Movie Reviewing 101 – By Duane L. Martin

 We all like movies. But what does it take to actually move beyond just liking them, to a point where you’re actually giving your well thought out recommendations to people about what movies they should see and which ones they should avoid? Well, that’s what you’re about to find out, as I take you into the dank, musty, snack food and soda can laden world of the movie reviewer.

Ok, well it’s not so dank and musty…in most cases, but it does often include soda cans and snack foods. Why? Because movie reviewers are no different than you, but with one small difference. After we watch a film, we actually sit down and write about it, whereas the average person takes what they’ve seen and shuffles it off to some deep, dark corner of their mind where it can be pulled out again for later reference when they tell their friends and family about it.

Being a reviewer carries a lot more responsibility with it than just giving a thumbs up or thumbs down to a film. You have to be able to intelligently explain why you liked the film, or alternatively, why you hated it, and then be able to express those opinions in a coherent and objective manner that the average person will be able to read and understand. What follows are some basic rules about how one should conduct themselves as a reviewer, and then following that, I’ll be discussing actually setting up your own movie review website or blog and getting your opinions out there to the public.

So, without further adieu, let’s cover some of the finer points of movie reviewing…


Proper Use of the English Language (or whatever language you happen to write in):

How many times have you been reading some blog or someone’s writings and noticed that their english, grammar and general sentence structure are generally quite pathetic. It’s hard to read and comprehend what these people are saying, and likely you’ll forget what they said five minutes after you read it. One of the biggest mistakes I see in people’s writings is the misuse of the word "then". For example: "I have more apples then you." The correct word to use in this case is than, not then. People tend to become lazy when they’re writing and end up writing things as they pronounce them, rather than using the proper words and spellings. So always be aware of your english, grammar and sentence structure, and when people read your material, they’ll leave it with a far higher opinion of you, your intelligence and your work than they would if you’re lazy with your writing and unconcerned about whether it sounds intelligent or not.

If you need to brush up on your grammar, there are plenty of web sites out there that can help you. All you have to do is search around a bit. Really the best way to become a competent writer is to just read a lot of books. I personally didn’t do very well in my high school english class, but I used to read an insane number of books, and it not only helped my vocabulary, but it helped me to learn good sentence structure and proper grammar as well. Learning grammar as a stand alone subject is all well and good, but there’s no substitute for immersing yourself in it’s practice. It means so much more when you actually see it put to use rather than just skimming through some cold, disjointed example sentences in some grammar book.

Learn About Your Subject Matter:

Part of reviewing movies is understanding the subject you’re talking about. You’re talking about movies right? Well there’s more to movies than what you see on the screen. There’s a whole process that goes into the creation of the movies. The dialogue, story, effects, editing, pacing, lighting, sound, music, directing, acting, set design, costuming, make-up and more are all things you need to look at and consider while you’re watching the film. Will you mention all of those things in your reviews? No, probably not. It would make for a pretty tedious read if you were to go into that much detail, not to mention all the extra time you’d spend writing it.

Immerse yourself in learning about all of the various aspects of the film making process so that not only will you have a deeper understanding of what you’re looking at when you watch a film, but you’ll be able to talk about what you’ve observed intelligently, mentioning the aspects of the film that are of particular note while not boring your readers with every little unimportant detail. Remember, if you sound like you know what you’re talking about, people will give more weight to your opinions and take you seriously as a journalist.

Outside of the technical aspects, you also need to familiarize yourself with the genres of films you plan to focus on. As a reviewer, you’ll likely be able to review just about anything. It’s more likely however that you’ll gravitate toward certain genres of films. If you want to review a lot of horror films, then learn the history of horror and familiarize yourself with the cult films, the ground breaking films, the directors to took it to new levels, etc… It’s the same for any genre, but you get the idea. By learning about the genres you want to focus on, you’ll inspire confidence in your readers that you really know what you’re talking about. It’ll also give you a greater insight about how the film you’re reviewing fits into its particular genre and how it compares to other, similar types of films.

Honesty and Objectivity in Your Writing:

Do you have an axe to grind? Do you have an agenda? Do you have a political or religious slant? Then keep it to yourself. If you let that slip into your writing, your objectivity will go completely out the window, and the only people who’ll take your opinion seriously are people who feel the same way you do, and you’ll most likely irritate everyone else and lose your reader base. Honesty and objectivity are the two most important character aspects of being a movie reviewer. Without these, no one will trust a single thing you have to say and you’ll end up developing a severe animosity with not only your readers, but with film makers, actors, crew, and everyone involved in the film making process. Part of being a reviewer is developing a trust with the film makers and your readers. Film makers who feel like they’ve been given a raw deal in your review will not only likely not send you any of their future films to review, but they’ll tell their other film maker friends about you and they won’t send you their films either. If you’re completely honest and objective in your reviews, then most film makers will accept bad reviews and even thank you for your opinion. A few won’t, and in fact will argue with you, but those are few and far between. Most will respect you even if you didn’t like their film and will send you copies of their future films for review.

