“All of us who professionally use the mass media are the shapers of society. we can vulgarize that society. We can brutalize it. Or we can help lift it onto a higher level.” – William Bernbach
“The public have an insatiable curiosity to know everything. Except what is worth knowing. Journalism, conscious of this, and having tradesman-like habits, supplies their demands.” – Oscar Wilde
So you want to be a film journalist? Only an insane person would answer yes to that question, which coincidently happens to be one of the most useful requisites of the job.
Having experienced the challenges of getting started (then restarted) in the field I've taken some pleasure answering advice-seeking emails over the years. That's not hand-wringing glee at pummelling another innocent soul with the reality they face. Given the general competitiveness of the business of journalism one would think the best thing you could do is dissuade any new freelancers from helping themselves to a slice of the pie. In fact, with that thought in mind I can hardly believe I’m gonna write the rest of this article…
Nevertheless, you expressed an interesting in becoming a film journalist. What comes first? Above all else a passion for film goes without say. It’s got to be even more than this though, there’s an extent to which you have to be obsessive compulsive about cinema, the culture and history, not to mention the personalities. It’s not the be all and end all, I’ve read critics along the way for whom film comes some way down the pecking order but whom can offer the most intelligent analysis of a film you’ll see anywhere. Some are just smart like that, unfortunately not I.
That isn’t the only purpose of a film journalist though, yours is to know the business and its players as thoroughly as possible. Hopefully as a consumer of a wide variety of media you will also have a strong grasp of society, culture and politics more broadly, if only so you can locate films within contexts crucial to their reading.
I’ve harked on about this previously, but it’s so important to get involved with your local community of filmmakers and give yourself a better understanding of what motivates these creatives to expose themselves to critical eyes. ‘Know your enemy’ is not really applicable because no filmmaker should be your enemy – with the exception of Lars von Trier for some, Michael Bay for others – the principle, however, is sound. A little humility goes a long way when it comes to reviewing the labours of so many; it’s a helluva lot harder to build something from nothing than to tear it down.
Assuming you have a grounding of knowledge the next thing is reading and research. Pick writers whose work challenge and entertain you, keep them in your regular cycle of weekly reads. Figure out what it is about their style and structure that works and experiment with similar variations in your own writing. Find a range of writers to follow from different publications, with different audiences because as a writer you’re going to have to adapt your style depending on who is gonna help you pay your bills (did I mention the year I was writing for a paranormal magazine?). Course, you have to find your own voice too, but be aware that no matter what it’ll have influences, better you at least know where some of them come from.
Reading a number of different websites and magazines will give you a broad knowledge of what’s happening in the world of film as a whole: from mainstream consumer magazines like Empire to industry websites such as The Hollywood Reporter and indieWIRE or blogs such as Deadline: Hollywood and /Film for news; in-depth critical analysis from journal magazine such as Sight & Sound to major broadsheets such as The Guardian and New York Times. The more you read the more equipped you’ll be to have an informed opinion.
As if that wasn’t enough homework to get you started my next suggestion is to know your local writing industry. It might be because I’m pretty anal about these things, when I first arrived in Australia I spent hours on Google navigating all the film content producer websites and blogs (I'm not going to tell who who they are, but there's a list of links to the right ----->), finding out who was who, where the talent was and, quite frankly, where the money was – because getting paid for your words is the one of the points of this exercise. Besides all that, I think it polite and professional to have an idea of your peers in the industry given that your voice isn’t geographically singular. Knowing who the other writers are will help you fill gaps in your contacts list (we’ll come to that shortly) and give you your own sense of community – it can be daunting going to those early screenings and junkets not knowing anyone. The advent of Twitter has made it a lot easier for us to communicate and meet each other in ways that might have seemed a little creepy before.
Part of the research you’ll need to do is wrapped up in the above, the rest has to do with building your contacts book from filmmakers, curators, screen organizations, publicists to editors. Hopefully by this point you should have stretched your legs with a bit of writing, a blog is a very helpful avenue to explore your style. So first up email all the editors of websites and magazines you’d like to write for explaining why and including samples (best is links) to some of your writing (short pieces only, no editor is going to read a 2,000 word essay on Bergman). Don’t forget, your email will be taken as a piece of writing so be engaging.
