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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

frequently asked questions: “Why can’t I write 1,200 words on every movie I see?”

A few people have complained over the past day or so that my reviews are too short lately. By that they mean that some of my reviews are too short for their liking, and by that they mean that they wish I had written a thesis on a film they wanted me to write a thesis on, and that I had not wasted my time writing a thesis on a film they didn’t particularly care to read my thesis on.

Here’s the thing: I don’t always have a lot to say about some movies. Some movies simply don’t move me or inspire to say much at all. I don’t see the point of forcing a review of 600 or 800 or 1,000 words when I’d have to gin something up to get to a particular word count. And I can guarantee that you wouldn’t want to read something like that, either.
I try not to write the same old kind of shit you could read at any other movie-review site. I’d like to think that my readers would know they’re reading one of my reviews even if my name weren’t on it. I know some people don’t think film reviews are “creative” work, but for me, they are. And there’s only so much of that kind of work you can do before your brain needs a break.

That said, though, I think I cover a helluva lot more movies than most other professional critics… even the ones for whom being a professional movie critic is lucrative enough that they don’t have to do any other work. A magazine like Entertainment Weekly or a newspaper like The New York Times or a Web site like Cinematical.com might cover all the new wide releases and some of the smaller ones with feature-length reviews every week, but they’re not all written by the same person. I suspect that among the more popular critics, only James Berardinelli and Roger Ebert (and maybe not even Ebert these days, given his health issues) cover as many movies as I do. If I’m wrong about that, please set me right.

I wish I could write more long reviews and cover even more movies. I really do. I don’t know how it could be possible at the moment, though. Work as a film/TV/pop culture critic makes up only half my living at the moment… and that’s a substantial improvement over earlier years, when I made hardly any money at all at this. I work more than full-time hours at this, but than I still have to do other work in order to subsidize it. It’s hard to be creative when you’re exhausted. (And I’ll tell you this: I know for a fact that many other “critics” who run their own Web sites have other means of support that ensure they don’t have to do any other work… and they’re still not worth reading.)

I’m not complaining. This is the fact of living a creative life for most creative people, whether you’re an actor or an artist or a writer or a musician, even if it’s one you don’t hear a lot about: You have to work another job for money to support your creative work, because hardly anyone makes a living as an actor or an artist or a writer or a musician, even when you’re good enough at it to make some dough at it.

And I appreciate that so many people seem to like my creative work so much that they want more of it. And I can promise you, you’re getting absolutely all I have to give right now.

(See also the FAQ “Do you make a living from this site?”)

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  • David

    Just a few points MaryAnn,

    James Berardinelli’s output has decreased considerably from a decade ago when he would easily have in excess of 200 1,000 word new reviews per year. Last year he clocked about 150.

    I have to say I am really disappointed with the O.F.C.S. as they seem to reject applications from critics who have fulfilled their entry requirements and yet still have members linked to their site who have inactive websites.

    About your style – – Conversational, informal and in the first-person. To write for a certain magazine you have to suck all your creativity out and write in the third person which is dreadful because readers can’t guage who the writer really is. I don’t know what a staff writer’s prose looks like but pluck me from oblivion and sit me down in front of your reviews and within one line I’ll say: “Flick Filosopher.”

    So, yes, keep reviewing. There is only one critic off the top of my head who reviews more movies and writes longer essays and that person is Emmanuel Levy. His website suggests he really does write all the reviews.

  • Yeah, that’s a very silly thing to complain about on their parts. I never questioned why you write some reviews shorter than others. It just seemed obvious that it was a combination of not having the time to make them all really long, and not having as much to say. Nothing wrong with that, I like it just fine that way.

    I agree, I’d rather you not stretch out a review when you don’t have anything to write about, just to hit some arbitrary length. I think you do a great job with cutting off your reviews before you hit that point. And it’s obvious when you really do have something to say about a movie, good or bad, and those reviews are great, and enlightening, and what keep me coming back.

    In other words, keep up the good work, MaryAnn.

  • MaryAnn

    Yeah, that’s a very silly thing to complain about on their parts.

    I want to be clear that I don’t mean to put down or insult those who have asked why I didn’t write a longer review of a certain film. It really is very flattering to know that readers want more. It’s just that sometimes there honestly isn’t any more to give.

  • Anne-Kari

    Words to absorb: “Pith is not a bad thing in the hands of a good writer”.

  • “Omit needless words.” – strunk & white

  • Kenny

    MaryAnn, I’ve been reading your reviews for years and they have never ceased to entertain me.

    I want to say a couple of things relating to this topic. Firstly, I am a writer. I am also a primary school teacher, which is an 8-6 job regardless of what some would like to believe. In addition to my full time job, I try to be as creative with my writing as I can. Like you, I find it hard to write when I’m exhausted!

    The second thing I wanted to say has already been posted by Newbs :) “Omit needless words.” – Strunk and White.
    If you can say what you need to say in 250 words… nobody should expect you to pad it to a couple of thousand. I want concise, well written reviews, that’s why I visit your site. If the concise review of a movie is 2000 words, then so be it. If it’s 400, then that’s equally fine. It isn’t your fault the movie was a piece of garbage.

  • RogerBW

    No complaints here. Certainly I’d like to read more, but what’s there is better than nothing, and I’m not relying on you as my sole source of reviews anyway.

  • Jester

    Your reviews are the perfect length, MaryAnn: just as long as they need to be for the movie being reviewed.

    Does the world really need 1200 more words about “Yes Man”, for instance? Didn’t think so. OK, maybe you could have made fun of it some more, but that really isn’t strictly necessary.

    Don’t change. :-)

  • c histie

    Ditto. Keep up the good work! I’ve always appreciated your shorter reviews, because like you said, sometimes you just don’t have that much to say about a movie, and sometimes that’s just as valuable as a long review.

  • Phil Urich

    Not to complain, but I think it’s ironic how relatively long this article is ;)

    To be serious though, I actually enjoy short movie reviews and long TV episode blogs; for movies, I’m thinking “I wonder if I should see that movie, as part of my decision making process I shall check what MaryAnn Johanson has to say”, but meanwhile for something like Pushing Daisies I’m looking for as much meat as possible. So the differences in author inspiration entirely aside, the relative lengths of recent posts works fine from my consumptive point of view.

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