When it is time to leave film criticism

The other day, I saw a tweet from film writer Chris Webster that got me intrigued:

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.

Meeting Joanna

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I’ve been podcasting with Joanna Robinson for about six years. This past weekend, we met in person for the very first time.

It was about six years ago that Joanna first pitched me the idea of doing a recap podcast about Game of Thrones. I was unsure whether this would be a good idea — I didn’t know that much about the world of the show and I’d never done a TV podcast before. But I trusted in Joanna to guide the way.

So we decided to give it a shot, and we launched A Cast Of Kings. We entered a crowded field that already had DOZENS of other Game of Thrones podcasts.

Fast forward to present day. A Cast of Kings is the most successful podcast I’ve ever had a part in, generating over 5 million downloads, with hundreds of thousands of fans from all around the world. Moreover, Joanna’s star has risen dramatically in the intervening years, as she’s become one of the most respected and widely read Game of Thrones writers on the internet. It’s been an honor to work with her during
this ascension.

Despite this, Joanna and I had never met in person before. But yesterday, at a Podcaster Meet And Greet at #ConOfThrones, surrounded by many fans of the show we created together, we finally had the chance. This photo commemorates the occasion (thanks to Jim from Bald Move for taking it).

The internet can be magic, if you will it to be. All it takes is the willingness to take chances with people and a passion for what you do.

And persistence. A lot of persistence.

David Chen is going on vacation

It’s been a challenge for me to take vacations in the past. Even if there’s a lull at work, I still do podcasts every week, which I think of as a little digital garden that I have to keep watering, no matter what my life circumstances.

But as time has gone on I’ve started to let go of this mindset. I’m fortunate to have very capable co-hosts who are willing to step up and fill in for me while I’m gone. I also have a limited window of time to get away for a relaxing, refreshing break from this dark, rainy Seattle winter.

For the next two weeks, blog updates will be scarce. I plan to return in the last week of March. Thanks for reading, and if you’re looking for updates from me in the meantime, follow me on Twitter and Instagram.

davechen.net, two months later

It’s been two months since I re-launched my blog back in January and since I’m about to take a brief vacation, I thought it would be interesting to take a look back at some of my stats during that time period. Note that these months do not provide a true apples-to-apples comparison, since I technically re-launched my blog mid-way through January, and March is not over yet.


Overall, I’m averaging about 20K page views per month and about 14K-15K visitors per month. I’m thrilled by this performance, and this level of readership has made the entire enterprise of re-designing the blog feel worthwhile.

By far my largest source of traffic is my Twitter page. This is not super surprising, as Twitter is able to surface my links quickly and reliably to anyone who’s following me. Plus, retweeting someone is not as huge of a commitment as sharing someone’s post on Facebook — I’ve seen some of my posts get good traffic that way. Traffic to archival material from search engines is also performing relatively well, and this blog’s Facebook page is slowly growing as a traffic driver.

Based on my observations, here are the posts that are likely to get the most traffic on this specific blog:

Any time I am one of the first to post about a video or a piece of content — I’ve been lucky to help surface some interesting videos on this blog, and any time I’m one of the first, I’ll usually be shared pretty frequently. Examples of this include these La La Land BTS videos, and this Breaking Bad movie (now taken down). But even if I’m not the first, sometimes people just want to check out specific pieces of content, as with this re-blog of SNL’s La La Land sketch.

Anything topical that people are interested in right now — posts on topics like the Oscars attracted significant attention right after the event. Any time you can tap into something people want to read about, think about, and discuss immediately, it’ll likely garner more traffic.

Any post that answers a specific question that people might be asking — After people watched Get Out, many of them wanted to know about the meaning of the Asian character that shows up seemingly randomly halfway through the film. My post addressing that question is on the first page of Google results for related queries.

***

I have a lot of ideas for how to grow the blog further, but I think that’ll have to be another post. There are several things I could be doing that I think would really help things (e.g., integrating AMP and Facebook Instant articles for starters).

