Anatomy of a Review

March 20, 2006
A thought by James Berardinelli

I frequently receive what I call "procedural questions." These are from readers who are interested in the nuts-and-bolts aspects of review writing. How long does it take to write a review? Do I write immediately after seeing a movie or do I wait a while to allow the impressions to congeal? Do I follow a template? So today's column is an attempt to answer as many process-related questions as possible.

I see about 75% of my annual quota of films during mid-week press screenings. The lure of these isn't so much that they're free (factoring in gasoline and parking fees, they can end up costing more than the price of admission to my neighborhood theater), but they allow me to have the review written before opening day. The highest concentration of interest centered around a new movie is during its first weekend of availability, so that's when the review should be accessible. In fact, when I see a film after opening weekend, I frequently don't write a review. The exception is if it looks like a potential end of the year Top 10 contender.

There are two common times for screenings: 10 am and 7:30 pm. The former are typically press-only, but I can attend only a select number of these due to possible conflicts with my day job. The latter are press/publicity screenings (often overflowing with radio station contest winnners), and are easier to get to but often less pleasant to endure. (The guy in front of me snores. The guy next to me hasn't bathed in two weeks. And the guy behind me keeps mumbling to himself or kicking the back of my seat. Sounds like a publicity screening at the theater where I no longer attend these gala events.)

My car ride home after the movie is a little more than an hour, so that gives me plenty of time to think about what I have seen and what I'm going to write. For morning screenings, I usually end up writing the review at night. For night screenings, unless I'm unusually wide awake when I get home (due to a high dose of caffeine), I wait until the next day. I rarely allow a review to sit unwritten for more than a few days because the impressions fade and, anal person that I am, I hate to develop a backlog.

An average 700-word review takes between 30 and 50 minutes to write, depending on how focused I am. My preference is to write the whole thing in one sitting. If I'm interrupted, I'm almost never able to get back into the flow, and the second half of the review ends up less inspired than the first half. I only have two rules about content: my opinion of the film has to be clear and there needs to be at least a minimal synopsis of sorts. Other than that, I let the thoughts spill out however they come to mind. The review is over when I no longer have anything worthwhile to say. (Some would argue that's after the first sentence.) And I never agonize over the number of stars. I pretty much know what they are and on those occasions when I have to lean one way or another, I don't spend too much time thinking about it.

I edit each review once, and once only, about 24 hours after I write it. (Except when I'm bumping against a deadline and need to get it up fast.) Some reviews require only minor changes. Others need major re-writes. I can recall a time when I wrote a review while under the influence of NyQuil. I read it the next day and couldn't understand what I was trying to say. Fortunately, that degree of rambling incoherence is unusual.

In an ideal world, the review would be posted as soon as it is completed. But the real world requires striking a balance between making the review available in a timely fashion and not angering the publicists, who want to control pre-release "leaks." So, like almost every other Internet critic, I walk a tightrope. (Positive reviews can go up a day or two earlier than negative ones, since publicists are forgiving of anything that helps build the hype.) The "coming soon" dates I provide on the new review page are estimates of when the review will be posted, not promises. Life can interfere in the most aggravating ways.

Hopefully, this discourse hasn't put too many readers to sleep. Thankfully, it's not the kind of subject that will generate a lot of e-mail. This is a busy week for movies. I'm seeing a lot of them, even though I'm only posting one new review. The impending opening of the Philadelphia Film Festival means an upswing in screenings, so I'll be kept busy for the next few weeks. But I'll try to sneak in a ReelThought here and there, as time allows.