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Meet the Critics: Clint Morris — PR wiz turned reviewer and Moviehole maestro

Clint MottisMaintaining collaborative relationships with film publicists is a must for every professional film critic, and Clint Morris — long-time reviewer and founder of popular movie website Moviehole — is no exception. Where Morris differs from the pack is in his innate understanding of the PR industry and issues publicists face. After all, he used to be one.

Throughout the 90s Morris, a marketing graduate, worked in PR for a range of companies including a major film distributor. His employer wanted to gain an insight into movie reportage in the online realm — the internet being a relatively new phenomenon — and assigned Morris to liaise with and monitor movie websites.

Armed with an address book chock-full of contacts and plenty of insider knowledge, Morris decided to create Moviehole in 1998, the year in which — he takes unusual pleasure in noting — the artistic genius of Leslie Nielsen’s Spy Hard was unleashed into cinema’s worldwide.

“I became engrossed in the online movie universe and came to the conclusion that I should probably jump on that loco before it heads towards a bigger populace,” he tells Cinetology. “Till this day, I think my parents still think I’ve made a living running a porn site.”

Moviehole went on to become one of Australia’s most popular movie websites, and, a decade and a half later, is still very much alive and kicking. It’s also very much a time consuming affair, particularly for a job that doesn’t completely pay the bills.

“It really should be something I do full-time, but honestly, there’s not enough money in it alone to warrant that,” Morris concedes.

On the question of what advice he would offer to potential movie webmasters and bloggers, he says: “if you want to maintain a loyal and large following you have to offer up something different and that’s a challenge, especially with the huge amount of film websites out there. Unless you put your own spin on the news or offer up something exclusive — scoops and exclusives is something we’ve become renowned for — people just aren’t going to click.”

Morris is the eighth participant in Cinetology’s Meet the Critics series, which examines the philosophies and viewing habits of the country’s leading film reviewers. Participants have included the ABC’s Margaret Pomeranz, The Age’s Jake Wilson, The Australian’s Evan Williams and The Sydney Morning Herald’s Sandra Hall. Morris is the first internet-based critic to join the fold.

His interview with Cinetology was unexpectedly delayed but the 36-year-old writer has an excuse just about as good as they come. Morris’ health was dealt an unexpected turn when in March he was diagnosed with a pancreatic tumour. The tumour was the final (hopefully) chapter in eighteen gruelling months of pancreatic issues for the father-of-one.

Morris didn’t walk away unscathed from the ordeal, either emotionally or physically, he says, but is expected to make a full recovery.

The first words he uttered when Cinetology asked him how he was feeling were: “I’ve missed soooo many movies!”

Do you read much film criticism? If so, what publications and writers do you recommend?

I read a lot of film criticism, be it of the archaic variety — that is, those whose nightly meals are sponsored by a print publisher — or online. Heck, it’s even worth taking note of some of the comments scrawled on the backdoor of the public restroom stalls sometimes. I’m an especially big fan of the artist behind “Sandler can blow me!” That dude knows his stuff.

Since about the age of twelve or thirteen I’ve been an avid reader of film criticism. I subscribed to everything from Film Comment to Film Threat, Movieline and, of course, TVHits, if only to get the definitive word on what Shannen Doherty’s latest was like.

With the dwindling number of print publications around these days, I seem to stick mostly to reading the reviews of the online type — Devin Faraci, Brian Orndorf, ‘Scriptshadow’ and so on. Even those that I would’ve otherwise read in print, like Roger Ebert, Leigh Paatsch, Julian Shaw, Tom Ryan or Giles Hardie, I will read online now, since their print reviews are generally published the same day and date online too.

I have to admit to missing the late great Ivan Hutchinson and, of course, Pauline Kael, from the critic landscape. They remain two of the best film critics of all time. 

In your opinion what if anything is wrong with the current state of film criticism and/or attitudes towards film critics?

Besides the fact that, with fifty million film blogs and numerous other avenues to rant about film, we’re now all fighting for your attention? That isn’t so much a problem as it is life, I guess. People love to jump on the bandwagon, especially if that bandwagon is accessible. But unfortunately, and unlike the old days when you had to buy a copy of the paper or Movieline to read a review, anyone with a keyboard and a copy of Microsoft Word can now call themselves a reviewer. There’s no screening process, no interview and no regulation when it comes to online reviewing.

