How To Succeed In Film Journalism… It is really trying.
You’re reading this because you want to be a film journalist. Or, you’re really, really bored.
Hundreds of people have emailed me for ‘How to…’ advice in the decade or so I’ve been writing or editing for movie magazines and websites.
Finally, I’ve got round to writing here what I write to everyone, pretty much. Wish I’d done it sooner: would have saved days.
So, you want to be a film magazine journalist…
Film magazine journalism is rarely well paid, the hours are long and if you’re lucky you will find it about 10% as glamorous as people think it is. If you are doing it to make money or meet celebrities: become a hooker or a politician instead.*
You should only aim to be a film journo if you love to write – if writing is, almost, the only thing you can do.
I Love To Write!
Good. Do it. Over and over… As the old exchange goes:
Tourist: “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?”
New Yorker: “Practice, man, practice.”
Acclaimed author Malcolm Gladwell pointed this out with the 10,000-hour rule in his book Outliers: The Story of Success. But, really, he was only putting in grander terms what our mothers told us years ago: practice makes perfect.
I’m Brilliant, How Do I Break In?
Persistence, contacts, providence… I – like several of my colleagues – got a foot in the door through work experience. You can find details of how to apply for a week-long stint at Empire here – where you will also find some more advice on trying to break in (including via freelance articles).
Work Experience… Do I Just Make Tea?
If that’s what you’re asked to do, yes. In fact, even if that’s not what you’re asked to do, yes. Magazine offices are usually full of people who are busy or hungover. So, tea is always, always welcome… And you are not above this. Make a cup of tea; ask if you can help. If you can’t help, then try not to bump into the furniture.
When you are asked to do something – however menial it seems – do it quickly, efficiently and as well as you possibly can. If it’s research, make it research that Stanley Kubrick himself could not find fault with. If it’s tea, make it tea so fine the recipient is awe-struck in wonder at your leaf-brewing skills.
If you do simple things well, you might be asked to do tough – more interesting – things, too.
Some letters have been rambling, some have been insane (literally) and some have been simply desperate. A very few have been what a covering letter should be: short, to the point, distinctive.
Be clear, be polite, be funny (if you can)… And, most importantly, do not start a letter with ‘Dear Sir/Madam’. If you do, your letter will be deleted or torn up – if you can’t be arsed to find out who you should contact, then the recipient (for whom this is probably the fifth query of the day) can’t be arsed to reply to you.
Should be original or funny or exclusive or all three. Don’t write in to suggest: “I think it would be a great idea for me to interview Tom Cruise.”
Seriously: I have been sent this letter.
Believe it or not, it has occurred to the staff and writers of a FILM MAGAZINE to interview FILM STARS. And only a handful of journos have ever done proper one-on-one interviews with the likes of Cruise, Pitt etc. If the chance comes up, we’re going to take it ourselves (sorry).
When You Get Your Shot
Don’t blow it… Whether it’s for a review, an interview, or a funny/retrospective feature, if you are given a commission, nail it.
So, no errors, no delays, no excuses…
If you get your article in on time, to the specified word count, with no dumb mistakes, you are ahead of the game – very few people actually do this.
Life Is Not Fair
You may be a better writer than half the staff on a particular magazine.
You may be a glorious prose stylist with such insights into film and human frailty that you make Graham Greene look like a monkey dipping paper in its own faeces.
Fine. Prove it.
If your work is exceptional, if you persist, if you care enough: you will make it.
And if you are not, in fact, a writer: move on. Don’t lie to yourself. Do something else. Misplaced hope isn’t a lifejacket – it’s an anvil. There is a world full of more worthwhile jobs. So, escape romance and embrace possibility. Unless you have to write.
This article is likely to be revised in future. If you have any questions or comments, post them below, so the information is available for the benefit of others. Thanks.
NB: I do not commission for Empire or any other magazine, so please don’t write to me. Unless it is to offer me paid work. Ta.
(*Disclaimer: I am not seriously suggesting you become a politician.)
PS. If you are starting out and want to know who releases what films and when, visit the site of the Film Distributors’ Association.