Monday, 29 July 2013
My Two Cents On £30. Should Journalists/Bloggers Have To Pay To Cover A Cultural Event?
Today a seemingly innocent e-mail received by all of those who had a press pass at the London Film Festival last year was the start of a Twitter storm, the sort that leaves casual outsiders utterly baffled. Today has been an unpleasant day for so many reasons, and the snarks and smugness from many during the debate that took place meant it was unpalatable. So here is my humble opinion on the whole story, which opens up a much larger debate; should journalists/bloggers have to pay to cover cultural events?
The BFI has announced that it was to charge a fee of £30 + VAT to each press pass holders at this year's festival. To give it a bit of context, last year a press pass gave you access to 2 weeks worth of press screenings prior to the festival at the BFI, access to weekday daytime screenings, and the chance to apply for tickets for week-end and evening screenings during the festival, as well as access to a small press room with free chocolates and coffee. The fee comes with the promise of even more press screenings, since they are moving to that multiplex hellhole that is the Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue, a cinema even rats refuse to patronise.
So, £36 to have access to so many screenings, when a single ticket to the public can cost up to £18 (more for special ones), is a bargain I hear you say. Furthermore, the BFI is a charity, whose budget has been cut along with so many others cultural entities. So what am I complaining about? Especially considering the vast fortune I spend to go to the Cannes Film Festival in terms of transport and accommodation (although at least press passes and screenings are ALL free over there!), that fee is worth no more than 2 blu-rays, a few drinks at the pub etc...
Well it still leaves me with a bad taste in the mouth, and the horrible smugness of smirks witnessed on Twitter today were very sad.
I must specify that I have zero sense of self-entitlement. When I started my blog 2 years ago, I expected to quit after 3 posts, so it was a small victory that I have carried on for so long. And then when I first got invited to press screenings, to film festivals, I was flabbergasted as I would never have thought I was entitled to it as a mere blogger. But then film PR's, especially for smaller films, have long understood that any exposure they can get, even from a small blog and with the added reach of a linked twitter account, made it worth their while, so it is pretty much a two way street, not just a privilege, there is no such thing as a free lunch.
However I have since become a little tired how some PR companies (not all!), treat us, bloggers, merely like unpaid PR external aides. I am grateful for screening invitations and screeners, but they do not offer them out of the kindness of their heart, this is business.
I also completely understand that just because, like anybody else, I can set up a film blog, that does not make me a professional critic. I do not make a penny out of it, and unlike those X-factor contestants, I do not believe that just because it is your dream to do a particular job, then you should automatically be entitled to doing it, and living off it. Only a few lucky ones manage in such a sought-after profession.
Besides, I must add that I am pretty content with my dayjob, which offers me the kind of wage and security I could not only dream of if I was a film critic, and I see blogging as an entertaining activity on the side. Unlike popular belief, not all of us film bloggers are frustrated professional film critics wannabes. I hate to be smug too but then since it has been open season on us, film bloggers, it is my turn: I can guarantee you that most of us, film bloggers, earn a lot more with our day jobs than film critics.
It is a complicated matter as, nevertheless, you do spend quite an awful lot of time writing, as pleasant as it is, and offering some publicity to film companies/film festivals out of your own free time. But then if you don't like it, don't do it I hear you say. Fair point.
Yes the BFI is a charity, but can you imagine a car manufacturer charging to test their cars, Apple charging for tech journalists to test their products, publishing companies charging to review their books, art galleries charging a fee to attend their openings? I cannot think of anywhere else where a business or even a charity would charge for the privilege of covering their events. And if they cannot afford to open up their press pass to lots of bloggers then they should just tighten up the number of passes they offer, simple as that. Nobody is forcing them to accept us, vilified bloggers.
I absolutely love the BFI and the London Film Festival, and their staff are great, they have managed to expand the festival and make it a vibrant and informal experience for us, which I respect them for. And I am actually a "Champion" at the BFI, a level of membership which costs a fortune, so I cannot be accused of not supporting them! But I do have the right to slightly disagree with this new development, even if I can understand why they are doing it, and we really must steer away from the binary love/hate extreme attitude witnessed on Twitter.
Unsure what to think after receiving this e-mail, I vented my slight frustration on Twitter. And I was not prepared for the torrent of smirks and smugness from established "journalists". Which is laughable when you think about how more and more of them are being laid out nowadays, so the smugness might be short lived. I was also disappointed by the level of negativity from some people which I admire. I always enjoy a bit of good natured banter and arguing, but the minority of us who protested got subjected to some unfair comments.
Best example: the usually lovely Hannah McGill, from my favourite film magazine Sight & Sound, tweeted: "Oh little critics squeaking about being charged for a press pass... do grow up. LFF is not a big free present because you have a blog". Such a patronising and snarky tone! On a day when The Independent sacked all of its Arts contributor, I would not feel so smug and confident, if I was her. On further tweets to me, she has made it absolutely clear how little she cared about other writers (or strangers as she called them) and the "film writing community" which she said does not exist. Who is she, the Margaret Thatcher of film critics? There is no such thing as society, let alone a community, it's all for one?
I could not disagree more with that vision. I don't care how sad it is, I have met a lot of people through Twitter, which I then met in person at various screenings/festivals and a few of them have since become my friends. And with our shared experience of those screenings and festival, along with our shared interest, I do believe there is a film writing community indeed, even if some feel to grand to be part of it. Besides, why be on Twitter then? Just to spew off links to your own writing?
Elsewhere, we were deemed entitled, ignorant because other film festivals also charge a fee... So what, if wrongness has already happened then you can't argue against it, it's too late? And as I said before, Cannes does NOT charge for its pass, so again, a nice patronising tone... Worse, I read another tweet about us being "unpaid idiot bloggers". A really sad day on twitter, with some descending to the level of trollness usually witnessed with Beliebers.
Besides, most of us film bloggers are not able to attend all the press screenings if any, and often have to fork out a fortune to buy tickets for public screenings which we then diligently review, as I do. Also, as seen in so many industries before, that sort of charge, once introduced, has a nasty habit of growing exponentially. How long will it take before it's £50? £100? Then film critics, especially those on a low salary as I sadly suspect most of them are, might begin grumbling too.
If anything, the whole sad affair has confirmed how glad I am to be completely free to do what I want with my blog, I am no slave of any PR company or Film Festival. I have met a whole lot of lovely people within the film writing business (paid AND unpaid ones), some I even consider as friends, but that kind of attitude has shown that I am very happy not to fully belong to that industry. I have a decent, not dazzling number of faithful readers, I get some great feedback on Twitter, and it suits me fine.
What is your take on this? I am particularly interested in comments from those who do not belong to the film blogosphere, to see how it comes across to external people.