It’s been a depressing year for film criticism. More publications shuttered; more giants in the field lost paid opportunities to write; more outlets cut back on serious, thoughtful discussion of the arts in favor of rushed, facile coverage of whatever’s trending that week.
We, all of us, have to adapt or die. So I’ve done my best to adapt.
Rather than restrict myself to the same kinds of dwindling chance to just write 600-word movie and TV reviews, I’ve tried to forge new pathways in 2018. I developed new contacts, polished off a different set of skills, and tried to develop my voice beyond arts writing. I’ve appeared on the radio, embarked on a reporting fellowship, found a new social media audience, written new kinds of features with cross-coastal and international bylines, and developed new analytics tools for media organizations. I’ve tried to make myself a multi-hyphenate, because I’m not confident I could survive as a writer otherwise.
That’s not to say I feel at peace with my economic situation – no one in the media landscape ever is. In 2019 I’ll keep maneuvering into new channels of work, always conscious of the fact that the old channels can disappear at any moment. There are big things ahead: I’ve got several long-term projects in the works, including a podcast that I desperately want to finish, and I will be spending the majority of the year in Europe. It’s a scary world out there for writers and aspiring creatives. It’s up to us to tame it.
Some of my 2018 highlights:
In fall 2017 I briefly lived in the Bay Area, where I visited the offices of Kanopy, the free arthouse streaming service for libraries and universities. There, the Kanopy team and I began a series of conversations that led this year to my appointment as their “Film Critic in Residence.” I got to attend the Venice and New York Film Festivals, posting my reactions to new films on Twitter and Letterboxd and linking them to films in Kanopy’s library. And if you were a Kanopy user, you also got my email recommendations in your inbox.
I’m really excited for where this partnership will lead. Kanopy is, in my view, one of the few bright spots in the modern streaming economy, especially now that FilmStruck is dead. They have direct lines to public libraries and universities across the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand: it’s a potent, powerful network of curious people who love film and culture. Some of the libraries were even excited to engage with my “Film Critic in Residence” project on social media.
If you’d like to see Kanopy do more with criticism and editorial curation, you can Tweet, Facebook or email them to encourage more of this kind of work. They’re trying out a lot of different approaches at the moment and I’m happy to be steering through this phase with them.
On the Air
Even though I’ve been writing for NPR for eight years, you wouldn’t have heard me on the radio at all before last winter. That seemed like a missed opportunity to me. So one of my goals for 2018 was to hone my radio voice, and NPR and WBUR’s “Here & Now” gave me the opportunity to do just that. I filed several radio reviews for the daily news program, plus a two-way from the Venice Film Festival (as I crouched under my San Servolo hotel blanket, sweating like a pig, to chat about Errol Morris).
I hope to keep doing pieces for “Here & Now” into the new year, and I’m also engaged in a more long-term audio project: writing, producing and hosting my own podcast miniseries that has nothing to do with movies. Instead, it’s a personal narrative piece about Michigan history, religious conflict and American fascism. I’m thinking about the show as “a Detroit holy war.” I started work on it nearly a year ago, when I barely knew anything about how to make podcasts, and have been educating myself in the art of audio storytelling all year in-between my paid projects (no small feat).
I hope to finally finish the show in 2019. At least, that’s my goal. Please hold me to it. (Some funding from any interested public radio/podcast organizations would be nice! Email me, folks!)
Listen to me on "Here & Now":
My Year in Reviews (and how I watch movies)
This year I made a switch from reviewing most of my movies in Chicago to reviewing most of them on the road in-between my other work. Certainly being in Chicago had had its advantages, the most obvious of which was the chance to see almost every big movie in advance screenings reserved for the press. But that also opened up new problems with time management, because even though I typically only review one film per week, I would feel compelled to see movies just because they were screening and not because I was being paid to see them, even when doing so meant I was diverting my attention away from actual paid assignments.
I know a lot of critics will have the mindset that they should see everything that comes out, regardless of whether it’s been made with craft and promise or not. I don’t really agree. For working professionals who have to make a living when we’re not watching movies, carving out most evenings and afternoons just to see something that clearly holds its audience in contempt is an unreasonable demand on our time. And being able to discern the movies of the year that actually deserved our time (like, say, “The Rider”) from the ones that didn’t (“Tomb Raider”) is something every critic should just have a second sense for, anyway.
