Monetise This: an exchange on freelance film criticism

05 February 2016

'I don’t know what the long-term effects of all this will be.'

In November 2015, Jakub Mejer, a journalist based in Warsaw, posed me some questions for an article he was researching and writing on the practical and financial realities of being a freelance film critic, and the importance of attending overseas film festivals as part of that. I replied with the following answers over an e-mail.

Jakub Mejer: Do you think it's crucial for a film critic right now to do film festival after film festival in a row?

Michael Pattison: I can't speak generally, but regarding my own experience, going from one festival directly to the next kind of gathered its own momentum. When I first started attending festivals, I'd try and secure at least two invitations, or two contacts that could yield future invitations, elsewhere. Now, two years after I began writing professionally, I have several occasions throughout the calendar year where I'm able to attend one festival directly after another. The longest stint on the road for me takes place between October and Christmas. For instance, at present [19 November] I'm in Tallinn, the last of seven festivals in a row. I haven't been in the UK since 6 October. I decided to stay at home for December, despite an invitation to be on a jury at a shorts film festival in Sofia, and despite another invitation to ZubrOFFka Film Festival in Białystok. It felt right to have a break. Last year, I did eight festivals in a row, between early October and mid-December.

I’m not sure if it’s crucial financially, because some of these festivals can be very difficult to make money from as a journalist, because not every festival is of equal interest to the editors I work with. I made more than €100 just for appearing on a 90-minute panel discussion at one festival, while at another I didn’t make a penny for the five days I was there. But I was in a position at the latter festival where I literally didn’t spend anything either, because all my meals were paid for by the festival. I don't always attend strictly as a critic. I was at Warsaw Film Festival in October to tutor the FIPRESCI Warsaw Critics Project, a workshop for young writers and critics that I devised in coordination with the Federation of International Film Critics. At other festivals on this trip, I’ve been present as a jury member, a panellist, even as a kind of team member, since I was credited at Curtocircuíto, a shorts film festival in Santiago de Compostela, as a part of the programming team.

Regardless of my responsibilities at a festival, I’m always in some way a journalist, looking for stories. It can be difficult to switch off. I filed several reviews from Warsaw in addition to my teaching responsibilities. Ditto Santiago—where I interviewed a Spanish director for Filmmaker Magazine. I’m constantly wondering how I can monetise my experience. Sitting through a boring film, my mind will wander: “How can I turn this monotony into money?” There's always an incentive to attend a film festival if the invitation’s there, though, because a large part of your momentum as a freelance journalist depends on being seen at a place. I guess it’s nice to have your absence perceived as abnormal, rather than the other way around. Plus there’s always a vague, perhaps paranoid, fear that if I decline an invitation I’ll never receive another. In the beginning, I said yes to everything. Who wouldn’t?

Is it sustainable to be a film critic and just staying in London for press premieres and trying to sell reviews? Or is it impossible?

I don’t know of any freelance film critics in London who don’t also have another means of income. Because film criticism is, like every other journalistic field, dependent upon topicality and relevance, there’s an enormous pressure to write about films on current release. In the UK, we have an average of fifteen new releases a week. Fifteen! Even so, even a website or publication that covers every film that’s released has a limited roster of contributors, and it would be impossible to attend fifteen press releases every week and review every film you see. That’s because nearly all UK press screenings are centralised at a venue in Soho, London, which has a limited number of auditoriums and must juggle bookings by many different studios.

This is a guess, of course, but if we’re talking strictly about reviews, a freelance critic in the UK, seeing theatrical releases through press screenings in London, will write five reviews a week at most. Now, the highest fee for a review for UK-based publications that I know of is £100 [€143] to £150 [€200]. The lowest can be around £30 [€43] to £50 [€71]. Five paid reviews a week seems optimistic to me, but even if it isn’t, the average rent in London is apparently £1,500 [€2,300] a month. That’s not sustainable.

I remember you saying that it's cheaper to live at film festivals than in London. But are there any outlets interested in buying a review from a freelancer when they can send their full-time journalist to the press screening?

Many press screenings in London, with exceptions like Spectre, take place months after the film in question has premiered at a film festival. The reason I have to go to film festivals so often is because I’m removed from that London press hub, so I have to see films overseas, when they premiere, in order to beat the queue, and be the first in line to sell a review to an outlet. At the same time, one reason why I’m able to go overseas so often is precisely because I don’t live in London. I don’t have London rents to pay.

It’s true that it’s very difficult to sell a review to a publication like The Guardian or other daily newspapers—even if I see it months and months before its release—because they’ll have their full-time staff to review it when it’s released, or who saw it at Cannes, which I guess is the one film festival in the year that publications prioritise with their budgets, because a whole year’s worth of film releases is concentrated there. Most film outlets in the UK, however, do not have full-time staff writers. Sight & Sound has about five editorial personnel, who occasionally chip in with feature articles, but nearly all of its material is sub-contracted. Same with Little White Lies, and even non-film publications like VICE and Dazed, to name just two that I’ve written for.

Do you have to change the way of living to do this kind of life? Prepare for long weeks away and so on?

