Take Note(s): accessing, surviving and making the most out of film festivals

16 June 2014

Some thoughts and advice to budding freelance film critics, on preparing for, and making the most out of, a film festival…

With the latest edition of Locarno’s Critics Academy due to take place later this summer, I thought I’d write some quick advisory notes specific to this year’s chosen elite as well as to anyone else wanting to break into paid opinionship and regularly attend film festivals as accredited delegates…

Treat it as a business!

As previously stated here, make your first investment a bunch of business cards. You don’t have to fuss around with a design, just list your name, your phone number (with international dialling code), your twitter handle and your email address. Label yourself a freelance critic, because the quicker you start telling yourself that the quicker you’ll take yourself seriously. Hand out liberally. Aim to hand out an average of two cards per lunch, dinner, cocktail gathering or late-night bacchanal. Keep them in a small cardholder so that they’re easy to get out.

Also, every expense while at a festival is in theory a business expense. Keep all of your receipts—I take a new envelope to each festival to keep them all in. Lunches, batteries for your audio recorder, and the odd beer during a business meeting (and all meetings are business meetings): keep them all! Learn how to ask for a receipt in the local language of the festival you’re attending. And if it’s a significant sum, ask for the receipt before handing over your cash/card. (Also: visit your bank to register your card(s) for overseas use before jetting out.)

Prepare in advance!

Spend time before arriving at the festival by absorbing its programme and preparing an itinerary. I don’t have a smart phone with internet access, so I have to plan a little ahead. Systematically go through a festival’s daily programme—you get quicker at it the more you do it—identifying must-sees and potential points of interest, which outlets might go for what (identify world-premieres, retrospectives, sidebars, etc.).

I print out all of my schedules, or hand-write a hard copy. My schedules all look the same now: I note the start time of a film, the finishing time and the venue, add symbols if I’ve been commissioned to review it, and I research walking time between venues so that I know I can make it from one screening to the next. If I’m not sure if I’ll like a film, I’ll list a back-up, and I’ll often identify windows in which I can have dinner with someone. E.g.:

Thu, 5 June
1000-1230 Od1: The Voiding Soul (146’)
1230?? WALK/LUNCH…
1430-1550 Od1: Vis-à-vis (75’)
1600-1730 Od1: *Svengali (85’)
1830-2000 Manz: Pettring+You Are All Captains (87’)
2005?? DINNER (with JM?)
2100-2230 Od2: TIR (85’)

Make notes!

You won’t write about every film you see but as a professional film critic, every film you see (including shorts and archival material) is a potential source of income. I make notes on nearly every film I see at a festival, because I never know when I’ll be asked to write a review of it. I just wrote a review of The Dirties last month, and I saw it last year at Locarno! I didn’t have access to another screening before writing the review so had to refer back to my original notes, which were thorough enough that I was able to quickly re-familiarise myself with the film’s plot, certain themes, character names, lines of dialogue (very important to get this one correct, so you stand out for your attention to detail) and so on.

You’ll find that clips and/or trailers—and even just stills—also help to re-familiarise yourself with the film. Be sure to check the names of cast/crew using the festival catalogue, cross-referenced with reliable print/online sources. Stay in touch with publicists if required—press kits are very handy when you’re writing about an obscure debut feature that isn’t on IMDb.

Protect your eyes!

Buy a small torch for making notes—one that clicks on and off without much noise (‘light pens’ are expensive, invariably badly-designed and more trouble than they’re worth). Don’t be shy or embarrassed about using it, especially in press screenings: the light’s facing down and you’re using it for a professional purpose, unlike the chumps whose iPads and iPhones are facing upward and distracting everyone else. If you’re worried about using one in public screenings, sit at the back.

You’ll ruin your eyes without a torch and/or make illegible notes—which, remember, you may have to refer back to ten months down the line! It’s a common sense thing, but if you hold the torch close enough to the page with one hand and write with the other hand, you’ll limit the amount of people who see the light to a very small number—and chances are the people either side of you are your pals, and/or are using their own (if they’re not, they should be). Mask bright bulbs with sticky-backed paper for a discreet but illuminating glow.

Follow-up on conversations!