Anyway, so I’ll miss having easy access to films, usually on less than a week’s notice so that I’m ready for most anything NPR wants to assign me. That’s the tradeoff for the freedom of mobility. But I’m good at finding workarounds. Under my new system there are three principal ways I’m able to review films:
First, thanks to staggered release patterns, I can see many of the big studio movies in Paris, where I'll primarily be based, days or even weeks before they open in the US. This has led to, ahem, unusual situations… where, for example, I had to attend the 10:00 AM Wednesday matinee of “Fifty Shades Darker” with a bunch of middle-aged French housewives in order to file a review for NPR 32 hours later. And it can also lead to discombobulation: “Under the Silver Lake” and “High Life” opened wide in France this year, so many months will have passed in-between the time I saw them and my ability to write about them for American outlets. I do have to pay full-price for the tickets, but even this will be alleviated in the coming year because I plan to sign up for the Paris equivalent of MoviePass, which (unlike our MoviePass) still lets you see essentially unlimited movies at most area theaters. The downside is with foreign-language films, which only get French-subtitled releases in Paris, not English-subtitled ones.
Second, I can request online screeners of films and watch them on my laptop. Obviously this sucks because I lose the theatrical experience completely, but actually this aspect of the job isn’t any different from what it was like in Chicago. It’s the same handful of studios that don’t bother to book theatrical screenings of their releases anywhere but New York and Los Angeles, so their trade-off is they make it very easy for critics to request online screeners. When I place my bids for what I want to review, I pay special attention to who the distributor is, because that will usually determine whether I can get an online screener for it. My radar is on for anything from IFC, Kino Lorber, Oscilloscope, Magnolia, Cohen Media Group, and a handful of other boutique outlets. Luckily, these films tend to be of pretty high quality, or at least interesting enough to withstand 600 words of scrutiny. The inverse of this is I tend to avoid anything from a studio-fronted boutique like Sony Pictures Classics, Fox Searchlight and Focus Features, because the big boys don’t like digital screeners and they’re more likely to wait several weeks or months after the US rollout before releasing one of their films in France. Their loss. Netflix is good with advanced screeners, and I’ve made quite a bit of my income from churning through their endless content mills, but their sheer volume of new stuff frightens me so I can’t bring myself to do a Netflix movie every week.
Third, I try to binge as many of the big movies as I can at film festivals before their formal release. This year that strategy worked out pretty well for my Venice and New York visits. It’s how I was able to review “Vox Lux” and “At Eternity’s Gate,” and the strategy also let me build a bank of 2019 releases in my brain so I can pitch them later (“3 Faces,” “Ash Is Purest White,” “The Nightingale,” “Sunset”). Watching a movie at a festival is also, in my experience, the best way to experience something, because that’s where you’ll find the most engaged audiences. Of course, festivals are a massive drain on time and resources, and I have to string together two or three different piecemeal assignments from different outlets just to break even on a festival trip. So they’re a lot of work, but if you see enough films, that work can hopefully morph into an investment down the line.
My favorite NPR reviews of 2018:
Other reviews from 2018:
Free Trip to Germany
I won a fellowship this year, through the Rias Berlin Commission, to travel to Germany and the EU with a group of about a dozen American broadcast journalists. We traipsed from Brussels to Cologne to Berlin, interviewing journalists and politicians and bonding over our shared curiosity for the most pressing issues currently facing Germany, Europe and the world. Then I got a few extra days on the end to report a story on the only NPR station outside of America and travel to Munich.
If you’re a journalist, you should apply for this fellowship! They offer it twice a year and for some bizarre reason can never attract enough people. I don’t know why. But check it out.
Did you expect a film critic would also be into digital media analytics? This year I earned my Master’s in Media Innovation and Entrepreneurship from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern. As part of my coursework I served as an analytics consultant for two of the biggest public radio stations in the country: KQED in San Francisco and WBUR in Boston.
Here is my wrap-up report on some of the work I did at KQED in 2017.
I also produced detailed analytics reports for each of my Kanopy social media projects.
I’m available for more news analytics consulting upon request.
My Professional Goals for 2019
Want to ask me about freelancing, film criticism, moving abroad or the digital media world? Want to hire me? Get in touch!