Upcoming critic Jordan King on how it seems the film industry – in some quarters at least – can’t wait to do things the old way again.
Over the last couple of weeks, a long overdue reckoning has begun to be made on Film Twitter with the issue of reasonable access when it comes to film critics’ – specifically emerging critics’ – ability to get hold of screening links for upcoming films. And frankly, the consensus resoundingly is this: it’s time to put a stop to postcode elitism and excuse making chicanery in the world of film criticism.
Before breaking out the world’s smallest violin, I would like to acknowledge two things. Firstly, that being able to review films at all, whether that’s for a blog, an online site, an indie magazine, or a national print/newspaper publication is a privilege. In a world where the saying ‘everyone’s a critic’ has taken on a very literal meaning, with young and emerging critics fighting for their voice to be heard in an exceptionally crowded industry, having a platform of any size and standing is something to be both grateful for and proud of. I do not take for granted how fortunate I am to be given this space to talk about the issues affecting an industry I’ve wanted to be a part of for over half of my life.
Secondly, there is still a pandemic raging on, and in the grand scheme of things, being able to watch Fast & Furious 9 or The Suicide Squad is perhaps not the be-all and end-all as families continue to be subjected to unbearable decisions and prolonged isolation.
And yet, with the above being said, as one of many trying to keep hold of my always-precarious position in this industry, and as someone who has watched my colleagues – my friends – in this grind struggle for the kind of easily achievable accessibility measures that would make making a living from this vocation possible, I think it is incredibly important to speak out about this issue of reasonable access.
These last 15 months have been, simply put, hell. Families have been put through terrible emotional strain and financial pressure, a virus whose long-term effects and immediate impacts have been scary to witness has become a fact of life for us, and millions of us have become uncomfortably familiar with having only our own company to keep as lockdowns piled up. In the darkness of it all however, if there was a silver lining for those of us working in film journalism, especially those of us who don’t have a London postcode or the kind of disposable income or security to globetrot to prestigious film festivals at will. It was that we finally got a glimpse at what life as a critic could be like in a world where arbitrary geographical and financial barriers to access were removed.
And it was glorious.
As the world closed down, the industry’s major movers and shakers adapted to keep things going. From London to Sundance to Berlinale to SXSW and beyond, festival organisers found ways to hold their annual showcase of the latest and greatest upcoming films virtually.
It meant that for a critic like me out in the North Walian wilderness I could watch Nomadland in my pyjamas, visit a live Q&A with the cast of Judas & The Black Messiah, and review Céline Sciamma’s latest all without worrying about the crippling financial commitment and time cost of circumnavigating both sides of the Atlantic to do so.
With secure digital platforms, unobtrusive watermarks, outside-of-the-box thinking, and a sense of global togetherness otherwise often absent from an industry that can feel hierarchical at the best of times and downright designed to alienate the working class, the differently abled, or the otherwise marginalised at the worst, the torrid state of world affairs brought our community of film critics and filmmakers together in ways hitherto unseen before.
And it wasn’t just the festival circuit either. Distributors at large, unable to put on their cushy Soho screening events and Odeon Luxe premieres, suddenly in the face of a loss of coverage for their upcoming releases found themselves open to the once unimaginable notions of making their films digitally accessible to critics from all backgrounds. Press junkets moved from hotel suites to Zoom calls. Seemingly overnight, at least from this British perspective, the long-known London-centricity and unyielding ‘in person only’ practices that cauterised emerging critics’ ability to gain any skin in this reviewers’ game fell away.
As critic Hanna Ines Flint tweeted, the necessity of digital access created by the pandemic inadvertently corrected a discriminatory practice that has been stifling critics’ ability to do their job for years. And in a business where ‘first past the post’ practices have been the growing basis on which commissions for freelancers are given, it felt kind of incredible to get a taste of what it would be like to pitch an outlet for an upcoming release knowing you wouldn’t lose out immediately for not having been at the screening event 200+ miles and a £150+ train ticket away.
But then the world started to open up again. And cinemas started to reopen. And the Cannes Film Festival, the jewel in the industry’s glitzy crown, pressed ahead with an in-person only edition, doing away with months of hybrid events that placed accessibility and health and safety precautions on equal pedestals of importance. And just as easily as the doors had been flung open and the playing field leveled for critics across the industry, seemingly overnight they unceremoniously slammed shut, the locks changed so only the select few with a skeleton key (or an Oyster card) could retain access.
At the height of the pandemic, I couldn’t move for distributors offering me screener links to their upcoming works, and because of that I added outlets to my portfolio left, right, and centre, and was able to – alongside many of my peers – begin to believe that there is a place for me in this profession after all. Since the turn of the year however, I’ve requested over 50 screeners from the same big studios that less than nine months ago couldn’t have been more accommodating, and I have received, with the exceptions of the hybrid festivals’ viewing libraries, just one. It was Disney’s Jungle Cruise. Outside of that, I have grown numb and inured to stock emails stating “unfortunately we cannot offer digital access to our film at this time”, “it is our hope that you can attend one of our in-person screenings in a London venue”, “we only had limited availability for screeners for this film, apologies”, or – as is concerningly becoming more prevalent again – no reply at all to requests for access to films and their associated talent.
There is, to play devil’s advocate for a moment, a place for the pomp and ceremony of big in-person press screenings and film festivals. The sense of occasion, community, and – shudder as we may at the phrase – tradition they are steeped in cannot be underestimated. For distributors and filmmakers, of course the dream is for every release to be seen on the biggest possible screen with the largest possible audience. And, in the case of festivals, who doesn’t want to roll out the red carpet and gather stars enough to put the night sky to shame in celebration of cinema?
But, with it becoming increasingly apparent that regional in-person press screenings will never become a regular, widely adopted approach. And with the reality being that it is the majority rather than the minority of film critics who are incapable of descending upon London’s West End at will or catching a plane to the French Riviera, the time is surely nigh for the industry to wake up to the fact that its future lies in an approach that embraces the inclusive potential of digital access as much as the time honoured tradition of physical screenings and events.
This past year has shown us that, in our industry’s time of most dire need, accessibility is not only possible but entirely necessary for the preservation and continued existence of our industry. So now that the world has started to open up again, and as we all embrace the joy of returning to the big screen once again, all we ask of the studios and the festival organisers is that you remember what we collectively were able to achieve when geographical, financial, gendered, and racial barriers to access were lifted.
With Toronto, London, and Sundance film festivals amongst others adopting hybrid formats going forwards, a seismic industry shift seems to be a-rumbling – now we just need the studios who counted on the freelancers, the up-and-comers, the emerging critics over the past year not to forget about us. Keep the doors open – there’s room for us all.
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