Monday, December 13, 2010

They watch pictures, don't they?

“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.


Alia said...

I really liked ur blog! Keep up the good work!

Alia from