I’m not excluding myself from the equation, though I did begin my reviewing career in commercial radio and soon after, print. Maybe there should be? Maybe there should be some kind of test of one’s film knowledge or ability to write before they’re allowed to rent reviewing space on the web? Because what’s happened is, all the critics are thrown — the good, the bad and the ugly of film critics — into the same box. Many will slap a couple of illiterate but conceited clowns into the same box as a veteran film journalist of some forty years, merely because they both write about film. I guess what I’m saying is we’re drowning in lots of amateur, crap film criticism now. It’s a tough job to sift through it all — especially if you’re a film publicist, I imagine, which is likely why some have no choice but to just lump us all in the one box.

It’s also sometimes difficult to spot an honest review from one sponsored by the distributor, so to speak. Oh, I forgot. The Payola scandal is in the past. My mistake.

The internet has permanently altered the media landscape. What impact do you think the proliferation of writers on the internet has had on film criticism?

As I said, there’s a lot of crap criticism out there now, largely due to the internet giving out free reviewing cards. The boom in net criticism has also hurt the print industry too, of course, for numerous reasons. I don’t know about you but I really miss the days of going to a movie and actually being surprised. Not knowing everything about it. I love that the internet has given me a career. I hate it that it spoilt the ending of The Expendables for me.

But do I think internet critics carry weight? Yes, many do. Remember what happened when Aint it Cool News ran that review of Batman & Robin all those years ago? Warner Brothers freaked out and continued to do so once they realised that audiences were staying away in droves largely due to those negative online reviews. If a website with some credibility or even simply a big following trashes a film, there’s going to be a lot — and I mean a lot — of people skipping that picture. In some respects, online critics can kill a film more than a print critic can. I don’t know how many times I’ve had a frantic email or call from a distributor asking if I can tweak a review or, in exchange for a pair of merchandise undies, say something more positive about a particular film. The studios are obviously quite aware how much weight and influence online critics have now. Why do you think there are so many embargoes these days? Because the studio knows that, should a review of a crappy film run on the net a week or so before the pic opens, that it’ll hurt them. Maybe not a great deal, but still, it will hurt. So yes, some of us web critics are to be feared. I guess.

How did you become a film critic and when did you know you wanted to be one?

Someone, I thought, should be out there warning people about the dangers of sitting through the Porky’s trilogy. No, in all seriousness, I have always loved film. I worked at drive-ins and movie theatres since I was a teenager.

I believe I was about 16 or 17 when I started reviewing for local radio, which led to a regular gig as a radio announcer for a few years, if only because I was the only film fanatic in country Victoria that knew his Cimino’s from his Friedkin’s. I know, I know, what a sad life I must have led. No matter which station I ended up at, I’d always end up saddling the film reviewing job. I didn’t complain. I even got to see Sliver a few days before release. But the experience on radio led to some reviewing work with a couple of newspapers and magazines and a TV show.

By the time I was 21 I was working in marketing and publicity, but I never let the film reviewing go completely. In fact, it was while working at a film distribution company that I came up with the idea of creating Moviehole. That was 14 years ago. And have you noticed there hasn’t been a Porky’s 4? Thank me, man.

The general public love to munch away while watching a movie. What are your eating habits in the cinema? Are you addicted to popcorn, sneak in the occasional choc-top, or there strictly to watch the film?

Being a diabetic, choc-tops and lollies are my enemies. I have been known to sneak a healthy sandwich or roll into a screening, particularly if it’s a screening around meal time. Nobody wants to hear the crash of a diabetic fall to the ground from low blood sugar while watching Dear John. Oh, and I’ll sometimes grab a diet coke or latte if a cute publicist is paying.

Do you take notes in the cinema? If so, how extensive are they?  

Notes? No man, I’m a freelancer. We deal in coins only. But no, no notes for me, though if I’m solo at a screening I may drag out the iPhone to make a few quick ones. That’s unusual for me though. I like to watch the film, not my pen humping a pad.

