Thursday, November 17, 2011

So long, and thanks for all the reviews

This is the way my gig ends.
This is the way my gig ends.

This is the way my gig ends.

Not with a bang, but a whimper.

(With apologies to T.S. Eliot.)

It had to end sometime.

Since December of 2000 -- nearly 11 years ago -- I have been writing film reviews for All Movie Guide, now known as All Rovi. Until now I have not named that site on my blog -- I've been operating under some kind of probably-misguided notion that I needed to remain as anonymous as possible in protecting myself and my employer against some kind of abstract undesirable attention of some sort. I don't know, really.

But just now I finished writing my final review for them, so I figured, what am I still hanging on to?

On Monday night I watched the final film I was going to review, Dia Sokol's Sorry, Thanks. And just now I wrote my review. It was indeed a whimpering end, as the movie is a little indie where almost nothing happens. I'd actually chosen it as my final review a few weeks ago, when I looked over what I had left, and noticed that the title of this movie would make a fitting final film. Symbolically, it's as if my editor at All Rovi said "Sorry we have to let you go ... but, uh, thanks for the 1165 reviews you wrote."

That's right, dear readers, I am, as of this moment, officially a film critic looking for work.

It's been coming for a long time, though I haven't let on to you about it. It was way back on March 10th, more than eight months ago, that I got the email not from my editor, but from my editor's editor. (Seven other freelancers whose names I recognized were also among the recipients, so I knew I wasn't being singled out.)

The long and the short of it was, they would no longer be accepting reviews of older movies. (Older = anything that's not a new release.) Which is almost exclusively how I'd been operating, with about ten screenings of new films thrown in there for good measure. My regular procedure was this: I would submit a list of films I wanted to review that didn't currently have reviews on the site, and my editor would pare down that list by usually two or three titles that were already claimed by someone else. The rest I was free to watch, review and submit at my own pace, for the princely sum of $20 a pop (for about 300 words). I'd work through that list, as well as stragglers from previously approved lists, and send a new list of about 20 titles every two or three months.

Well, no longer. The email said that all titles that had already been approved would still be valid, but no new titles would be approved. That meant that I had something like 30-35 reviews still remaining in my All Movie reviewing career. (By then it was already All Rovi, and the new ownership was certainly behind this decision -- a decision I can't really fault, and I'll get more into that in a moment.) I tell ya, that made my final theatrical screening for them -- The Butcher, the Chef and the Swordsman, scheduled for the very same night I received the email -- a bitter pill to swallow indeed.

Initially it seemed like I'd have to review these movies as quickly as possible, since there was an uncertain cutoff date looming out there somewhere, after which they'd no longer allocate money to pay freelancers. But it soon became clear that I'd probably have the opportunity to keep reviewing until my list was done. And they were extremely nice about not pressuring me, especially with the lackadaisical pace at which I was submitting my reviews. (Forestalling the inevitable as long as possible, I suppose.) My editor kept on processing my reviews, no questions asked, until about two weeks ago, when he asked how much more time I would need. He said my contract technically expired on November 16th, and if I needed more time, they'd have to draw up some new paperwork. Realizing how much leeway I'd already been given, I thanked him for his leniency and told him that I'd wrap things up by the 16th.

Which was easy enough to do, as it became clear that I had only about five titles left I could actually review. Technically, I had 14 titles still approved. But nine of them were movies I requested -- in some cases, many years ago -- without realizing that they were unavailable to watch in any current format. (Or, at least, not without purchasing them, which I wasn't going to do.) In fact, the nine films I was approved to review but could never see were as follows: Wrestling Ernest Hemingway, Year of the Comet, What the Bleep: Down the Rabbit Hole, The Theory of Flight, It's Pat: The Movie, The Air Up There, Comrades: Almost a Love Story, Centre Stage and The Poughkeepsie Tapes. (I've lived with those titles for so long in some cases that I've apparently memorized them.)

So I strategically loaded up my Netflix queue and wound down with She's the Man, Grace, Get Christie Love!, The Experiment and finally Sorry, Thanks. I timed it out perfectly, finishing that last review on the last day of my contract.

I said earlier that this day was long overdue, but I didn't just mean from the date in March when I learned that my reviewing gig would be coming to an end. In fact, it's rather amazing to me that I was able to do this for as long as I have. (1165 reviews in total, in case you missed the figure earlier -- which I think makes me the most prolific reviewer on the site by a couple hundred reviews.)

See, All Movie and now All Rovi makes its money by selling the content we provide to other sites that specialize in the sale of DVDs and BluRays. As such, my reviews appeared all over the place. But also as such, there wasn't a huge amount of value in my reviewing a movie that came out in 1974, as I did as recently as Monday with Get Christie Love! That's an extreme example, and I was much more likely to review a movie from the last five to ten years. Still, my guidelines allowed me to request pretty much anything, even movies that no one was ever going to buy in any format in the year 2011. (Or whatever year it was at the time that I wrote the review.) And my editors approved pretty much anything, as long as another freelancer had not already requested it. The only real value, then, was the idealized, unattainable goal of being completist. The more movies there were that had accompanying reviews, the more gains All Movie would make with its readership in terms of credibility -- however marginal. But just as any film fan would never be able to see all the movies that exist out there, neither would any film critic, or even a team of film critics, be able to review every film. There would and always will be gaps, so what's the point in paying someone to make those gaps a little bit smaller?

