How I Earned a Reputation for Hating Movies

By  · Published on May 12th, 2016

A pessimist’s view on criticism

I love movies, I just don’t like most of them.

That was one of my personal slogans back when I first labeled myself “The Film Cynic.” The moniker may have originated earlier, possibly as an AOL screen name, but its official beginning was with my first movie review site, Eventually it became my Twitter handle, in part because I joined too late to assign it my very common name, and now I assume it will be on my tombstone. I am the Film Cynic. Forever. I also apparently hate movies.

My reputation for hating movies seems to be tied to the nickname, as if being a cynic about the movies means complete dismissal. Of course, it also stems from my dislike of most movies, specifically most modern movies. It is true that I have some complaint about nearly everything I see. I also can find something positive in most movies, though I admit my first instinct is to focus on the negative. It’s residue, I’m sure, from my misguided start as a movie critic and blogger.

While I’ve never been dishonest in my job, early on I was certainly louder with my negative thoughts because that seemed to get more attention. It was the era where snark reigned. However, I was never that snarky. I’ve never been one to try to be funny in my genuine criticisms. So instead I came off as just a grouch. Ironically, my first truly professional gig reviewing movies came out of an editor being impressed with the way I explained what I liked about Lars von Trier’s Manderlay in my sample review. She said it was a rare thing to see those days.

Prior to that gig, I posted most of my reviews to (the URL of which now just points to an abandoned Tumblr version). The point of the site was to fully, analytically prejudge a movie ahead of its release. Based on the marketing, the people involved and my pessimistic outlook on what Hollywood in particular was putting out in the early 2000s, I assigned to each title an up or down arrow symbol pertaining to degrees of my expectation. It was such a cynical site that even when I had high expectations for a movie, that was a bad thing.

Here’s what my symbol key consisted of:

And here is what was written on the main page of the site as an introduction to its mission:

“The lines (and the grosses) tell us only that people are going to the movies-not that they’re having a good time.” -Pauline Kael, June 23, 1980

There are so few great films coming out these days that we are left with low expectation of them. Even a picture that gets great buzz rarely lives up to its hype. There are those who love movies no matter what they see and those who get to see anything for free so that time is the only thing wasted on mediocre fare. But who is to protect the masses who don’t follow every bit of news, criticism and word of mouth? Those who are blindly in need of entertainment pick the movies that appear the most mainstream and likely won’t approach this site. But it is our hope to keep people out of awful movies, to keep them from giving their money to the studios making the biggest trash (Paramount, for instance). It is also our hope that people can go into a good film without disappointment from trying to compare their viewing experience with the excited critic blurbs.

There are the occasional reviews and follow-ups to our low expectations, but overall this is a site which looks at movies we haven’t yet seen, never will see, or completely denounce the existence of.

-The Film Cynic, September 23, 2003

Note the date. This was still early days of the Internet in terms of what was out there and available for movie fans. Trailers weren’t so easily streamed, and movie blogs didn’t really exist on the level that they would just a few years later. When those blogs did arrive, they did a lot of the same thing, only without such blatant purpose or coded cynicism. Trailer postings in particular became (and for many still are), a way to shit on a movie in advance.

And soon so were news reports. There were definitely sites that were the complete opposite – I always admired’s enthusiasm, for instance – but most of us movie bloggers had the job of offering critical commentary on the most basic information all the way up to the vaguest of promotional materials. It was easy for me to ride that train once I was tasked with as much movie news blogging as movie reviewing, and then more of the former than latter when the news proved more lucrative.

Too much of this kind of work did manage to make me occasionally hate the movies overall. Or at least think that I did. Depending on the site I was working for or the beat I was covering, many times I was assigned to write about very mainstream titles. Or worse, with reviewing the studio movies that the more senior critics didn’t even want to see. Coverage of indie, foreign, and documentary titles decreased further and further, and so I wasn’t seeing as much of what might have balanced me out.

Instead, thanks to my also going back to school and doing a lot of academic writing on film there during my early days as a professional critic, I began to think differently about how I wanted to review movies. I was no longer interested in whether a new release was good or bad or recommended or not. I hated the consumer advocacy approach. I tried to find something to discuss with any movie, regardless of what I thought of it as a whole. I guess that was before such “reviews” became known as “think pieces.”

I started believing that every new release should be “recommended” because my potential readers had to see the movies so they could afterward appreciate my in-depth takes on them. Also, I accepted that a lot of mainstream movies are going to be seen no matter what critics say, so why bother trying to dissuade anyone? Instead, I felt I should engage with those moviegoers with a one-sided discussion at them. It made me enjoy writing about movies again, and I began enjoying most movies again. Not liking them, necessarily, but loving watching them.

That’s how I’d wind up notoriously giving something like Grown Ups 2 its first – and for a while its only – positive review, at least in Rotten Tomatoes terms. I engaged with that movie as best I could knowing that a lot of people would see it and might like it. I’ve always tried to be fair with regards to other people’s tastes while offering objective points about a movie’s pros and cons. It’s how I could even get Republicans to appreciate a negative review of Dinesh D’Souza’s 2016: Obama’s America.

Alas, those kinds of reviews tend to be long reads. A lot of people don’t get past the headlines. Many people don’t even get that far. Ever since Twitter took over so much of my headspace – because having Tweetdeck running in the background is as essential for my work as a stock ticker is for financial analysts – my takes (and everyone else’s) have been minimized and cheapened for the majority of the public who notices. Again it’s the most simple negative reactions that get the most traction.

I probably do tweet more negative reactions than positive, but I do see more movies I end up disliking and/or am disappointed with than those I like and/or am pleasantly surprised by. In a manner that’s easily summed up in 140 characters, anyway. I do actually tweet positively about a lot of films, but most are documentaries and other smaller releases that don’t register as much to those following the film Twitter ticker. Nobody seemed to care how much I praised Shaun the Sheep Movie or The Russian Woodpecker last year.

I really do love movies. I love watching them. I love engaging with them or mindlessly letting them play out in front of me, especially in a theater, where they best hold my attention. There are very few instances where I dread driving out to a press screening, and then there are even fewer where I dread being there as the light flickers and the pictures take motion before my eyes. And I actually rarely totally hate a movie or hate the entirety of a movie. Also, I may prejudge movies, but I don’t actively try to dislike them.

Perhaps I need to be more conscious of my negativity on social media. And of my immediate comments to my colleagues in public and private conversation, whether in person or on instant message or in Slack correspondence. Maybe I ought to finally give up on the Twitter handle, especially since I sometimes assume it costs me work (I confess I fear changing it will lose me followers and all the links to it around the web). Or I need to just accept the reputation that comes with it all, even if it’s untrue.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.