The other day, I saw a tweet from film writer Chris Webster that got me intrigued:
I will not be reviewing movies anymore. Any filmmaker who can get a project going automatically deserves 3 stars. Critics, go try and learn.
— Christopher Webster (@ChrisDWebster) July 5, 2017
As someone who recently tried to direct a film, I felt like I understood what Webster was talking about. When you try to go through the process of making a film (even a tiny indie film), it changes your perception of movies altogether. It makes the great ones seem even more miraculous, and the terrible ones feel more tragic.
I contacted Webster to see if I could get him to talk more about his decision to leave film criticism. He agreed to answer a few questions via email. You can follow Chris on Twitter or at places like Screen Anarchy and Quiet Earth.
David: How long have you been reviewing movies (in print or on the internet)?
Chris: The first time I was paid to review a film was in 2005 when Sergio Leone’s Duck, You Sucker (aka. A Fistful of Dynamite) was re-released through the arthouse circuit. I was writing a film news column for a local weekly called SEE Magazine and lobbied to be allowed to review it as I was a big spaghetti western buff and was desperate to see the film on the big screen.
I remember the photo that was published along with the review was from a completely different film, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon as I recall, and for some reason I was crushed when I opened the paper the following Tuesday morning on my way to University, thoroughly convinced that readers would assume I was responsible for the gaff and my days as a cineaste would end prematurely.
That weekly paper folded two years later which is when I started investigating the online world, reading sites like Ain’t it Cool News, Twitch Film (now ScreenAnarchy), First Showing, Slashfilm, Bloody Disgusting and others. I was immediately impressed by the relentless pace and scope of the coverage that was possible when you assembled a team internationally and hit most of the major festivals. It was clear that you didn’t need to expend a lot of travel costs for instance, just ensure you made connections with contributors in crucial locations.
I threw myself in and joined the founder of Quiet Earth on a mission to emulate that model. And for a few years we did a decent job growing the team and readership as well as making some great friends in the community along the way. I also have the pleasure to be writing at many of those sites now.
Why did you decide to get into movie writing in the first place?
Look, everyone loves movies, but there’s a limit to how long your friends and family will sit and talk with you about them. I’m sure most of us who have gravitated to blogging about film have faced this and it’s pushed us to find other ways to keep the conversation going. Writing about movies, podcasting, that’s what we’re doing, keeping the conversation going ad infinitum.
Do you make money from writing reviews? What portion of your personal income does it contribute to? Do you have a full-time/day job?
The money I make from writing about movies fluctuates as it’s based on various revenue streams including affiliate partnerships, advertising and commission work. If you’re not staffed full time at a big site, the trick seems to be writing for multiple sites. Since the monthly figure is generally in the hundreds of dollars it doesn’t make up a significant portion of my income. For that I rely on a full-time job in marketing/communications.
Is there a movie review or a moment in your writing career you’re particularly proud of?
As you know, there’s nothing more important than being FIRST! in the online world, so I would say my firsts have been my some of my proudest moments.
For example, I had the opportunity to publish the first English review of Switzerland’s first science fiction film, Cargo. With my permission, Io9 ended up re-publishing the review, which was a nice surprise and I was glad to have been able to help that film get some exposure. It’s very ambitious and beautiful and the director is a really cool guy.
Reviews where I have been extremely positive on a film also seem to stand out as well. My review of Kevin Smith’s Red State for example sticks out because I was able to attend one of the director’s roadshow screenings and the film completely rocked the house. I was floored by that movie and that whole experience definitely helps the review I subsequently wrote stand out in my mind.
I could go on, but I’ll stop at two.
What made you decide to stop writing reviews?
In 2010 I made the choice to try writing a screenplay, just to see if I could. Finishing that 100 page script was incredibly challenging, but also insightful. I sent it around and managed to attract an established director and a producer of movie video game tie-ins. Development hell, as they say, ensued and that project eventually fell apart. But I had caught the bug, so I wrote another one which lead to some time working with an Australian producer, which in tern lead to working on another project with a well known Canadian director. Most recently, I’ve worked on the upcoming series, Dark/Web, from the producers of last year’s Circle.
