Rotten Tomatoes recently held its first Rotten Tomatoes Critics Workshop, designed to help freelance critics and journalists navigate festivals, develop industry contacts, and get their stories placed. We asked the industry professionals who spoke at our workshops to provide their top tips for freelancers; the below come from former lead critic for the L.A. Weekly, freelance writer, and host of the Switchblade Sisters podcast, April Wolfe.
The most arduous task of attending a film festival is putting in the research on films. Likely, you’re bombarded with press releases. Ignore most of those while you study the festival’s program. Otherwise, you’re going to overwhelm yourself. Be strategic with the movies you choose to see, especially with a festival like Sundance, where there are fewer screenings and long lines with priority pass holders. Ask yourself: Can I place a review for this big buzzy film, or would it be easier to place a review of a more niche film? The answer won’t always be the same. But know that you may stand in line only to be turned away and without an option for that time slot.
What are you most passionate about seeing? That’s what you should pitch. If you can convey that excitement, it’s a lot easier to get a bite. Once you know what you’re into, PITCH IT NOW. In terms of outlets, know that even though some outlets already have staff people covering the fest that there are usually still some holes in coverage. For instance, I covered Sundance for both Film Comment and Washington Post once, and while both outlets were already sending critics, I was able to become an accessory and fill in the blanks for them.
At a festival, interviews and profiles are an easy way to break in with an outlet that may have all the critics they currently need. Spend as much time perfecting your interview skills as your critic skills, and you’ll be in demand. Once you know who you want to interview, send the press rep your request ASAP so you can schedule to see the film. The best part is that you’ve already seen the movie for the interview you’re writing, so that means you’re free to pitch another outlet for the review. Don’t forget that there’s programming outside of film that needs coverage, like the VR gallery and the live performances. People always forget about those, so it’s easier to get interviews.
Every fest has its own rules and tips. For Sundance, one is getting that RSVP to the CNN Films Lounge and the Kickstarter house. I don’t mean this to sound frivolous, but do pay attention to where the lounges and parties are, because some will give you a chance to sit down and bang out that review (always hit a deadline!), and others will give you a minute to mingle with critics and publicists – do not underestimate how delightful it is to have a drink with a press contact and how that relationship might help you both. Mostly, though, you need to eat, and these places have free food that’ll sustain you through the gauntlet, and that’s more important than it seems. No matter what, do not be afraid to pose questions about festivals on Twitter. You’ll be surprised at how many prompt and thorough responses you’ll get.
Hit every deadline. Learn to write fast. I bring my laptop in a tiny, waterproof case with me everywhere I go. Become immune to other people’s noise and just vomit your thoughts on the page to get started. If you’re in the theater with 10 minutes before your screening starts, that’s 10 minutes to write. You only need an internet connection when you’re sending your review or fact-checking, and that’s when you tether your computer wifi to your phone Wi-Fi. (Note: Bring a fully charged travel battery for your phone.) The faster you file, the more integral you are to the discussion of the film when reviews hit social media.
It’s still possible to carve out a joyful little corner of people you enjoy on Film Twitter. Depending on the fest you’re heading to, there’s likely going to be at least one veteran adding you to a Twitter list of attendees, which can be extremely helpful, say, if you’d like to make it a point to meet up with someone at the festival. Of course, it’s extremely difficult to make solid plans; your main priority should be seeing movies. But that doesn’t mean you can’t make a point to hit certain meet-ups – keep an eye out on Twitter for when editors are announcing these informal get-togethers! DO reach out to people whose writing you admire and tell them so.
April Wolfe is formerly lead critic for LA Weekly. She currently hosts the Switchblade Sisters podcast, and has written for the Village Voice, AV Club, the Washington Post, and The Wrap. Follow April on Twitter @AWolfeful