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"Watching Movies for a Living..."


"Watching movies for a living" does seem like a dream job. Whenever I run into people who discover that I'm a film critic, this is one of the first things they will say, a statement often loaded with a twist of envy and a touch of naïveté. Movie critics don't simply watch movies for a living. In fact, it's very difficult to make a living from "watching movies"... maybe not quite as scary as this nightmarish image, but still.

The profession has evolved over the years, graduating from a situation where journalists were based at a newspaper and able to specialise, focusing their attention on film almost exclusively and writing for publications that were able to pay them a salary. This model has changed for a number of reasons. With newspapers downsizing, it's become a case of entertainment journalists rather than film critics.

While reviewing movies is a very specific commission, papers aren't getting the advertising monies that they are used to, also under pressure to slowly migrate from print to digital. Being able to measure digital more accurately, it seems that advertisers are gravitating towards specific measured results over the more general feedback of readership demographics and simply being in the paper. Distribution of newspapers has also diminished with many people finding the news they need online, not requiring as much in-depth reporting and older newspaper reading generations dying out.

Nowadays, film reviewers almost have to have a day job in order to support their love for movies and writing. While there are still instances where movie critics who are connected with newspapers are able to write about film almost exclusively, the next generation isn't quite as fortunate. With print media being one channel, the Internet and expanse of digital has created a number of channels for film critics to feature on.

Accessibility has certainly played its part in limiting the importance of a film critic, allowing just about anyone to get an opinion about any film critic from anywhere in the world. Consensus film rating sites such as IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes have also made it possible for moviegoers to get the raw basics and a rough idea of what to expect from a film. Having this information at your fingertips, means that you don't have to go and buy a newspaper to find out what films are showing, what's worth seeing and give you a rough idea of what to expect.

This has made the role of a movie critic less important in the public sphere, forcing these entertainment journalists to broaden their writing across theatre, television and gossip. Moreover, they've had to diversify their types of reviews, keeping one foot in the domain of writing for print, online and in the same breath shifting over to the digital medium of podcasts and video. The idea of an intellectual pontificating on a subjective viewpoint has become an even more niche area, despite the ability of the Internet to spread the message further.

In terms of making a living, it's quite rare for film critics to be able to find one source of income to get by on. Journalists are traditionally underpaid, often undermining their peers and themselves by working for less or next to nothing. This has made it easier for struggling newspapers to underpay their full-time staff, to cry "no budget" to freelancers and generally get content for next to nothing. This collapse of the entertainment journalism world has made the content and quality of the writing less important through syndication deals and getting content almost gratis.

Nowadays, commercial publications and radio stations have come to rely on a jack-of-all-trades for gossip, TV, film and theatre news. While this approach has its benefits, the lack of specialisation makes for superficial reporting, pressuring the entertainment correspondent to try and know a little bit about everything rather than a lot about something. Writers who were used to getting paid a salary are now finding they have to operate in a more freelance capacity, peddling their services to multiple companies and even embracing the entrepreneurial spirit in setting up their own income streams independently.

It's a little bit like being a struggling actor some days, where you are trying to win new gigs and cement long-term working relationships with companies in order to keep your head above water. For many, their passion for writing about movies forces them to actually get a day job making the film writing a sideline passion project instead of a full-time pursuit.

The idea of filmgoing is now seen as an infrequent activity. Years ago, going to the movies was more of a weekly occurrence, whereas it's now seen as more of a monthly thing. This has relegated the importance of reviews in the general media and made it more niche. Thankfully streaming services like Netflix, Showmax, Hulu and Disney+ have once again opened the floodgates in terms of the importance of entertainment.

Instead of illegal downloads/sharing, people are subscribing to streaming services and finding themselves at a loss when it comes to figuring out what to watch next. With so many options at their fingertips, it seems that the idea of getting a review from a pundit is becoming more and more important again. Having many people simply reviewing films as a hobby can give audiences a better idea of what to watch. For the more discerning viewers, getting a voice that is tried, tested and trusted is the way to go.

Watching movies for a living isn't quite what it's cracked up to be. Sacrifice is definitely felt in terms of income and often the work continues after hours with many screenings and events taking place in the evening. This means that you may actually be working much longer than the average person, yet getting by with less. So the trick is either to find a general entertainment journalism job and try to focus towards film with a reasonable salary.

Otherwise, the freelance route requires you to build healthy working relationships around you, using your content to leverage better returns and reach more people. Also be open to the possibility of broadening your skill set, offering your services to write more general film content, broadcast online or via radio or TV or even act as a judge.

The fact of the matter is that while watching movies for a living sounds amazing, very few employers are willing to actually pay someone to be a film critic. It's a tough profession with perks, which has been made much more accessible thanks to the Internet yet undermined by societies where art and culture is deemed less important. If you truly want to become a film critic, just like acting, you need to get a part-time job in order to cover the basics and then branch out from there.

 
Things to Consider Before Putting Pen to Paper


How does one come up with a great idea for a film?

