With cinemas shuttered, studios shifting most release dates until fall and beyond, and film festivals from SXSW to Cannes postponed or canceled, those whose livelihoods revolve around the movie business have seen work dry up during the pandemic. That includes freelance film critics and writers who make their living from press junkets and interviews, providing content for websites throughout the U.S. and around the world.
During normal times, their bylines are featured in numerous outlets. At festivals, they cover multiple films daily. But as we move deeper into the second month of quarantine and the health crisis dominates the news, there’s a lot less out there to review. And while governors in Texas and Georgia are allowing theaters to reopen, few cinema owners have chosen to do so, lacking fresh movies to screen and unwilling to put potential patrons at risk.
Carlos Aguilar, a writer for Remezcla, covered the Miami Film Festival at the beginning of March but returned home to L.A. when the event was canceled mid-run. He arrived back on the West Coast to a very different city. “My return to a panic-stricken Los Angeles marked the beginning of weeks of isolation,” he says, “with no end in sight.”
In Texas, Austin Mayor Steve Adler had announced the cancellation of SXSW, and Hollywood studios had already begun to abandon their release dates.
Theaters closed soon afterward, press junkets ended and freelance assignments began to be frozen. “If they’re not being put on ice, journalists who freelance for outlets are finding themselves being furloughed at least until theaters reopen,” Aguilar says.
Awards Watch and Remezcla writer Kathia Woods was saying goodbye to fellow journalists after another March event and knew it would be some time before she saw them again. Once theaters went dark, her first thought was, “Well, there goes our work.”
Just a year ago, Awards Watch owner Erik Anderson, who founded the site in 2013, had begun to hire freelancers to cover film festivals and generate more content and traffic. But with the festival trail in limbo, he was no longer able to send his writers on planned assignments.
“It’s been terrible because I had people set for SXSW and Tribeca who were writing for me for the first time and it was heartbreaking to see them unable to go,” Anderson says. “The virus’s impact on this industry is wiping out so many people’s ability to earn a living.”
For Valerie Complex, writing is her only source of income. She was receiving offers in March, but as soon as she had completed her assignments, the well dried up. Clients “sent out email after email stating their freelance budgets were cut,” she says.
For many, working as a freelance film critic or writer is a side job because the work doesn’t pay the bills. Until recently, Joey Magidson also was employed as a substitute teacher. But COVID-19 forced schools to close, too.
Magidson, who lives in New York, has spent the better part of the past few weeks, calling the department of labor for information as he files for unemployment, but he’s one of 26 million Americans out of work. “It’s a stressful feeling — not just the limbo of not knowing where the money will be coming from for the foreseeable future, but also having the sense of being useless,” he says.
For many, even in the best of times, writing about film is more a labor of love than a steady paycheck. Scott Menzel, owner of We Live Entertainment has been reviewing movies for more than 20 years, and has formed his own critics group — the Hollywood Critics Assn. Yet, Menzel still works a day job because his entertainment work doesn’t cover the bills. It never has.
Both Menzel and Anderson say they are thankful for TV and streaming content, which is helping to stanch the bleeding. Publicists and studios are sending out pitches and holding virtual junkets for journalists to conduct interviews. “It’s something that I don’t normally cover,” Menzel says, “but have started because there have been some interesting opportunities presented to me,”
Anderson says streaming figures are through the roof for TV content. With Emmy season around the corner, he’s had the opportunity to speak to high profile names on the small screen, allowing him to “open the gates to new writers.”
Still without the theatrical movies to write about, there are fewer opportunities for freelancers overall. That’s particularly of concern to those who are underrepresented among reviewers and film writers — women and people of color, who had been making gains in the sector. With more outlets furloughing or laying off staff, critic jobs have become even more competitive.
Aguilar ponders whether the industry “will regress to hiring only those already established and in turn be averse to letting in writers of color, or even emerging writers.”
Similarly, Woods has noticed journalists of color have not only been hit by hiring freezes but, looking beyond the pandemic, acknowledges, “I am fearful that the progress made will fall by the wayside once things get back to normal.”
Ultimately, though, two big questions remain: What will normal look like when the film business returns — and, more to the point for many in the industry who have lost work due to the pandemic, when will that return happen?