If you are looking at journalism as a fulltime option then work experience is definitely the way to go. Getting an insiders look will give you a big advantage when it comes to freelancing as a lots of writers who haven’t worked on a publication basically ignore a lot of the style points (filmmakers or film-makers?) which drives editors crazy when editing and formatting articles. It will also give you an appreciation for the amount of administration that goes on in putting together a publication, from purchase orders to invoices, flat-plans to forward plans, picture editing to transcription… all the really fun stuff... ahem.
Once you’ve got in with an editor and have an outlet to file your work for, next to contact are the publicists, which means figuring out all the distributors (Disney, Sony, Paramount, Madman, Hopscotch etc) and sometimes the PR firms who handle the press on their behalf. Bear in mind theatrical and home entertainment are two completely separate entities, so if you’re expecting check discs (or ‘screeners’) to start pouring through the front door that’s going to take a little more work.
As the online domain has grown exponentially it’s become a little trickier to get onto mailing lists for screenings, so when you email a publicist make sure you say who your editor is and provide them as a reference (don’t forget to let the editor know). There’s two or three tiers of screening, first is often exhibitors and marketing people. Next is ‘long-lead’ media (monthly magazines) and then finally ‘short-lead’ (online, radio, tv, weeklies etc), the latter of which comes around a week or two before the release date*. All distributors have slightly different styles and attitudes (embargoes etc), be prepared to adjust accordingly.
* Speaking of release dates, there’s heaps of info online, but the distributors also send around schedules. I try to use these to keep my own master release schedule for the coming six months so I can work on feature ideas in advance.
Back to editors for a moment, there’s a couple of things they are looking for from writers beyond being an entertaining read so keep in mind: clean copy will get you everywhere; formatted to magazine style; on time, on time, on time. Once you’ve started getting reviews in the bag and proved yourself not only as a writer but also for your reliabillty, it won’t be long before you get asked to do an interview.
You’ll be needing a microphone and some kind of recording device (or something that does both). For the past few years I’ve used my iPod with an iTalk, which is perfect for me. MP3 Dictaphones are also really good and for a while I’d use both after one heinous failure to record incident. Which bring me to another piece of advice, test your equipment before your interview and check intermittently during the interview the device is recording.
I interviewed Alejandro González Iñárritu for 21 Grams way back when, nervous fiddling caused me to pause my recorder right at the start and I didn’t check it once during. It was a 30-minute interview and as soon as I realised having got off the phone I had to write as much as I could from memory (aided by fact there were many stock answers from the director). Unsurprisingly it became more of a ‘mood piece’, which actually worked out fine for that particular film.
How do you record telephone interviews? Two ways, the first is by finding a bit of spyware which is simply a microphone that goes into your recording device then into your ear – look out for the Olympus TP-7. The second way is to use Skype and a recording program such as Audio Hijack or Pamela Call Recorder (HT @gerardelson).
These days 15-20 minutes are pretty standard interview slots, which isn’t a lot to work with so you got to be prepared. Research the hell out of your subject and be prepared with 10-12 questions – if you get a chatty subject you’ll be lucky to get in eight questions, while someone with jetlag might leave you with no questions left and five minutes to run. Be prepared to think outside the box or tear up your script. If the subject gets excited about a particular topic of conversation, stick with it. I was a door-to-door salesman one summer when I was 19 and they call it looking for the ‘Hot Spot’.
Ten minutes of interview transcription will normally run you around 1,000 words (you will certainly use only half of the material you get). Transcription, as you may come to discover, is what you will do more of than anything else as a journalist, perhaps with the exception of chasing money. I regret not keeping up with my shorthand, but our NCTJ teacher was a scary.
Which reminds me, Media Law – you do well to at least teach yourself a little about libel, slander, fair comment and do your best to afford the first two. I’m not, however, going to tell you how to write an article other than offering a couple of tips:
1) Avoid quote dumping to pad your article out, the point is to tell the story in your own words with a few quotes to qualify them or when something is particularly interesting. Anything else is laziness and if you don’t like excessive exposition in your films, imagine how readers feel about excessive quote dumping.