When you return home after the festival, make a point of sending follow-up emails to everyone who gave you a card. Editors, publicists, festival directors and so on. Personalise your emails and make reference to the topic you discussed with that person—especially if they were talking about inviting you to their festival. On that front, try and meet as many festival directors as possible. Ask the person overseeing guest services for a list of attending delegates and introduce yourself to visiting festival directors and programmers—these are the people who’ll be inviting you to other festivals. Also, since you’re already attending festivals—or are soon about to be—you’re in a position to be scouting films for other festivals. Though such programming positions don’t develop overnight, this is another way to make money, and it’s a logical extension of seeing films and writing about them.

Secure your next festival attendance!

After a festival ends, you’ll want to be flying straight back out to another one (or even direct from one to another, via plane, train or bus), because that’s where the work is—unless you live in London or some other cultural hub with daily press screenings and so on. For each festival you attend, aim to get two more festival invitations. This number will fluctuate from festival to festival but Locarno is a big festival and you should be able to meet at least two other festival directors or programmers who you get on with and can chat to. Make use of the fact you’re in the Critics Academy: it’s a big deal and its reputation will make people (a) take you seriously, and (b) know that you’re not a veteran on the festival circuit and could do with a little help.

By festival invitations I mean the festival pays for you to be there. It pays for your flights and it covers your accommodation—often with breakfast. Even the smallest festival usually has a budget for accommodating press. And if someone you know is attending the festival during the same period as yourself, inform the press department of this and let them know you’re happy to share a twin room (twin rooms are always significantly cheaper than two singles!).

Because freelancers make so little from their writing, this is a good way of balancing the budget out: since attending Locarno last year, I’ve primarily focused on such festivals, and have thus been able to make a small budget go a long way. Sometimes you’ll have to pay for your flights, in which case you make sure you spend less while there and make the expenditure back by writing more.

Polish your portfolio with confidence!

It can be difficult to secure festival invitations when you’re starting out because you don’t necessarily have a strong portfolio of work for esteemed outlets. This is where a little confidence can come in handy. As part of the Critics Academy you’re already writing for Indiewire and the Lincoln Society of Film Centre, so tell people you write for them—because you are! That’s not the same as telling a publicist or programmer you’re definitely going to cover their festival for the same outlets, but freelancers are free to work for anybody, and the quicker you get into the routine of listing who you’ve written for instead of who you may or may not be writing for, the quicker things will accelerate. Sensible and experienced festival employees know how this works.

This is tricky, but it’s also a handy trick. I know a colleague who made thousands of dollars at one film festival just by conducting a lot of interviews with A-list celebrities. He got access and was able to sell the interviews after conducting them, but he wasn’t able to guarantee publication at the time of requesting access, so he just introduced himself and listed whom he had written for in the past.

Branch out!

That’s another thing. Reviews are great but they’re also dime-a-dozen. Generic festival reports are fine and easy etc., but they usually pay very little. So, be prepared to interview people. I’m only just starting to realise and utilise this skill. It’s what magazines and publications seem most willing to pay for. Not everyone’s good at interviews—and by that I include critics who already make money from doing them—so you’ve got nothing to lose and only experience to gain.

One-on-one interviews are obviously preferable, but you will have to succumb to the delights of the ‘round-table’ format more often especially if there’s a celebrity involved. But don’t just chase the big names. If you discover some unheralded gem, and the director or actor is in town, track her down for an interview. She’ll be thrilled to get such attention and exposure. Again, cultivate connections with press agents and publicists.

Make money!

Speaking of which, ask yourself how badly you want to make money from this. I’m baffled when contemporaries seem content at not being paid for their writing. Learn to value your writing and the time you spend on it as labour that should be paid. Sometimes you’ll have to find a balance between an outlet that doesn’t pay but whose reputation can help you get accredited for a festival from which you can also pitch other outlets that do pay, but whose editor can’t guarantee commissioning your piece until you’re actually there at the festival.

Find out early if the outlet pays—ideally before your pitch is accepted. There’s nothing worse than someone accepting your pitch and then leaving you to stew about the fee. Enquiring about a fee is the professional thing to do. Asking an editor in your first email whether their outlet has a budget for your article is a good way of posing the question. Worst-case scenario: no fee. I’ve never had an editor who cut contact or expressed surprise at being asked about money. It’s they who should be embarrassed—and often they are.

On a related note: you won’t need to ask good editors. Fee, deadline and word count are mentioned in their initial reply. And that’s all you need to know.

Pitch and pitch again!

