Wednesday, 5 September 2012

How to be a film critic

Sunday mornings tend to follow the same pattern. A trip to buy croissants and The Sunday Times, then strong coffee and the omnibus edition of The Archers.

But last weekend I broke out of my rut and did something completely different. By 9.15am on Sunday I was sitting in a darkened cinema in London’s Haymarket – full of excitement at the prospect of seeing some of this autumn’s hottest new movies. I’ll be reviewing films like the eagerly anticipated Anna Karenina when they open in the UK but first up was a Q&A session with a host of well-known film critics and publicists.

The workshop, organised as part of the UK Cinema Showcase, was packed with bloggers covering all film genres – from sci-fi and horror to rom coms and thrillers.

We were all keen to hear the critics talk about how they tackle their reviews. Charles Gant, film editor of Heat magazine, stressed the importance of staying true to yourself. “What you can’t do is write against your gut,” he said. “If you do, it’s a road to disaster. The important thing is that you retain the trust of your readers and that you write what you truly believe. Once you try to second guess the readers you are lost as a critic.”

He added that sticking to your word count is crucial. “One of the great skills of being a critic is the art of concision. I see myself as a reviewer rather than a critic. People read my reviews to know whether to see the film or not. And after all, most people who aren’t film critics give their verdict in two words – ‘really bad’ or ‘really good.’”

Meanwhile Press Association film critic Damon Smith, whose reviews are read by eight to ten million people across the country, explained that two-thirds of the content of his reviews is commentary, while a third focuses on the plot. He concentrates on the screenplay, direction and acting and reckons that mediocre films are the hardest to review, while writing about bad movies can be fun – “because the bile pours from you.”

The conversation also covered the thorny question of awarding stars to films. In Damon Smith’s view the general advice to filmgoers is “three stars out of five – go and see it. Two stars – stay away.” David Hughes, film critic of Empire magazine, nodded. “And five stars means it’s unmissable,” he said firmly.

The critics agreed that it’s vital to stick to your guns and not be influenced by anyone else. They don’t talk to other critics after screenings and don’t read other reviews before they’ve filed their own. “Just sit and write in the dark,” instructed Charles Gant. So that's what we did.


  1. Hmmm, thanks for relaying what you learnt; you weren't the only one who benefitted from the change in your Sunday morning routine! Will you be reviewing any films in the near future?

    1. Thank you very much for commenting, Expatlogue. I've got quite a few film reviews coming up - from Now is Good to Private Peaceful...

  2. Always on the lookout for a decent film (not the majority of the tripe Hollywood churns out!) so I'll be back to see what you recommend.

    1. Thank you. I've just reviewed Hope Springs but I haven't given it a wholehearted recommendation!


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