2) Give your editor a couple of headline ideas to use and a standfirst – they will love you for it.
3) Try keep your first par down to 80 words and drop your first quote in the second or third. It's by no means a strict formula, but it's a good start to habitualise. Struggling to lose words? Chances are the first and last pars are surplus to requirement.
4) Never, ever, write in the first person for any publication other than your own blog, unless you are Roger Ebert, then you can pretty much do whatever the hell you like.
5) Always try to sleep on any article before submitting. A bit of distance helps proof-reading immensely, otherwise you just read whatever you intended to write.
Back to interview technique, I really want to say this and can't state how important it is: do not be afraid to ask tough questions of your subjects. You're not there to fan their ego, that's what they have assistants, agents and fans for. Your job is to get the story, find something of value for your readers that 20 other daytime television faces at the junket didn't bother looking for. Be challenging and ask difficult questions, especially if the content matter of the film provokes it. If you're interviewing Cameron Diaz about her latest rom-com it's probably not necessary to resort to waterboarding in the hotel bathroom. A smart filmmaker will respect you for being engaged while the assholes will give great colour for your piece.
Point is, if you've got a burning question in mind but are scared the interview with be cut short or turn competely pear-shaped, earn trust from the subject by warming them up and build toward that tricky question. Save enough time at the end of the interview so you can follow up. Chances are if you're scared to ask something, you're probably on the right track*.
* I will not be held responsible for any loss of earnings as a result of this advice.
And I highly recommend reading as many interviews with the subject as possible to find out what makes them tick and what their default answers are. Read the production notes for the film and as soon as the subject falls into retelling quotes you've seen elsewhere, cut them off as quickly as possibly and ask a question that throws them off guard.
Feels like I've given you plenty to get started, so some final thoughts. Journalism takes perseverance, film journalism is no exception to that rule. Other useful tidbits: try and join a trade union, they will help you out when errant publishers aren't paying you; and only sell first serial rights, never sign-off on ownership to your work.
The little issues matter, you are a part of the film industry in your suburb, your city and your country. If faced with the choice between Avatar 2 opening weekend and your local single screen cinema closing down, guess which is the biggest story?
As a journalist you have influence, however small. Know that even with only a little power comes great responsibility. This post is by no means exhaustive, I'm could write a book about the magazine's I've written for, the ones that folded, the maniacal publishers, the dastardly accountants, the brilliant editors and the alcoholic writers. It's hard work, but it's damn fun too.
Good night, and good luck.
This article was written as part of the #OzFilmBlogathon.
Monday, December 13, 2010
“All of us who professionally use the mass media are the shapers of society. we can vulgarize that society. We can brutalize it. Or we can help lift it onto a higher level.” – William Bernbach
Monday, December 6, 2010
"I am out here for you. You don't know what it's like to be me, out here for you. It is a pride-swallowing siege I will never fully tell you about." Jerry Maguire
As proud as I am of my profession, the older I have gotten the more reticent I have become about telling people. Without fail the next up question is a variation of the following: "so you get paid to watch movies?" Well, yes, but no. Not at all in fact. If I did get paid to simply watch movies I'd probably have been able to retire by this point.
The same as any type of journalist, I get paid for producing words – literally, seen as most publications pay by the word and not by the article. Sometimes those words are about a specific film (criticism), sometimes a news story (reportage), and the rest are usually interviews or profiles (features). Each article type is very particular and demands very different writing skills. A great news writer cannot necessarily turn around a great feature or review and the same is true in reverse.
I never enjoyed news writing that much and truth be told I've never been particularly good at it. I enjoy reportage, chasing a story and getting interviews, it's the formality of the write-up that gets me. My strong suit isn't really in criticism either. This is my confession, I don't particularly think I'm a very good critic. What I do think is that I can tell a story well and with a nice turn of phrase. As such, I love meeting filmmakers, actors, musicians, cultural curators, festival organisers and telling their story to the world, or at least the very small population of Planet Earth who frequent the pages of my publications.
These are still the glamour parts of the profession, and even then sometimes writing can become very unglamorous. I can't remember ever having written so much and enjoyed writing so little as I did for the most part of 2009. It was my first full year in Sydney, although I'd initially arrived in 2008 I'd also spent some six months living and working on the mountains of New Zealand and a farm in Victoria.
