By day, Don Shanahan, 38, is a middle school teacher at Daystar School in the South Loop of Chicago. By night, he turns into a press-credentialed film critic.
The Forest Park resident of four years says he has always been interested in films but he originally dreamt of being a journalist as a teenager.
“I wanted to be Clark Kent,” Shanahan said with a laugh.
Instead, he decided upon teaching after a stint as a lifeguard during high school where he helped teach children and adults to swim.
“I really enjoyed the chance to help somebody overcome a fear…it [teaching] kind of grabbed me a little more, as much as it’s fun to write, this was impactful,” Shanahan said.
But he didn’t leave journalism or films behind entirely after high school.
In college, Shanahan worked for his school’s newspaper. He also worked at a video store and described himself as the “movie nerd friend” everyone has. Shanahan wrote film reviews throughout college.
When he graduated and became a teacher, Shanahan said he didn’t have time to write film criticism anymore. “I didn’t have an outlet to do that anymore so for about seven years after college I watched movies but I didn’t write,” he said.
Around 2009, Shanahan said he discovered Facebook and reconnected with old high school and college friends. Many of them asked if he still “did that movie stuff.” He told them he no longer had time for it. His friends suggested he start a blog and start posting reviews there.
“At the time, I’m like what the heck is a blog?” Shanahan said.
The blog he started almost 10 years ago is now the film review website “Every Movie Has a Lesson.” Shanahan incorporates his teaching background into his reviews by including a few lessons movie goers might pick up from the film.
The lessons can vary “from the serious to the farcical, so maybe it’s, ‘Hey don’t go down dark hallways, especially if you’re blond and it’s at night,'” Shanahan said, adding: “I always try to find three to five life lessons out of a film and incorporate that into my reviews.”
Many people view film criticism as a very subjective practice, Shanahan said. He said for him it is the opposite.
When reviewing films Shanahan keeps in mind what the film set out to accomplish.
“Pick a Transformers movie which is not trying to win best picture…but what’s it trying to do? Is it just trying to have a good time, blow stuff up and sell an audience on an entertaining experience?” he said.
Like many amateur film critics, Shanahan’s website did not attract many clicks at first.
But today he says his website has between 10,000 and 15,000 unique visitors each month.
For five years, Shanahan’s reviews were published on Examiner.com, which published music, entertainment and culture content before shutting down in 2016. The exposure helped to drive traffic to Shanahan’s website.
Shanahan applied with a local public relations company in Chicago to become a press credentialed film critic. The company reviewed his website in great detail, including his site’s audience reach and quality and quantity of his movie reviews.
Once he made the cut, he was eligible to be invited to review films before they were released to the general public.
“When I first started, only a couple of studios represented by that firm would send me invites…smaller independent labels like the Weinstein Company [now Lantern Entertainment] or Miramax but then all of a sudden Paramount would finally send me a title,” Shanahan said.
Though, Shanahan doesn’t get paid as a press credentialed film critic he said he does it for a few reasons: “It’s been fun…and I do enjoy the access but it’s the creative outlet. It’s the chance to flex the creative muscle and do something enriching,” he said.
Shanahan didn’t stop short of being a film critic. He, along with two other local film critics, started the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle three years ago.
“The goal was to create a second film critics association in the city for people who are more independent voices, more diverse voice,” Shanahan said.
He describes the Chicago Film Critics Association, which was founded in 1990 and has about 60 members, as the top-tier film critics association in Chicago. Yet, he says, they tend to produce print and TV rather than new media like podcasts.
They’re also not that diverse, Shanahan says.
“Most film criticism across the nation is middle-aged white men, myself included,” Shanahan said.
He said his group is about one-third “minorities, females or LGBT…I have to think that’s better than the other guys out there.”
Shanahan said his fledgling group struggles with gaining the respect that a more established like the Chicago Film Critics Association already has.
Some thought his group was just a fad and would disband, “so we’ve been able to try to increase our respect just by surviving,” Shanahan said.
Although the father of two doesn’t have much time between lesson plans and tucking his children in at night, he makes sure to review two films every week. This amounts to about 150 film viewings every year.