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such a nasty woman | by maryann johanson

question of the day: What makes a film critic “professional”?

Following up on yesterday’s question about the ongoing mass extinction of local newspaper film critics, if you’re interested in this issue, you should be checking out the regularly updated list over at Movie City News over the last 121 (at the moment) critics who made their full-time living from reviewing movies.

My question today is, though: What makes a film critic “professional”?

In David Poland’s posting at The Hot Blog introducing the list and soliciting suggestions of names that belong on the list includes this:

The criteria is a bit subjective, but here is the idea… if you have a full-time job at an outlet and your primary responsibility is being a film critic, you are in. If you are a very, very busy freelancer… you are not. If you have a staff job and happen to post a review every week or two… you are not.

So, for the sake of argument, we don’t see website stars like Harry Knowles or Drew or Devin as people who are primarily employed as film critics. This does not mean their work as critics is not respected. It’s just not the same gig. If you are an experienced pro critic and now you are posting brilliant reviews to your blog… congrats, but not for this list. Then there is Cinematical, for instance, where the entire group is freelance as a result of AOL’s hiring practices. If someone is freelance specifically by the hire, but works for one outlet and more than 80% of their work is criticism, that should make the cut.

Like I say… subjective… but trying to be as objective and fair as possible. Things are very blurry these days.

Are things that blurry, though? I don’t qualify for MCN’s list — because I’m merely a very, very busy freelancer — as lots of other people writing about film today do not, but I’m not sure if eliminating so many of us gives us an accurate representation of the situation.

In the comments section of Poland’s post, Sean Means — who runs the blog The Movie Cricket I also mentioned yesterday, where he also tracks the slow picking off of print critics — suggested this:

1) Is film criticism the bulk of what you write?
2) Are you getting paid for it?
3) Do you get benefits (health insurance, vacation pay, sick leave)?
4) Are you spared from having to hustle for advertising or other revenue generators that pay your wages?

If you can answer “yes” to all four questions, then I submit you are eligible for this list.

Unfortunately, many professional creative writers, no matter what they write, could not answer “yes” to all four of those questions. Those criteria would eliminate almost all novelists, for instance, even those who sell millions of books (because they’re still “freelancers”) from the ranks of “professional” writers.

It’s deplorable that the mainstream press is increasingly deciding that film criticism is superfluous, but it’s not an accurate representation of the state of film criticism to suggest that only those who fall into this extremely narrow definition are “professional.” (Maybe MCN’s chart should be called “The Last 120 Corporate-Employee Film Critics in America.”)

Am I wrong? What makes a film critic “professional”?

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me.)

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  • Mathias

    That’s a very tough question.
    10 years ago, it’d be anyone who had a column at a newspaper.

    These days, the line is very blurry and depending on which side you fall on, old media vs. new media, there’s an attempt to draw the line that’s most favourable or beneficial to you.

    To me though, a professional critic is anyone who writes reviews weekly without fail, and has gained suffiecient prominence to be listed on rottentomatoes.com.

    I could’ve care less about whether or not they get health benefits or whether they sell ad space on their site or not.

  • canadiana

    My criteria would simply be:

    Does 50% (or more) of your income come as a direct result of your film reviewing?

    If so, film reviewing is your “profession”. If not, it’s a (possibly part-time, semi-lucrative) hobby.

    I guess a refinement could be made to require at least a livable total income to exclude those without any “real” income.

    So if the livable yearly wage is $20,000 and you make $21,000 / year, and 10,500 or more of that is from your reviewing efforts, you’re a pro.

    If you make $70,000 / year, and $30,000 of that is from reviewing, then it’s still a sideline for you – it’s not your primary profession.

    ’tis not a perfect definition, but it might have some use.

  • Mathias

    $20,000 is not a livable wage and in NYC, it’s one step up from homeless. ;P

  • Paul

    Most short story writers and probably all poets actually live off teaching gigs at universities, but they are paid a little for their writing. Lots of literary novelists, do, too. Lots of SF writers are actually scientists as their day jobs. So why hold film critics to a higher standard than other writers? A professional writer is a writer who is paid for their work. I’ve heard too many writers get into nitpicky arguments about pro vs. not, art vs hackwork, genre vs. genre, to have much patience for them anymore. It causes more bad feelings than enlightenment.

  • bitchen frizzy


    You’re a professional if you get paid for doing it and it’s something you do often or regularly. That’s it.

    The narrow and restrictive definitions are as yesterday as traditional newspaper columnists.

    I agree with MaryAnn. There are plenty of writers who make most or all of their income through writing, yet their work is mostly or entirely freelance. Saying they’re not “professional” because they aren’t The Man’s bitches (of which I am one, myself, in a traditional office job) is wrong and so 1950’s. Applies to many other fields and professions, too. Lots of consultants, independent contractors, and freelancers out there.

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