It's for this reason that I hold no ill will whatsoever against All Rovi for deciding to make its policy about freelance writers more realistic. Simply put, it was past time -- especially from a business perspective. For a very long time, All Movie/All Rovi was a business anomaly -- an entity willing to pay people to work toward intangible goals. It's a position they probably got away with because they didn't pay us much for our work. (Though my earnings over 11 years did come out to more than $23,000, which is no small peanuts. I'm just grateful they paid me anything to do something I love so much.) But especially with the economic times we find ourselves in now, it makes sense for them to tighten the belt and trim the fat. New reviews of 37-year-old movies certainly qualify as "fat."

In fact, my career with All Movie seemed to be over back in 2003, the first time I was told that they had changed their policy toward freelancers and were discontinuing the use of them. This lasted until early 2005, which was an especially good time in my life -- not only had I just started dating the woman who would eventually become my wife, but All Movie reached out to me and asked me to come back on board, having reversed their earlier stance.

The apparent end of my reviewing career hit me a lot harder back then, when I was single and a bit sad, and needed my reviewing gig desperately. Nowadays, I'm taking it in stride. However, the difference is that this time, I'm not expecting a reversal. This is probably it.

And I'm okay with that. It frees me up, mentally, to pursue other possible paid writing gigs in film. Granted, with the rise of film blogs and the resulting saturation of the market, paid gigs writing about film are few and far between these days. Then again, I have the advantage of being someone who has already been paid to write about film for 11 years, which gives me experience beyond "just" the blogosphere. Although I do, theoretically, have a leg up on the competition, I also don't have the drive of a 25-year-old, which probably neutralizes that advantage.

But really, it's all okay. For one, this means I no longer have to watch movies I know will be bad. Over the years, I've spent countless hours on absolute dreck, some of which I requested to review specifically because I knew it would be fun to review negatively. In some cases, I was surprised, and not only wrote a positive review, but got a filmgoing experience I came to treasure. Still, it's no exaggeration to say that I've spent hundreds and hundreds of hours watching movies most film fans would never subject themselves to. And as I get older and have a family, that time is increasingly precious to me. Better to spend my limited film-watching hours seeing good movies I haven't seen, and re-watching great movies I love.

In fact, there are enough bright sides to the end of this era that I was originally going to construct this post -- which I've had rattling around in my brain for more than eight months now -- as a list of the top ten reasons it was okay I'm an unemployed film critic. I was also going to include a bunch of stats, like the release year where I reviewed the most movies (2007, exactly 100) and the calendar year when I reviewed the most films (2001, 385 -- I was trying to make my living exclusively as a critic back then. I was there to help flesh out the site when most of the movies didn't have reviews, and I could review things I'd already seen, which explains the high number).

But as the actual day arrives, I don't really feel all that whimsical about it after all. I've had so long to get used to the idea that I expected to submit my last review like any other review, and just go on my way. But I must admit that I did have a heavy heart when I realized that I didn't have much to tweak on the final review, which came flowing out of me in under 15 minutes, and that it was time to submit it. I'd written my last word -- for now, anyway -- as a professional critic.

So what's next? I probably won't try too hard to find anything before 2012. Next week is Thanksgiving, and then the Christmas season just eats up every bit of your intention for the rest of the calendar year. Who knows, maybe I'll do something I haven't done before -- write actual film reviews for this blog.

But I do look forward to the future, to possibly finding a new and more lucrative opportunity, one that would actually be a stepping stone to other things. Or at the very least, just being able to devote all my movie watching to things I actually want to see.

One thing is certain: I will always think and write critically about film. Whether it's here, or elsewhere, or both. Whether it pays or doesn't pay.

That's an era that will never come to an end.


Don Handsome said...

sorry to see the vance era end. looking forward to continued audient and whatever's next.

Vancetastic said...

Thanks Don. Actually, I'll still be Vance, even if you could easily figure out what my real name is now. (Wait, you already know my real name.)

Nick Prigge said...

Phew. When I saw the title for this post I initially thought "The Audient" itself was going away.

Sorry to hear about your other gig coming to an end but it sounds as if you've more than made peace with it and are ready for it.

Long live Vancetastic.

Vancetastic said...

Nice little bait-and-switch I pulled on you there, eh Nick? "This could be my last Audient post, so you have to read it! Okay, it's not my last Audient post, but I had you going there for a minute, didn't I?"

I like to think of it this way: I'm one of the lucky ones who can actually say I got paid to write movie reviews. That kind of thing can't last forever I suppose, and 11 years is a good run.