Returning to Sydney in January of 2009 I began setting up a film journalism career from scratch and by the time the year was out I'd written enough words that printed out in Helvetica Neue size 12 they would reach from here to the moon and back*. I'm a pretty fast writer, but at that velocity you don't get much time for proof-reading, pleasure or watching movies (although I actually watched 230).
* statistic maybe factually inaccurate.
It was a far cry from my heady heights as a commissioning editor on DVD Review. What I loved about that role was working with other writers, coming up with ideas, collaborating with the magazine designers and refining feature articles so they read the best they possibly could. Across from the DVD Review desk was the Hotdog team, where my best friend Tristan Burke was the Deputy Editor. After Hotdog folded, Tristan moved to Sydney and onto music journalism, eventually being made Editor of 3D World.
Hard as this might be for many here in Sydney to imagine, but that was one publishing company (Paragon Publishing) with two film magazines and around 10 full-time film journalists – there were at least six monthly consumer film and four DVD magazines in the market at the time (not to mention academic and B2B titles). The pay was dreadful but we didn't give a shit. All we cared about was putting out the best magazines possible and what interviews we were getting.
I fought hard to realign DVD Review a little closer to the cinephile side of our readership rather than the multiplex-in-their-living-room types that was our core readership. Two of the proudest moments in my career were the Jim Henson feature I ran, which included dynamite interviews from The Henson Company – including Steve Whitmore, discovered by Henson as a 16-year old puppeteer and who would eventually takeover as Kermit – and the black and white Martin Scorsese cover that to this day I still can't believe our Editor Paul Morgan signed off on.
Paul was very mainstream with his taste and correctly resolute in keeping the magazine in that territory, but he trusted his team and was willing to take chances if you argued a good case. To this day he is still the best editor I've ever worked with even if he flat refused my arguments for a Shawshank Redemption cover when the special edition was released (I so wanted the rain-drenched hero shot to be our cover that month).
The relationship between journalist and editor can be amazing in the right circumstances. I made a point of engaging with my writers, believing every feature article to be a collaborative effort. Like a sportsperson and their coach, it's all about helping a talented individual reach their potential – God knows I can used all the help I can get. Lately I've had more bad experiences with editors than good. Lucky for me I still know a few good ones.
Making magazines about movies was such an immense and rewarding pleasure that I can't accept the thought of the industry's demise and nor do I. My suspicion is tablet devices are the future of publishing, they may even usurp the world wide web, however I am unshakable in my belief there will always be room for great niche magazines in the same way I suspect vinyl will outlast the CD. And besides, there will always be something special about paper and ink.
* Random aside: 5 favourite interviews in my career (in no particular order and apologies it's so guy-centric):>
1. Michael Ironside
"My dad turned to me and said you had a game plan there for a while, which was I’d do a large studio picture and then go do a few small ones; one for my wallet and a couple for my heart. I gotta a funny feeling this one will satisfy both." We talked for around an hour and half, though scheduled for 30 minutes on Total Recall, only reason we stopped was he'd promised to pick up his gran kids from school.
2. Michel Gondry
"I’ve had my heart broken two or three times since. It’s hard, but sometimes it makes me happy because it helped me make this film." And hour and half late, terribly hungover after a night out in London with John Malkovich, Gondry and I lamented our failed relationships while discussing Eternal Sunshine.
3. Danny Boyle
"I think the scale of the film was too much for me, well, not too much, rather I just didn’t work at my best at that kind of scale. I’m good at inspiring people on a one to one basis, and you can’t do that when you’ve got a crew of 300 people, it’s just insane. So after I finished I went to Manchester and made a couple of really small films on mini-DV. What brought that technology onto 28 Days Later, it was like a training exercise." Very intelligent and honest, Boyle was open to any question including those on The Beach.
4. Paul VerhoevenJust cos he was so damn cool and directed some of the best science fiction films in history. This was my fanboy interview.
