Meet a Critic: Pete Hammond

The household name talks splitting from Maxim, reviewing films, and invoking the ire of others.

by | January 22, 2008 | Comments

Pete Hammond

If you’ve ever read a movie advertisement, you’ve likely seen his name. Pete Hammond, Maxim magazine’s lone film reviewer, is a ubiquitous force in entertainment media. See what makes the critic certain other critics love to hate tick in the latest edition of Meet a Critic.

Pete Hammond is a veteran in the movie journalism community; having worked in television, print, and online, he’s got 15 solid years of film reviewing under his belt. When he signed on as Maxim magazine’s primo pundit three years ago, Hammond became a household name — quite a feat for any film critic, in this post-Pauline Kael day and age — thanks largely to his oft-scrutinized tendency to be quoted on movie ads and commercials.

But Hammond is quick to defend his reputation from the acute scorn of Hollywood Bitchslap and other detractors; according to him, he’s not a quote whore, just a lover of movies. And whether you choose to agree or agree to disagree with his rationale, Hammond is an open book about the public end of his tenure at Maxim (see below for more on the split, in his own words).

What did Hammond do before he became inextricably linked with Maxim magazine? What does it take for him to like (or dislike) a movie? And who, if not he himself, should be held responsible for recommending bad movies to the American public?

There’s a lot to digest in this week’s Meet a Critic, so dive right in and get to know Pete Hammond.

Name: Pete Hammond

Age: Old enough to get into R-Rated movies without a parent or guardian.

Hometown: Santa Monica, Calif.

Years reviewing film: 15ish

Why and how did you become a critic?

Pete Hammond: I have an eclectic career but always related to film in one way or another. Since I was 6 years old I have been obsessed, OBSESSED with movies and have worked in various jobs related to bringing movies to the attention of the public including as a producer on shows like Entertainment Tonight, Arsenio, Extra, Access Hollywood and the AMC movie network. While at ET I started working with my pal Leonard Maltin reviewing movies for his annual Movie Guide where I am still a Contributing Editor. About three years ago circumstance made me become Maxim‘s first (and only) full time national critic.

Fill in the blank: “If I wasn’t a professional film critic, I’d be:

PH: A guy who didn’t have to sit through Fantastic Four sequels.

What is your favorite film?

PH: Too many. Always loved Stanley Donen‘s Two For The Road though. Favorite film this year is Diving Bell And The Butterfly and Ratatouille.

Who is your favorite director?

PH: Francois Truffaut, Billy Wilder.

What’s the worst movie you’ve ever seen?

PH: Too many to name. I always hope for the best though. Maybe The Assasination Of Trotsky with Richard Burton. Excruciating. Worst this year was that Lindsay Lohan horror thing they didn’t show to critics (I go see everything eventually anyway).

Who do you think is a shoo-in come Oscar night?

PH: Ratatouille for animation. Lead pipe cinch.

Which was the most interesting film of 2007?

PH: Again, Diving Bell And The Butterfly — a remarkable story, a remarkable film.

How did you originally end up at Maxim, and can you talk about what really happened when you left recently?

PH: They were looking for a critic and a friend who works with them mentioned me. After about eight months we finally came together when I told them I could get around the magazine’s three month lead time by posting most of my reviews day and date in the magazine’s online edition.

Unfortunately the magazine was sold in 2007 and a new group took over. The new editor has decided to deep-six reviews in favor of other types of film coverage. When this editor became editor of Playboy in 2002 he did the same thing to Leonard Maltin’s reviews there. Guess he just doesn’t like us critics. I had a freelance writer agreement so basically the gig just ended. It was all good. I thank them for the opportunity and will look for others in addition to my current stuff including my awards season work for the Los Angeles Times/The Envelope.com.

Are you aware of websites that document and analyze your quotes? How do you respond to such scrutiny?

PH: I am aware, but I don’t respond. It’s low rent stuff. Someone once sent me this thing called “Hollywood Bitchslap” or something and said they were hatin’ on me. I thought with that name it sounded like a gay website devoted to Joan Crawford so I was a bit surprised. I later found out it was some pseudo local radio reviewer in Chicago who is obsessed with people who get quoted a lot (obviously HE doesn’t so guess that makes him mad). [Editor’s note: film critic Erik Childress runs Hollywood Bitchslap.] He doesn’t appear to care for most critics — or even movies — for that matter. Anyway it was this endless diatribe against me written in tiny type. The guy needs an editor, that’s for sure. He’s not from the ‘Windy City’ for nothing. Anyway there are others too. I once googled myself and discovered a few but if I read them I will just get upset. You see, I always thought I was a nice guy and I am dependent on “the kindness of strangers.” If you know the dude in Chicago tell him to lay off and get a life before he wastes his own being so angry.

Do you feel you’re unfairly targeted among the critical community because you contribute quotes to movie advertisements?

