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The Pleasures and Pains of Film Journalism: Deconstructing the Press Tour

The Sundance press tent, 7:45 a.m.
The press tent outside the screening room at Sundance 2010. Photo by me.

Professionally, what I fear the most and what I struggle desperately to avoid is mediocrity.

I’ve recently been thinking a great deal about the work I do at /Film. It’s been interesting to see the deluge of film enthusiast sites that have sprouted up in the past decade or two, and how that’s affected the film journalism industry. For many people, sites like ours have begun to supplant the work done by the trades, such as Variety and The Hollywood Reporter, which traffic in both film news and film criticism. While these trades used to be monoliths, they have been overrun by the democratization of the internet, a glut of writers who have the passion and capacity to write about movies for free. Yet despite our differences, together, we try to bring interesting news and content to the masses.

A lot of this coverage takes place when new films come out, and directors and actors are sent around the country to participate in interviews that promote the film. It’s a win-win; the studio gets the word out about the movie, the website/publication gets some theoretically exclusive content that no one else will have.

Perhaps no one has deconstructed this process better than director Jason Reitman. Reitman was recently out promoting his excellent, Academy Award-nominated film Up in the Air. He also decided to document the entire thing, and produced two illustrative pieces of content: A short-film called “Lost in the Air: The Jason Reitman Press Tour Simultaor” and a pie chart detailing all of the questions he’s been asked:

Reitman’s “Press Tour Simulator” is a mesmerizing assemblage of photos and videos that he took of the 300+ interviews he endured promoting Up in the Air:

I can’t speak to Reitman’s intention or attitude in creating the pie chart and the video, but I can describe my own reactions to it. The overriding feeling that emerges for me is a stultifying and crippling degree of sameness and monotony. When Reitman joined /Film for a length, in-depth, rambling, and hilarious discussion, it was after he had gone on tour, and we even spoke about how giving an interview for one’s film, after awhile, becomes its own kind of performance.

In response to the above video, one of my favorite film people, Alison Willmore from IFC, tweeted that the video demonstrates “It’s depressing from the other side too.” People might think that meeting Jason Reitman in person might be a thrill — and they’d be right — but for many (albeit not all) of those who have been covering the industry for years and decades, the celebrity meeting lost its luster long ago. After watching the video, I had a quasi-existential crisis. “What’s the point of all this?” I asked. “What’s the point if/when this publicity process is a chore for both parties? Is it ever worth it?”

Insofar as films and the process by which they’re made, can provide us insight into ourselves and into our culture, I think it can be.

After my first post about whether or not film criticism is a dying art, a relatively well-known online film critic spoke to me about his own thoughts on the state of the industry. He explained to me that old media actually had some virtues, including editorial oversight. If you wrote about film (or anything else), your words were read over, edited, and critiqued by people who probably knew more about it than you, before they were ready to be printed. With the development of blogging platforms such as WordPress and Blogger, anyone with a computer and some spare time can be read by thousands almost instantly. The need to be good at writing, to be knowledgeable about one’s topic, went away. It was replaced with the need for business savvy, web-savvy, and lots of time and commitment. In this environment, is there any hope for uniqueness, for excellence?

The biggest challenge that I face is to try to conduct these interviews and write this coverage in such a way that provides insight or that spurs meaningful thought in my readers/listeners. It’s difficult when there are hundreds/thousands of other people out there who are covering the exact same topic as you are. But excellence frequently requires reinvention, self-reflection, self-criticism, and a strong distaste for being pleased with oneself. I’m grateful to have a platform through which high-quality content is even possible, as not everyone has that privilege and opportunity. But can I use that platform in a way that maximizes the quality of the content? Only my audience can decide whether or not I have succeeded.

May we all strive to be better than we were yesterday. It’s what keeps me up at night, what gets me up in the morning, and what will keep me going through the end of this journey, whenever and wherever that my be.

This article is the second part of a series. Here’s part one.

  • Hey Dave, I had the same feelings 10 years ago with IGN. And I've heard from other more experienced print journalists, they've had a similar quasi-existential crisis, 10 years earlier. I recall speaking about it with a journo who did the Thomas Crown junket in 1968. I'd wondered why they got to a point where they simply don't care so much about … See Morepress tours and the like. One answer, in some form, is: hanging around ego-centric groups becomes tiresome. On the other hand, I love learning from the people who make these movies.

    "It's difficult when there are hundreds/thousands of other people out there who are covering the exact same topic as you are. But excellence frequently requires reinvention, self-reflection, self-criticism, and a strong distaste for being pleased with oneself." – Couldn't agree more.

  • I think Jonathan Rosenbaum said it best recently in his response to Thomas Doherty on The Chronicle website, "[T]he best film criticism, online and offline, on paper and on the Internet, should be judged by the quality and seriousness of the readership, not by the number of hits or readers."

  • I'm still in high school and I want to make films for a living sometime in the future. Normally, you get a job to get some cash at my age, and I'm no different. I started looking around for a part-time job, but I realized how incredibly bored I'd be. So, I decided I would just write about what I love and see if I get any money. I started a blog and have just been working on my writing. I try to review every film I see, in some form, short or long. It's really been great just writing.

    I haven't gotten made any money yet (surprise, surprise.) but I've been slowing building a small readership and, more importantly, I've already grow as a writer and a movie geek.

    At first I tried to keep up with every little news item, but that, of course, is impossible, so I've been focusing on quality. That is really where it is. Even with the democratization of everything that came along with the internet, writers will still be rewarded for being a better writer or reviewer. Even though TMZ might get tons of readers through gossip crap, if you love film and provide good insight into the movies you write about, you will see the benefits. (Although, you still may have trouble getting a job.)

    Film criticism is not a dying art. There's just more competition, so journalists must respond with uniqueness and quality.