more into this at some stage... stay tuned.

The Old West

I remember watching Barry Ronge, who had an extensive presence across film television, radio and print media. A luminary of the profession in South Africa, the iconic waistcoat and beard were almost everywhere in an age when there were only a handful of TV channels and radio stations. An entertainment journalist with a special interest in film, he appeared on arts and entertainment shows, hosted a weekly film talk show on Radio 702 and even had a column called Spit 'n Polish in the Sunday Times. He had a way with words, able to concoct reviews that made it almost seem like he was more of a word chef than -smith.

His counterpart was Leon van Nierop who had a bigger Afrikaans following, a movie segment on G.M.S.A (Good Morning South Africa) and also wrote radio plays and reviewed on radio. Their mainstream media domination made it seem like they were the only two reviewing film in South Africa at that time. While these two film commentators were prolific, there's never really been a true financial model for a movie critic in South Africa, making it a freelance role about contributing to a number of publications, platforms, educational institutions and jobs. While associated with substantial media outlets and platforms, it's not like they were able to dedicate their talent to one home base like many international critics have done over the decades, signing and partnering with regional or national publications.

The Game has Changed

While Peter Travers is forever connected with Rolling Stone and Roger Ebert with the Chicago Sun-Times... it seems as though the very nature of film criticism has changed, evolving with the times as avid readers have turned into watchers. It's not like it happened overnight, Ebert and Roeper's At the Movies show is a great example of how film critics entered the pop culture arena and realised catchphrases like "Two Thumbs Up".

There's just so much content now with the Internet, a low entry level in terms of creating media with cameras on almost every smartphone, that it's become a struggle to get your voice heard in a crowd armed with loudspeakers. Print publications are struggling to attract advertisers now that the Internet has taken the legs out, making the idea of turning pages in a newspaper as nostalgic as slotting in a VHS or cassette tape.

As the old school readership dies off, it's becoming more of an inevitability that publications move from traditional mediums to online spaces. While digital is certainly cheaper than printing, it's a much trickier and more competitive space because you're not just competing with ten other newspapers. There are literally thousands, even hundreds of thousands of news hubs/blogs that are pumping out original and/or regurgitated news.

Generally-speaking, the quality has taken a dive because platforms like Twitter, popularise the idea of instant gratification and make breaking news citizen journalism the new norm. The speed of writing, editing and publishing is difficult for newspapers to compete with when a story has already been disseminated by the time the ink hits the paper.

being a movie critic in the internet age

A reduction in advertisers and ad revenue, has also made print publications more thrifty in terms of how they operate, gather news and even manage human resources. Some have embraced the citizen journalist, making them contributors, a part of the news or the news itself. Many have accepted that they need to move with the times, gravitating to a more even split across print and digital, making it necessary for writers to become more media savvy and report across a spectrum including YouTube, Instagram, Twitter with a need for video and audio know how. Film critics were able to be employed in a sole capacity as specialists, but have now been given much broader job titles in order to keep them locked into the ever-broadening scope of the newspaper, embracing more general entertainment domains and job responsibilities.

With the changes in home entertainment and improved technology making it easier to just stream or watch high quality content from the comfort of your own home in style, it's becoming increasingly difficult for movie houses to remain relevant. While adopting cinema tech and gimmicks to reinvent the experience and maintaining their big screen advantage when it comes to blockbusters, which thankfully seem to be on the rise thanks to the popularity of Disney, Marvel and DC, it just seems so much easier for someone to turn to the closest screen, sit back and "chill".

While it's promising to see a host of streaming giants rising from out of nowhere to hopefully subvert piracy, grow the mid-range film industry and ensure that filmmakers are reimbursed, film-going has been down-sized by media corporations in terms of importance. Hopefully initiatives like Filmocracy will be able to make it easier for the smaller fish to thrive... especially when you consider that when Reservoir Dogs was screened at Sundance it was picked from roughly 250 submissions, when nowadays there are closer to 14,000.

Once viewed as a regular form of entertainment, the new outlook is that it's just not as important to have journalists dedicating their time to pontificating on movies as much. This has led to a situation where newspapers have been opting to syndicate reviews from sister publications rather than employ critics, a cheaper option, which while not localised maintains some level of quality.

This has unfortunately led to many retrenchments, reassignments and resignations over the years, reducing film commentary in the media, and in so doing narrowing the importance of cinema and its movie night regularity. While this may be true for traditional media platforms such as television, radio and print, the Internet continues to flourish with most film critics taking to the online space.

Master of All Mediums

These days you have to write compelling film content, but also open yourself up to the possibility of broadcasting, whether it be recorded for television, online, radio or podcast purposes. With the rise of the Internet news reader, there's been a drop-off in terms of time that people actually take to read an article. The benefit of paper and tangible news service content was that readers were compelled to focus on one page at a time, able to turn their attention to one article and actually read it from start to finish. The Internet has created a glimpse culture where the average time spent on a page is roughly 8 seconds, which means that most people will only take a few seconds to get the gist of an article rather than taking the time to sift through and enjoy the piece.

There are exceptions to the rule, but by and large, this is the new norm, forcing writers to simplify their content and use catchy, often misguided headlines ("click bait") to lure readers to their articles. The Internet is designed around speed, which is no surprise considering how irritated people tend to get when the page loads slowly, making this information highway all about fast and free information.

With the rise of fake news, we are seeing that credibility is becoming more important once again, integrity is also becoming a watchword when it comes to information retrieval and specialisation is making experts indispensable in a time when most know a little about everything, but not a lot about one thing.

Being able to Google is making it less important to actually become an expert in any one subject, keeping things fairly shallow. There are, however, limitations and without the funding, trusted media stalwarts like the New York Times and more recently Wikipedia are at risk of closing or reinventing their information accessibility.

It's becoming difficult not to treat every news item with suspicion, especially when big brands and corporates already have vested interests in media conglomerates and ulterior motives, which can slant reporting to favour one viewer over another. Thankfully, independent commentators and journalists are rising out of the ashes of the old way to hopefully restore some faith in journalism. They say "everyone's a critic", but even with the great film aggregators like IMDB and RottenTomatoes.com, there's space for movie critics who can help sell the drama.