PH: I do give advance quotes when asked. [It’s a] pretty common practice. I just ask the studios or publicists to honor them the way I have written them in my published review. I NEVER give a quote that is not part of my reviews. I don’t mind being quoted because to tell you the truth I find that’s where people read me. I rarely run into anyone who actually reads my stuff on Maxim Online. People are ALWAYS reciting back my quotes to me though. I figure if I can help a movie I like get some attention and survive in theatres that’s a good thing, right? And I want people to see movies in theatres the way they are meant to be seen. I really love movies, I live and breathe them. I go into every screening room with an optimistic and hopeful attitude. Not all critics do. I could name a few but I will leave the negative vibes to that guy in Chicago.

Do studios and publicists put pressure on critics to contribute and reshape their movie quotes? Can you address the Hannibal Rising Superbowl ad word changes that made trade headlines earlier this year?

PH: I never feel “pressure” from studios to change a quote. I think they have gotten gun shy about all that since Columbia got caught making up their own critic a few years back. I find most of them very conscientious about checking with me to ask my permission for any changes which most of the time is a word or two. Quite frankly I was surprised they even bothered to ask. I always thought they mis-quoted critics or took them out of context a lot but I find most to be very upfront about the business of critical quotes. I think Roger Ebert had a lot to do with that change of policy when he was once egregiously mis-quoted.

As for the Hannibal Rising superbowl ad, I got a call from the publicist asking if I could change a word in my quote. I had used the word, “Terrifying” and they had bought a very expensive super bowl ad using my review as part of it. Believe it or not, CBS said the word, “Terrifying” was unacceptable before 9pm at night. The film company sounded kinda desperate so I agreed to swap another word “electrifying” for that ad. No big whoop. Apparently “electrifying” is a word safe for the whole family.

Your quotes appeared in movie ads last year in 24 straight weeks, in a total of 88 last year. Do you really tend to like that many films?

PH: Wow, does Rotten Tomatoes keep that kind of statistical record? Well, if true I guess I must have liked THOSE movies since studios rarely use my negative reviews in their ads. I wish someone would. Wouldn’t it be great: “It sucks! – Pete Hammond, Maxim.” What is wrong with liking movies? I see about 250 a year (and that’s just on the screen). If I can find something to praise about half of them so be it. I don’t think you have seen my name on the true crap Hollywood churns out. Sometimes I am just astounded that they can find ANYONE to give a good notice to movies like The Brothers Solomon or Awake or Perfect Holiday or Are We Home Yet? or Daddy Day Camp or Saw 2, 3, 4 etc etc but somehow there always seems to be someone out there to quote (usually from sites with names like bloodydisgusting.com or CHUD — places like that).

Can you explain how your quotes end up on movie ads for films that you give mixed reviews to? (Richard Horgan wrote an article defending many of your blurbs that seem more supportive to films than your full reviews really are.)

PH: No. But like I said I go in wanting to love a film (who doesn’t?) and if I can find something positive to mix in with the negative I will say it. I once praised Robin William‘s work in Man Of The Year but thought the movie let him down. The ads used the part about Robin’s performance. That’s fine.

Do you ever change your mind about a film after reviewing it?

PH: Perhaps. But these are snapshots of what I think at the time. I gave only a 2 ½ star review (out of 5) to Atonement. After seeing it again last week I would up that to 4. There are movies I gave an overly effusive review to that I might like to tone down in retrospect (Wild Hogs you know who you are) but what are you gonna do? I still stand by my words about The Heartbreak Kid this year. The night I saw it , it really worked for me. I was genuinely surprised the audiences didn’t turn it into a major hit. Leonard Maltin was another fan of the film. We think we’re the only two who liked it. It’s all subjective.

How do you approach reviewing a movie — is the glass half full or half empty?

PH: Glass full. Some critics I see in screening rooms just seem to want to hate the films. If I came in with that attitude I would slit my wrists. Also I am keenly aware when reviewing a film of trying to relate its plusses and minuses to the audience I am writing for. I may see some virtue in some 17th century costume drama but I am not so sure the average Maxim reader would. I will point that out. Reviewing movies isn’t about Pete Hammond’s ego. I don’t sit there and say, “Well I didn’t like it so it must be bad.” I try to see what the film is trying to accomplish on its own terms and judge it on that level. Does it succeed in achieving its own ambitions? I don’t try to judge every movie against Citizen Kane.

Your Q&A film series at the end of the month will feature a selection of critically-lauded films that are perhaps overlooked or unknown to wide audiences. How do you select the films that you show?

PH: I do several in-person screening series including UCLA’s Sneak Preview, the KCET (PBS) Cinema Series, The Variety Screening Series etc. The films are always tied to the availability of a guest, usually the director, producer, actor, writer. I look for movies I like and want to share with the audience. If the audience is older and upscale though I am not gonna show them the latest slice and dice sensation. If though I am just showing films and doing interviews after, it seems I take it personally when the crowd doesn’t like the movie. I also don’t want to have to fake my own enthusiasm when facing the director afterwards. I love doing these series. I do them year round now, sometimes even two a week.

Who is your audience?

