Monday, December 6, 2010

Confessions of a film journalist: Pt 2

"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

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.


Marianne said...

Hey Scott, You have been in Australia for what 3 years !? and yet you can depict the Australian Film Industry so accuratly!

I can't help agreeing with you on many of your points, but i am wrong to think you don't hold much hope at this point for a better future for the local film industry?

I would like to hope there is a possibility of a small, blooming and prosperous life for australian cinema, and that one day people will recongise that and fully embrace it, like in France, like in many other countries (mainly Europeans). Am i being simply naive? Is the current state so bad that things cannot improve? You seem so pessimistic about it!

I agree with you that we should just stop comparing our films, film-makers and actors with the UK and US, and try to really acknowledge the local talents. Such a waste of people and creative minds!

I really wonder why Australian don't like their own cinema. What has happened?

Great article, really. Loved reading it.

Scott Henderson said...

Thanks Marianne, certainly it’s not my intention to come off as pessimisstic and if I do it might be a hint of desperation. Not desparation as death rattle, rather as rallying cry… I hope.

I still have a few more pieces up my sleeve, but what I would hope for the Oz Film Blogathon to achieve is a blueprint for how we Australian (adopted or otherwise) films writers to contribute to the development of the local industry, and this includes the film publishing industry.
The first two parts of my ‘Confessions’ posts are merely an opening salvo.

Something that is becoming immedietly apparent as the conversation has returned so quickly to the tired, and simply untrue, cliché of ‘dark’ Australian cinema, is that Australian film culture has a PR problem. Our job as publishers is to make it cool.

How do we make it cool? Not by feigning appreciation for the mediocre. There are great Australian films out there, great initiatives by countless organisation big and small. It exactly these things we need to highlight and we must look to ourselves to be creative with our own content.

The established media has had their turn. It’s time for a new generation to show not only what we can do, but also that we care.