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Post Magazine: Movie Mom Nell Minow

Nell Minow
Monday, July 6, 2009 12:00 PM

Nell Minow has two lives. By day, she's a sharp-tongued, widely quoted expert on executive compensation and shareholder rights for a firm called the Corporate Library. But she's also known to hundreds of thousands of online followers and radio listeners as Movie Mom.

Minow took questions and comments July 6.

Movie Mom's Double Life(Post Magazine, July 5, 2009)

The transcript is below.

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Nell Minow: Hello everyone and welcome to the chat! I am happy to talk about anything -- corporate governance, overpaid executives, movies, kids, having two careers, whatever you like. I will type as fast as I can, sacrificing accuracy for speed, so bear with me on typos. Thanks so much for joining me.

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Portland, ME: What is this year's can't-miss movie?

Nell Minow: Oh, there are so many! I loved "Star Trek." Looking forward to "Avatar." But one I've recently enjoyed that will be opening soon is the bittersweet romance "500 Days of Summer."

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Portland, ME: Good governance depends heavily on the individuals involved in leading a company or board, their interactions, as well as the corporate structure and framework. Are there any examples of good governance role models that you can name from movies? People or entities? Thanks, Nell.

Nell Minow: Hello, Portland! Here are a couple of ideas. "Barbarians at the Gate" is a terrific made for HBO movie about a real-life governance crisis where a terrible board rose to the occasion and did the right thing (after their lawyers made them). "Executive Suite" is about a CEO succession battle between William Holden (idealistic WWII vet who believes in social responsibility) and Fredric March (green eyeshade-wearing CFO who believes in the bottom line). Barbara Stanwyk holds the proxies. Guess how it comes out!

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Arlington, VA: What can I do as a retail investor-- who has lost nearly half of my 401K nest egg-- to express my outrage over big executive pay raises being handed out at the big banks and the bank directors that are seemingly oblivious to their shareholders?

Nell Minow: Thanks, Arlington -- a great question. Are these individual stocks or mutual funds? If it is the latter, I suggest you look at our report (free) on which mutual funds are the worst offenders in supporting outrageous pay packages. Email info@thecorporatelibrary.com to get a copy. If yours is on the list, get in touch with your broker or 401(k) manager to ask for a copy of their proxy voting policies.

If you own individual stocks, start voting NO on members of the compensation committees on your proxy card. Vote NO on compensation plans at the TARP companies (they are required to seek shareholder support though it is non-binding). And write to your representatives to ask them to support Senator Schumer's bill that would give shareholders more oversight.

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Washington, D.C.: How do you gauge what age-range is appropriate for a given movie? do you have a certain set of criteria, or is it an overall impression?

Nell Minow: I wish I didn't have to do age ranges! Kids and families differ so widely. And I don't like the way Beliefnet has it set up. But everyone wants age recommendations. So, what I do is provide the information parents need to make their own decision about what is right for their family, based on the individual capacities of each child and their own values.

But my overall answer is that my age ranges are based on my reading and experience on developmental issues.

PG-13 is the toughest one. In general, my rule of thumb is that if the material is about the level you'd see on prime-time network television, I will recommend it for Middle Schoolers and up. If I think the material is more explicit or intense, I will say High School or Mature High School.

As for younger kids -- parents often say, "My kid is 8 but reading at a 6th grade level so he should be okay at a PG-13." Not true. Developmental issues go beyond reading ability. Children will tell you what you want to hear but just because they can repeat after you that "it's only pretend" does not mean that they really understand that -- even as late as age 9. And I tell parents never to say "it's over their heads" because #1 in the job description of being a kid is figuring out all the stuff that's over their heads and they don't make a distinction between what they should and should not be figuring out.

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Annapolis, Md: A few years back I took a film class and watched "loves of a blond". There is a part in the film where the mother transitions into an emotional wreck because her son has given a girl his home address - and the girl actually shows up. But the real beauty is that you can actually soak up details in the culture of that time and place.

Ever since then, I've been hooked on foreign films.

Amazon's foreign films are growing, and that is good. But the real gems are hard to find.

Do you know of any websites that offer secure access for buying hard to find foreign films? esp. Le Demenagement which is a comedy with a scene where the movers show up (they are Romanian and speak little French)and every tiny mundane aspect of the moving plan comes forward, then falls apart.