5. Christopher Doyle
"The resonance of cinema is the extrication of the personality of the image-maker with the person behind the camera.... The whole reason people makes films is to try and share something, to engage and celebrate some idea that is so basic and integral to who the person is that they have to make a film about it. Writing a book is a little bit easier...." Drunk as a skunk, sharp as a whip, completely brilliant.
Greatest missed opportunity? Oliver Stone, who I was due to interview for Alexander. This interview meant a lot to me, I'd written my undergrad thesis on Stone and the day before we were scheduled for a one-on-one he'd been at the film's press conference at London's Dorchester on Park Lane. I decided to pass on introducing myself, you know, because I was playing it cool. Sadly, irritated by the critical pounding his film was taking Stone jumped on a plane with Colin Farrell bound for Ireland, no doubt to get pissed on the best Guinness in the world.
Despite the above, remember the words of Bob Sugar: "It's not showfriends, it's showbusiness."
If you survive long enough you will inevitably become more familiar with some filmmakers, maybe even an actor or two (probably not, they are a different breed from most humans). Mostly though you are just a tool the studios and their publicists use to spread word about the products they wish to sell, and to be able to do your job as a journalist you need to see things from a distance as much as humanly possible. Seeking filmmaker approval by Tweeting your positive reviews @them in hope of carrying future favour is unsightly – try to avoid this.
I'm pretty hardline about such things. If you don't like seeing American 'journalists' on Fox News pander to Republican politicians, asking easy questions so they'll come back on the show, then always be aware there is supposed to be a line that divides us. This is not the barrier of celebrity and audience, which Twitter has seemingly destroyed. It is that of journalist and subject, especially if you are to be trusted as one.
"Critics are the only thing standing between consumers and advertising," says Stephanie Zacharek of Salon.com.
I couldn't agree more. And when people doubt the role you play as a critic they fail to realise the extent to which every waking moment of the day they are beset on all sides by omnipresent marketing devices. How can you seek to address the balance if you're not completely 100 per cent honest with yourself, let alone your readers? See Bill Cunningham New York and you will understand.
The above may or may not apply to you, it depends on your goals are as a film journalist. I've certainly been far from perfect in my career: swanky hotels, junket gifts, promise of access, all little sub-conscious brides I've taken alone the way. That's just how the system works, doesn't it?
In the words of Lester Bangs: "You cannot make friends with the rock stars. That's what's important. If you're a rock journalist - first, you will never get paid much. But you will get free records from the record company. And they'll buy you drinks, you'll meet girls, they'll try to fly you places for free, offer you drugs... I know. It sounds great. But they are not your friends. These are people who want you to write sanctimonious stories about the genius of the rock stars, and they will ruin rock and roll and strangle everything we love about it."
So very true. But I realise I've digressed significantly.
The reason I raise these issues is Sydney seems, to me at least, to have exploded with film writers in the past two years. Given the lack of outlets and the old timers who are entrenched at the crease, as it were, it is very difficult to make a living profession out of this trade unless you are extraordinarily talented, impossibly hardworking or exceptionally lucky.
Where you see yourself in the spectrum is entirely your own business and there should be room in this country of 20 million people for a range of writers and outlets in this industry. But like Australian films, producers of film commentary are in danger of being sidelined by our cousins in the UK and the US. It makes sense given the marketing budgets of studios in those countries are significantly bigger. The internet means they will always be the first to get access, while we are lucky to get access at all.
The import of foreign magazines make it even harder for Australian publishers to compete. That some of the major publications syndicate content (probably at a higher price than paying a local writer) is just ridiculous. If Australian film is to flourish it is imperative publishers and publicists support local writers. Publishers need to recognise the importance not only of discovering the talent at their doorstep, but allowing them to fill a niche that the US and UK cannot compete by extending focus on Australian film.
In parallel, Australian film journalists must realise for the industry to grow and for opportunities in this field to expand, we must play our part in nurturing film in this country from the grassroots up. Limiting ourselves to reposting American casting news, American trailers and American film reviews we stunt the growth of the local industry and our own jobs as a result. Where the internet gives the world access to US and UK journalists with their geographical advantage, Australia will always be a poor orphan, begging for celebrity scraps and falling over ourselves when Hollywood movie stars of the latest stale rom-com, desperate for coverage, grace us with a press conference once a blue moon.
