Film Critic Peter Debruge is Living the Dream

Peter Debruge, Chief International Film Critic, Variety MagazineAs chief international film critic for Variety Magazine, Peter Debruge reviews hundreds of movies every year. But growing up in Waco in the ’80s and ’90s, he rarely visited the local cinema. Television was strictly off-limits at home, except on movie nights, when the family would rent a VHS cassette (and a VCR to play it) and gather around the small black-and-white TV set.

As a teenager, one of the few films Debruge saw in the theater was Toy Story, the first feature-length movie created entirely with computer animation. Making a cartoon had never seemed a possibility for Debruge, who wasn’t a talented sketch artist. “But I was good with computers,” he says, “and Toy Story suggested another way into a medium I adored.” When he started college at Rice, he hoped to study computer science and someday make movies for Pixar. 

“Rice was not the right school for the Pixar dream,” Debruge remembers. “Now I could tell you exactly which schools to go to to become a computer animator, but that didn’t exist back when [Pixar] were the only ones doing it.”

So he transferred to UT and found a new outlet for his growing fascination with movies—film criticism. “The first week, I walked into the Daily Texan. I made a heat-seeking, straight line to the offices there,” Debruge says. In addition to writing film reviews for the paper, he served as entertainment editor.

After graduation, Debruge moved to New York City for an internship with Entertainment Weekly. On the last day of the internship he was offered a job at AOL Moviefone, where he worked for four years, first in New York and then in Los Angeles. “When I moved to LA, I had a base of Texas alumni there, really close friends, to immediately pick up where we left off,” he says.

Before he landed a job as a senior film critic for Variety, he developed his skills and his credentials by freelancing for the Fort Worth Star Telegram, Miami Herald, and Premiere Magazine. It was a labor of love. “I wrote between 150 and 200 reviews for Premiere Magazine,” he says, “unpaid.”

He says that the breadth of his education (a double major in Plan II honors and film studies, plus several classes in advertising) gave him an edge in his career. “The risk with film critics is that they have a very deep education in film, and very limited context in almost anything else. Their references are all cinematic,” he says. “The thing that’s great about not just having a film degree, but having a film degree plus a Plan II education is having a broader base of things to refer to.”

In eight years with Variety, Debruge has seen the magazine undergo major changes, evolving from a daily paper to a weekly publication, with a growing online presence. In the midst of a restructure last year, Debruge suggested that Variety should have a staff writer based overseas, who could attend all the European festivals. “I was a little surprised that they went for it,” he said. Now he lives in Paris, but spends months at a time on the road, traveling to festivals in Cannes, Berlin, Venice, Locarno, and elsewhere. “I speak just two languages, English and French, which can make it kind of lonely when you’re spending weeks at a time in foreign countries,” he says. “All of which I consider to be part of the adventure.”

Attending international premieres, Debruge is often among the first critics to view a film. This puts him in the daunting position of sharing his opinion with the world before hearing what any of his colleagues have to say. His review of Twelve Years a Slave was the first published anywhere. He loved the film, but says he wasn’t certain it would be such a big hit. (Though his sensibilities did seem to align with popular consensus this year—a few days before the Academy Awards ceremony, Variety published his picks, and every single one of them took home a trophy on Oscar night, including 12 Years a Slave, his choice for Best Picture.)

During a brief visit to campus last week, he spoke with aspiring film critics and offered both encouragement and caution. “I think journalism is evolving right now in a really dramatic way, and in a way that’s hard to anticipate where it’s headed,” he says. “How do you evolve with it, how do you stay ahead of it?”

Photo by Matt Valentine.


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