The Trials and Tribulations of the Working Class Film Critic: How a Difficult Industry Becomes Near-Impossible

Achieving financial stability in the film journalism industry is a difficult feat for anybody. With regular gigs few and far between, ridiculous amounts of competition and low rates of pay, it’s pretty much an accepted fact that even the best of freelancers will struggle to make ends meet. As a community we joke about this frequently: we should have specialised in STEM subjects, we’re the disappointing creatives of the family, we’ll never pay off our student loans, and so on and so forth.

As a working class freelancer, financial insecurity is something that has plagued my attempts to crack the industry from the very beginning. Whilst I am incredibly privileged in some areas – my family are emotionally supportive, my workplace is flexible (something which is rare in working class environments) and I have a university education – the feeling that I am ridiculously out of my depth remains. The fact that I, as a relatively privileged (and white) working class person, still struggle, opens up a plethora of questions on the exclusive nature of our work. How can a person on a zero hours contract, living without the luxuries of university connections or familial support possibly engage in film criticism in the same way that a comfortable middle class person can?

Intersectionality raises additional concerns; in a world where Western film critics are 82% white, working class critics of colour must face further obstacles just to have their voices heard. Whilst many smaller websites – usually set up by minorities themselves – seek to amplify these voices, these websites often either do not make income, or do not make enough to pay their writers a fair wage. Larger film outlets with a bigger budget, on the other hand, are vulnerable to tokenism; it’s commonly documented that women film critics find themselves forced to write on women’s issues, whilst marginalised writers may be valued only for their input on their particular community. 

If a writer is working class (or middle class in the US, where terminology differs), the walls to this impossible pipe-dream can feel all too high. In my year as a critic, I have been fortunate enough to attend festivals, work with some amazing people and write pieces which I have been incredibly proud of. I even got paid for the first time – a shining moment in any budding journalists career, considering the amount of unpaid work that is expected. This experience has provided me with enough insight to comment on some of the major obstacles that are standing in the way of working class writers – and ways that we can perhaps make things a little bit more even.

Location & Festivals

If you live in central London, New York City, or LA, the film industry is (in the most literal sense) at your doorstep. Press screenings, major festivals, junkets, premieres, interviews, jobs, everything happens within these artistic focal points, and if you’re unfortunate enough to be based literally anywhere else, then you’re probably going to find yourself at a disadvantage. If you’re rich, this problem is resolved fairly easily with a quick trip to whichever capital is closest. If you’re not, then you’re either locked out entirely, or you’re going to have to save like hell just to keep up with your peers. 

As a worked example, in October I spent ten days at London BFI Film Festival, a week-and-a-half which completely transformed my life as a critic. New contacts, the ability to review the latest films and a new-found confidence in my future are all things that this experience gave me – and they’re all things that any decent critic deserves.

London-film-festival-2
BFI London Film Festival, aka the week I discovered true happiness.

Not every critic may partake in these events, however. For a start, even getting the time off work to attend festivals is a huge privilege. Had I still been in my last job (a call centre), the odds of me being permitted this break would have been entirely dependant on the needs of the business – having to battle with your primary workplace in order to spend time in your secondary workplace is a sad and sorry state of affairs. Secondly, and perhaps most startlingly, is the sheer cost of attending such festivals if you do not live in the area. My train fare and hostel alone set me back £360. On top of transport, lodging, food & other necessities, the press pass for BFI London, like many other festivals, comes with a price tag. In total, considering I spent the majority of the week writing, I made a loss of over £500 simply through engaging in an event that is essential to even making it in the industry.

The issue of location doesn’t stop with festivals, however. If you’re based in a rural location, or in a country that doesn’t get too many American indie releases, your review output will be limited to the latest Hollywood blockbusters. Whilst writing on superhero films is great for those interested, a lack of good quality cinemas in certain areas is incredibly frustrating for those who wish to review a greater range of films, and this puts certain critics at a disadvantage once more. How can a critic possibly review the latest indie if its going to take them two buses, a train and a half hour walk just to get there? Even once you’ve broken through the initial barrier and start being invited to press screenings, every single one of these will be in London, or NY, or LA, or whichever hub is closest. 

It’s a good job there’s a great view, because you’re certainly not gonna be watching any decent cinema here.

The answer to this dilemma is obvious, and can only be achieved by those at the core of the industry; accessibility must be pushed to the forefront of concerns for major festivals (scrap the fee for a start), and press events must at least attempt to reach wider than the capital. There is no reason, for example, that UK press screenings could not take place in Northern cities such as Manchester or Glasgow, both of which have a fantastic reputation for the arts. Sure, this would not solve the problem entirely, and rural working class people would still need to fork out for tickets to whichever city was closest, but it’s a stepping stone which increases the reach of these events exponentially.