Nell Minow: Hello, Annapolis! I love international films, too. And one great pleasure is seeing the early work of a director like Milos Forman, who did "Loves of a Blonde," "Fireman's Ball" and others in what is now the Czech Republic before English-language films like "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and "Amadeus." Amazon and Netflix have the broadest possible access, but the problem is that many non-US films are just not available in US-compatible DVD formats. Off the record, you can sometimes find not strictly legal copies of otherwise unavailable films on Ebay.

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Time, time, time: How do you find TIME for both a real job and movie-review blogging?

Nell Minow: Well, my kids are grown up now. And my house is not exactly what my mother would like. But the answer is that both are part-time jobs and that means I have to be willing to miss a movie for a corporate governance event, as the article reported, or, this afternoon, miss a meeting for a movie. And be willing to live with the consequences. I am lucky to have colleagues in both jobs who are genuinely supportive of my working part-time. And even luckier to be married to the best guy ever, who helps me make it work and understands when it doesn't.

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Sterling, VA: The recent Transformers sequel features some pretty "out there" humor -- especially for a film aimed at kids. How did you feel about the use of the stereotypical "urban" robots (ebonics, gold-teeth, etc), and is that really something Hollywood should be getting away with?

Nell Minow: Hello, Sterling! I was very offended by the racist humor of the "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" sequel and in my review compared the characters to end men in a minstrel show. I also objected to the portrayal of the roommate. I always do my best to point out examples of racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of bigotry in my reviews and even have a separate bullet for that category in the summary that runs with each one.

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Northern VA: Who should play Bernie Madoff in the inevitable movie biopic?

Nell Minow: I love this question! How about Kevin Spacey?

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Movie-going ...: Do you always go on your own to see movies? Or do you take someone else along so you can discuss/debate afterward? Does a second opinion help, or does it hinder your ability to make up your own mind?

Nell Minow: One of the reasons I am always so cheerful at movie screenings is that even when the movie is no good I get to hang out with my fellow critics, who have become good friends. We have a very wide variety of perspectives and tastes, and I enjoy talking with them before and after a movie. My husband, children, and friends sometimes come with me and I like to hear what they have to say -- especially my brilliantly insightful husband, who lets me steal his ideas. I've never had a problem making up my own mind (some people would say that's not a good thing), which is why my husband says I have found not one but two careers where I express my views all the time, and hearing other people's ideas just helps me clarify my own thoughts.

A couple of other points -- I try not to pay attention to the reaction of the audience at screenings as I have found that contest-winners and other people who come before the movie opens are not a good predictor of what a paid audience will be like. And I taught my kids that we never make anyone feel bad for liking something. So when my friends or other critics or readers of my site write in to say that they liked some film I did not, I always tell them I am happy when someone sees more in a movie than I do.

Unless it's "Miss March." ;) Only two critics in the entire country liked that film, and they were both sitting near me. I still can't figure it out!

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New York, NY: Hi Nell, I appreciate your work and would hope that you would be even more forceful in calling out scams and scoundrels. How about a nightly show? I've got a question and a comment.

I own a nominal amount of shares of Johnson & Johnson. When I opened the proxy statment this year, I learned that Charles Prince, the former disgraced CEO of Citigroup, is on JNJ's board. Isn't this a tremendous outrage? Prince drove Citi into the ground and collected millions in compensation and he's rewarded and honored by JNJ, one of America's foremost companies?

Also what irks me about corporate America, is that the normal rules of corporate and human behavior don't seem to apply to senior management. For example, if an employee of Bear Stearns, let's say, was consistently late to work, he'd get fired. But Jim Cayne, the former CEO, can miss days or weeks at a time to play bridge (while the company is crumbling). I jokingly and truthfully say that even if I really tried, I couldn't cause as much damage as some of our CEOs. Thanks!!!

Nell Minow: I love your comment, and I agree! In my most recent testimony before the House Financial Services Committee, I recommended that the officers and directors of all the bailout companies should be barred from further service on public companies. It's like the definition of insanity -- doing the same thing and expecting a different result. How can we keep these guys in those jobs?

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Alexandria, VA: Ebert's average line (2 out of 4 stars) was that the movie delivered what it advertised, so if you paid to see a slasher flick, it better deliver some interesting slashin'. What's your average line?

Nell Minow: My average is a B-, which means the movie generally meets the expectations of its intended audience. That entitles it to a ripe tomato on rottentomatoes.com

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Falls Church, Va.: Nell,

No question. Just wanted to say that I always really enjoy you on Kevin's movie show on WJFK. Keep up the good work.

Nell Minow: Thanks for listening! I hope Kevin is online! I have a blast on his show.

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Chicago, IL: Hi, Nell! What do you think of the new board of directors appointments at the reborn Chrysler? And if I take my eight year old son to two movies this summer, what should they be?