In the meantime, I’m very grateful to my brother for helping with my blog re-launch, and also for anyone who has taken a look at the blog in the past few months. Thanks for reading, and if you want to follow along for regular updates, I’d recommend you follow me on Twitter or follow follow blog’s Facebook page. Or just check back here every day or two — I’ll usually have something new up (when I’m not on vacation).

Moving from Blogger to WordPress

I recently moved this blog over to WordPress from Blogger (for a few reasons). I thought the process would be easy: Just download all the blog info from Blogger and use the Blogger Importer plug-in, right? Turns out, it’s a little more complicated.

I wish I’d read this helpful blog post by Ryan Sullivan, which outlines step-by-step what is necessary to make this move. Pretty much everything you need is there, but I did want to point out a couple of things:

1) One key step was making sure all my old URLs stayed the same, so that any links I received would still be valid. The thing I missed was that even with my new WordPress URLS formatted in the same way as new Blogger URLs, they still weren’t QUITE identical. For instance, a post on my old blog might have this format:

davechen.net/2014/10/why-i-helped-produce-layover.html

But now, that same blog post URL is formatted like this:

davechen.net/2014/10/why-i-helped-produce-layover/

Thus, all my old links were broken. My brother had to write a script that re-directed all old URLs to their new destinations. Blogger really killed me with those .htmls!

2) Adding open graph meta tags to WordPress is important for SEO/sharing purposes.

3) All my old images are still hosted on Blogger. This is okay, because at least the old posts still look the same, but it’s not ideal. For some reason my Blogger Importer did not download all the images to the new WordPress instance. I will need to figure out some way of managing this going forward.

Overall, the process just took a lot more work than I would’ve liked. But I think things are in a good place now and am pretty sure that migrating out of WordPress (should I ever want that) will be a good deal easier.

(Image by CollegeDegrees360, used under CC)

Thoughts on 400 Episodes of the /Filmcast

The /Filmcast just recorded its 400th episode, a review of Martin Scorsese’s newest film Silence. Eight years I’ve been doing this podcast, most recently with my intrepid co-hosts Devindra Hardawar and Jeff Cannata.

Last night, we received the following email about the podcast from a listener I’ll refer to as Brett. I’ve posted an excerpt from the email below, with his permission.

I share this excerpt not as an act of self-aggrandizement, but rather as encouragement to anyone reading it: You too can create something meaningful for other people. In fact, you probably already are, just by being who you are, interacting how you do, sharing what you do.

When we started the podcast, we didn’t think we’d be creating something that would allow people to feel less alone in the world. Maybe we just wanted to create something that made US feel less alone in our passion for movies, and by doing so, it made others feel the same as well.

And so when I read an email like this, I don’t think “I’m amazing!” I think: if some nincompoop with a microphone and an internet connection like me can create this kind of feeling in people, then pretty much anyone can. And you should all keep putting yourself out there and doing so.

***
Dear David, Devindra and Jeff,

My name is Brett. I’m 36 and I live northeast Philadelphia, PA. I have been listening to your podcast now for quite some time. I’m a huge fan. I’m also a musician, audio engineer and a lover of film. My love for film eventually led me to find your podcast. Since then, I’ve been with you guys every step of the way. To me, it’s the best podcast, in my opinion, for movie lovers.

I am writing this as I lay in a hospital bed. In 2012, I was diagnosed with leukemia. And ever since then, my life has been one disaster after another. I went through a divorce with a girl I had been with for 15 years. We have a beautiful son together. His name is David.

So I’m currently laying in a hospital bed and I’m in extreme pain. All I want to do is listen to you guys. So I started playing episode 400 and this feeling of peace just came over me. I just close my eyes and listen to the three of you talk film, make Boom goes the dynamite jokes, or the really well-handled ad reads with David and Jeff.

I just wanted you to know that your podcast is truly a light in a dark place. Since 2012, I’ve been in and out of hospitals. More times than I can even remember at this point. Tonight, I had a mental breakdown and started feeling very sorry for myself. The nurse came in to give me my meds. I took them, turned the TV, went to my podcast app and there was the new episode. I’m 30 minutes in and I’ve already forgotten where I was.

