An aspiring filmmaker at a college class recently asked me a question that has arisen before: “Have you ever made a film? Then what qualifies you to judge one?”
After providing a slightly flip answer — everyone has the right to judge; some of us just come armed with a megaphone and (hopefully) a better-articulated viewpoint — a thought dawned on me: For all the training artists receive honing their craft, very little prepares them for being criticized.
After summer months where entertainment criticism feels about as useful as an appendix — few were likely to bypass “Ted” or “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” based on what a critic wrote — the fall makes reviewers feel more relevant. Not only do new TV shows rely on them to help generate buzz, but studios begin rolling out prestige films with ambitions extending beyond box office to other forms of gold.
Still, there’s precious little coaching on what it’s like to be publicly scrutinized and analyzed — to have some faceless name at a newspaper or website not just conclude your baby’s ugly, but tell the world as much.
In that context, it was illuminating at a pre-Emmy panel of nominated drama showrunners to hear them express their lingering sensitivity to critical slings and arrows.
“Mad Men’s” Matthew Weiner conceded it’s “very hard” dealing with criticism, citing a “sniper mentality” on the Web. And indeed, infinite space and hunger for traffic has birthed a new strain of criticism, with exhaustive recaps dissecting each beat of every episode.
“Downton Abbey’s” Julian Fellowes consoled American producers by saying that if think they have it bad, “try the British press.”
Remember, these guys (and the drama group happened to all be guys) are the cream of the crop, working on shows over which most critics salivate. Just imagine how those responsible for the fall’s primetime pinatas feel.
Part of the disconnect is that artists and executives forget or overlook a unique aspect of such criticism, which is that these appraisals are directed not at the source specifically, but rather a third party — namely, a person debating whether to see the work. If reviews sound harsh, it’s often to crystallize a point — serving as an advocate for the reader — as opposed to seeking to chastise, hurt or otherwise embarrass those involved.
Perhaps that’s why a search of the Web, seeking articles about how to handle criticism, offers advice from “experts” that seems woefully inadequate, at least for Hollywood’s purposes.
“Amp up your self-love” as a cushion, wrote psychologist Gemma Stone on one site, a recommendation hardly necessary for the showbiz elite. Increased narcissism is probably the last thing this town needs.
Stone also reinforced this popular canard regarding those dispensing criticism: “Within them there’s some pain or some hurt or some anger or some fear, and their criticism is coming from that place.” If by that she means “sparing some rube from the hour I just wasted,” guilty as charged.
Leadership consultant Robin Sharma echoed Stone’s point, saying, “Just remember, when somebody criticizes you, those people are likely to be living in their fear.” He also provided this note of reassurance: “Critics only criticize people who are playing at excellence.”
There’s some validity in that — if your work is being displayed on TV or in theaters, you’re way ahead of the game — but it’s not always true that doing a show for TLC equates to “playing at excellence.”
Several experts advised against being defensive, which is helpful. However tempting and cathartic it might be, a Hollywood creative’s use of Twitter to call critics boneheads (or in the case of “Sons of Anarchy” creator Kurt Sutter, considerably worse) is generally counterproductive, if often more entertaining than the show triggering the retaliation.
Beyond that, the panel’s search for pointers mostly yielded psychobabble, like how being criticized stirs voices from childhood. Frankly, if someone saying your sitcom isn’t funny suddenly makes you feel like your 8-year-old self again, the problem might be deeper than Metacritic scores.
From a critic’s perspective, the simplest guidance would be: Don’t take pans or raves personally, and try thinking of the critical oath like the Hippocratic one. Granted, professional naysayers can do some harm, but in both fields, you’re always entitled to a second opinion.