Nell Minow: Hello, Chicago! Greetings to my home town. I am hopeful re the Chrysler board. If I had more time, I would now go into a small rant about the Daimler deal and what a mess it was.

I love 8-year-olds. I'd say "Up" and either "Ice Age 3" or "Monster vs. Aliens," though I have to warn you I enjoyed both of those a bit more than most critics did. Now's a great time to introduce him to some of the classics like the ones I listed in the article or like "Sandlot" or "Rookie of the Year." Go Cubs!

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Bethesda Mom: Is it hopeless to try to inject some rationality into the MPAA rating code? For example, I understand that more than one use of the "f word" automatically pushes a movie to an R rating; but so many PG/PG 13 movies have (to me) totally unacceptable levels of violence that are more offensive than expletives.

Nell Minow: Yes, it is hopeless to try to inject some rationality into the MPAA ratings code. There is a devastating documentary on the subject called "This Film is Not Yet Rated."

Actually, you can now have two f-words in a PG-13 as long as they do not refer to sex. You'd need a PhD in semiotics to figure out that approach. Then there is their distinction between "action violence" (no blood, okay in PG-13) and "graphic violence" (blood, body parts flying off). For me, action violence is just as bad because it is consequenceless.

Every family has different tolerance levels for sex, violence, language, etc. For me, it is all about context, and I try to keep that in mind when I caution parents about what is in each film I review.

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Harry Potter: The books got darker over the course of the series, and rumor has it the movies will also continue to get scarier. Any word on whether the upcoming installment will be too frightening for kids?

Nell Minow: I will be seeing it a week from today and you can check with me then. But I gather than the movies will follow the books -- the very sad deaths and increased violence included.

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Alexanria,VA: What young adult books would you love to be seen made into a movie? I'm thinking the Mysterious Benedict Society would be wonderful

Nell Minow: I wrote an article about the YA books I love -- there are so many. I'd love to see "Phantom Tollbooth" made into a movie. Or the Redwall series. Or "The Iron Ring." And lots more!

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Weston, WI: I am a bit surprised by Ice Age III. It bills itself as a family movie; yet there is genital pulling and homophobic jokes in it. Would you consider that family fare? Thank you.

Nell Minow: Hello, Weston. I was troubled by the crude humor and the laughing gas in "Ice Age 3." And I have written a column about my concerns about pervasive homophobic humor in PG films. In this one, I felt it was more schoolyard gender crudity that is typical of that age group than virulent.

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Washington, DC: Thank you for inspiring this government lawyer who is a mom and aspiring writer.

I'm wondering, what does "part time" actually mean? How many hours do you put into each job? How many hours were you able to devote to each when your children were younger?

Nell Minow: Until my youngest child was a senior in high school, when I became the movie critic for Yahoo, both jobs together totaled about 25-30 hours a week. Now, I'd say they add up to a full-time job.

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Princeton Junction, NJ: If your life were made into a biopic and you could choose the actress to play you in the lead role, who would it be?

Nell Minow: Is Lauren Bacall still available?

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Alexandria, VA: What are your favorite classic movies to introduce to 5-6 year olds

Nell Minow: I started my kids with movies like "The Court Jester" and "The Great Race" along with all the Disney and Pixar classics and MGM musicals like "Singin' in the Rain." I used to put on a MomFest every year, with films relating to the kids' interests or our travels or other adventures. I fell in love with all my favorites all over again, introducing them to our children.

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Washington, D.C.: From one critic to another, we sure do love seeing you at the theater several evenings a week and then on our TVs every other evening! You're not just the Movie Mom, you're sort of like our Movie Mom too. Thanks!

B

Nell Minow: Aw, shucks. I love hanging out with my critic buddies.

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Fairfax, VA: hey hey hey! "Miss March" was funny! - haha one of the 2 critics that was sitting near you! - Kevin

Nell Minow: Kevin, I love you, but that movie was awful!

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SEC Refor, MS: What interesting professional lives you have! The SEC certainly seemed to be missing in action in the past. What key reforms do you think it needs to make if it is to increase its ability to protect the interests of shareholders in the future ?

Nell Minow: Ever since it began in 1933/34, the SEC has been limited to requiring disclosure rather than being able to impose substantive requirements. And corporate governance has been a matter of state law, on the theory that this would mean healthy competition. But in practice it has been famously termed a "race to the bottom" with Delaware as the management-and-board-friendly state where almost all major companies (and even mine) are incorporated. It's time to think about whether national and international corporations should be able to forum shop to Delaware, the Caymans, or other places to get the benefit of laws that protect them from meaningful oversight by shareholders and regulators.

