Just like any other skill set, how to write a movie review involves following certain steps that together result in a comprehensive and well-thought-out product1.
How to Write a Movie Review: Become a Movie Reviewer at Home
Learning how to write a movie review can prove vital to a career in film.
In some cases, film criticism can become a launching pad for filmmakers, as it was for Paul Schrader, Peter Bogdanovich, and François Truffaut. But writing movie reviews can become a lifelong profession in its own right with Critics such as Leonard Maltin, Pauline Kael, and Roger Ebert becoming household names.
The process of how to write a movie review entails much more, though than simply giving readers a recommendation to watch or avoid a film. Let’s jump in to find out why!
How Do You Write A Film Review?
1. Watch the Film
This sounds pretty straightforward, right? But consider the average movie-viewing experience, which may or may not take place in a theater, especially these days. Though advance screenings are still popular, many Critics now receive a screener or link to view the film in the comfort of their homes.
Regardless, of primary importance is getting rid of distractions. That’s a high demand nowadays, but for someone wanting to build a reputation as a serious Film Critic, it’s the least that the movies reviewed deserve.
Jeff York, a RottenTomatoes.com certified Film Critic, member of the Chicago Indie Critics and founder of The Establishing Shot, states, “I know that people have worked hard on it [the film] and I should work equally hard to give what they’ve done a fair chance to impress me.”
2. Take Notes
In an ideal world, Film Critics would have the opportunity to watch a movie at least twice—once to simply experience the film and once more to write down observations during it. Alas, we rarely get ideal. That’s why when learning how to write a movie review, Critics should become accustomed to jotting down notes during a film screening.
3. Break Down the Film
To be seen as a Film Critic worth their salt, it’s important to critique a movie according to its many elements:
It’s hard not to give a lion’s share of attention to the Actors in films. After all, that’s typically how many movie lovers identify them. “That’s the new Tom Cruise flick!” or “It’s the latest Jennifer Lawrence movie.”
And when the Oscars come around each year, it’s typically the acting categories that get the most hype. That’s why it’s key to know how to write a movie review with the acting in mind2.
Evaluating a Director’s success on a film can be a tough undertaking. Some Directors, such as Spielberg and Scorsese, pretty much have free rein on their films.
Others who are not quite yet established may be more at the mercy of their Producers, studio executives—and even star Actors! But in either case, the Director is typically the captain of the ship, so if the film feels like a well-oiled machine or not, the praise or blame usually rests with this person3.
Production Designers are another frequently overlooked specialist on a film. Their job of making the world of the movie look realistic—whether that means the surface of Mars or Main Street, U.S.A.—is often done so well that the casual viewer doesn’t notice.
While that typically signals a job well done, it’s up to the Film Critic to take into consideration just how expertly the production design is executed and if it enhances or detracts from a film5.
It’s said that a movie is made three times: once when it’s written, once when it’s made and once when it’s edited. As a result, what is put on the page may or may not resemble what makes it to the big screen. That makes it tough to properly assess the quality of the screenwriting.
But as a Film Critic, being able to discern whether the story flows well, offers surprises—and most importantly—keeps the viewer engaged, will in large part inform the success or failure of the screenplay.
The Godfather is about a young man who takes over the illegal activities of his famous family. That’s the short version. But it’s also about family loyalty. Morality versus that family loyalty. The attraction of power. And the ways in which a person can warp with that power.
These are just some of the themes of The Godfather, and when writing a film review, a Movie Critic should not downplay the importance of theme or lack of it6. While film lovers may have an initial interest in a movie because of the stars or Director attached, it’s the universal themes of love, revenge, grief and so on that will likely have the most lasting impression.
We’ve all been there. Squirming uncomfortably in our seat because we’re losing interest in a film. In some cases, this may be the case of bad editing7. Like a Director, the Editor often has many people to report to.
With that disclaimer in mind, an Editor can make or break a film, and part of a great film is one that moves at a clip appropriate to the material. What’s good for a period piece may not work for a superhero-laden action flick—and that’s okay! But it’s up to the person reviewing the film to know the difference.
