A RUDE AWAKENING FOR MOST, A DREAM OF MINE
The Basic Ins & Outs of a Film Critic’s Relationship with The Industry
by Richard Rey
‘Why do you get to go to see movies before I do?’
‘I’m so jealous.’
‘Man, that’s awesome!’
‘Do you get to meet celebrities?’
‘Oh my God, can you introduce me to Natalie Portman when you see her?’
I’ve been getting these sorts of responses for some time now, and figured it was about time to shed some light on the basic INS and OUTS of my relationship to the major motion picture film industry as a freelance film critic. The following article may give you a better sense of what it’s like to be a critic attending a screening for a day, and how this whole thing works. It may be more complicated (and boring) than you think.
Ever wonder how it all works? Here are the basic ins and outs.
While every state, studio and press accredited outlet differs, it’s important to understand how the relationship between ourselves and the studios function, otherwise you might be duped into thinking that for every 4-star review we write for a movie, we get a Thank you text from someone like Johnny Depp – which couldn’t be further from the truth.
First, we are added to a press list for a given studio of a particular state or geographic location (varies depending on size and population). In this case, we’ll say we were added to Universal Pictures press list for theatrical releases (movies coming to a theater near you) – keep in mind that home entertainment and theatrical release distribution are completely separate entities and contacts can vary even within the same studio.
Once approved for the Florida Universal Pictures press list (which is essentially a numbers game – the more readers, the more likely the studio will add you), a representative (99% of the time someone from an outsourced Public Relations/Marketing group) will send us an email for every advanced screening that becomes available in our state or region. Clearly, not all movies reach every theater or every state, especially “limited release” independent films – indies – which may only show in LA and NYC and never expand to other venues.
The received email usually includes four important pieces of information: the venue, the date, the time and our point of contact (a monitor who is in charge of the success or failure of the carrying out of the screening). We, then, are free to choose which theater and time we would like to see the film. For those of us with full-time jobs, we have to shift our work schedules around to be able to attend the advanced/word of mouth/press screening to which we’ve been invited. This portion of the process varies depending on the outlet – perhaps your editor-in-chief handles all of it and assigns you a screening or, if you’re a freelance film critic like me, you make all the necessary arrangements yourself.
After we’ve decided on a date and a time to attend the advanced screening it’s time to drive, hitchhike, or use public transportation to get to the theater. Now, depending on the rules and guidelines of any particular studio, we would go through the front door, let the theater personnel know who we are, what our business is and give them the name of the contact with which we have been asked to speak. We then bypass the line of people who have been waiting for hours to get half-decent seats at the advanced screening they’ve either bought or won tickets to through a contest (recently I witnessed a local radio station giving away freebies to their listeners). Once we are either escorted to the door by a theater attendant or one who points us in the right direction, we finally arrive at the table where the monitor sits with a list of names to check off. He/she will ask us for our name and the name of our outlet, and under certain circumstances, the number of guests who are attending the screening with us – normally we’re allowed a “plus one” (one guest) depending on the capacity of the theater and restrictions of the studio.
He/she checks us through and we are golden, into the theater we go to a roped off section that says RESERVED and is usually an aisle or two blocked off by either a stanchion or security personnel or both. We then pull out our pen and pad and await the arrival of the audience members – normally people who are huge fans of the movie being shown. As critics, we eyeball each other and the audience, hoping we won’t be too distracted by the turning pages of the other critics, and hope our reviews measure up to theirs. After all, we are quietly competitive by nature. We may meet and exchange business cards with one another should time permit.
Once all patrons are accounted for, the monitor will make an announcement that goes something like this: “If you have babies, please keep them quiet. If you have any sort of electronic object, now is the time to turn it off. If it goes off at any point during the film one of these nice security guards will escort you out of the theater. If your child begins to cry, please take them out of the theater immediately or security will usher you both out. We have press with us tonight so please be aware and respectful of them, they’re here to do their jobs. With all that said, enjoy the show. We’re glad you came out tonight and hope to hear your comments and feedback after the movie. Thank you and have fun.”
It is at this point that our job begins: we jot down a note here and a note there – putting down the bare essentials of the movie and our reaction to it for later use. Our job is made difficult by the lack of light in the theater, but we, like the patrons, are not permitted to use any device that lights up during the pic (mostly to protect leaks to the internet prior to a film’s slated date of release). And so we carry on, writing illegible notes that only we can decipher all in an attempt to form an opinion of the film. Perhaps some film critics do it all mentally, I, myself, find note-taking to be essential in my reviews. After the movie the audience usually claps and then we, as press, report back to the monitor, offering a one or two sentence response to the movie that will be sent to the studio and their marketing/PR. (We’re also pretty competitive about how awesome our blip or capsule review sounds – we like to one-up each other, and that’s probably why our indigestible five-dollar words come into play so often)
And herein ends our journey – to the theater that is. We still have hours of research to do before we can post our own review or submit it for print to our editor. Some email media invites include the official website of the movie, the movie’s Twitter account, Facebook page, and production notes to help aid us in our analysis of a pic. We write, write, write and edit, edit, edit, and are finally able to post our reviews either the week of the movie’s release or the day of its release depending on whether or not our outlet is long lead press( i.e. magazines in print, radio, television) – or short lead press (online magazines and blogs, newspapers) and always at the request of the studio. We email the PR/marketing rep a link to our review (if published online), and then we are on to the next film. In some cases, we are able to slot an interview time with certain cast/crew members of the movie depending on availability and what the text of the original email invite from the studio states. But, since more times than not we find that the movie isn’t very good, we skip that altogether because who wants to ask Morgan Freeman why on earth he would want to be in such rubbish as Oblivion.)
We check our phones – mine isn’t too smart at all – and by god no text from Mr. Depp – even with the 4-star review we’ve given THE LONE RANGER (I’ve still not seen it due to scheduling at work), just a lot of hard work and time well spent doing something that may or may not be well-received by the public, but which we love doing.
Yes, there are perks – but the real question is:
Would you want to be a critic?