How can I become a film critic?

Well, I’m back for the summer!

Another year of diaconal studies is complete, and my reviewing austerity is over until the fall. Two years down, two to go!

Over the summer, I’ll be publishing every week here at and at Decent Films. I’ll also be appearing weekly on “Reel Faith” (when and where to catch “Reel Faith”).

Along with my return to regular reviewing, I’ll also be bringing back a long-absent feature at Decent Films: Decent Films Mail columns. This week I ran the first Mailbag column in a couple of years, with reader mail on Frozen, God’s Not Dead, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and more. Check it out; there’s more to come.

One letter I got from a reader I thought deserved special attention, so I’m highlighting it here.

As a Catholic college student and soon-to-be-graduate, I want to express my thanks to you for your work on and in the National Catholic Register. I know it must sound like an exaggeration, but your thoughtful commentaries on film and culture are among the many voices in Catholic new media that years ago began to assist me in rekindling my faith, which I pray will remain strong for the duration of my adult life. It’s not exactly easy to be a practicing Catholic once you go away to college (even a Catholic one), but you and your peers make it easier for those of us who try.

In particular, I believe that your sincerity in reviewing the themes of films from Pixar and Studio Ghibli are among the most entertaining reviews I have ever read. And like Father Robert Barron of Word On Fire, your ability to tie the themes of the films you review to pressing questions of faith and culture make each of your commentaries a true joy to read.

As a student of Political Science and History, I have no hard background in film. I do, however, possess a lifelong enthusiasm for film, and having proven my writing ability at the university, I am beginning to believe that I should be considering a line of work similar to your own. However, I’m afraid I know little to nothing about how such an endeavor would be accomplished.

Would you happen to have any advice for this aspiring writer?

My reply:

Thanks for your gratifying email. It’s humbling to hear that my work has been helpful to you in the way you describe. Reading your email, I think of those whose work has been helpful to me, and I’m moved to think that I’ve played such a role, however small, in someone else’s life.

For what it’s worth, my day job is web development. Film criticism is a real job for me (I do a lot of it, and I get paid), but it doesn’t pay the bills, and might not even if I were doing it full time. The hard reality is that opportunities to make a living in journalism are in decline, and film criticism probably more so than other forms of journalism.

That doesn’t mean film criticism isn’t worth doing! But I wouldn’t plan on it as a career, if you have any other options.

For a long while now I’ve been noodling an essay on becoming a good film critic. It’s a long way from being finished, but in the meantime here are a few points worth noting:

  1. Watch a lot of movies. Good movies. Bad movies. Movies you wouldn’t ordinarily watch — obscure indies, foreign films, silents, documentaries, anything. Everything.
  2. Read a lot of film writing. Not just reviews, but film history, formal criticism, critical theory. Make a point of reading critics you disagree with as well as ones you agree with. Try to learn from everyone.
  3. Write a lot, and don’t worry if it’s good or bad, especially at first. You may already be a good writer, but good critical writing is a special skill that needs to be honed for a long time before it’s any good. Doing a lot of writing is no guarantee you’ll be any good, but anyone who ever becomes good does a lot of writing up front that turns out in the end to be mainly practice.
  4. I can’t overstate this one: Be interested in stuff other than movies. Your poli-sci and history majors are a good start; keep it up. Learn about art and music, world cuisine, quantum physics, baseball history, whatever interests you. Travel. Meet people. Play chess, poker, Frisbee golf, Scrabble, anything. Read old books. Volunteer at a soup kitchen. Get a job — any job. (See my opening comments above!)
  5. Movies can be a jumping-off point for learning about all kinds of things, but you also need to bring to them a world of experience in order to get out of them everything they have to offer, to have perspective on them, to having something to say about them.

    Nobody gains perspective in a vacuum, or only by watching movies. You have to live and grow as a person. As with watching movies, reading and writing, you can’t rush this. It takes time.

  6. If at all possible, interact with other film writers. Conversation, critical back and forth, is indispensable.
  7. One place I like to do this is Arts & Faith. It’s a rewarding place to hang out, chat movies, get to know people, put down roots and share your film writing with others. The board started out as a mainly Christian endeavor, and there are still a lot of Christians (including some Catholics) there, along with some non-Christians and nonbelievers. (Having written all that, it occurs to me that some of the advice I’ve written here is touched upon in a thread on Arts & Faith about being taken seriously as a critic.)

Hope that helps. If you register at A&F, feel free to introduce yourself in the Introductions thread. Feel free to keep in touch.

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