In the same vein we should not allow ourselves to be cheerleaders of mediocrity, but champions of creativity; constructively commentating on local happenings, building prestige through diligent analysis. We should challenge Australian filmmakers and industry bodies to do better and shout as loud as we can when good and great films come our way.
Proportionally I'm certain as much Hollywood junk lands on our shores as is produced here. The difference is that junk tends to make far more money. Why? Because we can't help but feed the obsession with American celebrity and those vacuous faucets already have enough column inches without our help.
Earlier on Twitter I mused what would happen if Australian journalists committed to a complete blackout on American films for a week. What if we made it a fortnight? I'm curious how publicists would react and whether release dates would adjust accordingly. What if we were more like the French? If we want our filmmakers to continue to raise their game we should do so ourselves as film journalists.
Where is Australia's Social Network I read today? Well, where is our Sight & Sound or Cahiers Du Cinema? We had Senses Of Cinema, but for reasons beyond understanding Screen Australia has chosen not to continue funding the journal.
We cannot merely compare Australian films to the best five films from America every year because with every hit come a dozen pieces of shit – though each with enough stars to warrant endless publicity. In such circumstances what chance do we give Australian films? What chance do we give ourselves?
One enduring characteristic of journalists is our love for an underdog, lost causes even more so. Australian film seemed for a long time the latter, these days it is the former. As the nouvelle vague of film journalists just finding your feet in the new media world, I can only encourage you to make your mark by forging a niché and raising the quality of dialogue and engagement with the local industry and community. We can all become big fish in a small pond if we choose, or we can remain minos in an ocean.
In the next couple of days I'll write my third instalment in this series serving up that practical advice I promised on how to get started on the path to film journalism glory and assured unending poverty.
In my first contribution to the Oz Film Blogathon I warm up by discussing how I got started in film journalism. Part two which I'll have ready tomorrow will look more specifically at the role of a film journalist...
As far back as I can remember I wanted to be a film journalist…
Not quite Henry Hill, I’ll give you that. But the sentiment remains. Growing up there were two things that dominated my world: football and movies, and I devoured both with equal relish. Football was what all the kids were into. Movies, however, well they came from my Grandpa.
The two earliest films I remember seeing at the cinema were E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial around 1983 with my mum and Basil The Great Mouse Detective with my Grandpa around 1986. The memory that holds the most water though is of the Global Video shop my Grandpa took me to whenever I stayed with him and my Gran, which was frequently.
Duncan McKinnon was a tech savvy guy and a diligent video pirate. Anything we rented deemed of decent quality and of high rewatchability was 'doubled' using the two VHS recorders he owned (one of which used old cartridge loading dock on top of casing). Furthermore, he numbered all the tapes and maintained a record in a little notepad of the two or three films recorded on each video (depending on whether they’ve been dubbed using Slow Play or Long Play). Of course he was also taping lots of films off the telly and pausing during the commercial breaks – there were always a few films where he’d forget pause was on and the film would continue five minutes after the break had ended. He would have loved PVRs.
The other thing my Grandpa did was buy cases for all his dubbed films, the kind of cases that looked like hardback covers of anthology books from a stately library. Those cases were bigger than regular packaging, about the size of the rental cases.
The Global Video shop in East Kilbride’s village was the greatest place on Earth as far as I was concerned. Filled with posters of the most amazing American movies I was no-where near old enough to watch. Gremlins was an early favourite of mine along with, I’m not ashamed to admit, the Police Academy series. My Grandpa though also instilled a taste for older cinematic offerings in me. As a singer he was a big fan of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, as such films like Top Hat, Swing Time and, of course, Singin’ In The Rain have always been a part of my film vernacular.
His other favourite was the Westerns, which seemed to be uniformly on daytime television at the weekends in the 80s, perhaps because of the rampant popularity of Reagan-era Americas at the time – he had, after all, been a star of the Westerns. It comes as no surprise, looking back, that stories of ‘Cowboys and Indians’ were my first great cinematic love and probably played a large part in my decision to study American Studies at university.