Preparing for a festival is one thing, but once you’re there things often change very quickly. You’ll hear of a one-off screening of experimental shorts on 35mm about which you can then pitch an article to an outlet. Many of my reviews and articles are pitched and commissioned only after I’ve arrived at the festival—some are even pitched and commissioned after I’ve returned home. Get into the habit of pitching thick and fast: keep it polite but chatty, brief but direct. List what the article’s about and, if you haven’t written for or been in contact with the publication before, draw attention to a similar or recent article you’ve written. Cast your net wide—the more you pitch the better you’ll get.

Don’t just pitch film magazines either: try and think of ways your festival attendance could feed into wider journalistic stories. I've pitched boxing magazines, travel magazines, feminist magazines and leftist cultural magazines with articles about specific films I've seen at a film festival. Remember that you're a writer before you're a film critic—and the more adaptable and wide-ranging you are, the better your chances at remuneration will be. And the better your film criticism will be.

Know your editor!

All editors vary in communication style and, frankly, competence. Some are worth pestering, others aren’t. The more you pitch the quicker you’ll discover their unique tendencies. Some editors reply within ten minutes but only if they’re interested in the pitch—and so you’ll know next time that if they don’t reply within ten minutes, you’re better to move on. Others will be notoriously slow on the uptake and require several follow-ups. Editors often claim they’re busy. That’s common: just keep reminding yourself that you are busy too. For your own sanity, try not to make one editor the centre of your world—you’re definitely not the centre of theirs. Be prepared to take your pitch elsewhere—again, the time you spend on one outlet will depend on your relationship with the editor.

Another thing to consider: which outlets pay the most for you? Pitching to and getting commissioned by esteemed outlets in the US can be a great confidence boost, but it pays to bear in mind exchange rates and payment methods. As a UK-based critic, I make very little from US outlets, and some of them pay by cheque only—and the hefty admin fee for banking a cheque comes from me, not them. (Other outlets pay via PayPal, which is better.)

The balance between exposure/readership and remuneration is difficult, and you'll learn as you go what works best for you. But, wherever possible, for the sake and health of our profession, be willing to draw a line. At least one very reputable UK newspaper that I know of does not even pay for festival dispatches—and if you value your own writing (which you should), you should also agree that such estimable publications should not get away with not paying their contributors.

Stand out!

If everyone’s giving out cards, of course, how do you stand out? And if the people who are giving you cards are also giving cards to others, how do you know their offer or invitation or conversation is sincere? Well, you don’t, and it might not be—though that’s not to say it’s not sincere. It’s just that people come and go at film festivals and get into the routine of saying the same things to different people. They’ll do this knowing that the majority of people won’t follow up on matters.

But don’t try too hard!

I don’t mean to sound cynical about this, but the quicker you learn that most of the people you meet won’t be lifelong colleagues or close friends, the quicker you can begin to reserve your energy for the contacts who matter. So, don’t try too hard: most people you meet won’t be worth the professional effort. At the same time, make sure to follow up on queries! While everyone gives out cards, and everyone gets cards given, not everyone connects with the same people and not everyone sends follow-up emails. Sometimes you’ll get a really positive response from someone with whom you had presumed things wouldn’t work out, while from others you might struggle to get a response at all despite them seeming very enthusiastic in person.

Stay hungry!

Writing’s a solitary profession that comes with downs and depressions and moments of insecurity and burnout and so on. I stay hungry by repeatedly telling myself a set of hypotheses that may not even be true, but in posing them I’m able to sustain a certain attitude that allows me to stay sharp. And the hypotheses may contradict each other, which is also fine, because negotiating this profession requires adjustability depending on the occasion, mood and so on.

(1)   Like many other professions, film criticism is not a meritocracy; it requires good luck, good timing, a lot of hard work and persistence—don’t be beaten to the post just because someone sent one extra follow-up email than you did to a short-sighted editor who was too lazy to get back to you; but…
(2)   while all those other things count, you also have to be good in the first place—learn to love your own writing, whichever way you can; however…
(3)   assume everyone’s as good a critic as you are, and you thus can’t take anything for granted—you’re only as good as your last article, and it’ll be some time before outlets are approaching you (if they ever do); but of course…
(4)   you’re as good a critic and writer as everyone else—otherwise, why bother?

