Every Saturday, a team of 10 USC School of Cinematic Arts graduate students, including David Freedman (TV production), Salim Lemelle (screenwriting) and Rachel Applebaum (acting), film five full episodes of a roundtable review series called Just Seen It.
The show aims to deliver “reviews you can use” by sorting new movies and television shows into three categories: See It, Stream It and Skip It. Producer David Freedman has overseen the production of more than 350 episodes and has recently orchestrated a move from online distribution to regular PBS airings.
“I was sitting in Café 84,” Freedman recalled, “and I was listening to three film students who had just seen a movie — no, I don’t remember what the movie was — but they were arguing vehemently about it, and they were making very passionate, very intelligent, informative comments. I thought, ‘this is very interesting.’”
Freedman then came up with an idea for a review show centered on student artists arguing intelligently about contemporary culture.
One of the only producers in his MFA program, Freedman “started corralling people [he] knew and really liked to film a pilot” in December 2010. He shopped the episode around and drew the interest of a basic cable executive, who started developing the show. Freedman’s team began filming weekly spots and growing an Internet fan base, eventually getting picked up by PBS.
Freedman, who had grown up watching Siskel and Ebert’s At The Movies, felt that “informative, smart, educational reviews” were missing from the contemporary conversation, especially on television. Just Seen It gives a democratic spin to your typical review: Settling on three cast members per episode, Freedman’s goal is not to present a point/counterpoint but rather a discussion. With 10 dedicated students in the roster — from undergraduates to Ph.D. candidates — Just Seen It aims to “cover a lot of different perspectives.”
“We don’t memorize lines,” Lemelle said. “We don’t rehearse anything. We write a review where we break it down into three sections: writing, acting and production. Then the director makes bullet points for each reviewer based off what we said, and all we do in prep is read the bullet points. We save our comments for the show because we want it to be a real conversation.”
This balance of preparedness and spontaneity makes for an informed discussion that doesn’t feel dry to viewers.
Applebaum stresses that the show is structured so that viewers can see their own perspectives reflected in the conversation. For instance, if she’s reviewing a horror film, she approaches the film from the perspective of a “novice,” while Lemelle might represent the horror aficionado.
“What’s cool is that we don’t only just review the things we want to see,” Freeman said. “Mostly we review what fits into our schedule … so you’ve got a broader range of responses. Frequently, a reviewer will bash on a movie but then give it a ‘See It’ verdict by saying, ‘If this is your kind of movie, you’re gonna love it.’”
This is consistent with the show’s core values. As film students and young artists themselves, the team members understand the vast amount of passion and effort that goes into making just a couple of hours of entertainment.
“We’re always respectful,” Freedman said. “We clearly feel and understand how difficult it is to make a movie or a TV show, and when we give something a ‘Skip It,’ we don’t do it lightly. We really believe it’s not worth your time and money.”
Freedman warns, though, that studios are doing everything they can to control “the Twitter effect” on bad movies.
“If a movie is really bad, they won’t have a screening for it,” he said. “Or they’ll have a screening the night before the movie comes out.”
Good movies will get screenings well in advance with no reporting embargoes: They seek to cultivate buzz. But Freedman warns that, by limiting the reporting on less-promising movies, “studios are doing a disservice to themselves” and their potential audiences. Some films might benefit from a positive, practical review format like that of Just Seen It, and viewers will know ahead of time if a movie will suit their personal tastes.
Applebaum stresses, however, that Just Seen It reviewers are not solely focused on objective, academic criticism.
“We’re giving analysis too,” Applebaum added. “Not necessarily ‘film school’ analysis, but like if a plot doesn’t move and you’re a plot person, now you know that the plot doesn’t move, but it’s a character-driven piece, and if you’re watching for good performance then you’ll enjoy that.”
Applebaum hopes that Just Seen It will help elevate the entertainment industry by holding artists accountable.
“It’s nice to be pointed toward something that will inspire you, instead of thinking ‘Wow, Hollywood is making a lot of crap,’” she said.
Just Seen It’s reviewers are becoming more inspired by television shows as well. Unlike Siskel and Ebert, Freedman’s cast reviews TV pilots and gives retrospective analysis of shows that are on hiatus.
“We really are in the golden age of television,” Lemelle remarked. “Each episode is a mini movie now and it’s incredible … that is really where a lot of the interesting and fascinating things are happening in media.”
Television is central to Freedman’s own artistic vision: “I want to tell a 10-year story; I don’t want to tell a two-hour story.”
So far, his two-year story has been an incredibly rewarding experience.
“We’re the only ones who review movies the way people actually digest movies and TV shows now, and that’s See It, Stream It, Skip It. We’re a machine, and it’s just so much fun doing the shows now.”
Just Seen It has been picked up by PBS through 2012. It airs Saturdays at 6 p.m. and can be found online at JustSeenIt.com.