Cultural Codes

When success is rooted in who you know, there’s only one type of person that’s ever going to dominate the industry, and as a result those who do not fit into this mold may feel like outcasts, regardless of their talent. This lack of diversity is not only intimidating, but also creates a certain cultural expectation for potential journalists. This encompasses style of dress, speech patterns, education, traditions, lifestyle and skills – all elements of an individual that can serve to their benefit or detriment when attempting to achieve economic success. Though film criticism may not require designer suits or an Oxbridge education, there’s still a certain cultural code that we’re expected to adhere to. Accent and vernacular are huge barriers when interacting with potential employers or collaborators, who often seem to gravitate towards those who speak with the same clipped tones that they are familiar with. The same can be said for the ways in which we dress – every poor soul who has ever had to rent a suit for a Cannes screening will agree that dress codes for official events are incredibly picky, especially for certain, more uptight institutions. I had no idea that my skills as a writer were directly related to my ability to walk in heels, and I’m fairly sure that no reader has ever cared about the colour of a critic’s shoes. (No joke, a friend of mine was almost turned away for having the wrong coloured soles.) These issues are often amplified for critics of colour, as classism cannot be separated from institutional racism; white working class people often reinforce racist ideals in an an attempt to exert their privilege.

Alas, not all critic environments are filled with these kinds of barriers – and there has doubtless been an improvement over recent years, thanks to a greater awareness of accessibility. An undercurrent of snobbery, however, remains regardless, and it is in small things that I see them the most. From not being able to understand fancy menus to feeling incredibly conscious of your scruffy clothing, being a film critic involves navigating an ocean of social expectation – and it’s not always smooth sailing for those from diverse backgrounds.

The Big One – Money

Ah, money. The one issue that binds all of these experiences together. When entering the film criticism industry, there is a cruel realisation that will likely dawn upon a person after a while; that the easiest – or perhaps, only – way that you are going to make money, is to already have money to invest in yourself. Within today’s competitive social media arena, covering the latest films first is a major achievement. Festivals and other such events are almost essential to success when it comes to reviewing films; if you wait for the general release date, then hundreds of critics have already had their say, and the conversation has largely moved on. Can’t afford to attend festivals? You’re out of luck, and you’d better be a damn good writer to make your review stand out from the crowd. 

Of course, there is much more to film journalism than simply reviewing the latest releases, but the classist underpinnings of the industry run so much deeper than the exclusive nature of festivals. Unpaid internships are absolutely rife within this area, and the levels of competition mean that these internships appear justified. Why wouldn’t you want to do months of unpaid work when the experience is so valuable? Perhaps it will get you an actual job in the end – but no promises, naturally. Young, hopeful creatives are so often used as free labour for established publications, as aforementioned young creatives have no choice but to take up these internships in order to build up their CVs. Once more, those without money are locked out of this option altogether, as we cannot possibly take the time off day jobs to work unpaid – building yet another roadblock on the path to our success.

Intern.jpeg
This neat little cartoon pretty much sums it up. (© Adjacency Recruitment)

The answer to this is obvious. If outlets generate enough income to pay their writers, then those writers must be paid a fair wage, and we as young journalists must support each other in demanding this. Unpaid internships have to lose their vice hold on the industry, and it is those who claim to be allies to the cause of the underprivileged writer who must make the first moves to unpick this grip. Experience is all well and good, but when that experience serves only as free labour for a publication, then there can be no room for it in a truly equal environment that works for people of every class, race and background.

Don’t Give Up

This has been a very negative article for me to write – part of me did not want to write it at all, as I like to stay positive about my own hopes for my career. All of this said, I am certain that the future of our industry is a brighter one. In my year as a critic I have witnessed the most amazing enthusiasm, friendship and talent from the most exceptional young writers – the majority of whom come from marginalised backgrounds. The dedication of those who choose to set up their own websites, the unique insights of freelancers producing amazing work for next to nothing, the sheer love for film that comes across in so many vlogs and podcasts, the comradery created on social media, the support that we offer each other through difficult times – all of this continues to inspire me, and it’s an inspiration that can never be bought. We are the future of film criticism, and we are going to kick up a storm.

In the meantime though, we’d still like to be fucking paid.

 

Huge thanks to Millicent Thomas (@MillicentOnFilm), Hannah Ryan (@_hannahryan), Scott Bates (@ScottDanBates) and Laila Ismail (@itslaila8) for conversing with me about class! Go check them out x

1 thought on “The Trials and Tribulations of the Working Class Film Critic: How a Difficult Industry Becomes Near-Impossible”

  1. Great insights. Film criticism has made a better hobby than career for me, although that relegates me to hobbyist status and I’ll probably never go as in-depth as you do. Even with the little I’ve experienced, though, it’s a tough market to break into and gain any traction with. Kudos to you for going for it and sticking with it!

    Like

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