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Everyone's a Critic: Making a Career in Arts Criticism in the Internet Age

It's not easy making a living as an arts critic in the Internet age. After all, the Internet has no shortage of opinions about movies, books and theater. Everyone has an opinion, and many are not shy about sharing their views (for free!)

Take it from veteran journalist Geoff Pevere. For 10 years, he served as a movie critic for a newspaper. Later, he worked as the newspaper's literary critic. Now he is a news columnist for the paper.

"There is no question -- the evidence is abundant that the idea of working as a full-time arts critic for a newspaper is something [that] is on the wane," says Pevere. "What we have seen over the last few years is that a number of actually quite prominent critics have been let go or have been reassigned."

Critics are losing their jobs because newspapers and magazines can't afford them anymore. Fewer people are buying print publications. Fewer advertisers are buying space in those publications. It's a tough time for the industry as a whole. And in such a time, arts criticism is often seen as a luxury that can be cut.

At the same time, the Internet is overflowing with arts criticism. Much of it is uninformed and poorly written. On the other hand, some of it is excellent.

So why would people pay for arts critiques when they can get it online for free? This applies to not just arts criticism but to all types of reporting and writing.

"The newspaper business expected that people would pay for their product," says Pevere. "Of course, now what they're looking at is basically a generation that has grown up not paying for it, and they're not going to."

Pevere is not a critic of the Internet. He credits it with increasing discussion of the arts, among other things.

"The medium itself (the Internet), which encourages the exchange of information and opinion, has led to this kind of colossal eruption of what you can call independent criticism and independent reviewing, discussion groups and stuff like that," says Pevere.

"And that is... really kind of amazing, and I think it stimulates ideas and the exchange of ideas, and it encourages people to write."

At the same time, Pevere believes there continues to be a need for professional arts critics.

"I would argue that there is still something to be said about the need for the voice that comes from expertise and experience," he says.

"I like to think that there is still a role for that critic who has been specifically trained to do what they can do, who has acquired certain skills in communication and analysis. [This] allows that critic to bring a kind of perspective to what they're doing that informs it and makes it not just about opinion...."

It's still possible for arts critics to make money from their writing, says Marilyn Ferdinand. She's an independent film reviewer in Chicago with a blog called Ferdy on Films.

"I think there are opportunities," she says. "I've been presented with some opportunities. You can sort of make a name for yourself, and then [there are] services that do offer payment.... There's always an opportunity to cobble together some freelance work."

Ferdinand gives the example of GreenCine, which rents DVDs via the mail. It has a film blog and freelancers are sometimes paid to write articles for it.

Independent film reviewers can also choose to create their own blogs like Ferdinand did. If they post ads on their blog site, they can make money.

"I've kind of made a policy of not doing advertising on my site because I have a full-time job, and I really don't need the money, and I prefer if my readers didn't have to deal with that," says Ferdinand.

"But other people do that, and I don't condemn them in any way. It's not a hugely lucrative market as of yet, for most sites, but it is a revenue stream."

Ferdinand knows independent arts critics who have found other ways to make money from their writing: "They've been taking the work they've been doing online and turning it into books," she says.

An advantage of having your own blog is that you can write about whatever you like. It doesn't matter if your tastes differ from the majority.

"I follow my own interests, and I'm not really that interested in the big blockbusters or the mainstream films that most people go to see," says Ferdinand. "And that is generally what the newspaper film critics will cover, because that's what is making news now [and] appeals to the widest number of people."

Ferdinand's interests are in "off-road films." These are the kind of films you don't see at your typical movie theater. "I particularly love silent films, and I enjoy documentaries quite a bit, and those things are not generally covered in the newspapers on a regular basis," she says.

Sticking to her interests has worked for Ferdinand. Her website receives about 55,000 visitors each month.

"It's taken time," says Ferdinand. "You have to build it up and sort of build a reputation for yourself."

Ferdinand enjoys perks like press passes for film festivals and other events. She also receives screeners (free DVDs to review). And from time to time, she attends press interviews with film directors and actors.

"It's possible, if you just reach out and people start to get to know you, to get a lot of the things that a full-time professional film critic at a newspaper would get," says Ferdinand.

Simon Abrams is a freelance arts critic in New York. His film criticism has appeared in The Onion's New York A.V. Club, GreenCine, New York Press, Time Out New York and The Wrap.

Abrams says you need to pay your dues when starting out as a writer and make your own opportunities.

"It's a matter of finding a venue where you can a) play to your strengths and b) be visible to the people you want...," he says. "And from there you just have to keep doing it.... You have to write and you have to find your niche and plug [away] at it as much as you can."

Abrams admits it's a tough time to be an arts critic, but he says there are still opportunities out there.

"I really sympathize with the feeling that people aren't finding work..., but it is still possible," he says. "It's something that you have to work at and have patience...."

Steve Biodrowski is the administrator-editor of Cinefantastique Online in California. He says the Internet is a place where anyone can start a blog or create a Facebook page.

"Anyone can... put stuff up, and if you can attract an audience, if you're clever enough or talented enough, you can become popular," he says. "But the problem is you're giving it away for free, so that makes it hard for people to make a living at it."

Biodrowski adds that it's probably easier to have a career as a film journalist.

"I think there's still maybe a living to be made in film journalism, but it's got to shade over into doing news and interviews and stuff that attracts a bigger audience," he says.

"If you've got the contacts, or can get the contacts, to deliver exclusive interviews with celebrities or at least people who draw a crowd to an online newspaper or magazine, you can still maybe make some money.

"I think the bottom line is [film reviewing] is going to be a part-time job, if at all," he adds. "I don't think you're going to be able to quit the day job anymore, to be just a film critic. And you're really better off if it's one of the things you do, if you're a film journalist, and then you write the occasional review."

Despite the challenges in the industry, Pevere is hopeful that we have not seen the last of professional arts critics -- people who can provide an insight to arts criticism that others cannot.

"I like to imagine a universe where there is room for everybody," he says. "I would like to still think that there would be an opportunity for people who are professionals."

Likewise, Ferdinand believes aspiring arts critics should pursue their dreams, despite the tough times.

"I think if you're prepared to work hard and learn your craft and learn about film..., and do the best job you can to create a lively, unique voice, I think it's possible (to make it your career)," says Ferdinand. "I wouldn't want to discourage anyone going in. It's going to be challenging, and there's not that many jobs out there. Knowing that going in, it's still possible."


Online Film Critics Society
An organization for critics whose work appears primarily on the Internet

A Critic's Place, Thumb and All
The New York Times takes a look at the future of criticism

The Skills of Art Criticism
A short introduction to the theory behind art criticism

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