Balance vs. Entertainment:

This particular item is closely related to the previous one in that it stresses how important it is to be honest and objective in your reviews. As important as it is to be honest in your reviews, it’s also important to be balanced. Now what do I mean by that? Well, I mean that it’s important to talk about not only what worked or didn’t work in a film, but to balance the two and cover both sides of it. Why is it important to talk about both what worked and what didn’t? Well, the reason is two-fold. First, it gives a balanced view of the film to your readers, leaving them with the impression that you’re totally fair and objective, and second, it lets the film makers know what they did right and what they did wrong, so they can take that information and use it when they make their next film.

Now, some reviewers prefer to be more colorful in their reviews, really ripping apart films and nit picking them to death whether they deserve it or not. These people have chosen entertainment over honesty. There is a niche for this type of writing, but the people behind these types of reviews are never taken seriously as reviewers, and are more likely considered satirists rather than legitimate film reviewers.

Something else to keep in mind with regards to balance is the fact that not every movie is going to be some slickly produced, big budget Hollywood feature full of explosions, CGI and overpaid actors. When watching and reviewing low budget, independent films, it’s important to remember that they’re not all equal in production quality. One film may be slickly produced and have a budget of $20,000 while another could have a budget of $150 and not look anywhere near as good. Is it fair to compare the production quality of the two? Hardly. It’s extremely important for you, as a reviewer, to take each film on its own merit. Even the cheapest of films can have good editing, decent lighting, competent acting, etc… So when reviewing these films, consider what the film makers did with the budget they had and how much entertainment value you got out of the film. Obviously you won’t be able to give them high marks for production quality in many cases, but when looking at any film, the most important aspect of all is, did you enjoy it, and do you think other people will enjoy it. Everything else is secondary, because the entertainment factor of a film is really what determines whether you’re going to recommend it to people or not. So always make sure you’re fair and thoughtful when reviewing low budget films.

Getting Your Work Out There:

When you first start out your career as a film reviewer, you’ll likely have no contacts and no credibility. So how do you establish that? Well, there’s two ways to get started, and you should do them in the following order.

First, get yourself some movies and review them. If you want to review Hollywood flicks, get yourself some Hollywood flicks. If you want to review independent flicks, get yourself some independent flicks, etc… After you write up your reviews, read through them with the eye of a casual reader. Read through it several times, identify the weak points in your writing and correct them. Learn from the process through repetition, and soon you’ll be pounding out one quality review after another.

Now that you’ve developed your reviewing skills, it’s time to put them to good use. So how do you do that? Well, there’s two ways you can go that are simple, and one way that’s not so simple. Most people will likely choose to go the easy way, and you can’t blame them really since the more difficult one is not likely to produce much in the line of results.

So what’s the more difficult way? Well, it basically involves writing up reviews of current films and sending your work off to various newspaper syndicators, local entertainment papers, etc… for possible publication and actually turn it into a whole career in print media rather than internet publications. The chance of success in this endeavor is low and you’re likely going to just spend time and money trying to make it happen and end up disappointed in the end when it doesn’t.

The two easy ways to get your work out there are to either create your own review website or blog, or to write for someone else’s website, blog, or webzine. Let’s take a look at the benefits of both, so you can get an idea of which way you’d like to go.

Setting up your own site can be an arduous process. It takes knowledge of html, blog scripts or content management systems to set one up and make it look nice. Appearance is really important when setting up your own review site, because the face you put on your site is the first impression people will have of you. If your site is clean, nice looking and easy to read and navigate, they’re going to want to come back. If it looks amateurish and is hard to read and / or navigate, they won’t. You’ll also need to come up with a good name for your site and register your domain name with a good, reputable and inexpensive domain registrar. Make sure you select a name for your site that has a good domain name to match that’s actually available. It’s an unfortunate reality that nowadays there are people who buy massive numbers of domains just on the off chance that people will want them, and then they sell them to those people for lots of money. It’s a practice that should be discouraged by registrars, if not downright illegal, but it does exist and it’s something to be aware of.

For many new reviewers, a blog site is the simplest and fastest way to go. They’re relatively fast and easy to set up and many web hosts offer a quick blog set up on their accounts. You can also register with free blogs, but if you do that, you won’t be hosting them on your own domain, which is really what you should be doing. WordPress (http://www.wordpress.com) is currently the blog of choice for most people. It has a massive amount of themes and plugins available for it to change the look and functionality of the site. More new themes and plugins are being developed all the time, and the base code of the blog is always being worked on to tighten security, fix bugs, and provide the best features possible. The best part is, it’s all free. WordPress has really grown over the last year or so from just another blog, to almost a sort of a mini content management system.