PH: Depends on who signs up. Usually 30 and up, movie saavy upscale filmgoers who like the challenge of seeing a grab bag of different kinds of movies — foreign, indie, Hollywood — each week.

What are the three most important annual film awards right now?

PH: Definitely the Oscar. All the others seem to be just an audition for it. Cannes Film Festival’s Palme D’Or would be cool to get if I were a filmmaker. I think something like the AFI life achievement award is prized by filmmakers too because its for a body of work.

How in touch with the movie going public are most critics? Is it significant that critics’ organizations tend to honor art house/independent/foreign films rather than blockbusters?

PH: I really think many critics are not in touch with the people they write for. It’s become all about them. It’s ego. Me, me, me. ‘Enough about you, what did I think, that’s all that matters.’ There are some fine critics, but it’s a dwindling breed, sadly. Come back, Pauline Kael. We miss you.

On the other hand it is not the job of critics groups to honor Transformers and quite frankly I think the filmmakers would be embarrassed by such an award. Critics groups can anoint a great movie like No Country For Old Men or There Will Be Blood and hopefully people will give it a chance. The critical huzzahs are very important for a movie like Diving Bell And The Butterfly — you have to have those awards and reviews to make an impact. Still critics can be just as snobbish in refusing to give a great commercial movie like Ratatouille the best Picture award it deserves. They ghettoize it into an animated category which is a shame, if you ask me. It’s just as good as any arthouse movie. It just happened to make money too.

What other film critics/bloggers/entertainment journalists do you read regularly?

PH: I read Jeffrey Wells’ Hollywood Elsewhere. He’s cranky but awfully entertaining and most importantly, honest about what he says. I read many others too but I have to be honest — I don’t read a whole bunch of reviews by critics. I am kinda over it by the time the movie opens. But I love how Variety‘s Todd McCarthy can get to the heart of things though. I often read him specifically. I really like critics who are knowledgeable about film history. So many of the younger self-styled internet breed of critics have their heads up their ass when it comes to knowing anything about film.

How has the internet changed film criticism?

PH: It has opened up the world of film criticism to anyone out there who wants to do it. Certainly Rotten Tomatoes has proven that. Nevertheless it’s good to have even the amateur critics, or the people who start their own sites and call themselves critics, or anyone else contributing. I think the worldwide internet discussion is healthy for the movie biz. At least they are talking about MOVIES!

What does it take to earn a 5/5 rating from Pete Hammond?


PH: Ratatouille. A History Of Violence. Zodiac. I don’t know. I don’t give ’em out often. Assigning stars is arbitrary anyway. It’s something the editors want, an easy, overused “hook” for a review. Everyone needs a hook these days I guess. I like the “critic” on Rotten Tomatoes named Willie Waffle. Doesn’t he give out like 4 Waffles to movies he likes? If I were putting together ad blurbs for a studio I would definitely use “4 Waffles.”

What makes a movie a “must-see” for you?

PH: Is the movie in focus? Frankly I “must-see” everything. I’m an addict. I just stopped doing these answers to run out and see Alien Vs. Predator 2, a movie they didn’t show to critics. Watching it I decided I really don’t like formula films too much. It’s getting harder to sit thru this kind of predictable pap. The effects were good though. I don’t know why they didn’t show it to critics. There’s nothing in it that we haven’t seen before. It’s just another movie churned out by the studios. This definitely isn’t a golden era for film even though there are lots of good ones.

What is the state of current film criticism?

PH: Who knows? I am hoping for a renaissance like we had in the 60’s and 70’s , a great time for critical discussion of movies. Great critics came out of that era. I am not sure if we will see the likes of a Pauline Kael and her ilk again.

Describe your relationship with your readers.

PH: I hope they are people who love movies the way I do. I think I am closer to the average moviegoer who is hoping to have a rewarding time at a film. I understand that and I am a big booster of movies as a prime source of entertainment. I just think sitting around playing video games all day is a drag. I try to send my readers to stuff I truly hope they will feel it is time well-spent or even time well-wasted. Hey, it’s Maxim, dude.

What word or phrase do you over-use?


PH: When I started reviewing for Maxim I made a vow that I would never use the phrase “Thrill Ride” and I never have. The word I use to much is “terrific,” also.

When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

PH: I wanted to be in the movies. I had a movie theatre in my room and would cut out newspaper ads and put them on the wall like they were posters at a theatre. I always wanted to be in this business and never considered anything else.

What is your most common concession stand purchase?

PH: Popcorn. Good theatre popcorn is becoming a lost art though but I never go to a theatre without getting some.

What has been your most bizarre movie-going experience?

PH: It was at the Bruin Theatre in Westwood, Calif. My friend and I saw Grease 2 and everytime Michelle Pfeiffer came on screen this guy directly in back of me would start making orgasmic sounds and kick my seat. EVERY TIME SHE CAME ON SCREEN.

I was afraid to turn around and see what he was doing but I can tell you I have always thought of Grease 2 as the only porno I ever saw in a theatre!