4. Formulate a Supported Viewpoint
A move review offers an opinion on a film; otherwise, it would just be a movie synopsis. However, a great Film Critic should be mindful to offer a comprehensive viewpoint without giving away too many spoilers, as that may ruin the experience for those seeing new releases.
When it comes down to it, though, the people reading the review are often more interested in the “why” than the “what.” Why a reviewer feels that way versus what that opinion is. Viewpoints on films often clash, as any art form is subjective. If a Movie Critic can back up that opinion, though, they’ll gain the respect of their readers even if it differs from theirs.
A word of caution, though, on confusing criticism with simply cutting down a film. Says York, “In my earlier days, I was occasionally content to be sarcastic and quick to malign, and I wish I’d been directed away from such entertaining but not necessarily constructive writing. That’s why now if I’m steering anyone away from seeing something, I stress precisely why the film doesn’t work rather than just be dismissive of it.”
How Do You Write a Film Review (Example)?
Let’s continue with The Godfather as our film example. Given that this movie isn’t a new release and is widely available on multiple platforms, it’s one of those rare occasions where it could be watched twice. When that opportunity comes, take it!
Once the viewing is over and notes compiled, it’s time to write a draft with the following steps:
1. Give an introduction.
That means providing the reader with baseline information about the film, such as the title, the year of theatrical release, the major cast members, the Director, and the Writer.
In this case, the movie review should include: The Godfather; 1972; Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, Robert Duvall, John Cazale, Diane Keaton and Talia Shire; Francis Ford Coppola; Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola.
2. Include a synopsis.
The Godfather is so widely known that it may feel unnecessary to include a synopsis, but it’s a vital piece of information that essentially sets the stage for the review.
That being said, while not as critical for a film that’s been around for nearly 50 years, don’t forget that a movie synopsis should not reveal all major plot points.
3. Provide an analysis.
This is the most critical part of how to write a movie review. As mentioned, it’s okay to have a viewpoint that may not line up with popular opinion—and for a film as revered as The Godfather, it may be a fresh breath of film criticism air!
This is where the film reviewer states their opinions on those many film elements, including acting, directing, cinematography, production design, screenwriting, theme, and editing. Some potential topics may include arguing that Coppola should have won the Oscar for Best Director or that Pacino was more qualified for the Best Actor category than Brando.
Whatever opinions are put forth, back them up!
4. Offer a conclusion.
Should people revisit this film? Can it provide new insights half a century later? Or would those three hours of viewing time be better spent on another film?
End the film review on a confident note with a definite opinion.
It might be redundant at this point to say that being a Film Critic means having an opinion. Truth is, though, that it may take time to develop that opinion and personal voice. Only practice can get you closer to perfect.
And even if the end goal is to become a future filmmaker, regardless of specialty, it’s critical to understand the importance of film criticism. How to write a movie review is in many ways how to make a movie; both skillsets that can guide a filmmaker towards success no matter if they are in front of the camera, behind it, or watching the product of it.
- 1Dirks, Tim. "Tips on Film Viewing". AMC Film Site. published: . retrieved on: 7 July 2020
- 2Lindsay, Benjamin. "How to Tell Good Acting From Bad Acting". Backstage. published: 12 September 2016. retrieved on: 10 July 2020
- 3Paul, Jonathan. "What It Takes to Be a Great Director". Premium Beat. published: 17 July 2015. retrieved on: 7 July 2020
- 4Masterclass. "Film 101: What Is Cinematography and What Does a Cinematographer Do?". Masterclass. published: 22 October 2019. retrieved on: 7 July 2020
- 5Becker, Judy. "What Makes a Good Production Designer?". Filmmaker Magazine. published: 17 September 2018. retrieved on: 7 July 2020
- 6Miyamoto, Ken. "7 Most Intriguing Story Themes in Movies". Screencraft. published: 3 September 2019. retrieved on: 7 July 2020
- 7Renee, V. "This is What Good & Bad Editing is According to 3 Oscar-Winning Editors". No Film School. published: 15 February 2015. retrieved on: 7 July 2020