Setting up your own html site is for people who want to kick it old school and have more control over the look and set up of their site. These sites are often built with static html pages, and while they’re easy to create and edit with html editors, they can be impractical and slow to get up and running.

A content management system is another way to go. There are many such systems out there, all of which are PHP based and run with a MySQL database back end. Don’t worry if you don’t know what these are. If you really want to go this route, you’ll have to learn all about it just to get started. PHPnuke (including it’s offshoots) and Joomla! seem to be the big favorites, with Joomla! apparently starting to take over the bulk of new users. These content management systems are not only highly difficult for novices to set up and configure, but they’re more often than not way more than what you’d need to set up an average review site. Save yourself the headaches and avoid the CMS route unless it’s something you really think you’ll need and use.

The second way you can go about getting your writing out there is probably the simplest. Just find a review site that has multiple writers, or an already existing film webzine, send them some examples of your work and ask them if you can write for them. Many of these sites will have style guidelines they’ll ask you to follow. Generally the guidelines are fairly simple and designed to make it easier for whoever runs the site to deal with your submitted content when he posts it. Always make sure you follow their instructions to the letter if you wish to become a valued member of their writing staff. Some sites will not have any style guidelines at all and will even allow you to post your own material after adding you as an author on their site. Just make sure that if you go this route, you have a definite understanding of the submission guidelines, content guidelines and what not so you don’t end up submitting things and then having them sent back to you with a request for a laundry list of changes.

Developing Relationships:

Once you get your site up and running, it’s time to publish your reviews on it so people can read them and you can start developing your credibility as a reviewer. This is where you start developing relationships, not only with your readers, but with the film makers who are cruising the web looking for people to review their films. Now, you can wait for them to come to you
nd ask you if they can send you their films to be reviewed on your site, but you don’t have to. Once you’ve developed your site and posted some reviews, you can start looking around for the websites of films you’d like to review. The websites, especially in the independent film arena, almost always have contact information posted so you can get in touch with the film maker.

Once you have the contact information, simply drop them an e-mail telling them you have a review site (making sure to include the url to your site) and ask them if they’d be willing to send you out a copy of their film to review. This is how you start developing relationships with film makers. If you post your reviews of their films in a timely manner and the writing is of good quality, they’ll not only be more likely to come to you in the future when they have new films they’d like reviewed, but they’ll tell their film maker friends about you as well. The best part is, after you review their films and send them the url to the review, they’ll usually link to it in at least one place on their site, plus in whatever forums they hang out in, thereby driving more traffic to your site.

Keeping good relationships with the film makers is extremely important, as it benefits both of you and will aid in your quest to gain recognition in your field.

When I started reviewing films five years ago, things were a lot different than they are now. In many ways, things have become easier, not just in setting up functional and nice looking websites, but also in making it more possible to hook up with film makers though channels that didn’t exist when I got started. Places like MySpace and various film maker forums are a virtual treasure trove of potential contacts. All it takes is a good personality and a willingness to put yourself out there to develop the relationships necessary to become a well known and well respected film reviewer.

Keep in mind, that no matter how good your relationship is with any given film maker, your first obligation in your writing is to remain completely impartial and objective. The nicest guy can make a crappy movie, and the biggest jerk can create a gem. When you’re reviewing a film, you need to separate the film from the person who made it and be completely impartial in your judgement. There will be times when you’ll go easy on a less than stellar film simply because you either like or are friends with the film maker, or vice versa. It happens, and we’re all only human, but please try to keep your obligations as a film reviewer and the integrity you owe your readers in mind when you’re writing your reviews.

Just one last little side note before I wrap this up. Always be sure to link to the film’s website somewhere in your review. Even if you hated the movie, it’s still done as a courtesy to the film maker.

Final Thoughts:

One thing to consider is that just because you like movies, it doesn’t necessarily translate into you making it as a movie reviewer. There are a lot of elements involved in the reviewing process, and you have to have a keen, analytical mind and an ability to translate your thoughts and feelings into words that will inform and educate your readers.

If you do give it a go, don’t be discouraged by your first attempts. Use them as learning experiences, because your style as a writer will grow and develop slowly with time and experience. I look back on the things I wrote five years ago and compare them to what I’m writing now and it’s like night and day. It just takes time, patience and dedication. It may not be the most financially rewarding thing to do with your time, but it is rewarding on other levels, and that’s really what makes it worthwhile.