Blister at Watersprite Film Fest: A Film Criticism Masterclass - A Summary!
Watersprite International Student Film Festival discovers and champions emerging filmmakers from around the world. The festival inspires and empowers young film talent, providing an inclusive space that nurtures future award-winning collaborations. We were so lucky to be invited to host a Film Criticism Masterclass with some of the industry's best, and wanted to share their golden nuggets of film-wisdom with you.
So, without further ado, and hosted by Blister’s very own Sophie Becker, here are the wonderful, women panellists:
Anna Smith is one of the UK’s leading film critics and broadcasters. The former President of the UK Critics’ Circle, she also hosts the Girls On Film podcast, listed as the ‘Best Feminist Film Podcast’ by Stylist magazine. A contributor to Deadline, Time Out, Metro, The Guardian and Sight & Sound, Anna appears regularly on BBC TV, Radio 4 and Sky TV. She has twice been the chosen film expert on the Sky Cinema sofa during the UK’s official Academy Awards broadcast. She tweets from @annasmithjourno.
Hedda Archbold runs her own company, HLA Agency, and is an agent and producer. She represents writers and broadcasters and is the exec producer of the BBC News Channel Film Review, she is the producer of the Kermode On Film podcast and the co-founder and exec producer of Girls On Film. With Simon Brew she co-founded Film Stories magazine, a monthly film magazine that focuses on independent cinema and aims to provide a platform for new writers.
Also from the podcast team, Heather Dempsey is the assistant producer and social media manager for Girls On Film, as well as the Kermode On Film podcast, and Mark Kermode's ‘Live in 3D’ BFI show. She is also a freelance film and music writer, with recent bylines in Film Stories Magazine and the Telegraph Online. You can find her on twitter @thatheatherd.
Alin Tasciyan was born in Istanbul. She graduated with a BA in journalism and public relations before becoming a correspondent, film critic and editor for leading Turkish publications, radio and TV. She has been an advisor and programmer for many film festivals across Turkey, as well as serving on many key national and international film festival juries and being a member of the European Film Academy. She has previously held the position of vice president and president of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics where she is currently Deputy Secretary.
With over 45 years of experience in the film industry, Sydney Levine began her career as the first woman in international distribution when she was hired by 20th Century Fox International in 1975. In 1988, she created FilmFinders, the industry's first-ever film database, which later formed the basis of Cinando and was eventually acquired by IMDb. She left in 2009 to establish SydneysBuzz, a blog about the international film business as part of IndieWire’s Blog Network, and has been writing about film, as well as teaching and consulting on international film business, ever since.
And last but by no means least, our very own Neena Porter is the Co-Founder of Blister Collective. As well as running our Instagram, she writes and edits pieces that are centred around new media, examining films through the lens of pop culture, and pop culture through the lens of film. By day she is a marketing intern, and by night, she is a Partnerships Executive at Mission Statement Magazine, a publication by and about ambitious youth. In all the minutes in-between, she is a core member of the Blisterhood <3.
And here we are!
Sophie: Why is film criticism important & why is it important to you?
Anna: I’m passionate about helping people find films that they love, which is an important part of film criticism. First and foremost we are journalists, not just enthusiasts.
Heather: It can help introduce people to content that will impact their lives. It also helps really good stuff get recognition, or go viral, and there’s a sea of films out there, so it’s great to hold up those that are great. It’s a wonderful form too, when you hit the feeling of being able to articulate what you think about a film, it’s great.
Alin: Our readers can be anyone and everyone, not just cinephiles. At all different levels, film criticism helps people find their way into the huge mass of films out there, and you help them learn how to find their way too. A film critic is not just a person who interprets films, but also somebody who helps to build contemporary film history.
Hedda: Film criticism is a social history, each era has a different perspective on the films of their own times and on times past. You can understand a lot about what a society is thinking at any given time from film. Good film crit doesn’t just express an opinion about a film, it will also talk about the influences on the film and its references to other films from different cultures and eras. It can help readers broaden their perspective on the canon. Film is about feeling and about human experience. You can test your own opinion against other people’s opinion and that can help broaden your perspective.
