Film Journalism Is Broken
Junkets, a weird publicity cycle and a lack of diversity in the media has stunted the discussions we could be having about cinema.
VICE interview with Christopher Nolan at 'Dunkirk' junket
Stepping out of the cinema after watching a film, I want to talk about it. I want to read about it, get annoyed about it, work out if I'm right about the bits I thought were problematic; to tease through the characters' lives, their way of relating to the world. I get this feeling with movies much more than books or new albums. But frustratingly, the way the film business is currently set up stifles that pleasure: what the public and the industry want are completely opposed, and it's the only type of popular culture for which this is the case.
The day an album is dropped, there are blogs, interviews, think-pieces, YouTube commentaries. As interest gathers, more extensive interviews are released. With TV, while an episode is airing, people can talk about it on social media, in real-time. The next day, they wake up to reviews, episode recaps and analysis. With the TV model changing to streaming services, people can binge watch entire seasons over a weekend or come to a show two months late. In response, more considered think-pieces and interviews are rolled out over the weeks after shows were initially added to Netflix.
In the film industry, everything is focused on the opening weekend. A film's first week at the box office was always important for hyping it in the past, but is even more crucial now studios release so many movies, effectively giving each a shorter window to make money at cinemas. A bad opening weekend could mean a film makes a loss for a studio (ergo more "safe" brainless action blockbusters). It's this financial pressure that has created the unsatisfactory model within which we write, cover and talk about films.
The vast majority of journalism on a movie has to be pumped out before the film is even released. If you get access to "talent", AKA directors and actors, or a screening, it's under the agreement that the coverage is released the week of release. The problem with that is no one really cares at that point. As a member of the public, unless it's an interview with a director we already love, or a first look review to help us decide whether or not we want to see the film, we're unlikely to be intrigued by all the snippets of news. It's only after we've experienced the film that we long to be involved in the dialogue.
Pre-release interviews are almost always strictly focused on the film. There's no easy way to do interviews after the film has come out, when the conversation surrounding it has evolved, because stars are off promoting something else they're working on, often in another country. They're onto the next bit of pre-release promo. The media coverage we're presented with is a lot of a little; a scatter-gun approach to marketing. This is embodied in the strange phenomenon of film junkets – the assembly line interviews that take place at a hotel before the film comes out.
What would you ask someone if you had four minutes with them? Falling in love supposedly takes less. A great secret could be divulged. But also, maybe not. If your interviewee has a bad cough and needs a glass of water, that takes 30 seconds – one eighth of your time. They might be considering the fart they need to let out and not really listen to the question; subtle fart time included, that's 20 seconds gone – another twelfth. The publicist might pop their head around the door and say, "Alright, that's three minutes leftm" and it throws you momentarily – 10 seconds gone, another one twenty-fourth from the absolutely-not-proverbial hourglass. If you're lucky, you receive a double slot of eight or ten generous minutes.
Slots are this short simply because studios and publicists want placements in as many publications as possible. The prerogative of film companies is quantity over quantity. The content produced is increasingly irrelevant – just the name of the film, perhaps a clip or a still, a few words from the director or stars attached. Conveniently, the number of online publications out there, coupled with YouTubers, bloggers and other non-traditional forms of publishing, are always increasing, biting more into that time. This might seem like a concern only for insiders, but it's become an accepted enough trope for SNL to air a sketch in 2015 mocking the junket format; an awkward teenager from a college paper allowed to interview Dakota Johnson of Fifty Shades, while she squirms and the publicist sternly attempts to steer conversation.
Once in the interview, there's a strange threat in the air; a brisk politeness to proceedings. There's an acknowledgement by all parties that this is a heavily regulated interaction. The publicist – often the specific talent's – is either in the room for the entire duration or continues to check in and out, lest you get comfortable or too engaged.
