Critics Academy prepares future critics for changing media landscape


Film Society

Film Society of Lincoln Center. Photo: Chancellor Agard.

Seated around two folding tables in the Walter Reade Theatre’s Furman Gallery, a group of people waited for the Critics Academy’s latest guest speaker to arrive, for an Oct. 3 workshop with a professional critic.

The third annual New York Film Festival’s Critics Academy is a month-long workshop for aspiring critics, organized in partnership with Indiewire, the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Film Comment. Participants attend New York Film Festival screenings and panels and have the opportunity to pitch and write professional criticism. They also participate in roundtable discussions with not only working professional critics, but also those who are affected by their work, such as publicists and distributors — off the record sessions designed to encourage both the speakers and academy members to speak freely, though participants were willing to discuss their views after the event.

Since the recession in 2008, which rocked the media landscape, some readers and critics have been concerned that film criticism is on the decline, both as a potential profession and in its quality. Fewer media outlets are hiring film critics, and freelancing is a difficult way to earn a living.

“We’re long past the days in which most newspapers have a few on staff, unfortunately,” said Alison Willmore, who left Indiewire six months ago to become Buzzfeed’s first film critic. “It’s been very difficult for criticism. As the newspaper industry has contracted, so many of those positions have been lost.”

The roundtable discussions are meant to contextualize what it means to be a writer in the current media landscape. “A lot of the critics who come in have a somewhat dour perspective on the job,” said Max Nelson, a current Columbia senior majoring in philosophy and one of the founders of Double Exposure, Columbia’s on-campus film criticism publication, who was in the festival’s first critics class. “You have people in the program tell you that you’re not going to make much money, you’re not going to have the same job security that someone else might will have. The vast majority of them are still going to say it’s worth it, and they will say it’s worth it for a particular sort of person with a particular kind of orientation to and relationship with the movies.”

Eugene Hernandez, deputy director of Film Society of Lincoln Centre and co-founder of Indiewire, said that he wanted young potential reviewers to understand the challenges of entering the field. “I think that some try to paint the picture in a very pessimistic manner,” said Hernandez. “We would be doing a disservice to young film critics if we were too optimistic, and that’s why I use the word ‘realist’ because there’s no question that the role of the film critic is in the process of evolving as a result of changes in the media landscape.”

The Critics Academy also has a practical application: Participants are expected to pitch and write for Criticwire, Indiewire’s criticism-focused blog run by Sam Adams, and Film Comment, a magazine published by the Film Society of Lincoln Centre. Eric Kohn, Indiewire’s chief film critic who helped start the program, believes that learning how to pitch and to establish relationships with editors are important skills for young writers.

He said that writers may “not realize that they can compromise their ability to forward their career and get their work out there if they don’t take the relationship with an editor and the pitching [process] seriously.”

Several participants found this aspect of the program as the most beneficial, because it enabled them to collect clips and to get their first real experience with a thorough editor. “It invigorated me,” said Alec Kubas-Meyer, a member of the first Critics Academy in New York, who has written for The Daily Beast and is currently the reviews and features editor of Flixist. “People were telling me my writing wasn’t good enough, and I’m usually excited by that.”

Kubas-Meyer recalled submitting a 2,000-word draft to Matt Singer, then head of Criticwire, now at Dissolve, and Singer told him to “cut out 500 words and restructure it.”

“I did, and it made it a way better story,” said Kubas-Meyer. He added that many free blogs won’t provide those types of comments. “Maybe you’ll get copy editing, but you don’t have people who really do that,” he said.

As Internet reviews have become increasingly popular, there’s a growing concern about editorial standards. In an essay for the journal “First Things,” former chairman of the New York Film Critics Circle Armond White argued that the advent of aggregation sites and blogger culture has created an environment that is hostile to serious criticism.

“So, I think that it’s great that anybody can make a movie, that anybody can critique a movie,” said Hernandez, “but what we’re trying to do at the Film Society, and in particular with this program, is trying to raise the bar and celebrate those whose voices we feel should be heard.”

“[The main goal of the Critics Academy] is two-pronged,” said Kohn. “One is to demystify the way that film criticism operates in the contemporary media landscape, and the second is to stimulate the creation of film criticism that has currency in the marketplace.”

The first Critics Academy was held in 2012 at the Locarno Film Festival, and was done in collaboration with the Swiss Association of Film Journalist. In past years, guest speakers have included New York-based critic Armond White, French filmmaker and critic Olivier Assayas, and British film critic David Thomson.

Each year, the program chooses a handful of students and other aspiring writers to participate  in the academy, which introduces them to the difficulties of the profession and stretches their skills beyond the classroom. Jackson Marshall Arn, a Columbia senior who participated in this year’s Critics Academy, said in an email, “If I wasn’t in class, I was either at a press screening or running to the subway to get to one on time.”

“Criticism showed me two sides of film criticism I’d been unaware of,” Arn wrote. “It showed me how difficult it can be—to build up a relationship with publicists, to distinguish myself in my writing etc. But, it also showed me how rewarding criticism can be, in ways I hadn’t considered before. I had more fun talking about movies with other people than I’ve had in a long time, and my conversations influenced my writing to an extent that they never had before.”