by Paul Saevig

The Internet has given many enterprising young or beginning writers an opportunity present their work for thousands to see. There is a fairly new practice of writing and publishing movie reviews on a range of web sites, including Many of these amateur reviewers hope their reviews will be seen by newspaper or magazine publishers and editors who might offer them assignments or even permanent jobs as reviewers. It’s not known how often this strategy has succeeded, but it’s worth a try, especially when almost no other means exist to audition one’s work.

I have some background in writing screenplays and reviewing, and also as a movie reviewer. I’m no longer doing that kind of work, but mindful of how difficult it is for writers to break in, I wanted to give some suggestions to a young American college student who has written about one hundred reviews online.

Here’s what I suggested:

I’ve read some of your online movie reviews and you do a good job. You have enthusiasm for movies and you hit the key points. To be a reviewer, it’s important you see A LOT of movies. Early in my career, in the early 70s, I learned that Peter Bogdanovich had systematically seen many thousands of movies at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art in NYC and elsewhere. That’s what a new reviewer often competes against.

It appears to me you probably review these movies in the hopes of attracting attention and maybe getting a job as a reviewer. Fair enough, and you seem to have the beginning skills. May I offer you some suggestions?

1. Prepare by reading all the great reviewers you can. I mean Pauline Kael, Kenneth Turan, John Simon, Susan Sontag and others of that level. Not the more commercially-oriented TV and tabloid reviewers including Roger Ebert and the late Gene Siskel, Roger Maltin, Rex Reed, Michael Medved or others. They may sometimes be excellent, but they tend to promote the movies they review. Study the best commentaries and learn what the great reviewers look for.

2. Learn as much as you can about film theory and cinema, beginning in about 1900 and proceeding to the current time in the USA, Europe, Russia, and even Asia. If possible, study cinema for a master’s degree.

3. See as many movies as you can — at least 200 a year. To cut your expenses, see many of them at universities and student film festivals.

4. Try to see all the best films. You can find these discussed in Kael’s and other books. See all the films by D. W. Griffith, George Cukor, John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, Sam Fuller, Ingmar Bergman, Jean Luc Godard, Luis Bunuel, Fritz Lang, Kurosawa, John Huston, Stanley Kubrick, and so forth.

5. Develop the skill of remembering what you see. Take notes and use other strategies to accomplish this. You need to be able to notice influences by earlier filmmakers, scenes that remind you of much earlier movies, and so forth. To write in depth reviews, you must be able to place movies in a historical continuum and compare them with predecessors.

6. Practice your writing. Take writing courses. You use too many cliches and colloquial talk, e.g. “it sucks”. Develop an ability to find just the right words to express these points. You’re a good writer but you need to improve. We all do.

7. If you can’t afford cinema school, take some film courses, including technical ones. Learn as much as you can about how movies are made.

8. I strongly discourage you from writing screenplays. It’s like playing the lottery. If you want to write, write short stories and novels. Not screenplays. It’s committee work.

9. Keep good records of all your notes and writing. Review it all now and then. Know what you’ve said in reviews.

10. It would be a good idea if you could spend some time where major movies are being made — Hollywood; London; Rome; or maybe even Dallas, Seattle or Boston. Make friends with people in the industry and talk about movies and how they’re made. Take jobs as a gofer (low level assistant, coffee-fetcher) or whatever you can get.

11. Prepare yourself fully for a backup profession — study accounting, business, a foreign language, computer science, or something you enjoy that will help you build a career. You may not get a reviewing job for a long time, maybe never.

12. If you think reviewing movies is all fun, a lark, endless entertainment, think again. It’s hard work much like any other. Most professional reviewers see every movie twice. They usually see 2 or 3 movies a day, sometimes more. They work on short deadlines. They have to pay attention to good and bad movies alike. They cannot afford to fall asleep or space out no matter how bad a movie is. Let’s face it: to someone who loves movies and appreciates good ones, most new movies are not very good.

13. As your own movie expertise increases, develop some of your own ideas and even theories. Become somewhat of an auteur reviewer, with substantiated and valid standards and ideas of what good movies are.

14. Write at least one short, pleasant note a week to a reviewer you admire, or a director or a producer, or even an actor — or a writer. DO NOT ASK FOR ANYTHING. Just communicate your pleasure and interest. Keep this up and sometimes write a second note to a person. Eventually, some will reply and you’ll develop contacts — maybe even sources of guidance. This is an idea presented by novelist Carolyn See.

15. When it comes to reviewing jobs, take any decent ones you can get — even if it means moving to the Texas Panhandle. NO MATTER HOW BRILLIANT YOU MAY BE, YOU SIMPLY CANNOT START IN A MAJOR MARKET (New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, London, Dublin, Paris, Berlin, Rome, Madrid) OR EVEN A SECONDARY MARKET (St, Louis, San Jose, Liverpool, Stuttgart, Palermo, Dresden). You need to begin in the bushes – the provinces, in a small town or city or county.

16. Write and submit a lot. Try for one submission a week. Write essays and send them to magazines, newspapers, ezines, websites, everyone you can think of. Get your name and talent in play. 17. Learn to be objective about your own abilities and accomplishments. After a period of your best efforts, you may need to decide this isn’t a good career for you. The more fully and easily you can accept that self-judgment – if it’s justified – the better off you’ll be and the more you’ll enjoy life.

18. In my opinion, reviewing movies cannot be merely a hobby.

19. Be persistent.

Remember, movie reviewing is a profession, like being a dentist, a plumber, an engineer, a baker, a chef. You can’t do it by the seat of your pants, or casually. OK?

Copyright Paul Saevig 2004


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