I tend not to think about it, perhaps because I’ve never known any alternative way of doing it. I was freelance from the very start, but I never trained as a journalist, so I had to learn the tricks of the trade very quickly. Colleagues express amazement that I’m on the road for so long. Sometimes I’ll see someone at one festival, and then five weeks later I’ll see them at another, but in between our encounters they’ve gone back home again and I’ve been to three or four other different cities. They say they couldn’t do that, that it would be too mentally draining and so on. They need their home comforts and their own bed. I don’t know.

I love my own bed, and I’m a sucker for home comforts, but I can feel at home pretty quickly in a hotel with a good shower and a decent breakfast. Breakfasts are so important. Sometimes, it’s the only meal you have due to the busy screenings schedule during the day. You have to unpack immediately upon arrival, and make the space your own. I hate packing to leave a place, though. For me it can be a mentally and physically exhausting effort to pack a bag, partly because I fold everything neatly rather than just chucking it all in. And when you’re on the road for six or seven weeks at a time you have to make sure that you have enough clothes etcetera on the one hand, but enough space for additional items you pick up along the way on the other. My hold luggage when I came to Tallinn was just under 14kg. My backpack, with my laptop and so on, was more than 10kg. I don’t know what the long-term effects of all this will be. I turned 28 last month.

Do you see big discrepancies between journalists from English language outlets and others? You’ve said it's quite common for a film festival to pay for your accommodation or your flight. Polish journalists say that it's very rare for them.

When I teach workshops to aspiring film critics from the Balkans, or East Europe, I stress that film festivals are desperate for English-language coverage. It helps with their funding, their readership and their international reputation, all of which are interconnected. It helps that I also write for the most high-profile international magazines in the industry. It’s in a festival’s commercial interests to invite someone who’s going to give them exposure for, say, Sight & Sound or Indiewire. Less so for Kino Magazine or Kwartalnik Filmowy.

But I’m speaking more of smaller festivals. The smaller the festival, the more limited their budget, so the more they have to prioritise press who can guarantee them the widest coverage—not necessarily the most positive. Even an English-language article on a relatively obscure website can be read by the whole world, and the same unfortunately can’t be said of an article written in Polish, or even German. The bigger the festival, the less you get. I don’t get flights covered by Rotterdam, Berlin or Locarno—though I’m lucky enough to have been accommodated by all three, and I’ve never paid the accreditation fee at Berlin or Locarno, because I made an effort to befriend, or at least put myself on the radar of the press departments there. I will never attend a film festival that doesn’t pay for my accommodation.

Are there any funny situations that you remember from your trips?

Actually, I did pay for accommodation once, though it wasn’t during the festival itself. In October last year, when Warsaw Film Festival ended, I had two days before my flight to Wrocław, where I was attending another film festival. I decided to stay in town, but the festival had been putting me up in the Marriott, and since I had imposed a pretty frugal budget upon myself I looked for the cheapest place I could find. I found a hostel, up in Plac Wilsona, which was a perfect location as it got me out of the immediate centre and would allow me to see a bit of the city. I’d never stayed in a hostel before, and this one was described as having Japanese-style business pods. It looked really colourful and futuristic online, but when I got there it was kind of a dump. It took me about ten minutes to figure out how to climb into my pod. It was like climbing into the compartment they slide dead bodies into in films. And I couldn’t sleep, because all I could think about was what would happen if there were a fire in the building. How long would it take for me to clamber out of my business pod? I text a friend back home about it, who suggested there’d be an automatic sprinkler system in place, so that I’d drown instead.

In Sweden, on the island of Färo, where Ingmar Bergman lived and where they have a festival in his name every year, I was attacked by seabirds. I’d been told in advance that I’d need to hire a bicycle to get anywhere there, and it was all arranged through the Swedish embassy. I hadn’t ridden a bicycle in twelve years, but off I went to the northern coast of this beautiful island, in search of the giant, cubic rock structures there, which date back to the Ice Age apparently. But just as I’m nearing the point at which I’d be able to see the sea for the first time, I realise there are a lot of winged shadows on the ground. I hear a bird squawk in my ear as if it was inches away. Then I feel one swoop down at my head. It all lasted around three seconds and happened too quickly for me to adjust. I flew off the bike, hurt my knee. The birds, possibly surprised at how easily they’d been able to scare me off, didn’t bother me after that, but I’d lost all confidence to go on, because all I could think of was having to ride back the same way. I was later told that it was nesting season, and that if I’d visited a week later everything would have been fine. I don’t know whose idea it was to host a film festival on a small island during nesting season. I never saw the rocks.

Do you see any major developments/changes in this industry? Is it becoming more competitive, less professional? More freelance?

It’s definitely becoming more freelance, more financially precarious. I don’t know. Changes are happening all the time. It can be difficult to stay on top of things. Criticism is being debased daily, by bad writers, terrible thinkers and even worse editors who are pressured by commercial interests into being short-sighted. Because governments all over the world continue to nudge arts and culture down their list of fiscal priorities, film festivals are more cash-strapped than ever, and so I think one danger, which has always been there to a certain degree but which is now becoming increasingly pronounced, is that criticism is becoming a kind of service industry rather than an independent professional practice. The challenge is to keep it that way, to keep it free from the commercial interests that compete again and again to strangle it, to turn it into a means merely of promoting events and egos. Egos are the worst. The worst thing to be in an incestuous industry like this is thin-skinned.

See also:
- Getting the Job Done