Monday 4 August 2014

Should Film Critics Kickstart Their Career?

Last week, respected film critic MaryAnn Johanson launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund her "What to Stream" column on her own website, Flick Filosopher. A few eyebrows were raised due to the novelty of her approach, and while I was a little puzzled at first, I was even more surprised to see how she found herself at the receiving end of some vitriol on Twitter, which was completely uncalled for. If anything, the whole incident has put the spotlight on the current and difficult situation film critics find themselves in at the moment.

While I have been lucky enough over the last few years to be accredited for various film festivals, and to be invited to many press screenings thanks to my blog, I do not consider myself a professional film critic. My writing is a hobby, I don't make a penny out of it, and my main goal is to share my passion for cinema, including some of my most unusual tastes. But having mingled with them, I am not oblivious to the challenges that film critics face. Let's backtrack a couple of decades ago.

Back in the 90's as a teenager, I was an avid reader of every single film magazine I could get my hands on, as just before the internet it was the only source of information of its kind. And at the time, we would not have dreamed of grabbing them for free. Content had to be paid for, and film critics duly paid for their work. But we all know what happened. With the advent of the internet, we all became accustomed to accessing sites for free (go on, admit it, you get angry when a tweet link to a site with a paywall, I know I do!), all while the line between professional and amateur writers blurred, since anybody with internet access was able to launch a blog and declare themselves a film critic.

And as the years went on, film sites owners became less and less willing to pay their writers (while still getting their revenues through advertising), finding more spurious reasons not to (I read a particularly heinous post from a film site owner on the subject recently) and choosing to publish some new and willing writers without paying them. And who lost out among all this ? Professional film critics. There have been many casualties recently, with some big names losing their jobs, to the point where it is hard to see how this could ever be a viable career except for a happy few.

And this is where Maryann Johnson's campaign comes in, trying to buckle the trend of film critics not being financially rewarded for their work. I can sort of see why some have been a little incredulous. Nobody is owed a living in their chosen career path, especially the most desirable ones. Like Joan Cusack said in Working Girl: I sing and dance around in my knickers in my bathroom, that doesn't make me Madonna. For better or worse, we live in a capitalist world of supply and demand, and there is simply not enough space for all of us to make a living out of reviewing films, even the best ones among us, even if we really, really want to. The same goes for singers, actors, writers... And all those X-factors contestants.

But MaryAnn's situation is different. Unlike that young woman straight out of university who recently kickstarted a campaign to get her reviewing tour of Britain's spas funded, MaryAnn is a professional. Flick Filosopher was one of the of the first internet sites about cinema, funded in 1997. And she has written for many outlets over the year, both for printed publications and online, as well as being a member of the Online Film Critics Society. She has also written several books, has been a jury at various film festivals etc...

Which is why I actually admire her approach. Yes, she has put a paywall on her website, because writers should value their work, and make it valued by others too. And yes she is trying to fund some of her activities through Kickstarter, which is a way of taking control, by still being in charge of what she writes, but also offering some customised film reviewing for her higher backers. Some might not agree with the idea, but nobody is being forced to pay anything!

I will always value (and be willing to pay for) insightful and intelligent film reviewing, which is why I still buy Sight & Sound and Les Cahiers Du Cinema, despite the myriad of film sites available to read for free. And this should provide some food for thoughts for all of us all perhaps too quick to offer our writing free of charge (or worse, for the "exposure"!). Otherwise, what is going to happen? Proper film critics will be unable to carry on and write, and we will be left with PR releases being churned out by film sites without an ounce of critical judgement, and subpar reviews.

If you wish to back her project, follow this link:


  1. I'm posting anonymously -- call it cowardice, or a desire to avoid conflict -- but I am a professional film critic who's found myself not a little irritated by the sheer hubris of this particular campaign and, in particular, the boisterous sense of self-entitlement attached to it.

    The line of work I've pursued is tough to prosper in, and requires a healthy sense of honestly (about one's financial/personal circumstances; a supportive partner with a decent salaries job helps too) and humility. But, by being good enough, being willing to improve your craft, developing contacts, meeting editors face to face, generally being professional (consistently hitting deadlines with work of a reasonable standard etc), it's possible to get work.

    Really though, I think you answered your own question midway through: "Nobody is owed a living in their chosen career path, especially the most desirable ones". For me it's very simple: If you can't make film criticism work for yourself, you absolutely must a) pack it in, or b) Find a way to make it work. What you can't do is panhandle.

    I believe that arts criticism is vital to the culture; to stimulate debate, to engage, to act as a mirror to challenging aspects of society. But it is arts criticism: not brain surgery, cancer research, building transport infrastructure. Asking people for money to help them decide what they want to watch before they drift off to sleep? Come on.

    As for the rewards offered, well, "I'll follow you for a year on Twitter"? This is the bit where I wonder if I'm the victim of some long-con, I'm Still Here style-hoax. Perhaps all of the responses to this Kickstarter campaign are being monitored by the critic in question, and will be collated into a sign-of-the-times book. Here's hoping.

    1. Thanks for leaving a comment, it is a good complement to my post, and no problem with you remaining anonymous.

      I think my post is a bit more muddled up than I wanted it to be, really shows why I'll never be a proper writer! I mainly wanted to make a point about how it has become too acceptable of late for writers not to be paid but I also realise that the situation is a bit more complex and less manichean than that, it's not just unscrupulous film site owners versus helpless film reviewers.

      I can totally appreciate how the campaign might come across, I was a little puzzled at first. And as you say, I did point out that not everybody can/should live off their chosen career, such is life.

      I'm also taking your points on board, especially what you are saying about the efforts, the honesty and the concessions required to actually make it work. Thanks again!