Neena: The feeling I channel is the feeling of coming out of a cinema, and just spilling your thoughts about the film you’ve just watched onto a recently darkened pavement, or slamming your laptop shut and turning to the person next to you and trying to put what you’ve seen into words. Writing that feeling, and deconstructing it and contextualising it, and putting that enthusiasm and curiosity onto the page, in a way that the words are able to resonate with other people who share that feeling is such a fantastic way of communicating over potentially the most democratic form of entertainment or media. It’s a standardised language of feeling for me.
Sydney: I’ve always loved movies of course, but the first thing I noticed about a good film was it emotional impact on me, I often didn’t remember the plot. Now, I try to write about films which reflect where I am emotionally, finding the words for it, and I choose to write about those films that resonate with me in my own personal stage of life.
Sophie: With the rise of social media and film review platforms where the public are invited to contribute to the discussion, we have seen a democratisation of film criticism - it’s no longer reserved for trained journalists. Do you think that this development is valuable, or could it pose a threat to the artform?
Alin: Most film critics come from the good old days when everything was printed on paper. Previously, it has always been a closed circle of people, everybody read each other & listened to each other. There couldn’t be fakes, everyone was an established professional. Now, many thousands of people are commenting on film, and we don’t really know who they are. Have they studied film or journalism, do they really know what they’re talking about, are they copy/pasting from somewhere else? Our policy is always to be on our guard first, and find out about the person who is writing. Not every opinion is necessarily valuable, leading or inspiring. Some of them are misleading, some of them misinform. There is also a lack of attention on small art films, and it’s so important to watch a wide variety of films to build your knowledge and awareness. I regard this democratisation with a bit of suspicion, I think we have to be really cautious with it.
Anna: Just like everything with the Internet there is good and bad. Some great young film critics have been discovered via Twitter or their own blogs. If it all possible, a film critic should have criticism as their full-time job, they should watch everything that comes out, and watch all genres. They can’t just be into superhero films, or be a horror expert, ideally they need to immerse themselves in everything. Of course, the issue is getting paid for it, which is increasingly difficult. I do think that it has been a chance for diverse critics to come through. It has long been a problem that all the major broadsheets only have white male critics, some of whom are very good, and nobody else has really gotten a look in. It’s the responsibility of the gatekeepers to welcome those who have talent and those who have lots to say, and not indulge in tokenism.
Neena: Online forums can serve as a stepping stone to professional film criticism. Twitter offers some ridiculous and really innovative criticism which can help you discover your voice and your interests when it comes to film. Without Twitter, you’d never be able to read an entire thread about how a Love Island relationship follows the plot of a Greek Tragedy. I’m not saying that that is film criticism, but it’s an exploration of film through a fun lens. As a space for discussion & discovery, Twitter & Letterboxd are valuable, because a lot of young people wouldn’t have thought about film in depth, or interacted with film critics without them, and might explore it as a career as a result.
There will always be the film bros that gather around certain auteurs, like staffies in tiny beanies, and maybe Letterboxd is where that is most prevalent. But you can find similar dynamics in professional film criticism. There are reams of people who will tell you that this is good film and this is bad film, and people do that so much online. What we need to focus on with online streams of criticism is its democratisation, and allowing people to voice their opinions in well-researched and interesting ways, regardless of whether they follow the status quo. Discussing films you like in the way you like discussing them, provided it’s well researched, is something that can be done on Twitter in a far less intimidating way.
Sophie: To build on the previous question, a study released by Le Collectif 50:50 revealed that across 7 European countries only 30% of film reviews were written by women. In 2018, the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative found that for the top 100 films of 2017, an appalling 4.1% of those reviews were written by women of colour. Not to mention the other intersections of identity & experience that may see writers discriminated against or ignored. Why does it matter whose opinions we hear when it comes to film criticism?
