Friday 12 November 2010

Dealing With Criticism

Here's a question from a blogger member called filmmusic100, who writes this new blog

Although I have such a big heart for filmmaking, I cannot sugarcoat that its environment is harsh. I personally think that filmmakers should not be criticized for their film because little is known of how much work, effort, and time they put into it, and no one can really understand enough how much a filmmaker loves what he/she does. But I know that criticizing isn't gonna disappear and, in a way, it is needed. I want to know how, if you had been criticized for your work, you deal with it and how you react to other people judging your scripts? 

This is a great question. And before I write a bunch of answers - let me first say, I don't really know what I'm talking about. Sometimes I feel invincible, and sometimes criticism can wreck me. It's a strange thing. There have been times where people have slammed my work in a big way and I've handled it incredibly, and then other times I've had a conversation with my Brother where he says something like "Do you really think the line about the fish is worth having?" and I've gone a bit insane and convinced myself I should give up altogether; and what he said wasn't even criticism it was just a question about a fish. 

Another thing to remember is that even Shawshank Redemption has its critics. There are people out there that think it sucks. The difference is that when you're starting out, you don't have that buffer of success, accolades and dollars. You just have you, and people telling you you're terrible. But the critics are there every step of the way. But if you're getting criticism; you're doing something RIGHT. If nobody is criticising you, then you're probably not doing very good work. 

To be truly creative, is to do things that haven't be done before - or at least, to do them differently. So of course, when you're doing something that hasn't been seen before; people are initially uncomfortable with it and they like to criticise it. The problem is that, after you've heard criticism enough times, it becomes internalized in a really strong way. 

Think about it. You're a writer, or a director, or an actor. And from the age of four or whatever, you're made to do Maths. You're made to stand in line. But you wanna write a story or you want to do a little drawing. And pretty soon you're fourteen and people are saying "what do you want to do with your life?" and you can't say writer or artist or actor because people will laugh at you because it's not real work, or because it's too competitive, or whatever it is that your teachers/friends/society project onto it. 

Then you're eighteen -- and you're doing your drawings or making your short films or writing your stories; but you're shy about it, because society is telling you to learn more about Maths or go and do a degree with an 'ology' in it. Our society doesn't support creativity. Society thinks that if you're up at 4am writing down ideas, you've got a sleeping problem, they don't think that you've got a problem in act three or a problem getting the right shading on your drawing. 

So when everyone around you finds it hard to support you, you're going to find it hard to support yourself. Standing up and saying "I am a film director" is HARD. Everyone thinks you're insane, or dreaming. Worst of all, they see dreaming as bad!?!?! 

Every time I read a bad review it bothers me not because I think the critic is wrong but because secretly I think they're right. "How did the lady from the Bergen County Shopper's Guide get it right but not the guy from the New York Times." 

Meanwhile you want to write a movie about giraffes who land on Mars, or you want to be an actor even though you have a strange face, or you want to write a novel about flowers--- but you look around you and all the actors look like Megan Fox or Jude Law, and the people giving seminars say there's no market for Mars giraffes and your friends keep telling you only old people will read a book about flowers. 

The point is -- it's hard! We've been socialized this way and it is difficult. It's difficult for people to support what we do, because they don't understand, and because they wish they could do what you do, and because they can't comprehend how a book about flowers or a movie about giraffes that land on Mars will inspire people. THAT'S YOUR JOB. Your job is to show people the world through the eyes of you; you'll give them a different angle. That's what artists do. Make us see our lives in a different way, or help give us some release from our complicated jobs, relationships, and lives. 

People will criticise you and you'll criticise yourself. But then, so does everyone else. And you probably criticise people too in ways you don't even realise. Just remember; there will always be criticism. And people will always disagree with what you do, or have an opinion, right up until they point they love what you do. 

Care to share?


  1. We have chosen a subjective field of study to follow as a career and a big pitfall of that is other people's opinions. To address that original blogger's question: I would say that criticism is a necessary part of film making. We just need to figure out which criticism is constructive and which is coming from a more subjective point of view.

    One pet peeve of mine is when I'm talking about movies with others and they start critiquing the movie with "I would've done this..." I usually respond with: "You didn't make the movie. If you don't like the choices of the director or writer, fair enough. But you can't put down a movie because you think you have a better idea."

    One final thought about your shyness to admitting to the want of being a film maker. I have been there and in order for me to actual grow as a storyteller, I had to get beyond that. I had to force myself to tell people that I'm a film maker and not be concerned with how they perceived me. I became driven in my goals. I didn't make excuses. I went out and did what I needed to do. That might not translate to major success (not yet), but it does translate to my happiness and confidence towards myself.

    And this person that didn't like Shawshank Redemption...what's his address?

  2. Michael: Re: Shawshank, they're out there. You'll meet them.

    I don't think the original question mentioned shyness about being a filmmaker, I was just commenting on the fact that, I think it's something everyone has to go through -- of being able to stand up and 'out' themselves as a writer, director, etc. People find that really hard. But it's so important.

  3. I'm glad to hear that you are not one of those filmmakers who thinks that criticism is nothing but a bitter desire to tear down someone else's work. Speaking as a critic and not a filmmaker, I fight a different perception -- namely, that I'm only "writing" because I can't "do." As a person who loves films but has no serious aspirations to make one -- I mean, we all noodle around with story ideas, don't we? -- I love having criticism as an outlet to engage the medium I love. It IS a sad reality that it can be easier to write a scathing review than a glowing one, but I'd clearly rather watch a movie I love than a movie I hate, and the writing I'm proudest of is when I've perfectly described why I think a movie is brilliant. However, we all want to have credibility, and you can't write only glowing reviews, just the way you can't make only mainstream films whose value is immediately evident to everyone. It may seem petty on some level that I am using a 300-word piece to eviscerate three to five years' hard work by a filmmaker, but that's the inevitable flip side to praising those three to five years' hard work when it's warranted. And writing some negative reviews gives the positive ones extra weight. I'm sure you'd rather receive a good review from a notably tough critic than from someone who uses a lot of exclamation points so that he/she can be quoted on movie posters. That's the best way to know you've impressed someone whose standards matter, right?