These days with remakes, reboots and novel adaptations, it seems as though most films are graduating from having a pre-existing fan base or standalone source, which means that a pre-existing work needs to facilitate the process. Studios are much more likely to back ideas that already have merit and seem bankable based on their roots. While star power certainly has its place, it seems that it's not quite as critical as it used to be. Grand productions such as Marvel's Avengers, demonstrate that it's possible to rope in a multitude of leading celebrity actors into burgeoning ensembles making their names not as important. This trend is demonstrating that film spectacles are now becoming the stars rather than the stars themselves.

While this reliance on high concept, CGI wizardry and box office blockbuster certified films, it does seem to be slowing down. Since Disney took over Star Wars, the franchise seems to have become all too regular after the first few films were staggered by years. Now with spin-offs and reboots it seems that there is a saturation point even for the most avid fans. Coupled with the feeling that there's just too much content to consume, it's getting to the point where studios need to start considering how to build anticipation between the slate of upcoming films. With thousands of films being put together each year and the technology more accessible it's no wonder that platforms like Filmocracy are becoming a very viable and possible addition to the industry. Traditional distribution channels have broken down over the years, making it a very strange and new playground for budding filmmakers.

In the past, it seemed that there was a formula to getting your screenplay turned into a film and easier to determine which films had a much better chance of being made. Now in this uncertain time where disruption from almost every industry seems to be changing the game and resetting the parameters, it's become a very fluid environment where anything can happen and ensuring your own evolution is a must.

The Netflix model is a great example of how an industry can evolve over a few years, destroying the old video store model and creating its own production wing for original content. Producing their in-house films at a fraction of the cost of the films we are used to, the inflated numbers of yesteryear and budgets have been significantly affected. With many stars struggling to find the big paychecks that they are used to, it's becoming a much more diverse field where actors are almost being forced into producing roles.

On the plus side, successful film enterprises can result in much bigger paychecks as is the case with Will Smith in Men in Black III. However, operating on smaller budgets with less marketing spend, smaller films are going to naturally attract less numbers. While Netflix is creating its own content and films, it's also buying up content at a flat rate.

You could put together a film on a shoestring budget like Oren Peli did for Paranormal Activity, which outperformed itself many times over. Coasting on the found footage trend, the director found a niche, cleverly counterbalancing the world of low budget filmmaking and home video to concoct a franchise of horror films that probably also had an influence on the way films are made today.

Picking something that has relevance, staying power and viral appeal is key to unlocking what sells as a film. While you may want to go the artistic route, it's almost necessary to pander to the commercial interests before in order to make the film you really want to. The trick is to capture a wave so that your film will still have legs years from the inception of the concept. In order to crack the box office and achieve success at the cinemas, one needs to ensure that people are talking about it before it opens. Generating hype through guerrilla marketing is a business in and of itself and without having traditional distribution channels and marketing presence, can be a extremely costly exercise.

For the indie filmmaker, it seems important to attach oneself to a project and themes that are relevant and front of mind. Ingrid Goes West is a good example of a film that taps into the current fascination with Instagram, image saturation and the new generation of Instagram stars, who are making money off their posts and lifestyles. Toying with the idea of accessibility, which has tarnished the idea of celebrity, they manage to tap into a curious grey area, leveraging pre-existing tension around the world of social media.

While it isn't a big film, it definitely has the right idea, capturing the zeitgeist and current youth culture in the position. Picking your story needs to have a crossover of viral appeal, current affairs relevant and position itself in such a way that it doesn't overextend itself. Costing along the lines of the new wave of celebrity is a good idea, allowing the film to operate without a source, pre-existing fan base relating to pop culture but one that is rather harnessed through celebrity itself.

Tapping into the film's extended meaning to leverage publicity stunts and campaigns is another important aspect. If you're dealing with a subject like organ trafficking, then it's a good idea to create publicity material around supporting causes and creating awareness. The local film Bypass did a great job of this by tying into organisations that support the anti-trafficking message at its core. While entertainment, the far-reaching message had many synergies. One of their publicity stunts involved a truck where the trailer was transparent giving drivers the strange view of a mobile surgery where organs are being harvested.

With so many films coming out, it's a real challenge to distinguish yourself from the rest of the field, which is why the process requires so much creativity, vision and an entrepreneurial spirit. Filmmaking is always a team effort, but the scope and requirements of launching a film successfully have become a much greater challenge, forcing everyone to think outside the box, become much more resourceful and smarter. With many films being self-funded, the indie film industry should be thinking about ways to make it easier to get films to market, to self-promote and monetise the product to the point that it is able to recycle and sustain.

 
3 Gambling Movies Now Available to Stream


21 (Netflix)

The number 21 denotes a significant birthday, but also has strong links with the popular card game, Blackjack. Based on a true story, we follow several MIT students who are taught the art of card-counting in order to win big in 21. They make millions in the process, opting to forgo online casinos that offer bet bonus codes in favour of taking Las Vegas in person and in style. Starring Jim Sturgess as Ben, a smart young man with great ambition and a desire to secure a scholarship, he plays the lead in this fact-based crime drama.