There’s a fifth hypothesis relating to that last point: that nothing anyone else writes is beyond your own understanding or ability. To stay hungry in this line of work, keep in mind that it’s possible and healthy to be envious of colleagues who are getting their work published while not begrudging their success. Be pleased for them and generous to them, but never think you’re not able to write the same kind or quality of writing. Again, like the other four hypotheses, this may or may not be true. But for remaining upbeat in your pursuit of paid work, posing the hypothesis is more important than its truth-value.

Take breaks!

Don’t watch too many films. It’s tempting at a film festival as big as Locarno to see as much as you can, because many of the films are world-premieres and so there’s an element of being able to see stuff before everyone else and, more importantly, of being able to pitch articles to outlets before anyone else. But many of the films you see will also be terrible, and unless you’ve already been commissioned to write about them, they’re simply a waste of valuable time. Be prepared to walk out of a film (films whose first 40-50 minutes are crap rarely if ever get better), whether to catch one screening elsewhere or to go catch up with some writing, or even to catch up on some much-needed sleep. Take a break from films. If you’re at a festival for more than a week, try to take a day off in the middle (i.e., just one, or maybe two films in the evening).

Treat yourself!

If there’s an old favourite of yours screening at a festival (and Locarno is great for retrospectives), figure it into your schedule. Watching a film you’re completely familiar with is a great way of replenishing energy levels—while still watching movies! On these occasions, keep your notepad in your bag and enjoy the brief downtime.

Read wider!

Don’t read too much criticism. You’ll be a better writer for reading better writing, and most film criticism is dreadful. Don’t get dragged into the bottomless swamp of film criticism. Read art criticism. Read sports writing. Read travel literature. Read fiction. Read Trotsky.

Stay energised!

Festivals are busy environments that require a great deal of sustained attentiveness. One essential for me is to maintain fruit intake. Eating fruit is not only cheap, but it also helps you to maintain your energy as you sit through five or six feature films a day in the dark. Buy a bunch of bananas and have one banana a day with breakfast. The quietest fruit to eat in a cinema is a nectarine or an orange (bananas are also good, but having more than one a day isn’t advised).

Locarno is a very expensive place, but there are cheap food options. There’s a very central Aldi, via della Posta 12, which the vast majority of delegates don’t even know exists! Also, make use of the free food in the press tent opposite the venue that hosts press screenings every day. And yes, everyone else thinks the hostel food’s terrible, but don’t miss breakfast. It’s the most important meal of the day and not skipping it can really set you up. Ideally, eat in the accommodation you’re staying in. Most festival hotels include breakfast (unless you’re in the Netherlands).

Get some sunshine between screenings too, and stay hydrated. Invest in a flask you can keep refilling with water. Other things to carry with you at all times during the festival: notepad, at least a couple of pens, your itinerary as well as the official festival timetable (in case of last-minute schedule changes), and some kind of audio recording device for Q&As, press conferences and impromptu interviews (I just use my mp3 player).

Go for a walk!

Roam the surrounding environment and go beyond the immediate vicinity of screening venues etc. This is a very simple way of absorbing some local colour that you can then incorporate into a distinctive article and thus broaden your potential base of client outlets, while others just talk about the ten best films they saw without ever needing to have flown in to be here at the actual festival. Remember, film festival programmes overlap in significant ways; the most unique thing about every festival is the town or city in which it takes place.

A colleague once realised, when departing the Venice Film Festival, that he hadn’t spent a single second in Venice itself, and wondered if he’d ever get the chance to do so again. Most such events don’t take place in or on the doorstep of places like Venice, of course. But even a city which the jet-setting festival-circuit snob (and there’s plenty of those!) lazily derides as a dump or a concrete wasteland will prove to be a wealth of hidden delights to the delegate who dares to venture beyond the safe confines of the festival hub. And if/when you do write about a locality in a report, try to accentuate the positive: you’re a guest and a traveller, not a tourist.

Enjoy it!

Possibly the most important thing to remember. You’re part of a world now to which most others aren’t granted access and many more don’t even know exists. Don’t complain too much – about the workload, the writer’s block, the hangover, the films. This profession is a lifestyle choice. People will tell you criticism doesn’t matter, that critics are failed filmmakers, that the industry’s done, and while they’re telling you all of this, you could have been going out and doing something without needing to tell them you were going to do it. Enjoy every minute.

If you have any questions, however large or small, feel free to pose them in the comments section. And fellow professionals, please chip in with your own nuggets of advice! Both the exciting and daunting thing about embarking upon a career in writing is that there's no blueprint. The best advice is often the most specific, the most personal.