When the Pen is Mightier than the Award.
January 14, 2015
Whatcha Gonna Do?
January 28, 2015
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Thick. Thicker. Thickest.

Photo by Matthew Pla on Unsplash

I’ve had some pretty harsh knocks. The New York Times once accused me of wasting two hours of the film reviewer’s time. Before I wrote Bad Boys, the late great Don Simpson said I couldn’t write my way out of a paper bag. Even my old man once told me I was going to hell for the kind of stuff I was putting on three-hole punch paper.

Talk about a bad notice.

Yet I’m still here. Still standing. Plying my wordy trade despite having been impaled by the inevitable slings and arrows that come with a career as a word merchant.

There’s an old showbiz adage, warning artists to never read their reviews. Some have amended that advice to never reading any bad reviews. I suppose there’s a bit of wisdom there. But without negative feedback, how the hell are we supposed to learn from our mistakes? Or more importantly, develop that prick-resistant skin one requires to succeed at the entertainment game.

Here’s a suggestion. Take a film school class like this one.

When I went to USC it was called Cinema 190. It was a semester-long course where, over the term of twelve or so weeks, students were required to make five films of roughly five minutes in length. Each short was to be photographed and edited on Super 8 film and accompanied by a non-synchronous soundtrack of the filmmaker’s choosing. Sounds simple enough. Overly simple, in fact.

Easy peasy.

What is Super 8? Forgive me folks. This was before digital or home video cameras were as ubiquitous as reality shows shot in Alaska. Sometime between the Stone Age and the omnipresent Kardashians, there was a film product called Super 8. Half the size of of 16mm film, it became the rage for home movies in the sixties and seventies. Cheap. Available. And your corner pharmacy was happy to serve as the neighborhood film processing lab.

Back to the toughening up of my lily white epidermis.

In Cinema 190 there were no budgets or instructed techniques. No scripts we had to vet through profs or department heads. Just a filmmaker and a camera and whatever he or she could scrape together to throw onto the screen. The purpose of the exercise was about communication—not just what the filmmaker was attempting to say with his eight millimeter opus, but more importantly, I believe, about what the filmmaker was required to do after.

And that was to sit and listen to the feedback.

For me it went like this. After each of my films was screened in the small classroom, I was required to sit next to the professor at the head of a large conference table. For the first ten minutes after the lights were returned to full, I had to silently observe as my fifteen classmates—some of them fellow undergrads, others graduate MFAs and critical studies students—inked their reviews of my work on self-carboning sheets of paper. After ten minutes, the pens had to drop and the hand-written critiques were passed forward.

The trauma of reading each, gut-scorching review would be saved for later. The next fifteen minutes were reserved for a near free-for-all of verbal lambasting. Each syllable of which I would have to swallow, because I wouldn’t be allowed to argue or defend my work until the initial round of shelling had ended.

Now mind you. Not every review was fiery or unflattering. Flattery was equally recognized and appreciated. It was just really rare. That’s because we were more than just film students. Back then, the tiny program had accepted most of us for our innate competitiveness as much as our talent or acumen. So there was more reward—not to mention blood lusty satisfaction—in pounding a film student’s silly little Super 8 short into celluloid dust.

On five separate occasions, I unspooled my filmic adventure for my Cinema 190 class. At each go-around, I sat before them and listened to their not-so-constructive criticism. And when at last, the timer dinged and it was my turn to defend my unworthy little work, I was often shredded all over again.

Come evening, I would retire to my dorm room and read through the carbons of those “crit-sheets,” as we would call them. Two or three films into the course, I was able to recognize some of my critics by their handwriting and others by the consistency of their malignant content.

Yeah. And it hurt some more.

Yet all the while I saw results. Not only in my work, but in the necessity of building up my tolerance to negative criticism. There was no place to hide. The only refuge from the hail storm was to roll up my sleeves and get neck deep into my next short.

I distinctly recall the moment I screened my fifth and last film. I sat ramrod straight at the head of the table as if I had reinforced steel up my spine. I wasn’t at all inured to my classmates’ critiques. But… and this is significant… I felt absolutely no fear whatsoever. I was ready to take what came. And have been ever since.

To date, whenever I deliver a draft, publish a book, or even post a simple blog, I’m ever aware that some may like what I’ve written while others will certainly not. I’m good with that because my skin has become thick enough to repel, but not so that I can no longer feel.

I credit much of that to a Super 8 camera and a room full of painfully honest film students. I graciously thank them all.


  1. MARK 11 says:

    This was great stuff DOUG…I couldn’t be more over the moon about creators talking out loud about how serious taking criticism is…I know in UCLA MFA’s SCREENWRITING PROGRAM, we had over 3000 apps a year from the globe; they only took 10-14 of us — and this was 10 years ago for me — so, right off the bat…it was serious stuff. Almost every class I was required to take was serious stuff. I took additional classes in directing, editing and film theory because as a screenwriter…I wanted to know the whole world — to be the best. But, after hearing comms from non-writing, industry people — who REALLY COULD NOT write their way out of a paper bag — I hit a fork in the road; keep fighting HWD or go back to fiction-journalism. I finally decided to do my movie thing — some on my own; some on HWD’s terms…and either way, in this digital world: that thick skin on thick skin is the real deal and even more important…creating stories to go directly to the auds outside the HWD pipeline. I FOLLOW ya DOUG. Great stuff…stay honest.

