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 IndieWire Executive Editor and Chief Critic, and founder of the Critics Academy initiative, Eric Kohn.
Get familiar with every section of the festival. Make sure you’re aware of the major filmmakers in the lineup and learn more about their work if you haven’t been exposed to it. Look for the connective tissue in the lineup: Common themes, actors appearing in multiple projects, notable backgrounds. Read the trades to get familiar with the bigger industry trends that could dominate conversations around the festival and inform some of the developments in store. Think in expansive terms: Writing reviews for a film-specific outlet is important, but interviews, features, and other stories may interest publications even more.
Most publications secure their plans weeks in advance. Consider practical ways to get on a publication’s radar that could yield more opportunities. Send your best pitch around, and if it gets accepted, follow up by offering more coverage. Start with publications that have covered Sundance before, but look for others that haven’t covered the festival to see if your pitch might break new ground. Explain the timeline. If a movie could play big over the first weekend, you need to make sure you’re including that information in your pitch, as it signals to an editor that the idea is time-sensitive and needs to be prioritized.
Whether or not you went to journalism school, you must think like a disciplined journalist. Even when you’re not watching movies, you’re at work. Every conversation at a party or in line for a screening could lead to a valuable connection. Print your own business cards and exchange contact information. It’s fun to make new friends who share your interests, but even friendly encounters have a pragmatic function. Editors and fellow writers might help you find new gigs, but don’t just focus on them. Look for distributors, programmers, sales agents, and publicists – all of whom wield enormous influence in the industry, but also depend on journalists to cover it. They’re always a resource for you.
Most of the world isn’t at Sundance and many media outlets don’t pay much attention to the insular film festival community. However, a lot of these movies will come out later. Stay on top of their release dates. Maybe you scored an early interview with a breakout performer that you can hold for that occasion. Or maybe you saw several movies that deal with a single potent theme, and can pitch that angle as a thinkpiece if they all come out around the same time.
This is one of the most important aspects of all freelancing that many writers don’t understand. Editors are often buried under a sea of pitches and other emails as they get through every busy day. Even brilliant pitches sometimes get lost in the shuffle. When you pitch an editor, make a note on your calendar to follow up in the near future – but not too soon. Wait at least 3-4 days before checking in. If you still don’t hear back after that, just move on. However, it’s unwise to assume that radio silence is equivalent to disinterest, and if you don’t make the effort to get an answer on your best pitches, it may never happen.
Eric Kohn is the New York-based Executive Editor & Chief Critic at IndieWire, where he has worked since 2007. Kohn travels to film festivals around the globe, interviews filmmakers, and managed IndieWire’s network for professional film critics, the Criticwire Network. He also launched the Critics Academy initiative, a series of educational workshops for aspiring entertainment journalists, and teaches film criticism at NYU. He is the editor of “Harmony Korine: Interviews,” published by the University of Mississippi Press in 2014. He is the 2018-19 chairman of the New York Film Critics Circle and served as a member of the jury for Critics Week at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival. Follow Eric on Twitter @erickohn.