You're probably thinking this is the case with the infrastructure surrounding all celebrity interviews. But thinking of the interviews I've conducted with pop stars, rockstars, comedians, famous writers or presenters, none are as encroached upon by PRs and management as those with film stars. You might spend an hour alone in a pub with Ed Sheeran, but only get 15 minutes with the sixth most famous star in a new Marvel film, while a publicist breathes down your neck, making sure you don't ask what the actor really thinks of the movie.
The value of junkets came into question a few years ago when Channel 4 News' Krishnan Guru-Murthy had a couple of minor incidents with his interview subjects. Robert Downey-Jr, who walked out when asked about his past, and most famously Quentin Tarantino, who Guru-Murthy questioned about race during a Django Unchained junket. The director completely refused the line of questioning, eventually saying, "I'm shutting your butt down."
"This is a commercial for my movie, make no mistake," Tarantino said, illuminating what purpose film coverage serves: pure, unadulterated advertising. Visually, too, the marketing is clear: in every junket interview room, the giant official movie poster is a glaring backdrop. "I'm not your slave and you are not my master. You can't make me dance to your tune. I'm not a monkey," he said. The bottom line is that: junkets are not suited to insightful conversation.
Just as stifling as that is the issue of who is having these conversations. There's a sincere lack of diversity in film journalism, as in the film industry itself: a 2014 study found that 85 percent of films released had male directors, and that 80 percent had no female writers. In the UK, only 13.6 percent of working directors are women, and the picture gets even worse when it comes to race and sexuality. When you have male film writers continually being asked to interview and review feminist filmmakers, for example, don't expect what you could get were a woman to do the same job. It's no coincidence that readings of whitewashing, sexism, race, class and so on are probed after a film is released; the only people to see it before then are the largely white male, middle class journalists who've been invited to screenings.
On the other side of the conversation, of course, is someone who's been thrown the same questions for an entire day, or a series of identical days in different countries. Sometimes the talent is visibly or audibly bored – who can blame them? – or suffering from what you could call "junket fever". Whether it's Vin Diesel flirting nauseatingly with a female YouTuber who was interviewing him at the XXX junket, or Paul Rudd and Jason Segel being interviewed while potentially very high, the junket format is clearly taxing enough that people feel the need to act up or derail an interview.
Most of the best film pieces come weeks after a release, when the general public has seen the film and have questions they want answered. Trouble is, because the talent is now done with that project, there's no real chance to reply. In the weeks following the release of Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk, for example, features by the Guardian, The Times of India and others have discussed the writing out of Indian and African people in the film. This is yet to be addressed by the director. Some of the best pieces on films come years after, in anniversary features, when directors and actors can readdress issues and questions the public had with their work. Crucially, too, these often exist outside of the pressurised promotional cycle.
One of the greatest pieces of film writing you're likely to read is Meaghan Garvey's piece for MTV, from May of 2017, on the female gaze in Anna Biller's The Love Witch, one of my favourite films from 2016. She talks about how male critics disengaged with the character and the feminism in the film, instead devouring its beautiful visuals (ironically the treatment the main character, Elaine, is riling against) and compares this to treatment of Lana Del Rey and Chris Kraus' I Love Dick. However, it's this exact kind of patient journalism that is forced to live outside of mainstream film writing, not least because editors are reluctant to commission it months after a film's release.
Guru-Murthy said in his response to the Downey-Jnr situation that "maybe, like a bad relationship, this just isn't working", with regards to film coverage and the media. Ultimately, the unsatisfactory relationship will continue without too much questioning, because publications are often grateful for whatever they get. But there's so much room for it to be better. In a web rich with TV and music long-reads, exceptional film writing – such as pieces about Sofia Coppola and whitewashing (a rare occasion where information about her exclusion of a black character got out early, when there was a chance for it to be addressed by Coppola in pre-release interviews), and articles covering the industry supporting problematic actors like Casey Affleck.
With more of this, the entire cinema-going experience would be enhanced. Frantically googling the movie as soon as your eyes acclimatise to the light outside the screening room, you'd have plenty there to grapple with. It'd almost be as exciting – and who'd have thought this five, ten years ago – as engaging with TV.
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