This is the first installment of Ask IndieWire, in which our team of writers and editors address reader questions related to filmmaking, movies and television. If you have a question you’d like us to answer, write us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Within a matter of hours of advertising the email@example.com email, we received several variations of the same question.
“I’m graduating soon with a degree in film and television studies and am mostly interested in film and television journalism/criticism,” wrote Morgan Picton-James. “What advice would you have for following that career path?”
Farida Ezzat, a fourth-year medical student, had a similar question. “I’m interested in a career in film criticism,” she wrote. “What do you recommend I study after graduating from med school: filmmaking or journalism?” Jessie Rodriguez just cut to the chase: “How does one become a David Ehrlich?”
Every one of these questions — yes, even the last one — reflects a legitimate challenge facing many young writers keen on covering movies. Although there are numerous opportunities on this career path, the media landscape is in constant flux. And while it would be unrealistic to assume that every talented young cinephile could land a gig as the next Roger Ebert (or the next David Ehrlich), there are several practical ways in which a serious, talented journalist can take steps toward doing just that.
I’ve spent the last few years working with aspiring critics and reporters at workshops around the world, and teaching them at NYU. Many of them have found rewarding paths into the film community, either by landing full-time jobs in media or developing those skills on the side. Here are some of the key guidelines to keep in mind if you’re keen on breaking into the field.
Find deadlines. Stick to them.
Writers who regularly blow deadlines have a rough time finding work and keeping it. Even the really talented ones. Discipline is essential to a developing critic or reporter, and discipline also creates productivity — and productivity goes toward those 10,000 hours everyone likes to talk about. (Whether or not you buy Malcolm Gladwell’s theory, the ethos of “practice makes perfect” still holds water.)
This is especially valuable for budding critics who need to produce distinctive work. Imitating other critics is deadly; so is falling back on clichés. That means developing voice, and the fastest way to do that is get a deadline, hit it, and then do it again.
Finding deadlines depends on your starting point. Students can write for the college newspaper, or intern at an admired publication — or even one they don’t like. The point is to get in the vicinity of writers and editors, with the potential opportunity for bylines. Every story creates a clip, and every clip is one more piece of evidence that you can do the job when pitching publications.
First-rate film publications like Reverse Shot and Slant have been wonderful resources for budding writers; the editors provide smart, insightful, and honest feedback (essential for developing a thick skin). It also makes your byline familiar to publicists and other members of the film community.
Get to know the scene.
Big cities like Los Angeles or New York have a complex network of filmmakers, programmers, publicists, distributors, agents, and journalists. The more effort you make to become a part of this ecosystem, the better. Work the film parties, go to the big screening series and festivals, don’t hesitate to introduce yourself to the room, and build a network of contacts. This will provide screening access, potential stories, and productive work.
If you live outside a big city, you have a chance to be a big fish in a smaller pond. Get to know who runs the big art house theater or local film festival. Being an active critic and reporter means they will see you as a key resource, which could lead to more work.
Find your strengths. Then go beyond them.
Credit: Paramount Pictures/Bay F
Young writers are often keen on covering the films and filmmakers that appeal to them and leave everything else on the sidelines. That’s a mistake: You’re more valuable if can cover an Agnes Varda retrospective as well as the new “Transformers” movie.
This logic also applies to the work: Too many aspiring critics saw Roger Ebert or Leonard Maltin on TV and decided that being a movie reviewer is the one and only career. There’s too many other possibilities, and very few publications hiring full-time critics.
Become a good interviewer, with angles that stand out (your story will almost always be one among many). Become a good reporter, paying attention to hard-news coverage of the entertainment industry. Both force you to interact with people outside the ivory tower of criticism, give you insight into how movies work, and inevitably deepen your well of contacts.
And, since we’re in 2017: Write about television. Not only does every outlet want to cover TV, but also the overlap between film and TV has never been more pronounced.
Finally, pay close attention to the way publications package information. Something that might seem crass or clickbaity — think clever headlines and lists (like this one) — is how outlets reach the widest readership possible. Pitch stories in these terms, and you advance the odds of finding work.
Find a strong angle for everything you write.
The only thing worse than a poorly written story is a boring one. Before you conjure clever one-liners, ask yourself what you really want to say. Does this loud blockbuster illustrate Hollywood’s worst tendencies? Why does this filmmaker do such a bad job of representing women? Did you just watch the best horror movie of the year? Construct real arguments that will pull your readers into your work.
A good editor will tell you if you need to pull back on the prose. Some of my favorite critics, including Manohla Dargis, Wesley Morris, B. Ruby Rich, and Amy Taubin, all have distinctive perspectives that come through both in the specificity of their voices and their specific sensibilities; agreeing with them is irrelevant. Tastes should be transparent: Writers like Glenn Kenny, Nick Pinkerton, and IndieWire’s own David Ehrlich are strong, entertaining writers no matter what they tackle (or where). Nothing can boost your profile faster.
What are your priorities?
Is your agenda to find a stable paycheck, with a good health insurance plan and reasonable hours? Don’t jump headfirst into the freelance lifestyle. Even if you’re overwhelmed with assignments, it can be tricky to maintain that momentum. But don’t let anyone stop you from pursuing your dream; there are ways to produce work on the side. Which leads me to a final point…
Look beyond journalism and criticism.
If movies are your passion, there are many different ways put it to work. Careers in distribution, publicity, and programming all let you watch a lot of movies, engage with filmmakers, travel to festivals, or work at studios. (And: Get paid more.)
I’m a big fan of Andrea Picard’s Film/Art column in Cinema Scope; she’s one of the best writers covering experimental film. She’s also a programmer for the Toronto International Film Festival’s avant-garde Wavelengths section, which gives her an incredible degree of influence beyond the stories she writes.
Before you get carried away about being the next David Ehrlich, think about how that ambition might be expressed with other opportunities. A world of possibilities await.