Book Review: Five Stars! How to Become a Film Critic, The World's Greatest Job, by Christopher Null
By Scott Weinberg
Posted 07/16/05 22:32:46
When a professional colleague asks you to review his new book, your answer should probably be "No. Way." But when movie genius and generally nice guy Chris Null informed me that he'd penned a how-to tome entitled "Five Stars! How to Become a Film Critic, The World's Greatest Job," I knew I had to offer my assistance -- partially because I'd get a free book out of the deal (yay!), but also because I know the way Chris writes. He's the best sort of movie geek there is: endlessly informed, amazingly passionate, seriously creative, and (most important) fair and honest. So take it as a full disclosure when I say that I'm about to review a book that was written by a professional pal, but also take it as my fair and honest opinion that "Five Stars!" is a fantastic little book. Frankly, we should make it Required Reading for the endless stream of applicants we get at this very site.
The back of the cover doles out the gravy in tantalizing fashion:
-Understand movie history and the mechanics of filmmaking -- without the film snob jargon!
-Learn how to write a review, step by step
-Get into every movie for free and never pay to go to the movies again!
-Get free DVDs -- before anyone else!
-Break into professional writing in newspapers, magazines, and online
-Launch a movie review website, recruit staff, and start your own business as a critic
-Learn how to approach editors -- from the experts themselves
-Build an audience for your work
-Interview celebrities and hang out with the stars!
Now, as my eyes glanced through all these promises, I initially dismissed them as enthusiastic blurbs included just to help sell some extra copies. But then it dawned on me: I understand movie history, know how to write reviews, see free movies, get lots of DVDs, contribute to magazines and radio shows, (co-)run my own website ... I do all that jazz!
And frankly movie-freaks, if I can do it, so can you. (What pisses me off is that Chris wrote the book while I was off reviewing Catwoman and Man of the House!)
But there's always a rub: you actually have to have some solid talent, experience, craftiness, and professionalism to keep this kind of job. And if you've got those things, then Mr. Null's instruction book should prove absolutely invaluable. Hell, I've been reviewing movies for 6+ years, and I found lots of great little reminders and tidbits tucked away in "Five Stars!" This book's just as helpful to the veterans experiencing burnout as it will be to the starry-eyed aspirants looking to finally break in.
Despite the alluring promises on the back cover, "Five Stars!" offers more practical advice than it does "quick-fix" methodology.
Chapter 1: The Market for Film Criticism explains, in clear terminology, that our current universe is absolutely packed to the gills with movie critics, many of whom are quite excellent. So you shouldn't jump into this pond if you plan to do it in cavalier or unenthusiastic fashion.
Chapter 2: Understanding Film History covers the long and storied history of cinema -- if in a brief, cursory, and very easy-to-digest fashion. Subheadings include Where the Movies Came From, Italian Neo-Realism, Exploitation, The French New Wave, The Event Movie, and several others.
Chapter 3: Understanding Filmmaking is a basic look at a movie project from conception to production to release, and all the stops in between.
Chapter 4: Writing Your First Review breaks down the reviewing process into some very simple terms. Chris offers several simple questions that you need to ask yourself as a flick unfolds, the way to judge films of different styles and genres, tips on proper story structure, and the ways to spot lame screenwriting, sloppy acting, and confused direction. Of all the chapters in this book, #4 scares me the most. Follow these tips to a tee, and soon you'll be taking my job from me!
Chapter 5: Putting the Pieces Together tells you the traditional way to structure a movie review: Grab the reader with a zinger, deliver just enough synopsis to keep people interested, maintain a consist and colorful tone, and hit the road before you wear out your welcome. Several sample reviews are included to help keep everything in perspective.
Chapter 6: Advanced Reviewing Concepts and Techniques cover s a variety of topics that we movie critics love to whine about: Subjectivity vs. Objectivity, Personal Preferences, Avoiding Elitism, and the very different ways in which you'll approach spoofs, classics, sequels, remakes, documentaries, and foreign films. Also integral is Mr. Null's focus on the bare basics of quality film criticism: proper punctuation and grammar, flawless spell-checking, word counts, and the importance of always avoiding spoilers. (Chapters 5 and 6 are the ones I'll be revisiting when I need to get my critic batteries recharged, as they're full of great, practical insights into the things that movie writers often get stressed about.)
Chapter 7: Grading and Star Ratings is a fun little comparison between star ratings, high school grading systems, numerical scales, and the sort. There's also some really great advice on how to avoid "grade inflation" and the dreaded "three-star habit." Again, this stuff's just as valuable to an established critic as it'll be to a complete newcomer.