Sydney: It matters for how these films are perceived. They’ll get better audiences depending on what critics say, so it matters financially at the box office. If a woman talks to another woman about something other than men (The Bechdel Test), the movie makes more money. It’s really important that established critics get their criticism out there into the internet groups that are interested in that subject, so that a conversation can start.
Heather: I think that anybody who wants to be a critic and who is talented and hardworking and willing to pursue what they need to professionally, should be able to do so. Their race, religion, gender, economic circumstances should not stand in the way of that. If the critical establishment is composed of rich white heterosexual men, the films that they praise are likely to reflect that. That’s not to say that men can’t understand films that are by women or about women, but I think there’s a real value in expanding perspective because there are things you might not notice if you’re not from that group yourself. It also helps films get made by more women, by more people of colour, if there are critics are out there who are willing to spot the great filmmakers and champion them.
Hedda: When the studies you cited were published in 2018, Anna and I founded Girls on Film, so that more female voices could be heard. In the beginning, I knew a lot of male film critics, and I didn’t know a lot of female film critics, but it soon transpired that there were so many women writing incredibly well about film, from all sorts of different backgrounds, some of whom we’ve now had on Girls on Film, which has enriched my understanding.
We have also been inviting people to talk who are not professional film critics, but who have relevant experience. For instance, we did an episode on Legally Blonde, in which we spoke to the writers of the film, as well as women working in law. We did an item on the film Hustlers, and we spoke to women who were working as strippers, about their experience of being sex workers, how that is represented in the film, and whether that was accurate or not. We recently did an episode on Judas & The Black Messiah and spoke to Dominique Fishback, and the woman whose life she portrayed, Akua Njeri. To hear from those with real life experience and combine that with in-depth film criticism is really exciting.
Sophie: It’s quite difficult to find a traineeship or internship in film crit as a stepping stone into the industry. So for all the budding film critics watching [& reading], what is the best piece of advice you’d give to someone at the beginning of their career?
Sidney: When I started my career I didn’t know what I was doing or where I was going. I went into production, and soon found out I didn’t like production. Getting a paying job in the industry is good, because you can learn the language of the film world. You can read scripts for talent agencies, to find out what writing about film could mean. Volunteer, not just to write, but volunteer for a sales agency so you understand the business side. Above all, keep writing!
Hedda: Write, and write regularly; practice and practice and practice. Hone your skill, put it online on a blog, and build up a body of work so you have something to pitch with. Pitch to any outlet that you like, whose content you enjoy reading. Talk to people whose work you like, get in touch for them and ask for help & advice. Keep at it.
Alin: I’m afraid I’m going to be realistic. First of all, make sure that you have an income. We have reached a point where most film critics are officially unemployed. It’s quite difficult to support yourself as a film critic. First, make sure that you can survive, and keep producing everything you can, make podcasts, put videos on YouTube. It might just stay as a hobby, or this hobby might become your profession. Accept this from the beginning, and don’t allow this reality to break your heart or your enthusiasm. Never work for free, it’s terrible for solidarity. Don’t think that anyone is doing you a favour by putting your article on their website. Don’t sell your soul for free, don’t let yourself be abused. Lots of film festivals run trainee programmes too.*
Anna: In the UK, I created the Critics Code, the "Pledge to be Paid”, and a lot of critics have now signed and said they won’t work for free. As a result, we’ve managed to get some publications to pay who haven’t paid before. Maybe do one thing for free, for a friend, to get yourself published, but after that you need to be paid. Only very few of those who want to be film critics are going to succeed, so read, write, network and hone your craft - keep knocking on those doors. Make sure you write about what you’re passionate about to start with. Try and get some commissions based around what sets you on fire and what demonstrates your skills really well. Read great criticism and try and dissect it. Be ruthless with your own writing & edit yourself.
