(Photo by Brian Tallerico, Monica Castillo, David Fear, Eric Kohn, Jean Bentley, Joi Childs)
Freelance critics who rely on new releases and festivals for bylines have been hit particularly hard by COVID-19–induced budget cuts, movie theater closures, festival cancellations, and movie delays. With fewer new releases to cover, publications are pivoting to binge guides, reviewing VOD releases, and focusing on already-released movies and TV series.
(You can read our feature about how COVID-19 is affecting the industry and the writers and editors covering it here.)
Rotten Tomatoes spoke with editors at IndieWire, Rolling Stone, and Roger Ebert.com – as well as freelancers who’ve published in the New York Times, The Hollywood Reporter, and Los Angeles Times, among others – for their advice on pitching and staying sane amid corona-centric industry changes.
In terms of what’s keeping them grounded, critics cited their families, remote workout classes, and video chats with friends as their sources for stability amidst these uncertain times. Another common denominator is movies and TV, of course. They’re revisiting classics, catching up on things they’d previously missed, and looking forward to returning to theaters.
Asked what’s keeping him sane, Rolling Stone Senior Editor David Fear answered: “The hope that one day I will be able to sit down and have a cup of coffee in a public place, or walk into a movie theater the way that I’ve done… sit down and be surrounded by people, and watch a movie, with an audience.”
Below, critics offer pitching and freelancing advice in the COVID19 era.
Pivot to current needs: “I’ve always done a little bit of everything, that’s my advice for young writers. I’ve always done a lot of TV, I’ve done video game reporting, I’ve done book reviews. My advice would be pivot to the needs – offer pitches on Netflix originals, you know what I mean? … More anniversary pieces and nostalgia pieces pitches. Find something that’s coming up with an anniversary or find an angle on Star Wars that hasn’t been written about yet, you know what I mean? If you can’t do current stuff, find something evergreen. People are always going to read about Star Wars and Marvel.”
Look after yourself first: “I hear from a lot of freelancers who are having trouble making rent or got furloughed from a regular gig. And I know how hard that is. I’ve tried to tell my freelancers if you need a break, if you need time, the fact of the matter is none of us, no one can produce quality work from a truly stressful headspace.”
Make it unique: “General advice to young writers: make it unique. One of the questions I often ask people when they pitch me is, how is this different than something I’ve read somewhere else? I don’t want to read the same thing that I’ve read a thousand times. … It’s got to be different than something we’ve already published in review form. … Stay true to your voice and make sure your voice is unique. Those are the two things. I want to hear you and I want to hear something I haven’t heard before. Don’t try to appease any masses or any audience. Tell me something you’re interested in writing about, because that’s the only way it’s going to be interesting – if you’re interested in writing about it.”
Tailor your pitch to what’s going on: “The rules of pitching before this still apply. Try and be patient with editors getting back to you. Check and make sure that then haven’t run five similar stories over the last three weeks to what you’re pitching… Know your outlet. Try and come in like a lamb and not the lion. Figure out how to tailor your pitch to what’s going on, in a way that doesn’t feel like it’s requiring the Bikram yoga stretch to have it make sense.”
Give yourself some freedom: “Honestly, the way that I work is essentially what everyone is now forced to do. I usually work from home. I try to keep myself to business hours whenever I can… I don’t work on weekends. I don’t work super late unless I’m on a deadline and really pressed. But I also give myself a lot of freedom – if I’m not feeling good or I just can’t, sometimes you’re trying to write and you just can’t – I’m like, you know what, I’ve got time on this, I’m just going to watch some screeners or watch this show that I’m not caught up on and I’ll come back to it later.”
Keep your editors informed – especially if you’re struggling: “I found that if you communicate with your editors when you’re struggling with a deadline or just life right now, they’re very understanding. As long as you just tell them what’s going on so they’re not just checking their inbox – that’s something that I as an editor would be frustrated by. I’m not annoyed that this piece is going to be late if it doesn’t necessarily have to publish tomorrow, just tell me that it’s not going to come in so I’m not expecting it and planning to devote that part of my day to it.”
Look out for each other: “To be candid, I am a Black female critic. I try to look out for other Black female critics and other Black critics because of the just standard, systemic disadvantages that we have in this space. There are very few us in staff writer jobs. A lot of us are in the freelance pool. I’m fortunate enough where I have a full-time day job in brand marketing. I always try to be mindful of the fact that, hey, can I write this for the MTR Network, which is a friend’s site that I’ve been writing for that can still help me fulfill my quotas, to keep my guild membership or hit my personal goal, without potentially taking food and a check from somebody who’s struggling even more?”
Experiment with TV writing: “I always think if you can write about movies, you can write about TV, and if you haven’t experimented with writing about TV, now is the time to really get into that.”
Lean into your reporting experience: “Anybody who can write about the streaming space in a very complex way is in a really good situation because there is a lot of demand for that. I mean, it’s basically impossible to cover new releases. So if you can find original angles on anything that’s widely available on a major streaming platform, whether it’s an older film or something that’s slightly new, I think that’s a really important skill to take into account. Being able to report a story, pick up the phone and talk to sources, is really valuable right now, because people are in a real kind of sense of unknown and helping them talk through the situation is a really important asset that journalists can have. Being able to report on the industry right now is incredibly valuable. And if you have an original angle along those lines, I think it’s something that a lot of publications are going to be interested in.”
Know the publication you’re pitching to – and its needs: “It’s important to take a look at publications – this is important in any context, not just the current climate – and see how they are already covering movies and TV, and make sure you’re not being redundant. Find something that seems like it could be up their alley that they haven’t already done it yet. Something that might take a little bit more work than a full-time employee might have the bandwidth to do, but could also resonate for the readers of that publication. Say, an oral history or a deep dive on a certain filmmaker or something like that. That could be really compelling and appealing to readers right now, but also requires enough time that would justify a freelancer’s investment.”
Give yourself more time: “I’m noticing that I’m asking for more time. Maybe that’s my advice to other freelancers who are really struggling through just keeping their focus on writing or pitching or whatever it might be, is to just give yourself the extra time. I feel like a lot of editors are also looking for that because everyone is just so overwhelmed in one way or another. I’ve slowed down my productivity, but it allows me to actually make my deadlines a lot easier.”