Every so often, I get an e-mail query like this: "What would it take to become a movie critic?"
My knee-jerk reaction to such questions is: "Go away." After all, a question like that could be interpreted (if I'm feeling paranoid) as, "You have a great job - can I have it, please?"
But I have a new answer for people who ask me about pursuing a career as a movie critic: Get a copy of Christopher Null's fun and informative new book, Five Stars! How to Become a Film Critic, the World's Greatest Job (Sutro Press, paperback, $24.99).
Null, the founder of the Web site filmcritic.com, breaks down the process of writing movie reviews - from analyzing the movies to organizing one's writing - and gives tips on how to get reviews published. He also has pointers on how to get into screenings, placate publicists and interview celebrities.
"When I was writing it, I didn't know if I really wanted to give away the secrets," Null said in a phone interview.
The book came out of necessity, Null said. As editor of filmcritic.com, which employs about 20 critics, "it got to the point where I was so inundated with applications from people, and questions from students or college kids who wanted to get into the field, because there's absolutely no literature on it out there," he said.
The first bit of bad news Null's book delivers is that if you want to write movie criticism for newspapers, forget it. Figure there are about 200 metro newspapers and another 200 alternative weeklies - and they each may employ one to three movie critics. Throw in the major magazines, and you have at best about 1,200 full-time movie critics in this country.
That's why Five Stars! is "targeted more at people who want to break in, via the Internet," Null said from his San Francisco office. "The easiest place for people to get started is online, especially if they're absolutely green."
The biggest surprise new critics face, Null said, is what it takes to gain legitimacy and accreditation as a critic. "A lot of people just think, 'I'll just put up a Web site and movies will show up at my door and I can review those,' " he said. "They don't realize that it's not only hard to break in, it's a maintenance issue. You have to convince the studios on an ongoing basis that you're a real critic who should be taken seriously."
A key part of Null's book is a list, "300 must-see films for the aspiring critic," which covers the waterfront from "Adaptation" to "The Wizard of Oz." (By the way, I counted - I have about 70 to go.)
"I wanted to get the big classics in, stuff that was really groundbreaking," Null said. "I tried to find the most archetypal film from the various schools of filmmaking. I wanted to have at least one iconic French New Wave movie, one iconic '60s movie. . . . I want to make sure someone knew what the silent era was all about. Even if they don't have time to watch 20 Charlie Chaplin movies, they should at least see one."
Why look back? "Modern filmmaking is all about stealing from what people before us have done," Null said.
The book gives plenty of writing advice, and a good share of examples from filmcritic.com's writers. The best advice can be summed up in a chapter, "Putting the Pieces Together," with these nuggets:
l Write the way you talk.
l Go easy on the thesaurus.
l Avoid jargon.
l Don't write too much about "me."
l Don't forget supporting data.
l Be funny.
l No spoilers!
l Less is more.
l Read other people's reviews.
l Ask for feedback.
l Write every day.
l Be honest.
"Writing a review is a lot harder than people give credit for," Null said.
The key for a critic is to find a voice that's unique. "When a Rob Schneider movie comes out, the opinions are going to be the same, there's not going to be a lot of dissension," Null said. "It's hard to write something really original. That's where I turn to humor and sarcasm to get the reader engaged."
Got a question about the movies? Send it to movie critic Sean P. Means: The Salt Lake Tribune, 90 S. 400 West, Suite 700, Salt Lake City, UT 84101, or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.