How Did Spling Become a Movie Critic?

Stephen ‘Spling’ Aspeling, better known as Spling, has been reviewing film since 2007, but what led him to want to become a movie critic? Having started with a humble blog, Spling has written features and broadcast reviews for many websites, radio stations and newspapers over the years. Serving as a judge and juror for film festivals, he’s also written a review anthology book called ‘The Essence of Dreams’, and started a script consultancy called reviewmyscript.com.

What Does a Movie Critic Do?

When kids are asked what they want to be when they’re older… most will say something cool like astronaut, pirate or pro wrestler. I wasn’t quite that young when I decided “movie critic” but it’s a pretty far-fetched idea to think that you could say you “watch movies for a living”. Now years into the dream job, I’d still love to say “I watch movies for a living”.

The profession essentially centres on reviewing many art forms, which came together to form a single illusion. The illusion of film, similar to the art of magic, required careful suspense of disbelief and sleight of hand to immerse an audience in a dream state. Who wouldn’t want to be able to slip in and out of dreams all day?

spling el gouna film fest

How Much Do Film Critics Get Paid?

Everyone seems to automatically think being able to watch movies, having a passion for the medium and being able to string a few sentences together is all it takes. The truth is that being a film critic can be aligned with being an actor. Movie critics have to carve their own path or be subjected to a general entertainment job title like showbiz ninja. Unless you take on permanent job at a newspaper or news website, it’s not all that different to being a freelancer – working from gig to gig.

Nowadays more than ever, there’s no set financial model for a movie critic so you’ve really got to build the job up around you. Gone are the days when your affiliated publication would cover your contribution to the paper with a livable salary. With entertainment sections shrinking, advertising budgets dwindling and syndication thriving, it’s more about belting out content to keep up with social media and collating the deluge of information than delivering thoughtful opinion.

So, whether you’re working for free to get a foot in the door, building your own film brand from the ground up, or getting decent pay for your contributions… the “how much do movie critics earn?” question is a moving target. Speaking from experience, the profession typically requires a few income streams and possibly non-related part-time jobs to piece together a reasonable income.

spling essence of dreams book launch

Famous Movie Critic Role Model and Inspiration

Before it gets too depressing, it was Barry Ronge who inspired Spling to become a film critic. The famous bearded South African film critic, entertainment journalist and “raconteur” (if you read his Wikipedia page) featured on TV art and talk shows, radio and had his own magazine column. An iconic and easily recognisable public figure with a trademark waistcoat, he was prolific, respected and entertaining even if you didn’t entirely agree with his estimation of films. His gift of the gab, the way he wrote reviews and his multi-pronged fame made him an influential figure. You can listen to the tribute podcast series, Remembering Barry.

While it may be a famous movie critic who draws your attention to the profession, there’s no yellow brick pathway to inspiration. It may be a specific film or filmmaker that generated enough interest in you to read up on the movie or film pro or maybe like Spling you just realised that the subjects you enjoyed most at school just suited a further immersion into the world of cinema.

What Education Do Film Critics Need?

Watching and pontificating about film seemed like a great idea to Spling, whose favourite subjects were Art and English. Spling’s art history helped steady his art marks through school, writing essays based on the artworks featured during the art class slideshows. Unpacking the artist’s meaning, the medium’s efficacy, the material and the method enabled him to flex both his creativity and analytical side in piecing together an argument. Since English and creative writing were another favourite aspect of his education, Spling loved deconstructing a creative work through reasoning.

While he hardly ever read any of the set work books besides Lord of the Flies right through university, he was still able to wrestle with the themes and use external references to build a decent essay. Perhaps the dense writing of Passage to India and The Great Gatsby put him off the whole idea of novels. Having been a keen reader of Douglas Hill, Roald Dahl and Willard Price up till the age of 15, perhaps the academic works were a bit too boring. After all, he was that kid who would almost always pick page-turners like Asterix and Tintin from the local library.

spling grad fest

Graduating from high school with academic honours based on his marks for Art and English, the presumptuous and premeditated photo of the year’s glut of prospective honours students had to be trashed. They didn’t have mad Photoshop skills back then and inserts and exclusions would’ve made it look like a nasty scrap book. It seemed like a bit of a fluke, especially when you consider mathematics, but Spling applied himself in his matric year working out a disciplined exercise, napping and study regime.

While Spling opted to do a bachelors degree in the Film, Media & Visuals Studies stream at UCT, it was only years later that he truly committed to film. Having muddled his way through a possible business information systems Masters in the productivity enhancement of speech recognition software, he quickly realised that without a proper supervisor it wouldn’t be possible. This led Spling to accept a job as a copywriter to pursue a more creative role.

He had acrylic paints and an easel to continue his artwork after school, but he wanted to make it more than a hobby. Writing creative copy wasn’t a bad option to leverage that creative energy and after coming up with catchy product names, mailers and overseeing some of the creative from art work to sound – he changed course. Working from home he was able to ply his skills elsewhere. Reviewing a film a day for a year, Spling started renting movies and writing at his blog, spling.co.za.