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Potomac Falls, VA: Hi Nell-- I am more a fan of "smaller" independent-minded films and was curious if there are any good ones out in theaters right now (or coming soon) for those who have no interest in "Transformers 2" and similar special effects-driven summer movies. Thanks. I very much enjoy reading your reviews.

Nell Minow: Thanks so much! I just mentioned "500 Days of Summer," which I really enjoyed. Looking forward to the acerbic satire "In the Loop" as well.

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Fairfax, VA: Nell,

Would you consider WALL-E a good movie for a young child? I know it is a PIXAR film but it was such an adult film, i.e. barely any dialogue and just an overall darker theme about human society.

Thanks,

Your Friend Kevin McCarthy!

Nell Minow: It depends on how young, Kevin. Some kids are better at visual processing but others need dialogue. My two year old friend Riley watches it about once every other day, so I'd say that it depends on the child.

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Watertown, Mass.: Howdy, Nell! Where can the average person learn more about corporate governance, and how s/he can make a positive difference? So many of us feel so powerless...

Nell Minow: Very timely! The brand-new Shareholders Education Network was just launched with money from court settlements in corporate fraud cases and I am on the advisory board. Check out shareowners.org -- you can friend me there!

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Washington, DC: Can you advise me on a way to get fellow movie-goers to stop talking or texting on their cell phones during a film, without my getting arrested? Thank you very much.

Nell Minow: This drives me NUTTY!! I can't abide lack of courtesy in any form and I blame the Blackberry for somehow making it seem okay to interrupt whatever is going on to check and send messages. It isn't!

See if you can get the theater manager to put the ushers on to this. And I hope it works.

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McLean, VA: Our family watches a lot of movies. One of our old favorites is "Court Jester." It was nice to see that on your list of favorites, too!

washingtonpost.com: Movie Mom's Must-See and Must-Avoid Family Films (Post Magazine, July 5, 2009)

Nell Minow: Thanks! I truly love that movie and I am thrilled to hear from another fan.

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Washington, DC: Do you enjoy Sacha Baron Cohen? I find his comedy genius and can't wait for Bruno to come out. Of course, this is not for kids whatsoever. But many people are turned off by his humor. If they understood that what is funny ISN'T him, but the people that he exposes, maybe they'd get the humor. In the same vein, I loved Tropic Thunder precisely for this reason. The movie skewers actors who take mentally challenged roles only to garner acting awards. Yet many people focused on the use of the word retard or Robert Downey Jr. using black face and calling the movie racist/bigoted. It most certainly is not. How do you feel?

Nell Minow: I do enjoy outrageous humor, more "Tropic Thunder" than "Borat," which was very funny but it seemed to me some of the humor was too cheap. It was interesting to me that almost no one objected to the Downey's playing an actor pretending to be black but there were a lot of objections to the use of the term "retard" -- despite the fact that it was entirely clear that the movie was critical of the person using the term and the actors who grandstand in disabled roles. I wrote about it a lot on my site. And I'm hoping "Bruno" will be good!

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D.C.: Do you have a "comfort movie?" One that isn't going to win any awards but that you return to again and again?

BF

Nell Minow: I did a list of comfort movies for Beliefnet:

http://www.beliefnet.com/Entertainment/Movies/2009/01/Top-10-Comfort-Movies.aspx

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Washington, D.C.: Do you have a favorite genre? And what is your favorite film of all time? I'm putting you on the spot!

Nell Minow: I love all movies with great dialog, enthralling stories, and authentic characters. And my favorite movie is "The Philadelphia Story" -- can't beat Tracy/Hepburn/Stewart/Cukor/Barry! My other 499 favorite movies are in my book. Maybe I'll write another book with another 500 someday!

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Sterling, VA: I am the other critic in the country who liked "Miss March." Comedy is so subjective, and I can't help but admit that I laughed a lot during that movie. "The Hangover," meanwhile, left me straight-faced and annoyed. To each his own, I suppose. I am looking forward to seeing "Miss March" again on Blu-Ray to make sure it wasn't a fluke the first time. Love ya, Nell!

Nell Minow: Love ya, too, Dustin! And I hated the movie but enjoyed your review.

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New York, N.Y.: Are there any good comedies left? It seems to me comedies mean gross humor or adult themes, which is fine for adults or college students. Yet even films marketed for children seem to be either inane or go for the "gross humor".