Sophie: What is it like to be entering the industry right now?
Heather: It’s great fun, and I’m always grateful to be discovering the industry and making connections. Film criticism isn’t one of those careers you’d chat to your school careers adviser about, unless you have people around you who are doing it. I have an extremely supportive family at home, but we didn’t know any film critics or journalists, so it did feel like another world. It’s hard sometimes, particularly when doing freelance stuff and 3 or 4 jobs at the same time. Sometimes you just think, ‘I wish someone would tell me what to do!’ It’s hard to keep writing for yourself alongside that. I’m fortunate in that I’ve also got a day job, I work in a library and that keeps me sweet on the income front so I can keep the film criticism going on in the background, in my free time. I’m hoping to phase that in more and more until it’s something I can do full-time. I see a lot of opportunities online, where they say ‘we want you to have this experience and that experience’ and when you get to the bottom it says, ‘this isn’t a paid position’. And I always think, ‘you cheeky bastards!’ - so less of that would be nice.
I am really lucky that I’m surrounded by female film critics all the time, and most of the film critics I read are women, to the point where if I start reading a new publication that has no female film critics, I find it truly weird and shocking - which it is! I’ve never felt held back, or in the minority, because I’ve got so many fantastic examples in front of me. That’s why Girls in Film is so important. As a listener, if you are exposed to a lot of female film critics, when you want to book a critic, or you want inspiration, or someone to speak to, those you reach are more likely to be women, BIPOC, and queer people.
Sophie: Is there an exact formula that makes a good film review, or is each unique to what you’re writing about?
Anna: It’s unique to the writer - everyone has their own style. I can tell certain critics even without looking at their name, and I can tell with some of my past work that it’s me even if I don’t remember writing it. Sometimes the film will dictate how you begin, with a quote or a moment, or an impression, or sometimes you will need to say who’s starring in it in the first sentence, otherwise, people will wander off and not be interested.
I learnt my best writing advice at journalism school. I did a postgraduate diploma in journalism studies where we did a lot of news writing. It helps you learn to be economic, get straight to the point, hook the reader, and make sure that all the facts they need are in there. People need to know what genre we’re dealing with, what actors, where the film is coming out, what world we’re looking at, followed by some entertaining content.
Hedda: Film critics write in similar ways about the same film - you can read ten reviews and they will all make the same points. So if you’re pitching, look at what’s out there & go the other way.
Sophie: At Blister, we definitely see that the most interesting articles are the ones that diverge from the mainstream.
Sydney: The key is finding your personal style. I start with the emotional impact, and write a stream of consciousness with all my thoughts. Only then do I put it together into a coherent whole.
Alin: I don’t have a formula - it depends on who I’m writing for. When writing for newspapers, everything has to fit into a tiny space. The audience wanted to know what it was about, and who was in it, they couldn’t care less about style and cinematography. You were telling them about a film they might see in the cinema that evening - people wanted to know if there was a sex scene so they could decide whether to take their mother or not. I try not to be a wretched feminist but I am. Whatever I do, I always have to complain about how sexist male filmmakers (and some female filmmakers) are!
Heather: I am still learning and practicing a lot. A lot of the writing I do doesn’t go anywhere, I just watch a film and take some notes and try to make something out of it. But I always start by visualising where the article would go and who I’m writing to, and that sometimes makes it easier to think about how to put the article together, the kind of detail to include and what kind of voice you should use, and whether you should talk about diegetic sound or not.
Sophie: What is it like to be a woman in entertainment journalism?
Neena: Being a woman in the industry now is in many ways fantastic. We are lucky to have role models and strong female voices to look up to and inform our own writing. It’s difficult not to sprinkle feminism onto everything that you write, especially as film is so deeply tied into culture. It’s a real eye-opener to read reviews from even ten years ago, and see how people viewed and wrote about the role of a woman in film. Now, we’re in a shift where there are way more women writing, way more women of colour writing (still not enough, but more), and I’ve heard people saying that it doesn’t matter anymore, that women writers are just writers. In my mind, that’s not true because we’ll always be women watching, with a specific perspective in mind. Our perspective, as women, is invaluable, because without it we wouldn’t be writing now.