  2. George Tramountanas says:

    I, too, have my MFA from USC in film, and like you, I remember this class…fondly/dreadfully. I learned a lot, but I didn’t know it at the time. I remember bringing my first Super 8 film in and I was prepared to be hailed as the next Zemeckis…and no one understood my movie. NO ONE. My reaction took me through the 5 stages of grief – hell, I wanted to quit film school and go all Robert Rodriguez (El Mariachi was very hot at the time) – but I did end up learning quite a bit in that class. I occasionally teach filmmaking now, and one of the things I stress with my students is to learn how to receive criticism. It’s a challenge being able to separate valid points from preferences in taste (usually because the valid points sting so much), but it’s important. About 5 years after I took that class, they switched to shooting those films on video. A small part of me is envious that new students get to use equipment where they don’t need to know how to set an f-stop or pay out of pocket for development fees (or splicing tape!), but a large part of me is happy that I was part of a special era. REALITY ENDS HERE.

    • Doug Richardson says:

      Wow. This is turning into a Cinema 190 reunion. FYI. I still have all my old crit sheets.

  3. Moira M. Leeper says:

    We had – in the screenwriting MFA world at USC – our own version of this class where we would all complain about how much time it took to make short films and how we needed more time to write. However, I treasure the films I made in that class and remember many of my classmates films. We revealed ourselves in our shorts because we were too lazy to disguise ourselves! We didn’t know better. It was frustrating and exhilarating. It taught me great, great respect for how hard it is to make something watchable – let alone entertaining.

    • Doug Richardson says:

      Fight on, Moira. Glad you HAD a writing program. Back then we had a book (Syd Field) and a professor who’s only writing credit was her own ignominious college degree.

  4. Herschel Horton says:

    Doug, love the blog and have enjoyed some of your work in the cinema. Since you’re on this subject matter I’ve always had a problem with Die Hard 2. For me one of the conflicts (major conflict) is that all those airplanes are just circling above the airport that’s been hijacked waiting for the hero to clear up the airport and allowing them to land. Having a pilots license, I know that airliners are controlled to and from airports by TRACON (Terminal Radar Approach Control – regionally controlled) which is not the same as Airport Control Tower (TWR). So, in the movie once those airliner got close to 10 miles out they would be handed off from TRACON to TWR for final approach. If the airliner didn’t have contact with TWR or had issues with TWR they would simply go back to TRACON and be routed to their alternative airport. It doesn’t matter for most movie goers as they haven’t a clue how airliners get from gate to gate… Now that I got that off my shoulder, I guess I don’t feel any better for telling you? IN other words, my opinion doesn’t mean squat! And I guess that’s the lesson…. film what YOU want and if someone likes it, great, if not, no biggie!!! 😉 BTW – all Die Hard movies have issues, but the action and the characters are always fun to go on a ride with for two hours!!!

    • Doug Richardson says:

      Oh Herschel. I was hoping that you were getting in a good purge. Twenty five years is a long while to hold in your misgivings. That said, it was A LONG TIME AGO. And since I might’ve forgotten what I learned from spending three days in the JFK tower. What I do recall was that my drafts were pretty damned accurate. Once Joel and Steve d’Souza took the helm, stuff started getting tossed to fit their vision.

      • Herschel Horton says:

        I’m sorry, I wrote that right after I got off work with nothing to eat all day.
        I’ve since eaten and feel better now and am ashamed of my ramblings! Isn’t it crazy how things stay with a person?
        And then your explanation all makes sense. When someone else gets ahold of a script, as you’ve taught us, things can get out of hand from the original vision!

  5. clive says:

    I liked this.Young, idealistic, and being pepper sprayed by peers. I loved the woody allen film where he was blacklisted trumbo and had a waiter fronting his scripts, except that the waiter was telling him it wasn’t up to his standard, to make it tighter, funnier….Roastings funny, but only when it’s someone else.

  6. Phyllis K Twombly says:

    At least you were getting feedback. What did you think of the movie, Super 8? It seemed to drop off the promotional radar shortly after it came out. I thought the kids’ characters were behaving about two years older than their fictional ages. It was the one thing I didn’t like.

  7. Stacy Chambers says:

    Somehow I missed this last week. Thanks for this, Doug. Seriously. When I first started reading your blog, your stories scared the shit out of me. But somewhere along the way I had a tiny epiphany that conflict and criticism are part of the deal and if you want to something professionally–anything professionally–you just gotta roll with it when it comes. Or fight the good fight–whatever the situation requires. Probably this is a no-brainer to you and most of your readers, but… my life has gone in such a way that I had to learn it the hard way, I guess. But anyway… thanks. Really appreciate the candor you put out there each week.

  8. kikodaikensho says:

    Hey Doug LOVE your blog!

    Being a filmmaker on the fringes of Hollywood I really enjoy an inside peep of the goings on inside the industry. I appreciate you sharing.

    I have to say that this particular post is so timely and useful. It serves as a reminder to JUST FINISH.

    Moving out here sometime ago I would read filmmaking/writers blogs, listen to podcasts and go to workshops as often as I could to learn the inner workings of the business side of things.

    Somehow I got it in my head that I only had one shot and that’s it to WOW someone. Which is to say an agent/manager/exec/or producer had to absolutely like me/my work right then or I blew it. I’ll never get another chance.

    This gave me paralysis of analysis. All my content had to be perfect. If it wasn’t and someone/anyone didn’t like it, i would be ruined.

    This crushed me and slowed my production of content and new ideas to a trickle. With the exception of a 3 minutes short I directed this past November, my last short was in 2011. That’s unacceptable.

    It just boiled down to fear of judgement.

    Fortunately I’m on the mend. And the will to execute on my ideas is transforming into an insatiable sense of urgency.

    I’m a big fan of your work. Bad Boys is one of the reasons I got into film. You and I have similar tastes and sensibilities in film.

    I hope in the future I can put out a body of work that would EARN you as a fan as well.

    Till then, wish you continued success and keep the posts comin’.