It’s impossible, however, to quantify how much of an influence my Grandpa had on my career as a result of those first 11 years of my life, for which he was the biggest part. My mother was a single mom those first three years and I’m told I called my Grandpa ‘dad’. Duncan McKinnon passed away on 14 December 1989, but his presence is still very much felt by my book shelf, my DVD collection, the words you’re reading right now and the boxes of dubbed videotapes in my parents' attic.
After my Grandpa passed my Gran picked up the slack, lying about my age to get me into all the films I wanted to see at the cinema but wasn’t old enough. There was JFK at age 12, rated 15 by the BBFC – I honestly had never heard the word ‘fuck’ so many times in my life. My Gran slept through a good portion of the film. I think she’s wishes she’d slept through Event Horizon, during which I was more scared of her having a heart attack than I was by the film (which was terrifying) itself.
People often ask what American Studies, was all about. I always thought the answer to that question pretty obvious, what I will say is I did a lot of film studies as part of the course. How could one even pretend to have an understanding of American culture without understanding film, its history and its mechanisms?
In 1999-2000 I lived and studied at Utah State University as part of my exchange year where Prof Jay Anderson's film classes were a highlight. When I returned for my fourth and final year at University Of Leicester I took the opportunity to write film reviews for The Ripple, our student newspaper (the film editor, Nikki Baughan, went on to become the editor of Film Review). My first published criticism, if you could call it that, was for a reparatory screening of Natural Born Killers and boy was it horrible. Reading it back today at least offers encouragement that time has afforded me some improvement. Excessive plot description, and a fusion of standard critic clichés and academia speak are what’s most notable about the review – some might argue little has changed.
There were other opportunities, Legend Of Bagger Vance was my first 10am screening inside an almost empty Odeon Cinema, and although I had never heard the phrase ‘magic negro’ before, I certainly recognised his presence. Pay It Forward and Gone In 60 Seconds were the other gems I was unleashed upon in my spell for The Ripple. If I wanted to be cynical I would suggest those four films represented a microcosm of nearly every year in my cinematic life since. The truth is, every year since I’ve experienced moments of transcendence in the movie theatre.
* 5 randomly selected moments of cinematic transcendence in my life:
1. The Ecstasy Of Gold, The Good, The Bad And The Ugly (Sergio Leone)
2. Prejudice, 12 Angry Men (Sidney Lumet)
3. Interrogation, Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock)
4. Welcome wagon, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (Steven Spielberg)
5. Four million-year match-cut, 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick)
* 5 randomly selected moments of cinematic transcendence in the past 10 years:
1. Train to Zaniba’s cottage, Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki)
2. Corridor fight, Oldboy (Park-Chan Wook)
3. Ratatouille, Ratatouille (Brad Bird)
4. Chicken run, City Of God (Fernando Mirielles)
5. Ceasefire, Children Of Men (Alfonso Cuaron)
Leaving university I knew had to be a journalist, and more specifically I wanted to write about film. I really had no idea how to get started or what to do, and after my first failed attempted to live in London I ended up back in Leeds. There I wrote a couple of reviews for excellent local magazine The Leeds Guide while Laurence Boyce was Film Editor, mostly I temped at a variety of banks and published poetry on websites that shall go unnamed. It was a difficult beginning during which I nearly lost hope of becoming a writer, let alone a film journalist.
One year after graduating university I signed up to study an NCTJ post-grad in magazine journalism at a college in Brighton. It was the best decision of my life if for no other reason than it awakened a journalistic instinct for storytelling and gave me confidence to approach publications for work. Soon after I was putting together a section focussing on the local digital filmmaking scene in street press mag The Insight. I was launch editor for the new section and was very proud to compile stories each month for my little page in the magazine.
One of the first interviews I ever did was with a filmaker called Simon Wilkinson who ran an independent production company called Junk TV along with Paul Dutnall. It was a formative interview for me, opening up the world of short filmmakers, their dedication to the form and their communal nature. Junk TV not only made short films, but they organised screenings and worked as educators encouraging and training at-risk youth to make films. I've never been far from like-minded people since and it's my firm believe that any film journalist worth their salt should engage with their local community of short filmmakers.
