How London-centric press screenings are holding back wannabe UK film critics

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If the UK wants a greater diversity of film critics, then press screenings need to come out of London too.

In cinemas today are a pair of films that should be doing good business. Hustlers, from STX, has been attracting excellent reviews. Meanwhile, Downton Abbey is expected to clean up at the box office over the coming weeks.

If you’re someone who wanted to review either film, and you’re in the UK, the press screenings for each were in London. There’s nothing unusual there, and nor is this a slight against either distributor. Both STX and Universal are good at getting a broad range of reviewers into their screenings, and they hire venues of size to accommodate lots of reviewers.

Yet geography remains a huge barrier for those looking to break into film criticism. And it’s not being talked about enough.

In the UK in particular, if you want to review mainstream movies, you need to live in, or be able to get to, London. It’s pretty much as simple as that. There are film festivals around the UK doing sterling work in giving access to more and more movies early. But the hard truth is that the outlets that tend to pay best are after reviews of mainstream films. And there’s a financial and geographical barrier that’s keeping many brilliant writers away from being able to do that.

The situation as it stands is that the majority of press screenings take place at screening rooms or in booked cinema screens in and around the Leicester Square and Soho area of London. Personally, I live in Birmingham, and thus to cover films for Film Stories, I have to factor in the cost of getting in and out of London, along with four hours of travel time, and an extra hour buffer on the assumption that Virgin Trains doesn’t get its act together.

In the case of both Hustlers and Downton Abbey, there was one available screening of each. In the case of Hustlers, I know that STX wanted to screen it earlier, but I don’t think they could get hold of the film in time. For Downton, whilst there was a big premiere and junket screenings – that is, a chance to see the film early if you were interviewing the cast and crew – there was but one main screening available to online reviewers.

One aside: national press critics, for major newspapers, have access to national press shows on Monday and Tuesday daytime, but a special card is required to access these. And most of us have no chance of getting one.

The Status Quo

If, then, you’re an up and coming reviewer, and you wanted to review either Hustlers or Downton Abbey, the situation was simple. If you couldn’t get to London for the one preview screening (assuming you got an invite, although again, lots of these were issued), bad luck (although as I post this, STX has arranged a day of release extra screening for its film).

There’s an obvious argument about just going to see the film on release day, and more often than not I do this myself. But if you want to get published by someone who pays money, this won’t work (unless it’s for a film that’s not press screened, of course: it’s why so many film critics were packed into the first available public screening of the 50 Shades sequels. Honest).

It’s not about getting free screenings either (I see the argument about why should critics get everything for free a lot). The bottom line is that it’s cheaper for pretty much anyone to buy a cinema ticket on day one than travel into London for a screening. This is not a way to get rich, increasingly not even a way to break even. The vast majority of people wanted to be critics love film, and want to write about film.

No, this is about opportunity and accessibility.

If we want more diverse, interesting voices reviewing films – again, with no slight aimed at the people reviewing films already – then the barriers need to come down. It cannot be that people who can afford – by hook or by sizeable overdraft – to get to or live around London are the only ones who have a sporting chance of being a film critic.

Smaller distributors are well aware of this, and sometimes provide secure screener links. This is a huge step forward, and already we’re seeing the benefits of this. In Film Stories magazine – forgive the brief plug – I’ve been able to give breaks to lots of new voices, because the barrier to entry is significantly lowered with a digital screener. I don’t think it’s the best way to watch a film, and I do think that films for the cinema should be seen projected. But conversely, it’s making the best of the situation as it stands, and it’s a precious way into the industry for some

For the major movie studios, I’ve spoken to PR reps at a few of them, and they definitely see the problem. Over the years, regional press screenings for local newspapers have been eroded as budgets have been squeezed (not least in the regional press itself, many of whom now syndicate central reviews, again written from London screenings). Regional press days seem to be a thing of the past too.

The Future

There are olive branches. The aforementioned film festivals around the country generally get you access to films you otherwise wouldn’t get. Schemes such as Cineworld members’ screenings and Odeon Screen Unseen oftentimes get you into seeing a film before its official UK press screening has taken place. Furthermore, films such as Blinded By The Light went on a mini-UK tour prior to its official release, and there was a chance to catch the film early then.

Yet the status quo remains pretty much untouched. For the most part, if you want to be a film critic in the UK, and stand any chance of making money from doing so, you have to be able to get to London (and even then, you may find yourself behind those able to attend international film festivals such as Venice and Toronto, where movies such as Ad Astra, Joker and How To Build A Girl have been debuting). Sadly, regardless of physical ability, finance and geography, if you can’t get to a press screening in London on given days, the door to the industry remains pretty much shut in your face. I can’t say for certain, but I’d imagine the situation is not dissimilar in other countries (and please do let me know in the comments).

To distributors, then, I say this. Via Film Stories magazine – again, not trying to do a plug, just reflect the experience of the last year – I’ve encountered dozens of people trying to break into reviewing films. Some are being adept and spotting the gaps: reviewing Netflix movies on the day they debut, for instance, or spotting early previews in their area.

But how about just taking one of your major releases, and holding a press screening in the north of England, for instance? If you do that, I’ll make sure the drum is duly banged, and ask fellow magazine and website editors to try and get a critic from their outlets into said screening. Imagine the goodwill you’ll get for doing it. But more importantly, imagine the voices you help to be heard, the career you may change.

I think the intent is certainly there, and when I’ve raised this issue before, lots of people have been supportive. But I think now that action has to follow the words, else this status quo of London-centric criticism will continue for another generation. I, for one, don’t think that’s good enough.

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