Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Back in the Ring

Given how much I've been talking about the end of 2014, and implicitly, the transition to a new movie season, you'd suspect the title of this post would relate to seeing my first movie of the new release year. But you'd only be half right.

Actually, my return to the ring -- so to speak -- is a much bigger deal than that.

On Monday night, I actually attended my first media screening in nearly four years. And it felt goooood.

Much better than my last screening, I can tell you that.

See, when I drove to the Los Angeles suburb of Monterey Park to see The Butcher, the Chef and the Swordsman on March 10 of 2011, it was under a cloud of uncertainty about my reviewing future. I had just learned earlier that day that AllMovie, which had employed me as a freelancer for more than a decade, was discontinuing its use of paid freelancers. It was a moment I was sort of surprised hadn't come sooner, but that didn't make it sting any less.

Nearly four years later, paid film criticism has virtually evaporated from the landscape. This is the end of a year that saw the departures of such stalwarts as Owen Gleiberman (from Entertainment Weekly, which had employed him as lead critic since the magazine's inception) and David Denby (from the New Yorker, where he had written reviews for 16 years), as well as Margaret Pomeranz and David Stratton, who were fixtures in Australian televised film criticism with their show At the Movies. Some of these departures were semi-voluntary, others were not, but the point is that even the big names struggle to get paid these days. What hope is there for a small name like me?

Except there is a currency that can still be offered to some critics, and I am currently being paid in that currency. The currency is free movie tickets, and I cashed in my first of those on Monday night -- even if it was to see a movie I might not have even sought out on video.

Yeah, The Wedding Ringer was terrible -- my one-star review will be hyperlinked on the right as soon as it goes up -- but that doesn't mean I'm only going to see garbage through my new gig writing for ReelGood. In the next two weeks I've got screenings lined up of The Theory of Everything (next Wednesday, the night before it opens here) and The Gambler (the following Monday night, a full month before it opens, and the same night I'll be trying to watch the Super Bowl after avoiding the score all day at work). And that's with having to turn down screenings of Selma and a movie I'd never heard of called Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead, because the screenings fell during the day on a Friday, when I'm working.

While it may seem like I am now drowning in free screening riches, this will not be a typical month on my schedule. My editor, who also writes the majority of the site's reviews, is on leave right now, and will certainly choose to attend the movies he's most interested in. However, that will still leave me with plenty of Wedding Ringers to choose from, with perhaps the occasional best picture nominee still sprinkled in for good measure.

The point is, I'm back, baby. As back as I can be for the moment.

I'd like to say that the screening itself was a more exhilarating confirmation of my return, but in truth, it was an advanced screening more than a media screening proper. Some of the media screenings I attended in LA for AllMovie were in proper media screening rooms, the kind that only have 20 seats and are not located in multiplexes. The three screenings I have lined up in the coming weeks, on the other hand, all take place in Hoyts theater complexes with upwards of a dozen screens. They will probably be attended only by a small number of critics, with the rest of the seats filled by members of the public who were awarded sneak peaks at upcoming movies.

I will say, however, that the difference from a normal Hoyts screening was night and day. Whereas a typical Hoyts pre-show ritual involves as many as a eight to ten short ads and five to six trailers, my Wedding Ringer audience got only two trailers before starting in on the movie so suddenly that it surprised us. If you're going to see something as shitty as this, at least it's good to get in and get out quickly.

Though I did wonder if the passage of nearly four years since my last screening -- and just over three years since I submitted my last paid review -- has brought me out of touch with what an audience wants. While I sat through The Wedding Ringer with a look of nauseated disdain on my face, which occasionally relaxed into mere head-shaking disappointment, my audience was erupting in gales of laughter. If I were ready to declare that the movie contained no laughs, could I now say that with confidence, given what I'd witnessed?

Sometimes I think the privacy of that 20-seat screening room is more important than a person might think. You can review a movie free from the guffawing of a less-discerning audience, one that might either unconsciously influence you into liking the movie more, or consciously make you aware of your own elitist remove from the needs of the common man. If I were writing my Wedding Ringer review for the same people who saw that screening with me, I'd certainly be steering them wrong by telling them not to waste their time. They didn't consider it a waste at all, and the fact that they didn't pay for their tickets explains only a small part of that.

The screening with the rabble had an interesting symbolism in terms of where I currently stand in the critical hierarchy. Essentially, I too am one of the rabble, but I'm a comparatively trusted member of the rabble. The 20-seat screening room may be a thing of my past, but I'm still out there, still writing reviews that someone thinks are valuable enough so that I don't have to pay to watch the movie in question. We members of the blogger world, we are the rabble now. We're more public than critics, or at least that's what the media organizations that might have once paid us are telling us.

But we still don't have to pay for the movies. It's something, anyway.

And I can't help but marvel at a funny coincidence related to this payment I once received, in my former life. If I had gone and paid for The Wedding Ringer on Monday night, it would have cost me $20. That's exactly the price I was paid for my last paid review -- and the thousand or so before that. (I started at $15 per review at the very beginning, but settled in at $20 soon after that -- and never got another raise.) So in a weird sense it's like I'm still being paid $20 to review movies ... if you add the little asterisk that I'm required to spend that $20 on seeing the movie.

It's something, anyway.

I may be older, I may be wiser, I may have cauliflower ears that at this point will never heal. My boxing trunks may not fit me like they once did, and I may no longer be floating like butterflies or stinging like bees.

But I'm back in the ring, and at the moment, that feels like a lot more than just something.

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