I just wanted to thank you all from the bottom of my heart. You’re really helping people in ways you might not know. I am sure you receive emails like this all the time but I really felt the need to express my gratitude to the three of you tonight.

I write this not in the hopes that you will read it on the podcast but that you will read this and feel a sense of pride. You would be really surprised to learn that three friends talking about movies can make someone who is very sick actually smile. So I thank you as much as I can. Your podcast means so much to me. When I listen to an episode, it just reminds me of conversations and arguments I’ve had with my friends in regards to film. Please continue to do what you do…

Thank you for hearing me out,
Brett

Welcome to the new davechen.net!

After many months of languishing on an old Blogger account, the new davechen.net is finally here! I’m once again hoping this blog will once again become a permanent, online repository for my writings, as well as links that I find interesting.

In the age of Medium, Facebook, Snapchat, and Twitter, it is so easy to spend all of our time building our online profiles elsewhere. Doing so confers many benefits, but there are also some important downsides. Personally, I like to own and control all my content, in order to ensure its longevity. Hence, this new WordPress install to replace the old blog.

WordPress is a fully-featured blogging platform that offers numerous benefits over Blogger:

  1. It’s open source and maintained by a distributed community, meaning it’s likely to not only last for awhile, but will continue being updated (Unlike Blogger, which seems to have been completely forgotten)
  2. I can finally implement some modern-day SEO for the site! Blogger gives you very little control over this.
  3. TONS of plug-ins can be integrated into your site, such as Disqus.
  4. Should I ever want to leave, many OTHER platforms support WordPress migration. Not so with Blogger.

From this point on, my plan is to try to post on here as frequently as I post to my Twitter and Facebook accounts. That means a lot more updates, some of which will be pretty short (maybe even a sentence long). I won’t always succeed with this rate of updates, but I’m going to try my hardest and it’ll be better than nothing.

Big thanks go to my brother, Michael, for his help with setting this up. And thanks in advance to you, the reader, for checking this site out. I hope you find it interesting.

Five Lessons on Virality from Felix Salmon’s Epic Jonah Peretti Interview

It took me awhile but I finally got through Felix Salmon’s epic(ally long) interview with Jonah Peretti. Peretti made millions working on The Huffington Post and now manages Buzzfeed.

Salmon’s interview is long and meandering, but it’s a an insightful discussion on the nature of virality. There’s lots to learn, but here are five points that I found to be particularly salient:

Nowadays, it’s harder and harder to break through, and when you do, you’re popular for a shorter period of time – Back in the day, Peretti created Black People Love Us, which skewered liberal PC sensibilities. But in the early oughts, making something viral had a higher potential to change the course of your life. According to Peretti:

Now you see people do a really cool project or a cool Tumblr and they don’t end up on the Today Show. We were on Good Morning America for Black People Love Us. We had the front page of Sunday Styles for Black People Love Us. The Rejection Line, we were on CNN and in People and in Elle. I think that some project like that today, would not have had the novelty to get the mainstream attention and would have a lot more competition on the web of cool things, and the rate at which they spread has been compressed a lot so things pop for a day or two.

As people/companies try to shoot for the next great viral hit, it’s important to keep in mind the ROI on projects. Building something that will have long-term equity is important, vs. a flash in the pan video that is seen today and forgotten in 48 hours.

The platform is just as important as the content – Peretti realized really early on that building a robust platform at Huffington Post was just as important as getting popular people to write on it:

There were these two models that we just kind of bolted together. One was to make the site itself viral, which was celebrities blogging. I was very focused on making sure that they used the default blogging tools of the Internet. I think that everyone expected us to have some Flash site that wasn’t a real blog…It had all the things that blogs were supposed to have so that people who knew about blogging would see it and say, “Oh, Larry David is blogging.” Not, “Larry David’s doing some weird new thing that Arianna Huffington invented.” We knew that was the piece that was going to make it take off and be contagious. Then Andrew posting links and headlines that were constantly updated would be the thing that made it sticky. You’d come to see the celebrities blogging, you’d say, “Wow, what does this mean? That blogging has evolved in this different way.” And then you would say, “Oh, there’s a good link here. There’s a good link here.” And you would just keep coming back every day. Even if Larry David didn’t blog again for three months, you’d be checking the site because you’d have great links to content around the web. That was sort of the idea.

