Careers rarely go according to plan. In Job Hacks, we shake down experts for the insights they cultivated on their way to the top of their field.
Name: Ty Burr
Original Hometown: Boston
Job: Film critic and columnist for The Boston Globe. Read his work here.
How did you get your start?
I came out of college with a film studies major, which of course is good for absolutely nothing in the real world. I was hoping I could write about film and movies. One of the first jobs I got was for HBO in the research department, back in the mid-‘80s when they didn’t have original programming. That’s how I got in the door. I did that for seven years, then I switched over to Cinemax programming. I was their in-house movie critic. I had a good little career going as a cable exec, but it wasn’t what I really wanted to do. I still wanted to write about film and pop culture for mainstream magazines and newspapers.
How did you end up making that transition?
At HBO, I had done some freelance articles. I basically worked up the nerve to quit after seven years and freelance-write. For freelance writing gigs, you need a thick skin and you really need to hustle. I had enough going on that I could pay the rent, and I was writing for a bunch of trade magazines — the VHS industry was still a big deal, then. One of the places I wrote for was Entertainment Weekly, which had just launched that year. They liked what I was doing and wanted me to come on staff. I worked there for the next 11 years, covering movies, books, and the internet. I was one of the first people to say, “Let’s cover the internet.” I hand-coded EW’s first webpage. It was a lot of fun, but I still wanted to be a movie reviewer, and those jobs are few and far between. I wanted to move back to Boston, where I grew up. It just so happened that the critic at the Globe was retiring and happened to be a fan of my work at EW. The thing about being a film critic is there’s no one path. Everyone I know who does this came at it from a different direction. There’s no ladder of success. Write as much as possible.
So, as a professional film critic, I have to ask, what makes a good movie?
Generally, a good movie is one that engages the audience and doesn’t call attention to the acting, cinematography, or score — because then it’s not doing its job. You should never be bored, even if it’s moving slowly. But every movie is trying to do something different. I look at every movie and gauge it against the best movie it’s trying to be. For example, if it’s trying to be a good teen horror movie, does it live up to its own expectations for itself? And movies are changing into something we’re not quite sure of.
What excites you most about their evolution?
What I’m excited about is the ability for young filmmakers to get their movies made. It’s the digital revolution on the level of filmmaking, distribution, and exhibition. I think there are a lot of good, exciting filmmakers out there — in opposition to the big studio blockbuster mentality which is increasingly driving the box offices. I mean, Jurassic World is an OK movie, not a great movie, but it’s going to have sequels.
What makes a good film critic?
I’m really lucky to be able to do the thing I like to do and the thing I wanted to do back in high school and college. That doesn’t happen often, and I’m thankful for that. But one thing you have to be aware of and on-guard about is when you become an expert in any field, you become a connoisseur. I often may appreciate the kind of movie that mainstream audiences and readers may not. I just have to be aware of not coming off in my writing as a film snob and keep in mind the basic pleasure of seeing an entertainment movie. Like Mad Max — there’s a great popcorn movie that does it really well.
I always describe any kind of review as subjective opinion wrapped in objective context. It’s always opinion, but you have to bring a deep bench of knowledge about the film industry, film history, and different kinds of film. You have to be able to appreciate a Romanian foreign language film and a stupid horror movie — appreciate everything on its own terms. There are some reviewers who know about movies but not real life. You have to be well-read, have life experiences, think for yourself, bring the whole game. And there are reviewers out there who will only review the fanboy press. Only superhero movies, but to me that’s useless — they do the job of the studio’s marketing department. To be a good critic, you have to try to praise the ones that do that well and talk about what happens when they don’t do well and point audiences towards taking a chance.
What are some recent movies that you think more audiences should take a chance on?
A movie like Beasts Of the Southern Wild, or the Bob Dylan movie I’m Not There. And Locke, starring Tom Hardy. He’s by himself in a car for 90 minutes. It sounds like death, and it’s one of the most suspenseful movies I’ve ever seen.