Chapter 8: Getting Started with a Career: Advice for Beginners and Freelance Writers is where Chris explains that, hey, there's some real and actual work involved here. You need to have some education, some actual talent, and a whole lot of passion for the position. Moving on from there, Chris explains how to submit your work to different outlets, how to get your feet wet in the freelancing field, and how to deal with your associates in the most professional manner possible.
Chapter 9: Starting Your Own Site delivers just what it promises: A canny mini-primer on how to get your own website cooking, from choosing a name and planning your design -- to the importance of a quality web host, consistent traffic, and the always-integral advertising methods. This chapter brought back some very painful memories of "Scott's Reviews!" at Geocities, and made me wish that Null had penned this guidebook six years ago! Plus -- let's be frank; if you're going to take advice on how to build a website, you could do a whole lot worse than to sit upon the knee of the guy who created FilmCritic.com. (A site that has no relation whatsoever to eFilmCritic.com, unless you consider "good friend and well-respected colleague" a relation.)
Chapter 10: Getting Access will tell you how to get on to your local screening lists, but there are no simple shortcuts here, kids. Apply before you've established yourself as a professional, and you'll be laughed at, so make sure you've got all the basics down before you bother with the phone calls. Dealing with press agencies, marketing firms, and studio folks can be pretty daunting, but if you're confident of your skills (and your outlet), this chapter will give you a big block of helpful information.
Chapter 11: Editing Other Critics explains the difference between slapping out your own reviews and helping other writers to present their very best work. There's also a whole lot of information offered for the aspiring webmaster, including the proper way to enlist new critics and present the very best content possible.
Chapter 12: Film Critic Etiquette is a chapter that made me chuckle. (Has Chris been coming to my local press screenings?) Headings include How to Handle Other Critics, Screener Etiquette, How to Behave in the Press Row, and Burnout -- which is something that happens to every single writer I've ever known.
Chapter 13: Handling Your Own Criticism is basically a lengthy and very entertaining discussion between Chris Null and the rather excellent film critic known as Jeremiah Kipp, in which they discuss how to deal with the inevitable hate-mail that pours in once you have the audacity to not fall madly in love with Spider-Man 2 or Lord of the Rings.
Chapter 14: Reviewing DVDs and Videos explains how you can save a lot of time and car mileage by reviewing films once they hit the DVD shelves. You've still got the whole movie to review, plus there's all those special features, too!
Chapter 15: Celebrity Interviews seems like a fairly self-explanatory title for a chapter, and here's where you'll find some practical tips on how to prepare for the occasional celebrity sit-down. Phone interviews, roundtables, and the dreaded junket tours could all be yours for the asking ... if you really want 'em, that is.
Appendix: 300 Must-See Films for the Aspiring Critic is a fantastic inclusion, and I'm not ashamed to admit that this list has helped to add a few titles to my Netflix queue. This is not a list of "all-time greats," but a roster of flicks that you simply need to see if you're going to be a worthwhile movie critic. Can't be a food critic if you've never tried chicken, beef, or fish.
I'll be brutally honest: There's not a whole lot in Five Stars! that I didn't already know, but the material is presented so smoothly that I read the thing from cover to cover in less than five full trips to the bathroom. (Trust me, that's pretty quick, especially for a book that runs 256 pages.) And while "Five Stars!" is clearly intended for consumption by the young, excited, and aspiring movie critic, it also managed to remind me of why I love this gig so much. Like any profession, film criticism has it mega-high points and its unbelievably grating annoyances, but if it's a field you're sincerely dying to get into, then Mr. Null's new guide is absolutely worthy of a spot on your bookshelf.
At first I doubted that I wanted any part of this book, mainly because I thought it would offer quick and easy shortcuts to the ravenous movie geeks out there. But then I remembered who wrote the thing. Chris doesn't give false hope and empty promises; his book shows that, sure, there's a lot of fun to be had in this field, but to be a success, you really have to put in some serious time and effort. "Five Stars!" gives you a whole ton of signposts, suggestions, and solid advice, but Null consistently reminds the reader that this stuff is still a lot of actual work.
Best of all, the book is written in a low-key and enjoyably "normal guy" fashion, and the information offered within would be just as enjoyable to a general movie geek as it would be invaluable to a kid who's absolutely willing to work his ass off to become a film critic. It's required reading for anyone who's serious about swimming in this most competitive of ponds. And I'm just so mad at Chris for thinking of this idea before I did. Bastard.
As with just about every book in the known universe, "Five Stars! How to Become a Film Critic, The World's Greatest Job" is available for purchase at Amazon.com, and if you ever planning to apply for work at one of the better movie review sites, you should consider this great little book a very solid investment.