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since 1997 | by maryann johanson

frequently asked questions: “How do you decide what to see and what to review?”

The question came in today via email:

How do you decide what to see and what to review?

I receive invitations to screen hundreds and hundreds of movies every year — that’s new theatrical releases, and that’s on top of the direct-to-DVD films and other new DVDs (stuff from TV, movies moving from theaters to DVD), new TV shows, and so on. Even if I did nothing else, I couldn’t possibly get to all of those movies. How do I winnow down the list? Here’s how I prioritize which films I see:
1) Major wide releases: I try to see as many of these as possible, because these are the films that the bulk of my current readers will be able to see and will want to discuss, and it’s how I’m going to find most of my new readers — just as a numbers game, more new visitors to this site will stumble across reviews of wide releases than of limited releases. And unfortunately, since the site lives by advertising, I do have to keep traffic-building strategies in mind.

I can’t see all wide releases, though, so how do I narrow those down? While I don’t have a hard and fast rule about avoiding particularly genres, I am less likely to see a splatter movie or a grossout comedy than a science fiction or action film. I am less likely to see a romanic comedy than a straight-up drama. That doesn’t mean I automatically rule out examples of any genre: it means that in a week where I have to pick and choose, what I would like to see may win out over what I feel like I have an obligation to see.

2) Limited releases: There are far more of these than there are wide releases. On some weekends, there may be two or three wide releases opening in New York (where I live and go to screenings) but ten or more indies, foreign films, and revivals. With these I tend to go on a gut feeling: Does a film star an actor I like? Was it written and/or directed by a filmmaker I like? Is the subject matter something that intrigues me? Does it sound like the film is pushing an envelope rather than just aping, in a low-budget way, studio films?

When it comes to limited releases, I feel less obligation to rush to see a film before it opens, though, because I know I’ll have a chance to catch it on DVD… which is when most of my readers will have their first opportunities to see it, too.

3) Practical matters: Juggling screenings is sometimes like organizing a battle. Press screenings in NYC generally run from Mondays through Thursdays, beginning at 10am and starting on subsequent even hours during the day — noon, 2pm, 4pm — and in the evening there could be screenings starting on the hour and half hour from 6pm until as late as 10pm, though that’s rare; generally the latest a screening will begin is 8:30pm. (Screenings are rarer on Fridays, and kids/family flicks may screen on a Saturday or Sunday morning. And of course there are the oddball screenings during the week that start at 3:30 or 5:30.)

So every Friday, or thereabouts, I finalize my screening schedule for the next week. If, say, there’s something I’ve decided I must see on Wednesday at noon, and something else I must see on Wednesday at 6pm, well, if there’s anything at all screening at 2pm or 4pm, I might pop into that — if the screening rooms are close enough together; if it leaves me a few minutes to have a bite to eat or a pee in between — just to have less time to kill in between the noon and the 6. There are only so many hours you can sit in Starbucks with your laptop, and only so much coffee you can drink, in a given day, after all. Not that I haven’t sometimes spent six hours in a Starbucks working…

BUT ALL THIS WILL BE TRUMPED… if one of the alternative-weekly newspapers that syndicate some of my reviews needs a certain movie covered. There may be a film that I’d rather slit my wrists than see, but if someone’s gonna pay me a few bucks for a review (a review that I’ll also be free to post here), then hell yes, I will do it.

How I decide what to review falls along much the same lines: What will bring readers into the site, which films do I feel I have the most interesting things to say about, and will someone pay me?

Generally, I would see more movies — and review more of the movies that I do see — if I had more time. For the most part, it’s a lack of time that inhibits me, not a lack of desire. Because I’d rather be at the movies — in actuality, with my butt in a theater seat, or in my head, thinking about movies and writing about them — than doing almost anything else. I’d rather sit through even a terrible movie than be doing almost anything else.



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  • boz

    MaryAnn, did you see “The Man From Earth”?

  • MaryAnn

    Nope. But maybe someday…

  • JoshDM

    You’re not allowed to go back to a geek con like I-CON again without watching Kentucky Fried Movie first. Right of passage.

  • Bill

    Thank you.

  • Awesome!

  • headneep

    So reviewing movies is what you do for a living? No boring soul-crushing day job? How did you get this gig? And how can I? (Like you, I’d rather be watching movies and disseminating my heartfelt opinions about them than anything else. It would be great to get paid for it so I can keep a roof over my head.)
    By the way: I love your site. Your reviews and articles are always informative and entertaining.

  • MaryAnn

    Those sound like questions for another FAQ. Stay tuned!

  • paul

    Headneep, have you considered going into academia? The real work hours are light and you spend the rest of your time working on ideas you like and avoiding committee work. The hard part is getting there in the first place, since lots of people want in but they are producing graduate students in the humanities a lot faster than professorships are opening up. If you are in the sciences, the work is harder but the jobs more available (connection, me thinks).

    I remember one of my professors (anthropology) telling me about his neighbor, a 9 to 5 guy. The neighbor asked him why he didn’t get a job in the real world. My professor thought about the doubling of his work load, then coming home to watch TV with a beer, go to sleep, and the next day do it all over again. He figured he could do without reality.

  • Jester

    “The Man From Earth” was the best movie I saw in 2007.

  • MaryAnn

    How many movies did you see in 2007?

  • Jester

    135, according to Netflix (not counting TV shows and the like I get from them). Plus what I saw in the theaters last year, probably another 25-30. Call it 160. Not enough to be a movie critic, but likely more than the average person. ;-)

    “The Man From Earth” came in just under the wire. I returned it on 12/17/2007. I’m a big fan of all-dialogue-no-plot flicks, and it was the most thoughtful film I’ve seen in a long time. Left me thinking about it for at least a month after I saw it. I watched it twice, then watched it a third time with the commentary track. It’s that kind of movie.

    That said, it didn’t have a lot of competition for “best movie I saw in 2007”. 2007 was kind of a weak year for movies IMO. I liked “300”, “Atonement”, “No Country For Old Men”, “Juno”, “Gone Baby Gone”, “3:10 To Yuma”, “The Kingdom”, “The Kite Runner”, and a small handful of others… but it wasn’t a year overloaded with good movies.

  • Jester

    Actually, make that 150. Just went through my Netflix queue for 2007 in detail and there were some duplicates. Flicks I caught in first-run at the theaters, then rented when they came out on DVD.

  • MaryAnn

    Those are pretty good numbers. It’s a little disconcerting to hear people say, “XYZ was the best movie I saw last year!” and then it turns out they saw four movies.

  • Jester

    Ohhhhhhh… yeah, I can see that. No, I knew it was a lot. I spend a lot of time in darkened rooms watching a flickering screen. ;-) When you asked, though, I was honestly curious how many, so I checked.

    Seriously, check out “The Man From Earth” if you can. Very much worth your time.

  • My girlfriend keeps asking me if you’ve seen Repo! the Genetic Opera yet, and what you thought. Have you managed to catch it yet? B)

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