Anna: We discussed this a lot in the first few episodes of Girls on Film, with lots of women from different backgrounds - so go listen to those episodes! I have been a film critic for 20 years, and things have definitely changed for the better, but I’ve had to fight to be taken seriously, and there is still a long way to go. I’m so thrilled that there are so many more young women coming through, who are looking to my generation and seeing that we’ve done it and that they can do it too.
Sydney: On my first day of work, a lawyer at 21st Century Fox said to me “We don’t really want women here”, and I thought “Well, they’ll get used to it”. It was always very sexist, and luckily I was naïve enough not to recognise it at the time, only in retrospect can I see how they treated me. Nowadays, we wouldn’t let it go so easily. A few of the men have since apologised for their behaviour, and others just accept me because I’ve made it. It’s a very difficult business. So many people want in, and not many people get in. The doors open for a while and then they close again. But, if you make it, if you hang in there, I’ve found that I’m now equal to everybody, and they know it, and they accept it.
Sophie: How did you know that this was the career for you?
Alin: I was crazy about cinema, and when I was only 11 years old, in 1980, there was a military coup in Turkey. For a while, everything went silent, and we even had curfew. We had one single television channel, but I grew up going to the cinemas to see popular Turkish films. Suddenly the channel that I work for now popped up, and we could watch films from all around the world. First came the American classics, then musicals, and world cinema. My mum remembers me saying one day, about the senior critic of this TV channel, ‘one day I’m going to be in his place’, so that’s how I knew. The passion, the love - it’s just in you.
When I was elected president of FIPRESCI, I suddenly realised that I was the first one, after all those years, in the whole world. No woman had been there before me, and that’s horrible. It has to change now - we have a responsibility to open all the channels into filmmaking and film criticism to every woman, and I really feel that responsibility.
Sophie: What is the first and most important thing that the industry needs to do to make sure that we have diverse voices represented in film criticism?
Hedda: It is really important that every organisation looks at its diversity, and makes sure that no show, television or radio, is released unless it has proper representation.
Heather: Pay is extremely important. People need to know that film criticism is a real, viable job. If it’s a job that has to stay as a hobby, it won’t be attractive to a full range of people.
Neena: The industry needs to stop looking at diversity as a by-product of our times - people are tired of seeing the same things, and tokenism is not good enough. Diversity needs to be built into the fabric of the industry, it shouldn’t be about fulfilling requirements.
Alin: Be courageous, break the glass ceiling and always be in solidarity with non-male colleagues. Feminism covers everything which is non-male, not just the binary, as well as all minorities and disadvantaged groups. We have to fight, and we shouldn’t refrain from being annoying. I annoy men, they write to me all the time and tell me so. We have to be straightforward, annoying, and combative, in order to break this glass ceiling on top of us.
Sidney: We live in a capitalist society, so those who are opening the doors have to understand that beyond tokenism, beyond being fair, if they hire from all walks of life, it increases their bottom line.
Anna: All organisations should run inclusion and unconscious bias training. It isn’t a fad, it’s here to stay. Diversity is the future.
*As we grow at Blister, one of our top priorities has always been finding ways to pay our writers, as we completely agree that this is essential to creating sustainable, non-tokenistic representation in the industry. We are a non-profit collective, and our team all work on a volunteer basis (alongside their day jobs!). Just like our writers, we also hope to one day be established, full-time professions, and are committed to getting there together.
What a wonderful discussion from some truly incredible women! We hope you enjoyed reading and were able to take something away from this invaluable advice.
This was an amazing event to be part in, and we can't wait to host more sessions just like this one. We are here to keep working for a more diverse and representative industry and fighting for justice for those valuable voices that typically go unheard!
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