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How U.K. Film Critics are Navigating Coronavirus: ‘My Earnings Potential Evaporated Overnight’

Sundance Film Festival Placeholder
Courtesy of Sundance Institute

As studios and distributors continue to pull the theatrical releases of their films, and cinemas nationwide close their doors to the public, what becomes of film criticism in the time of coronavirus?

Like many of the U.K.’s film and TV workers, most critics work on a freelance basis and with most major theater chains shuttered indefinitely and fewer films being released each week, the opportunities to write reviews are quickly drying up and forcing a pivot to video-on-demand coverage.

Variety’s London-based critic Guy Lodge, whose work largely stems from coverage of film festivals, says the “picture ahead is cloudy” for the field.

“With most of the upcoming festivals I cover — such as Hot Docs, Edinburgh and, of course, Cannes — either canceled or uncertainly postponed, my work routine is certainly going to look very different over the next couple of months,” he says.

Lodge highlights that critics’ roles have been evolving for some time thanks to the rise of global streamers and VOD platforms — a trend that will help soften the blow of Covid-19.

“We’ve been figuring out for a few years how to define our remit with the increase in digital releases, the explosion of Netflix as a major distributor, and so on,” notes Lodge.

“Now, several festivals are stepping into the unknown by taking place in an entirely digital sphere, which also provides us with fresh opportunities and angles for coverage. So, in a sense, this is the future of film journalism we’ve been looking ahead to for a while: it’s just been jump-started a bit.”

Robbie Collin, chief film critic of The Telegraph, who is also self-employed, adds: “A critic’s first duty is to their readership, and the present state of things has been a blunt reminder of that.

“For the time being, I see my job as (directing) people towards streaming, disc-based and on-demand titles of all tones and genres that will help them cope at a time when their downtime options — and indeed down-time itself — is severely limited.”

Freelance film journalist and critic Nikki Baughan, who contributes to Sight & Sound, Empire and Screen International, says this period is particularly unsettling because there is no benchmark for comparison.

“I’ve been (doing this job) for nearly 20 years and faced some tough times, but this is entirely unprecedented,” says Baughan.

“The bottom has literally fallen out of the industry and there is very little to write about besides the crisis itself. My earning potential has evaporated overnight and there is no safety net.”

Baughan is also co-chair of Time’s Up UK’s Critics Group, alongside Sophie Monks Kaufman, a contributing editor to Little White Lies and freelance journalist.

They are concerned that women in the field might find themselves under even more pressure during this uncertain period. Baughan herself is a single mother who next week will have to look after her young son at home after schools close early.

“Female critics, in particular, may now have additional responsibilities of childcare thanks to school closures or care for elderly or sick loved ones, which may also hugely impact on their ability to work,” they tell Variety.

“One thing editors can do is check in with contributors and do everything in their power to make sure that payments are going ahead in a timely fashion, if not in advance.”

Other critics from diverse backgrounds are also feeling the pinch.

“As a person of color, it can be tricky to get commissions for work that doesn’t have a race angle to it,” says Amon Warmann, a freelance film and TV critic for Empire and NME. “Now with there being much less new content to sort through, I expect this will get even more difficult in the months ahead.”

Anna Smith, chair of the Critics’ Circle Film Section and host of the Girls On Film podcast, says the dip in work for both freelance and employed members has been “dramatic,” but she has witnessed an increase in “online communication” within the community to create a system of support.

“I’m encouraging our members to be open with each other about freelance opportunities and adjusted ways of working: we are in this together,” Smith says.

“As chair, I’ve been speaking to the Film Distributors Association and keeping members updated on official policy and news of screening cancellations and cinema closures as they happen. We will also be keeping a close eye on announcements regarding government support for the self-employed.”

Little White Lies’ Kaufman adds she is thinking “more existentially about ideas and writing that can offer solace and companionship for people.”

“(This week), we launched a Little White Lies Movie Matchmaking Service and the demand we’re seeing there reflects a lot of anxiety and desire for small hits of relief,” she says.

Ultimately, critics are itching for a speedy return to business with cinemas reopening as soon as the pandemic has been curtailed. “We are critics because we love cinema,” Smith says. “I do hope, as soon as they are able to return to them, people find a renewed appreciation for the communal experience of watching a film in a beautiful venue.”

Collin believes the coronavirus effect will leave “the film business itself profoundly changed,” but whether it will be the same for film criticism is yet to be determined. “Criticism will survive providing we can continue to bring something of worth into the lives of our readers, be that our own writing or the films it unlocks,” he says.

“Are we valued? Were we ever? We’re about to find out.”