Master search engines and you master the world – One of the things that Buzzfeed and HuffPo nailed perfectly was optimizing for Google. But it went beyond just standard SEO practices. As Google shifted to enable the surfacing of links in real-time, Buzzfeed shifted its strategy to do the same. Peretti explains:

[A]t BuzzFeed we had figured out that you could rapidly swarm a breaking news topic, particularly about a person, place, or thing that was new, like a beauty queen who loses her crown and no one’s heard of this beauty queen. If you make a great page about that thing, you often could get to the top of Google results just as searches were surging. It was partly because Google got faster indexing at that point. Google was slow indexing and then all of a sudden became quick, and BuzzFeed figured that out in the lab, but then HuffPost editors got really good at it and we’d swarm stories very quickly and often be the first news source to create a comprehensive page for what was happening, linking out to other multiple other sources. Those pages became huge growth generators for the site.

As search engines continue to shift into the real-time/social world, optimizing your site based on new functionality can help you gain traction in ways that were previously impossible.

Optimizing for any single metric can negatively impact other valuable metrics – This one was pretty interesting to me. People normally think that clickthroughs are the sacrosanct metric that drives much of the online publishing business. But Peretti realized that the clickthrough, in and of itself, was not a metric to be valued.

You could show a picture of like an older guy at the beach and be like, “Guess whose body this is?” Then you click and it’s like, “Oh it’s Giorgio Armani” or whatever, and you could get a tremendous clickthrough rate on headlines that didn’t tell you what the story is about. The problem with that is that if you’re just getting clicks that would have gone to another headline on your front page, it’s sending people the content that might not be as good, because they’re clicking because they want to know what’s there. They’re not clicking because they’re interested in what’s there. If they knew that it was Giorgio Armani — if you just did a post saying, “Here’s a picture of Giorgio Armani on the beach” — people who care about that sort of thing would click and people who didn’t wouldn’t. You end up with lots of people who don’t actually want to see Giorgio Armani in a Speedo on the beach clicking that and then feeling like, “Oh god, why did I do that?” Like, “That was a waste of time.”

In other words, you can optimize for JUST clickthrough but you’d potentially be alienating readers and not investing in the long term health of your site.

Furthermore, the rise of the social web, in the form of Twitter and Facebook, have made it more important for headlines to accurately represent the content they are labeling. People often share headlines and then describe what they think of them, thus personalizing articles in ways that aren’t possible with headlines that are devoid of info.

Instead, the focus should be on the quality of the content. Says Peretti, “If you’re making entertainment content, which is a big part of what we do, you look at that hit and you say, ‘Why was that successful? Can I do it again? Can I make something else that people really love and want to share?’ And you try to vary it, even though you know doing something derivative would work. Long term, you want to have a deeper understanding of how to make great things. That’s really the focus.”

“Life is tricky because it happens once and there’s no opportunity for A/B testing” – For someone who works rigorously on optimizing his content, Peretti admits that there’s no way you can really optimize for your life. I just loved the way the piece ends:

[It’s possible] that this life you’re living is the best or among the top 5 percent of lives that you would have lived, and in lots of other ones you’d end up in an alley or in an unhappy relationship or with a job where you’re not intellectually fulfilled, and that you have found this amazing path. It’s also possible that you’re not even in the top 50 percent of lives and that your life is really tragic and that despite all the wonderful and impressive and amazing things you’ve done, that you had the potential to do all these incredible other things that would have been either bigger in scale or more fulfilling or more modest and simple, but more pleasurable or whatever. That there were all these other paths that would be better. It’s, I think, hard to say whether there is something I missed that would have made things much better. In general, I’m pretty happy, and all these imagined alternate lives, I wouldn’t know how to even begin to speculate on how they’d compare.