Once I had gone through development on a number of feature film projects that experience started to warp my process of reviewing films until it became a totally unrecognizable endeavor.
Knowing how the sausage was made on a creative level alerted me to the fact that there was some investigation missing when it came to truly understanding the intention and considerations of a writer and his/her collaborators, which debilitated discussing a film completely. I began losing my ability to write about movies from an emotional perspective, while at the same time, I became frustrated by how I saw others writing about films.
Everywhere I looked, critics seemed willfully unwilling to explore how movies were made in any significant way to enhance their writing. And I started to think, ‘In a world where VICE will go live with terrorists in Iran, or whatever, to bring a level of authenticity to their reporting, I don’t see any movie critics really willing to gain a rich understanding of what it’s like to produce a film from script to screen.’
I believe if more film critics went down this investigative path, tried to write a film or work on a set, it would radically change the profession and the discourse. Because what I see in the space now are critics proclaiming reasons a film isn’t working with very little content to back it up. It’s not enough to say, “Oh, the script was terrible, some of that dialog was on the nose,” which you read all the time, because what are you even talking about exactly? Did you read the screenplay? A screenplay isn’t just the dialog; it’s everything from what we hear on the soundtrack to how the characters are costumed to the tone and pacing. It’s a thousand considerations, each of which will go on to be compromised in some small way by each person who comes along after it’s written to help bring it to the screen. Nobody sets out to make a bad film. For that reason, I think great films are miracles and the idea of reducing this rich and collaborative art form to 500 snarky words seems preposterous to me.
And look, what I am suggesting happens in the film industry as well. I just realized that watching a lot of movies doesn’t necessarily equip you with a robust enough understanding of how films work, or should work, and I realized I was likely doing more disservice to filmmakers than good by bringing more uninformed criticism into the world.
I’ve noticed that many of our critic colleagues who have gotten into producing have quietly moved away from reviewing films altogether. I won’t name names — people can do their research — but I suspect it’s because writing reviews began to feel like a strangely disingenuous exercise for them. Now that I’ve discussed my own decision here, I think I’ll ask them about it. And who knows, maybe they’re just too busy.
Which brings up another reason: it takes a lot of time to write about the work of others when I could be focusing on my own work. Ben Wheatley’s recent comments about not understanding the desire to criticize rather than create hit me right in the gut. It made me consider all the time I had invested in writing bout other people’s creativity and how I wished I had some of that time back to invest in my own endeavors. A very intelligent filmmaker friend of mine takes issue with Wheatley’s sentiments and has suggested that criticism is a critic’s art. After about a year of mulling his opinion, I have decided to respectfully disagree. It’s okay though, we’re still friends.
The final reason I’ve lost interest in reviewing films is that I believe criticism is moving in a very toxic direction where films are being used as political lightning rods to discuss identity politics by some people I would suggest have little interest in movies. I think the market has dictated this. Conflict has always generated clicks, but what this preoccupation with whether or not La La Land is racist [Editor’s note: Um…] has done is drown out those discussing the movie and movies. And I miss that.
On a recent episode of The Canon podcast, critics MTV’s Amy Nicholson and indie Wire’s David Ehrlich discussed the 1998 Academy Award winner Shakespeare in Love. Both of them marveled at how, when going back to read through criticism of it from the time of its release, there was barely any talk of how the film represents gender. They went on to imagine how the film would be put through the think-piece meat grinder if it were released today which struck me as incredibly sad. Gender is a topic worth considering in the film, no question, it’s not that, but it reminded me that we used to sit on films, let history do its thing before assessing their place and relevance in the culture, using context and perspective as an important ally. Now we sort of speed date with movies, savage them with judgment and move on to the next table.