Moving onto the subject of eye moistening: when (if ever) was the last time you cried while watching a film and what was it?

I mentioned Sliver before, yeah?

Well, hmm, I tell ya, I don’t know if it was maybe because I was pretty ill at the time and thus, in a bad place, but Terry Malick’s The Tree of Life got to me. And I have felt a lump in the throat over the years in a few flicks, ones that I’m not especially keen to reveal. OK, here’s a few. There’s Walk to Remember. I mean, she died, man? Gimme a break! There’s Forrest Gump. Jenny just didn’t know how to love him back, ya know? There’s even, dare I say, Rocky Balboa. The Italian Stallion went out on top. Even though he’s a loser now.

What are five of your favourite Australian films of the last ten years?

What was the one with Xavier Samuel and Olivia Newton-John? Not that one. I loved Animal Kingdom, of course, but didn’t everybody? Still, it was a highpoint for Oz cinema. I also thought Rachel Ward’s Beautiful Kate was a mesmerizing bit of cinema. Balibo was excellent, Snowland was a gritty piece of discomfort and The Black Balloon was stupendous.

Oh, and Superman Returns, of course!

What is your first memory of the cinema?

Bambi. And, though I believe I was only sitting in a car outside of it, a Drive-in screening Flash Gordon 

Can you describe the strangest experience at the cinema you’ve ever had?

I was an usher at a cinema when I was about 15 and we were screening the new Corey Haim and Corey Feldman movie License to Drive. I had never seen such a cavalcade of unstable, squealing teenage girls! They were everywhere! It was like a zombie invasion sponsored by Dolly magazine! I remember one attendee, in particular, wearing a straw cowboy hat — as all hot girls do, right? — asking if I would sit with her during the movie. The manager gave it the OK, so I owe Mr Feldman and Mr Haim for that pick up. 

Looking back over your filmic life, what is the cinematic experience you recall most fondly?

It’s probably always going to be seeing my own name in the credits of something, because I’ve produced a couple of films, but I think, in terms of a film buff, I’ll never forget sitting down for the original Star Wars films. In particular, The Empire Strikes Back.

And, honestly, I miss the days of the old ‘Village Candy Counter’ ad. It would play before all the flicks in the ’80s. Even Staying Alive played better after such boppy commercials. Ads and atmosphere, I tell ya, that’s what made a good movie in the Reagan-era!

Do you ever walk out on films, or always feel an obligation to stay? If so what was the last film you walked out on?

Now that I’ve a four-year old I seem to be walking out of quite a few movies, if only because she won’t sit still or isn’t enjoying it. I missed half of Rango and Pirates! A Band of Misfits because of young Charisma’s reluctance to chill and enjoy.

I think the last one I personally walked out on was The Grudge 2 – not just because for the film was absolutely dreadful but because of the uncomfortable seats in this particular cinema and the loud, obnoxious crowd sitting to the right of us. I also had to leave ten minutes before the ending of Backdraft to catch The Commitments in the cinema next door. Does that count?

There’s a common assumption that critics have a very large home collection of films. Is that true for you?

Too many, I’m afraid. Literally thousands. Qhen Blu-ray first came onto the scene I said to myself ‘I’m only going to buy those must-have Blu-ray titles’. That didn’t happen. I now own Kickboxer, Moonstruck and Risky Business on Blu-ray, if that tells you anything.

With regards to philosophy re: sitting in the cinema, are you a back row sitter? A front row sitter? Why?

Middle. Just in case the girl in the straw hat wants to join me. It’s easier for her to spot me there.

What advice would you provide to a) aspiring filmmakers and b) aspiring film critics?

Have another job, something that puts food on the table, at the same time. I’ve had to do it. It’s not easy. It’s a real juggle. But believe me, unless you’re employed by a big-time outlet — and even then — you’re going to need a few more bucks than what you’ll be making, at least at the start, reviewing and/or playing with your Nikon. But while manning the cash-register at Bunnings, or doing computer fix-it work from home, persevere and don’t give up on your dreams!

As Colleen Dewhurst said in The Boy Who Could Fly: “maybe if you wish hard enough and love long enough, anything is possible.”

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