At the same time, along with my friend Jonathan Crocker, I tracked down publicists for all the major studios and got onto their regional media screening lists. I started getting invited to previews at private cinemas in London such as Mr Young’s (later known as Soho Screening Rooms), and to press conferences (the earliest I can remember were 25th Hour, City Of God, Solaris, Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind and The Quiet American). Jon went on to become Contributing Editor of Total Film, Associate Editor of Little White Lies and Film Editor for ID, among other prestigious titles.
As any film writer will tell you, it's quite a moment going to your first movie in a private screening room early in the morning. Coffee and biscuits usually awaited your arrival at Mr Young's, along with the film's press notes and a friendly publicist to welcome you.
At the time I was more excited about the venerable critics in my midst than the celebrity press conferences. To see films with the likes of Peter Bradshaw, Kim Newman, Mark Kermode or whoever was something of a privilege and also an affirmation of my career aspirations.
My journey though would next take me to Bournemouth. After a stint of work experience on late, great cult film magazine Hotdog, I was offered a job on Essential Home Cinema (I actually wrote one of the first consumer articles in the UK about HD) and less than a year later I was the Features Editor for DVD Review, the best home entertainment magazine in the UK and third highest-selling film magazine behind Empire and Total Film. I couldn’t believe I’d finally scored my dream job of being paid to write about movies as a full time job.
Okay, I suspect this article is starting to get a little bit boring now. There’s a lot I want to share about my experiences as a film journalist and how I came to be plying my trade in Sydney, but I think it’s nice to leave some things to mystery. Needless to say in the last eight years I’ve seen many magazines come and go, written a few hundred film reviews, conducted a few hundred interviews with filmmakers, actors and musicians. But the best part has been the dozens of wonderful film journalists just mad passionate about their work, despite its economic challenges.
When I return for part two of this article I'd like to give more insight and guidance in how to get started, advice on good journalistic practice, the challenges we face as film writers and some perspectives on the differences between the trade in Sydney and London.
I'm building towards some things I want to get off my chest about the importance of local content production. We often talk about Australian film, the quality of, and audience's disposition to see those local productions. Similar quandries apply to content producers of film criticism, and although Australia is only my adopted home I believe passionately in the need to have a strong, independent local film press, supported by distributors. More than this, I believe we have a role to play in the development of quality local cinema, from the grassroots of digital shorts to the big league production companies.
The Oz Film Blogathon begins today. If you have anything you'd like to submit as part of the film writing marathon post the link in the comments sections and I'll collate the pieces all together on this page.
Remember, the thematic framework proposed is: 'The Things We Think But Do Not Say'.
All you need to do is write something about the local industry and post it on your blog, submit the links to me (scott.journalist[at]gmail.com) or post them in the comments of this blog. I will aggregate all the articles here. Aim high and be as fearless as you can muster. Articles on local and national industry issues are of highest value.
• Write (or record) something about Australian film industry that's been on your mind.
• Contribute links to old articles that might be a little 'touchy feely'
• Participate by commenting or generally spreading the word.
Articles will all be linked in this post and I will create a button for the home page too.
Oz Blogathon Announcement (3/11/10)
Oz Blogathon Update (19/11/10)
'Confessions Of A Film Journalist: Pt 1' Scott Henderson (6/12/10)
'They Watch Pictures Don't They' – I offer some guidance on getting started as a film journalist... for whatever that advice is worth. (13/12/10)
'The Ugly Truth' – Sarrah Le Marquand offers her take on Australian film industry in The Daily Telegraphy (though one wonders if she has seen half the films released the past two years)
'Massage The Message' – Lynden Barber says we need to figure out how to out how to better sell Australian films to Australian audiences (New Matilda, 31/10/09)
'This Mission Is Too Important For Me To Allow You To Jeopardise It' - More Australian sci-fi, cries Lyden Barber! I'm not sure he was talking about Tomorrow When The War Began, but I know what he means (New Matilda, 23/10/09)
'Please, No More Ocker Comedy Flops' – when SPAA President Anthony Ginnane suggested Australian film producers should be shot it caught Lyden Barber's attention. Fortunately he hasn't reached for his gun yet (4/12/09)
'Is Dark The New Quirky' – one year on and the conversation hasn't changed much (LB, New Matilda, 25/09/09)