So long, and thanks for all the fish

Some obnoxious ruminations on two decades of being a 'professional movie critic'

Brad Keefe
Brad Keefe

It’s a strange and privileged thing to be a movie critic, a fact that has never escaped me in the two decades I’ve had this strange privilege.

Everyone’s a critic, they say, but I know that’s not true. It wasn’t exactly a profession I could expect to pursue, even if my journalism major and film minor made this feel like my dream job. Because it was my dream job.

To be fair, for most of this career, it was a side gig. I grew up in Zanesville, Ohio, and I remember one of my early idols, late Dispatch film critic Frank Gabrenya, who died earlier this year. Frank’s writing popped, and his love of movies was evident even in his pans. And that’s what I wanted to be.

My first job in journalism was on the copy desk of my hometown paper, the Zanesville Times Recorder. My primary responsibilities were headline writing, page design and copy editing, but I also eventually managed to convince my editor to let me review movies.

I was doing this off the clock, paying for the movies myself without reimbursement. I was technically a “professional movie critic” even though I wasn’t technically paid for it.

But I did have a knack for it, particularly for emulating my idols like Frank. I even won awards for it, with my reviews in our little paper landing me third place for best critic in Ohio at a time when there were a lot more of us.

Now I was an “award-winning professional movie critic.”

Then, about 15 years ago, Columbus Alive changed my life.

I moved to Columbus to take a job as the “web producer” at Alive, a job title I always thought was absurd and made me sound like I was a spider. The salary was almost laughable in retrospect. It also was a big bump from my small-town newspaper gig.

My duties were primarily maintaining our very rudimentary website, producing and editing video segments for said rudimentary website, and eventually creating and maintaining our social media accounts.

I was a former award-winning movie critic, because Alive already had a superb award-winning movie critic in my longtime friend and colleague, Melissa Starker.

Even though I wasn’t seeing my byline in the pages of Alive, everything about it was a fantastic crash course in falling in love with this city. And eventually, I raised my hand and said, you know, I also can write.

Funny thing about newspapers: They need content. If you’re willing to take on more without asking for more pay, why not?

Melissa graciously let me support her and pick up some movie reviews. I was once again a professional movie critic. And, once again, I wasn’t getting paid any extra to do it … but at least I didn’t have to pay for the movies.

Then near the end of 2009, Melissa left Alive for another job and … I was a “professional movie critic” again. These were the halcyon days when I was, almost, not quite, for real a “professional movie critic.” I was screening and reviewing three or four movies a week, probably watching 250-300 movies a year.

It was still my side gig. I still had a ton of other responsibilities. It still involved a bunch of unpaid overtime, because in journalism, asking for overtime is asking for the beat you love to be taken away.

This was also the time when I learned the most about how I approach film criticism. I love movies, and I write movie reviews for people who love movies. Additionally, this was when I found my particular and, I think, unique lane of film criticism. I never wrote a review that I wouldn’t want to read before I saw a movie.

That meant an almost obnoxious avoidance of spoilers. I vagued around plot points that were given away in trailers with the equivalent of “and then some stuff happens….”

I also have been, I admit, an almost ridiculously forgiving critic. I usually get to pick the movies I review, and I usually pick them because I want to like them, not because I want to write a fun, scathing review.

My job is to connect movies with the people who will like them, even if that’s not me. Being paid for your opinion about something that subjective is a hell of a drug, and it can make people lose their mind in their own ego.

Along the way, I once again became an “award-winning professional movie critic,” the best critic in the state of Ohio one year, according to some journalism award group.

I was a better critic than I was the year I was the third-best critic in the state of Ohio, according to the same journalism award group. I knew this.

But I also knew that I was up against far fewer professional critics, because criticism as a profession was going away. Being the “Best Critic in Ohio” increasingly became a participation award. I got that. It didn’t go to my head because I knew that Frank Gabrenya and Melissa Starker were no longer “professional movie critics” in Ohio.

I was a bigger fish in a smaller pond. And that pond is a puddle now.

Outside of film criticism, Columbus Alive also allowed me to become an “award-winning journalist,” interviewing and profiling local and global people of note. It made me a better writer and a better, more empathetic human. It was a good thing, and it was a good thing to be a part of.

I’m not the person I was, but the two determining factors in who I became were my grandfather (literally the best person I’ve ever known) and the opportunities I’ve been afforded through my life path fumbling its way across Columbus Alive.

I’ve also been involved in journalism long enough to know that Alive would go away. Everything goes away, but journalism outlets are particularly prone to vanishing. Sometimes you don’t know what they mean until they’re gone. This is not a good week for Columbus.

I also have been doing this for 22 years. My first “professional movie critic” review was “Coyote Ugly.” I’ve had a front-row, sometimes paid view of an industry that’s changed almost as quickly as journalism.

I’m going to take a break, my first in a long time, from film criticism. I need a breath. But also, I think it’s in my blood at this point, so I’ll be back in some form. Follow me on Twitter or whatever and stay tuned. I think I still have things to say. I know I still love movies.