I thought some of you might be interested, just for fun, in a behind-the-scenes look at one of the worldís least popular film review sites. It may not be so obvious just how these articles pop up every so often, so I thought I might go into some detail just what it is that I do and how I do it. It doesnít happen with a wave of my Harry Potter wand; itís a complex 10-step process.
1.) Monitoring. The first part is actually the hardest. This monitoring of the industry is an on-going constant vigil, reading everything I can find to learn what films are playing, what are soon coming out, what critics think of them, and what audiences think, all for the purposes of figuring out what I should review or write about for Chizfilm. I need to also keep abreast of whatís coming out on DVD. Not just individual films, but also industry trends (such as the article I wrote about Hollywoodís reaction to the War on Terror or the boycott of ďTropic ThunderĒ) or events, like film festivals. I also consider, sometimes, if I should recommend an old favorite film that might be a special holiday treat or relate to some important issue of the time. And I also give out my annual Chizfilm Awards to coincide with the Oscars.
In picking films to review, I consider what my readers might like to see, as well as what personally interests me. In general, I like to focus on films that deal with important issues, good dramas, political and historical themes, and low-budget and independent films, but Iím open to anything. Iím always hoping to find the next ďMoving MidwayĒ or ďThe Proper Care and Feeding of an American Messiah,Ē or ďRight at Your DoorĒ to champion.
My favorite sources of information are the New York Times film section and Roger Ebert. But I also look at various other websites such as the Online Film Critic Society, and I also pay close attention to posters and trailers.
2.) Watch the movie. Once a choice of a film has been made, I find out where the movie is playing locally, and go see it. Sometimes itís right at a theatre here in Charlottesville. Sometimes I have to drive as much as an hour away. Sometimes itís only playing in New York, in which case I have to wait until my next trip to NY. Or worse, Iíll have to wait until it comes out on DVD.
3.) Take notes. As soon as the movie is over, I grab pen and paper and jot down notes, reactions, thoughts, anything that I think might be relevant to my review. Itís common to find me scribbling in the theatre lobby or in my car or sitting on the steps, just after a movie has finished.
4.) Write the review. I go home and start writing on my computer. I try to make my reviews interesting and focused. I donít simply write a plot synopsis and say ďgood acting, good cinematography.Ē Instead I write about what it was about the film that most affected me and try to craft my review around a single thesis, using details from the film to support that.
The hardest part is the opening paragraph. I want to find something catchy or relevant. Once I get passed that, the rest of the article pretty much writes itself. Because now the opening paragraph has given me direction and I have my notes to help me fill in details.
5.) Photos. Once my draft has been written, it needs to cool. For a minimum of an hour, preferably as much as overnight, if I can afford to wait that long. This is a good time to work on photos.
I need to find a good photo to illustrate my review. I can usually find some pretty good ones at MovieWeb. If they donít have any, then I search for an on-line press kit. If I still have no luck, the IMDB is a good backup. Failing that, I resort to a Google image search. Somehow I always manage to find something.
I need to choose one single photo but usually there are many to choose from. What Iím looking for is two things. One is a photo that is particularly striking and distinctive. I want something more than just another actor in a costume. Remembering that this will eventually end up as a thumbnail in the archives, I want something thatís going to stand out and be unique, compared to all the others. The other thing Iím looking for is a photo that best represents what the movie is about. If there are several, than I narrow it down by which photo best represents my particular thesis of my review.
Once Iíve made my decision, I put the photo into Adobe Photo Shop. I crop it if necessary and then reduce it to a height of exactly 300 pixels. (I made a decision a long time ago that 300 pixels is just the right height for Chizfilm. The length can vary, but the height must always be the same.) Then, if necessary, I make minor changes to the brightness, contrast, color variations, and color saturation. Sometimes I add a sharpening filter.
Once thatís been saved, I need to make a thumbnail for the archives. I have to crop a rectangle into a square, so I have to decide which section of the picture to focus on. Then I shrink it and make the photo exactly 75 pixels by 75 pixels. Sometimes, to get it exact, I have to blow it up and crop it pixel by pixel. The thumbnail always needs a sharpening filter. And sometimes it needs more contrast or saturation.
6.) Revision. Now that the draft has cooled for several hours, I go back over it several times. Rewriting it, making changes, filing in holes, cutting whatís irrelevant, making sure Iím being fair. And I add a title; it should contain the name of the movie in the headline, grab attention, and represent the main point of my review.
I also edit for length. In general, I think about a page-and-a-half is just about right, but it usually ends up being much more than that. Since I answer to myself alone, Iím always breaking my own rules about length. Once in a while, my draft is shorter; when such is the case, I donít go back and pad, I just let the length stand, firm in my belief that Iíve said enough. But usually I have to worry about the opposite problem; I need to cut back. Itís tough cutting your own writing and it sometimes makes me wish I had an editor who could be objective and say, ďThis goes because youíve already made the same point somewhere else; this goes because it doesnít relate directly to your thesis; this goes because itís just not that interesting a point.Ē
And finally I edit for grammar and double-check the correct spelling of actors and characterís names using IMDB.
7.) Code. Now I insert the HTML code. I know very little about HTML. More than a dozen years ago, a friend showed me five or six simple commands. Iíve since been able to figure out a few more, on my own, but as you can see, itís just really basic.
When creating the site, I experimented with several layouts until I was satisfied with what I liked, so I donít actually have to write new code each time. I just copy the old code and paste it next to my text, changing only the title, the date, and the name of the photo that it links to.
Then, to add an advertisement, I log onto Google AdSense and go through their process to get my specific script code for my specific page. Then I copy and paste that into my text.
Then I save the whole thing as an HTML file.
Then I go into the index (i.e. the homepage) and add new code for the new article, and take away the code from the previous article. And I also have to go into the archives and paste new code. (Hereís where I include the thumbnail.)
Then I refresh to make sure everything looks right and click on all links to make sure they work. If not, it means I screwed up somewhere in the code. It doesnít happen very often, and when it does I can usually find the mistake right away.
8.) Post. Since I know almost nothing about computers, I donít know how to use, or even have, an FTP program. I use the ancient method that my friend taught me all those years ago. I pull up the Command Prompt and FTP from there. I have to use ancient DOS commands like ďcdĒ and ďput.Ē Itís inefficient, I know, but itís the only thing I know how to do because no one has taught me anything different.
So I upload five files: the large photo, the thumbnail, the article, the index, and the archives. And then itís done.
9.) Notification. Okay, not quite done. A few tiny tasks remain. I send out an e-mail to everyone on my subscription list notifying them that Chizfilm has been updated. I embed my cute little logo and send a link to the new article. (By the way, if you havenít yet signed up for my subscription list, let me again invite you to do so. Just go to the main page and click the link that will send an e-mail to subscribe.)
I also notify friends on LiveJournal and Facebook that a new article is up. I know they are all waiting around on tenterhooks, eager for the next review.
10.) Wait for comments. Now I sit back and wait for people to tell me what they think. And I wait and I wait. And eventually I give up and go back to step one and repeat the whole process all over again. A never-ending cycle.
So that, my friends, is how it works. If someone out there has an improved method or better ideas on how to run Chizfilm, please let me know. Iím always open to new suggestions.