Trying to raise $300,000 to transfer to Harvard School of Medicine and ultimately realise his dream of becoming a doctor, he finds a way forward after being introduced to a maths professor and a secret card-counting club. Learning the skill, driven by the desire to pay for his studies and learning a unique signal system, this gambling film dramatises the man's rags-to-riches tale. Supported by Kevin Spacey, Kate Bosworth, Laurence Fishburne and Josh Gad, it's a sturdy crime drama about beating the odds and placing high-stakes bets.

Two for the Money (Netflix)

Al Pacino and Matthew McConaughey star in Two for the Money, a sports drama directed by D.J. Caruso, which centres on the world of sports gambling. We follow Brandon, a former college football player, who develops a talent for picking winners after an injury sidelines him for good. The young hot shot is recruited by Walter, head honcho of a sports consulting firm. Serving as an apprentice to the slick businessman, it's not long before they're making an absolute killing.

Following a similar concept to Wall Street with Charlie Sheen and Michael Douglas, the film deals with the promising Lang whose in-depth knowledge skyrockets his career and fast new lifestyle to the point of clashing with Walter's personal affairs. Steered by these two charming big-name actors, the film's meandering plotting relies quite heavily on talking the talk without walking the walk. Supported by the likes of Rene Russo, Armand Asante and Jeremy Piven, it's a rock solid ensemble, in a betting movie that comes up shy against bigger and better sports dramas.

Safe Bet (Showmax)

The South African action comedy tells the story of two friends who get in over their heads. When Khaya arrives on the scene with yet another get-rich-quick scheme, Frank, his lifelong buddy caves in... risking everything by betting a stash of money in his care on a fixed boxing match. This action-packed misadventure tests the bonds of friendship as two buddies go on the run, trying to stay one step ahead of a furious and well-connected boss.

Starring Wandile Molebatsi, Godfrey Thobejane, Luthuli Dhlamini and Jerry Mofoken, this award-winning South African action crime comedy feature deals with the allure of greed as an honest man forgoes his simple life for the opportunity of a lifetime.

 
Talkin' About a Guerilla Film Revolution


South Africa is regarded as top film-making destination. A diverse people, a beautiful country, a beneficial exchange rate and some of the best crew, it's easy to see why many filmmakers are opting to take their productions to South Africa. The country has attracted many international TV and film projects, but it's still calibrating its local content. While more than competent, the local film industry hasn't turned into the runaway success you'd imagine given the outlook.

Guerilla Film Revolution

The calibre of films from our shores has shown a marked improvement and steady maturity, yet it just seems that there's been a bit of a slump in terms of the number of productions. Last year was one of the country's best years for film with at least five films that could easily travel. Perhaps one can attribute the slowing down to the global recession, which has made it that much tougher to get funding for films in an already difficult market.

While the budget isn't there, the talent is brimming. It's never been easier to put a film together thanks to the advances of digital technology. With several feature films already having been shot on a mobile phone, including Steven Soderbergh's Unsane, the question is quickly becoming why aren't more doing it? In a country where we have the locations, crew and talent, it seems strange that more cooperative ventures aren't happening.

Filmmakers need to stay current, keep their credits relevant and be constantly showcasing their talent in order to attract more business. A team enterprise, it seems strange that these low budget productions aren't happening more sporadically. The art of guerrilla film-making can translate into financial success, just look at Oren Peli's Paranormal Activity. Armed with directional microphones and high-end smart phones, we should be compelling our youth to go out there and make stuff - much like the training offered at Big Fish.

A Four-Step Tweet from Spling (@MovieCriticSA)

Want a ZA film revolution?

1. Partner with Vodacom, MTN or Cell C

2. Empower filmmakers with training e.g. Big Fish School

3. Equip them with an iPhone 6, Samsung Galaxy 6 or LG G4 and directional Rode mics

4. Give them the burning desire to tell their stories!

 

Instilling a sense of entrepreneurship, there should be courses focused on equipping ambitious young filmmakers with the necessary know-how and tools in order to make a success of this path. Great characters and good stories overcome low budgets, which is why a low budget feel shouldn't deter filmmakers from bringing their stories to life. A great example of a high quality local feature film shot on a shoestring budget is the Clerks-inspired black-and-white comedy drama, Casting Me...

Perhaps a shift of mindset is what's necessary, giving youth a sense of empowerment rather than entitlement. Going out there and doing it for yourself should be the mantra rather than sitting around and waiting for things to happen. Doing something for nothing in order to reap rewards down the line should also be fully realised. Finally, the power of cooperation is yet another cornerstone of a successful individual, realising the importance of teamwork.

While the entire process can be very daunting, challenging and troublesome, new platforms are being created every day which serve the independent filmmaker from valuable screenwriting services to hiring cast and crew. Creating brilliant content is half the job, getting people to watch your film is the other half and this is where concepts like Filmnation light the way. We should be having these conversations with young filmmakers, inspiring them to be more proactive in their approach, more inquisitive in finding the answers and creating a market for this kind of content. Showmax have added some of AFDA's student short films to their bouquet and perhaps streaming services could be the answer to high quality short films or features looking for a worthy distribution model.

. Partner with , or 2. Empower filmmakers with training e.g. 3. Equip them with an , or and directional 4. Give them the burning desire to tell their stories!
 
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