New voices often find themselves writing for free
Now is probably not the right time to enter the world of film criticism, but don’t tell that to aspiring pundits. Even as the professional ranks implode, young writers are expressing their passion by any means necessary.
Keith Uhlich, 31, runs a blog called the House Next Door. “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” will probably make his top 10 list but not “The Dark Knight,” which he dissed in 1,500 words earlier this year. Like many of the writers who contribute to the site, Uhlich would like nothing more than to make a living reviewing movies.
“I want to be a critic,” he says, “but more important, I am one already. A lot of people get hung up on the monetary issue, and I understand why. If you’re looking at this as a (paying) profession, at this point it seems untenable.”
When the site launched, it paid by the post; now contributors do it for the clips and experience. Some, like 22-year-old NYU grad Vadim Rizov and 31-year-old Kristi Mitsuda, have parlayed their uncompensated Web work into paying gigs.
“Film criticism is definitely a sideline,” Mitsuda says. “I’m always going to be pursuing it, but it doesn’t feel at all viable.”
Rizov writes for the Village Voice, Sight & Sound and Nerve.com’s film blog, supplementing his freelance income — as nearly all aspiring critics do — with a day job (in his case, as a projectionist at a local university).
“Last year I cleared just over $11,000,” Rizov says. “I’m willing to do this for another five years at least, but if I’m 28 and still grinding out $500 worth of capsules every month and living in this crappy apartment, I might just throw my hands up.”
In the meantime, Rizov feels incredibly lucky to be writing for such outlets at his age, though the pinch of shrinking page counts and shorter capsule lengths can be dispiriting. “I think even the worst movie deserves more than 200 words,” he says.
That’s one reason sites like House and Reverse Shot continue to attract unpaid submissions from young writers, even after they move on to more mainstream gigs.
“You have freedom to say whatever you want,” says Reverse Shot editor Michael Koresky, 29, whose online zine offers his writers an outlet for such opinions. “We don’t have to answer to anyone except ourselves. Because of that freedom, you have to rein it in. There’s a lot of verbal diarrhea on these sites.”
Reverse Shot contributors get paid for reviews syndicated to IndieWire.com but can otherwise write about whatever they please, in some cases revisiting older movies or examining new releases from multiple angles (“Flight of the Red Balloon,” “A Christmas Tale” and “Synecdoche, New York” each attracted a flurry of Reverse/Shot posts this year).
However, while the Web has given many writers a backup source to express their opinions, blog editors must also be pragmatic about content in order to remain profitable.
“At magazines like Cineaste and Filmmaker, they’re not thinking about circulation with every move they make. They do things with creating a picture of the culture in mind. I have to think about traffic every single second,” says 28-year-old Spout.com editor Karina Longworth. “It’s very rare that a film review will be one of our top-10 traffic posts of a week or a month.”
Longworth began reviewing movies while in grad school. “At that point in 2004, I certainly didn’t think I was going to be a Web film critic,” she says, “but at the same time, I probably have more autonomy at my age than most people could ever have hoped for years ago.”
Former Village Voice film editor Dennis Lim — another casualty of the changing print landscape — teaches in NYU’s cultural reporting and criticism program. “My sense is that most young people who get into the field no long harbor any aspirations of landing a cushy job as a critic, which is not something you would have said 10 or even five years ago,” he says. (His successor at the Voice, 34-year-old Nathan Lee, has made a decent living reviewing movies since age 27, but now says he’s finished with film criticism.)
“I’ve never had one of those positions, so that’s never been a reality to me,” says Eric Kohn, the 24-year-old critic who famously live-blogged “Indiana Jones” from Cannes for IndieWire. “The only reality I know is getting by on these different assignments, and having this philosophy of ‘I don’t work for free.'”
Most young writers take unpaid work when they’re starting out, then reach a point where they’re earning enough to get by or must consider another line of work.
“It’s hard to get up your dander for free,” says Nick Pinkerton, a 28-year-old whose Reverse Shot clips landed him steady freelance work from the Village Voice. “Who wants to sit up at 2 a.m. and sweat out 800 words about ‘Step Brothers’ for nothing?”
“Even my (personal) blog, it’s hard to motivate myself,” says 30-year-old Voice freelancer Aaron Hillis. “I’ve gotta get American Express off my back first.”