  4. Vancetastic - I think you are raising a different issue here, albeit an equally important one. You are talking about a 'critic' as in someone who is paid to write a completed piece, and I think I was talking more about critical people in the world, in society, in our lives, who make doing the creative work hard in the first place. In fact, your job as a critic would probably be much more wonderful for you, discovering great work often, if more people weren't destroyed by negativity on their way to creating their own projects!

  5. Thanks to The Kid In The Front Row and everyone who addressed my blog. I would like to clear up, however, that I am not shy about admitting that I want to be a filmmaker. In fact, I almost boast about it. I am sure that this is what I want to do in life. I am open to criticism because I know it is needed, I just don't always know how to handle it.
    The reason I brought this up is because, when I was a producer at my school's TV news, I got a lot more negative criticism about my work and my team's work more than positive criticism, and I never really knew how to handle it. I would handle it in either way: to take those criticisms and learn from it, or I would completely just shrug it off, and when I chose to do the latter, my reason would be that those criticising my work doesn't know how much time, work, and energy I spent on an episode or a feature story, how much I tried to make it good, and how much I LOVE the way it turned out.
    I agree that criticism is always gonna be there and everyone is gonna have to go through it. For an amature filmmaker like myself, negative criticism always beats me down, but I want to learn how to take those and learn and grow from it.

  6. There are critics everywhere! Some may have valid points, others may be criticizing just to "say something", but we'll never get away from them - especially not in this industry. And yes, we are our own critics as well as critics of the world and art around us. I think it's human nature. I personally believe that we should strive to engage in constructive criticism, rather than simply "criticizing for the heck of it" without knowledge of the subject matter, but not everyone agrees.

    Thank you for your comment regarding my "Creepy Audition" blog post. I don't think that it should be "part of our industry" and it's not technically part of any PROFESSIONAL experience. I suppose what I meant is that that this type of behaviour does unfortunately occur in the industry and it occurs at all levels - whether you are self-submitting yourself for work through a website like or working with an experienced director, producer, actor who simply thinks you'll do anything for an opportunity to be "famous".

    Just like you mentioned in your blog post, there are not many sensible reasons that nudity should be required in a filmmaker's first short film. However, if you look on "amateur casting websites" like,, or even (for unpaid student/short/indie film work) you will see that so many of these films are asking for some form of nudity or provocative dress/actions. WHY?! Why is that necessary for these films? I do believe that tasteful nudity works for certain films, but not everywhere. Especially not in a CHILDREN'S TV SHOW as I experienced (or rather, chose not to experience)!

    I am smart and confident enough to walk away from unprofessional situations. I will not subject myself to any kind of mental or physical abuse for a job. In fact, I probably should have walked out of that audition earlier. I recognized that it wasn't a situation that will ever benefit me in any way. The director/producer/whoever was not anyone that I would ever wish to work with, no matter the amount of money or "exposure" he was offering. Unfortunately, many young actresses who really, badly, desperately want that "big break" are willing to submit themselves to such treatment (and worse!) from unprofessional creeps in hope that this will be their road to success. That will never happen, as these gross weirdos (putting it mildly) are NOT industry professionals or people that will ever help your career. And yes, I have the right to criticize them. :)

  7. Criticism is always a hard road. As a composer, when my pieces hit the "real world" i am met with all sorts of criticism, constructive or destructive. At the college I am currently at, there is usually little criticism, just a "good job" at the end.

    Realizing that all art is subjective was a big step for me. Not everyone likes what i do. However, it's when the criticism is undue or unfounded that still confounds me. What purpose does it serve to walk up to someone and say "I really hate your work!"? Even more so, when you do it and cannot tell someone WHY. to me, that is the essence of criticism; not the subjective "it sucks" but some sort of direct reason why you think it sucks.

    I deal with criticism like i do art: with an open mind, trying to get as much info as possible, and always staying calm. If someone tells me "i hate your piece," I always try to ask "why?" It could be something simple minded like "i don't like atonal music," to "It was fine, except you kept repeating that same lick over and over during the fifteens minutes without changing it," to "I didn't understand where the piece was going." a lot of times you can deduce an actual problem from that. "i don't like atonal music" could actually mean that you don't give the listener anything to hold onto. maybe try repeating a theme? "it was fine except for that repeated lick," could mean that you've subconsciously gone to an old "stand-by" idea (i am guilty of this far too often) and just repeat it when you need something to happen. Look for complete repetition and look for minute ways to develop it (unless that's the point of the piece, of course...). "I didn't understand where the piece was going" may mean you've failed to create a coherent structure to the piece.

    It is also easy to see the negative aspects and give specifics. when i watch a great movie, sometimes i can say exactly why it's great, only generic terms ("i loved the script" "the actors were great" that sort of thing) but if something really hits me the wrong way ("why does the watch keep changing wrists?!?" "WHERE DID THAT DOG COME FROM?!?") then it's usually specific. there are some outstanding moments that may stay with me ("wow, that's a great shot. ") but often times when something is great i just think "wow, that was awesome. just...all of it..."

    So, yeah, the best way to deal with criticism is listen, throw out the hogwash, keep the good stuff, and have thick skin. Art is an extension of ourselves in some way, but a little separation goes a long way toward staying sane.