Geography, film criticism, and the chance to create a new normal

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Film journalism in the UK has long been centred around London – but the last year has at least proven it doesn’t have to be like that.

As this piece is being written, it’s now less than a week before indoor cinemas can reopen their doors in the UK, for the first time in 2021. I don’t think I’m alone in hoping that they stay open permanently this time. As much as I’ve enjoyed watching a whole host of films from the relative comfort of my sofa, it’s no substitute – at least for me – for the big screen.

Thus far, so stating the obvious.

Furthermore, it’s hardly a revelation to suggest that cinemas are reopening to a newly-shaped film industry. Already, the exhibition business had been wrestling with the advance of the streamers and the size of their chequebooks. Now even the biggest blockbusters will be viewable in the home quicker than ever before, and we’re looking at a world where even the major releases look set to have a theatrical exclusive window of 45 days, tops.


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Still, that’s not stopped the big studios bringing their films back this time, and my inbox has been bustling with a level of activity from major studios that I’ve not seen for well over a year. Screenings are being organised, junkets are being scheduled, opportunities are being offered. It’s good to see.

Before the world changed, though, I’d been struggling – in the UK at least – with the London-centric nature of opportunities for those looking to break into film journalism. I won’t reiterate the whole point, as the original post is here. The too long didn’t read version is that holding film screenings and junkets almost exclusively in London removes opportunity, and makes film criticism accessible primarily to those who can afford to get to London and back with some regularity. Or, if the budget stretches, live there (usually with the overdraft to prove it).

Over the last year though, some of those walls have come down. Everything from major blockbusters to small indies have been available for review via (very) secure links. Sure, they weren’t being offered to everyone – and there’s a discussion and a half to have there too about just how you break onto those lists in the first place – but for instance, everybody who reviewed Godzilla Vs Kong in the UK did so via a secure link from the studio concerned, and not by going to a screening room for a preview.

In normal times, studios organise those screenings across the plethora of private screening rooms found around in London. These are often hidden away in hotels, or in post-production houses, or within the offices of those in the industry in some degree. That, and there’s a specialist screening room or two. Bottom line: they’re in London, and you need to be on the guest list. And be able to get to London.

I’d been doing some work just before the pandemic on trialling press screenings outside of London, to give opportunities to a broader collection of film writers to get early access to a screen. I think this matters. In the battle to get material noticed, getting to a film before its film release date and having material to read can be crucial. If you’re a small outlet, you need every advantage you can get. The dice, after all, are not loaded in your favour.

In truth, I’d got a mixed response from film companies, but conversely was on the verge of trialling a press screening in the Midlands. Then everything changed, and you know the story of the last 14 months as well as me.

Now, with things on the verge of opening up, the UK film industry has an opportunity here. An opportunity to not just change the theatrical business, but to reconsider access to early screenings of films to reviewers.

It’s too early to call whether such an ongoing reconsideration is taking place, and oftentimes it’s worth noting that studios in the UK have their hands tied by policies dictated from Los Angeles. Still, a couple of big films have started their preview screening runs, and in one or two cases there are no remote links available. It’s London or bust if you want to have material available ahead of release. No slight to the companies concerned: at the moment, it’s a case of just starting the engine back up as it were. Furthermore, from what I can see, there’s no shortage of socially distanced screening options on offer.

Still, a request.

To the film studios out there: there will never be a better chance to change the rules of access here. To allow outlets and writers not in London a more level playing field. I do have a vested interest here, given that I’m penning this from just outside Birmingham, but also I know I’m lucky that I can at least get to London fairly regularly. But there are many brilliant writers who can’t. The offering of early secure screening links worked tremendously from where I’m sitting. Films didn’t leak early, reporting embargoes were observed, and a wider collection of voices got to put their views forward early. To head back to the same old after such a reboot of UK film criticism would, in my view, be a real shame.

For those of you reading this who have no intention of writing about film and just want to read the words at the end of it all: I fully get why this may all sound like whinging over trivial things when actually the world faces more important problems. Nobody would deny that it does.

I’d just say this to you, though. If you want to keep reading the same writers, reading the same bylines, putting up with droning old me, then fine: the current status quo provides for that, and secures that. But if you want different viewpoints, an injection of fresh talent and voices, and for opportunities to be available to those who don’t have the means to get to London, I think it’s worth challenging things a little.

Everybody, after all, has to start somewhere. Somebody had to give Roger Ebert a break, and at the other end of the spectrum, somebody gave me a break too. How about then we give things a little push, to make sure that the drawbridge of opportunity is lowered for as many people as possible. Early preview review screening links might sound trivial, but who knows what talent they may unlock? Who knows what outlet may rise? Who knows if a new favourite writer will emerge?

None of this, for the purposes of Twitter and such like, is a slight on anyone who has made their way to a prominent writing position. All power to them, and there’s no dig or undercurrent to this point. Instead, it boils down to this: let’s just make sure we hold the ladder for others, rather than pulling it back up behind us.

I say it again: I think this is a golden, golden chance to change things, and to change things permanently. I, for one, would love to see that happen.

Images: BigStock

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