We’ve got an entertainment culture that wants to think a movie is a two and a half hour 3D extravaganza of people flying around and blowing stuff up, but these movies are all so good and unusual and well put-together that you want to bring audiences to them.
Who are some other critics whose work you think is usually on-point? What publications do you read reviews in?
I don’t read any reviews of movies before I’ve written one myself. Ever. So I don’t read other reviewers as much as I should. I’m too busy. But at this point I think the New Yorker has a strong lineup of cultural critics, especially Emily Nussbaum. And Mark Harris — I worked with him at EW, and he’s now at Grantland. I read the Times, the Globe, the New Yorker. I follow a lot of stuff on Twitter — I don’t post a lot but I find it really useful if something’s happening in the world, to hear about it first there. I follow a lot of media writers. There’s a lot of interesting cultural commentary across the spectrum. Salon, Slate, Huffpo. Some more obscure. Lots of good stuff in Jezebel. I will say that EW is not the magazine it was when I was writing for it, but that’s by design — it’s competing in a difficult magazine world.
I’m mostly interested in cultural commentary. Not just, “Is Jurassic World a good movie?” but “What does it say about us as people?” Or how horror movies function in the culture, or how gender works. If you use social media intelligently, it ends up being a reflection of your interests and hopefully opens doors to other interests you didn’t know you had. One form that’s sort of sprung up in the last four to five years is the TV recap. This form became to TV what movie reviews were to movies. In a good writer’s hand, it’s an insightful reflection of not only the show but the writers. I’ve read some brilliant episode recaps and some terrible ones. There are a lot of young writers coming in. It’s a new form and it has its own rules.
So, do you watch TV as well, then?
I try and watch as many shows as I can. Game of Thrones, Mad Men, Breaking Bad — I actually never got past the third episode, not because I didn’t think it was a good show, but committing to that kind of catch-up takes a month out of your life. Certain shows I followed for a handful seasons and hopped off. Orange Is The New Black. Jane The Virgin is a silly little show my wife and I watch and enjoy. I’m hardly the first person to say this, but television is in a golden age right now. Often the talent is more creative and it has more liberty than movies. Looks like I picked the wrong medium!
Do you sometimes feel like you picked the wrong medium?
I do feel that when I watch a romcom that does nothing fresh and is clearly just product, and then I turn on a show like Transparent. The mainstream movie industry is adverse to taking chances. There’s a lot more going on on TV, partly because they’re playing with the limits of the medium itself, in binge watching.
There was a lot of controversy surrounding this year’s Oscars. What’s your opinion of their relevance?
At this point the Oscars exist to get interesting movies in front of audiences who might not have otherwise seen them. They have always been more about prestige and less about commerce. A superhero movie, no matter how well made, will not get recognized. I do like the fact that they broadened the nominees because that brings a movie like Whiplash, which not a lot of people are going to see otherwise. My job is not to reflect popular taste, it’s to best reflect my taste within the larger context of culture, and if a reader feels comfortable triangulating off my taste, I want to be an entertaining and engaging read.
What advice would you give to anyone looking to follow in your path?
I do wonder if there’s a future in movie criticism. The internet has made a platform for a whole bunch of voices, some of whom are really good, some of whom need a bit of work. There is a culture of internet outrage that goes hand-in-hand with the fanboy press. Anonymity has a lot to do with it. It’s very easy for someone to say anything they want if they aren’t held accountable. It’s easy to become a bully if no one knows it’s you. It’s a real problem; we see it in Gamergate and related areas. There’s a very angry and entitled mindset that doesn’t think it’s entitled — it thinks it’s embattled.
The internet has also made it harder for professional film critics. Our value has been lessened. It’s a shrinking field, and I also don’t know what’s going to happen to movies in the next 20 years. So I don’t really recommend anyone going into this as a line of work. On the other hand, I think we’re in a golden age for culture criticism. Movies, TV, internet culture, gender culture— sometimes they’re discussed shallowly, sometimes with great depth. But I still like what I do and like that I bring a moviegoer to something that might change the way they see things.