I'll never forget my first time.
I was working for a mid-sized newspaper in a mid-sized city. The paper’s veteran movie critic showed no signs of early retirement. I still wanted to review movies any way possible.
Surely our critic couldn’t work 52 weeks a year? Then again, would you take a break if you could watch movies for a living?
So I gently asked to cover for him should he ever step away from his desk. I didn’t stop there. I volunteered to cover virtually any entertainment story the arts editor had available. You need me, boss? I’m there.
That meant my first entertainment feature covered a local polka legend.
Suffice to say it was the first, and last, time I voluntarily cranked up that brand of music. Heck, at one point I swallowed hard and became the paper’s de facto opera critic. Even though I knew precious little about the art form.
Vacation, All I Ever Wanted
Eventually, our hard-working film critic took a break. That let me file my first movie review — 1995’s “Wild Bill” starring Jeff Bridges. It was technically my second published review.
As a pre-teen my local paper featured my take on 1977’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” At least this paper didn’t spell my name wrong.
Suffice to say I caught the film reviewing bug.
When I landed a gig at The Washington Times in the late 1990s I trotted out the same shtick. Sure enough, it worked again. What editor doesn’t want a scrappy reporter who will do any extra gig you throw his way?
Slowly I integrated into the Times’ arts section. I eventually became part of the official movie reviewing team. I went to just about every new movie … for free! They even held a seat for me and a guest. Talk about a perk.
I still got paid like a journalist, not an MD. I didn’t care.
From D.C. to Denver
Then my new bride and I decided to move to Denver and start a family. That meant leaving a great job for, well, I couldn’t really say.
Since then, I’ve been scrambling to stay afloat as a film critic. It hasn’t been easy. Journalism’s collapse isn’t exaggerated. It’s real and in the kind of 3D you don’t need funny glasses to see.
So I had to get creative. I clung to my gig reviewing movies for WTOP-FM in Washington, D.C. I started a blog. The late, not so great whatwouldtotowatch.com taught me plenty about online journalism.
‘What editor doesn’t want a scrappy reporter who will do any extra gig you throw his way?’
Most importantly, I embraced my right-of-center views. I began noticing nearly every critic in the country leaned left. And it showed in their film coverage.
That wasn’t me. So I stopped writing from a neutral perspective and let my ideological flag fly. That opened up a small but vibrant world of job possibilities. I haven’t regretted it once.
Of course, today anyone can be a film critic. All you need is a blog, a Facebook account or even a YouTube channel. If Gene Siskel or Roger Ebert were teens today you know they’d be on one of those platforms. Maybe all three.
Getting paid for your reviews is another matter.
The Few, the Proud … the Hopelessly Lucky
Many mainstream newspapers no longer employ full-time critics. Some movie scribes file reviews for the sheer love of it. Others are fortunate enough to reinvent themselves via new media.
Consider my career a work in progress at best.
The odds of becoming a paid movie critic today aren’t just stacked against you. It’s like dreaming about playing center field for the Yankees when you’re the slowest guy on your block.
What’s the secret sauce? No one really knows, but here’s a few tips I’ve learned along the way.
- Be daring.
- Be humble.
- Be original.
- And, above all, be different. Or else.
Do all four, and there’s always a chance you’ll get paid to see movies for a living, too.