London, film criticism, and the never-ending problem of access

The inside of a cinema
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Things got better for a while. Now? They’re back where they were. A few thoughts on the struggles for those trying to break into film writing.


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A little while back, a major blockbuster comic book movie held its press screening. It was taking place a few days before the film was out, and – helpfully – a few hours after the review embargo broke for the film in question.

As is usually the way, if you were granted access to the film’s junket, you got to see the film a little earlier. That’s the only way you could have hit said embargo. For most outlets though, they rely on the main press screening, known as the ‘multimedia screening’, to get early access to the film.

Straight away it all sounds entitled, right? It’s going to be one of those pieces about people not getting to see a film early for free again?

Well, sort of. It’s actually more about gatekeeping and access, and why it feels like the choices in film reviewing and feature writing seem to be narrowing again. But I get it if you think it’s a moan. I’ll take it.


Going back to that screening.

For the big, familiar outlets, access wasn’t a problem. If you’re an outlet of a particular size, as witnessed by the screening I’m alluding to here, you can get several of your staff in to the see the film. All power to them, and no shade either.

However, in this particular case, there were outlets who weren’t even aware the preview in question was taking place. Some found out when they saw Tweets from people sitting in the screen waiting for the film to start. Others failed to get access at all. Then, at the screening in question, there were lots of spare seats that could have been filled. It felt a little unequal.

The screening of course took place in London, because we seem to be back there. That in itself remains a huge firewall that film writers of the UK have to negotiate. Furthermore, the seats that are available are being shared now with social media influencers. No snobbery about influencers either to be clear, unless they wave their phone around in the middle of a screening. But also, in some cases limited available seats are being shared between increasing amount of people.

Movie reviews

Over the last year or two, there’s been some movement here. Warner Bros screened Dune for instance in a few different cities around the UK to give reviewers early access. Altitude is another studio that’s pushing this hard, and trying to de-London the UK film criticism landscape.

Independents? They remain absolute gems, supporting film critics wherever in the UK they happen to be located. For a while, it looked like the major players were going the same way.

After all, during the first year of the pandemic, even for a few choice big blockbusters, movie studios proved that they were able to provide streaming links to reviewers. It felt like an important moment in decentralising film writing in the UK. It wasn’t for every blockbuster, and it wasn’t without teething problems. However, it showed that it was an option.

Studios have long feared that allowing early access links would fuel piracy. That proved not to be the case. It felt like some pathfinding had gone on.

The problem is, as witnessed the other week, when it comes to the big films, we’ve gone back to exactly where we were in the year 2019. If you want to cover major studio releases and can’t afford to live in or get to London, then, bluntly, it’s tough luck. (A shoutout here to the many people working in film PR who are on the other frontline of this problem, and have been doing their damnedest to change things).


Why does all this matter? Well, if you don’t really care about film writing, it doesn’t. There’s little point pretending otherwise. But if you’re frustrated by the familiarity of modern film writing and outlets, then it may at the least raise an eyebrow.

It’s been an ongoing campaign for us here to try and widen early access to films. Without that early access, it’s really hard in an already algorithm-dominated online playing field for a new and/or upcoming outlet to get a foothold, let alone a new writer.

Daily newspapers currently have dozens of people a day churning out staggering number of explainer pieces for instance, that are designed to sway the Google search algorithm in their favour. A blog run by one person may well have the best piece of writing on a film out there, but you’ve got little chance of finding it.

That’s where social media – at least pre-Elon – was at least helping. And it was here that cemented the helping hand that early access to a film could provide. Not necessarily to have a review out at the stage a global embargo lifts, but as much to have good responsive pieces available in the film’s main release window. Certainly for the big films, that’s the way to get noticed, and without the access to them in good time, the status quo is firmly secured.


The particular disappointment here is that it’s been proven over the last few years that there’s another way that works. That new writers have been able to break through, because for a period of time, an early access digital screener was becoming something closer to the normal rather than the freakish exception. That’s what makes the current situation so disappointing: to have gone so many spaces forward on the board, and now to have retreated all the way back? It feels like an opportunity missed.

But then that’s what all those empty seats were the other week too, at the press screening we’ve been chatting about. Even those who could get to London weren’t able in this case to get to the film in question. And each time this happens, the gates remain slammed shut to anyone not in the know.

It doesn’t have to be like this. It’s been proven it doesn’t have to be like this. More often than not – with the exception of this indies – it remains like this. Something, surely, eventually has to give. Again.

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