Nell Minow: I am hoping that "In the Loop" is as funny as its trailer -- that's my favorite kind of humor, sharp, satiric, devastating.

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Princeton Junction, NJ: I've heard a lot of criticisms of the "Wall Street walk," including from you, Bob Monks and certain SEC Commissioners. But, on a theoretical basis, doesn't a properly-functioning capital market need a large portion of investors to perform the Wall Street walk in order to get efficient pricing and ensure differentiation? I can appreciate how an owner wants to help shape his/her investment, but at some point, if the company decides on a different strategy, isn't it time to walk your capital over to the competitor who embraces your strategy?

Nell Minow: Hello, New Jersey! These days, the majority of stock in public companies is held by enormous institutional investors like pension funds and mutual funds. They are so big that they are de facto or de jure indexed, essentially permanent holders in everything. Yes, market liquidity demands and will always require the kinds of buying and selling you describe. But is there are reason that, as John Bogle told me recently, some mutual funds have 200-300 percent turnover in a year? Isn't that more likely to be fueled by transaction fees rather than investment strategy? And if you want to buy low and sell high, why would you sell out of a depressed stock if by intervening to improve governance and pay you could spend less and make more?

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The movie skewers actors who take mentally challenged roles only to garner acting awards: Frankly, I took this job just for the pay. That's reasonable, so let's let the actors have the same rights to pick the work they want. I try not to get smug about my freinds' jobs, let's do the same for actors.

Nell Minow: Everyone has the right to pick the work they want. I picked a job that permits me to comment on the work they do.

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Re: the new Harry Potter movie: I was astonished to see that HP and the Half-Blood Prince is rated PG -- not PG-13 like the last couple of Harry Potter movies. I don't know how they managed to un-PG-13 the upcoming movie, because it is one seriously scary book! How can this be?

Nell Minow: Not sure -- but the MPAA seems to be ratcheting down again, allowing a lot more in PGs than in the past. I'll be reporting on that after I see the movie next week. I love the Potter books and movies. Can't wait.

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Portland, ME: I know there are too many to choose from, but what is an example of an egregious corporate governance incident that may not have received as much publicity as some others?

Nell Minow: The wonderful Michelle Leder of footnoted.org uncovered one that is really over the top -- at Chesapeake Energy, not only is the CEO one of the highest paid in the world ($100 million last year)

Nell Minow: but he got his board to buy his collection of antique maps for over $12 million. They said the maps were an essential part of the corporate culture. The valuation was based on the appraisal of the same consultant who advised the CEO on assembling the collection. Really, outrageous.

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Alexandria, VA: I'm a fan of foodie movies (Big Night, Mostly Martha, Babette's Feast) and we have a couple of nice children's books that focus on preparing meals. Is there anything you might suggest that is food and kid friendly?

Nell Minow: I also love foodie movies and you've named some of my favorites! For older kids, possibly "No Reservations." For younger kids, the upcoming "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs!"

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Princeton Junction, NJ: For all of the focus on the bad actors in corporate America, there are probably more companies out there doing things the right way and doing good things in their communities. How can those companies shift the focus from executive compensation (which, even at those companies, tends to appear larger than most people can comprehend) during times of populist outrage and not get lumped into the same group as the bad actors? Thanks.

Nell Minow: If pay rises and falls with performance it will be credible.

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Valencia, PA: Are there any new movies that have story lines that aren't inane but just enjoyable and entertaining? Ones you might recommend to a geriatric uncle or aunt.

Nell Minow: When in doubt, try a documentary. The upcoming documentary about Gertrude Berg from DC film-maker Aviva Kempner looks very good.

http://blog.beliefnet.com/moviemom/2009/07/gertrude-berg-television-pione.html

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Another "must see": The Princess Bride

Nell Minow: I love "The Princess Bride" -- and the book is even better!

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Baltimore, MD: How did you get into the movie reviewing business? Movies and films have always been a passion of mine so I was wondering if you had and tips or suggestions as well?

Nell Minow: Hello, Baltimore! I just started writing reviews and went on from there. I have learned that 90% of getting the career you want is just having the audacity to begin and the dedication to do the work. If you act as if you have the job, and that means turning out 2-3 reviews a week for years and building an audience, eventually everyone will forget that you gave the job to yourself.

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Nell Minow: This has been a wonderful group! Many thanks, and email any other questions to me at moviemom@moviemom.com or nminow@thecorporatelibrary.com

Thanks to Amanda, the chat producer, Christian Ianzito, who wrote a terrific article making me look much more accomplished than I deserve, and to all of you for being here.

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