After an incredibly jam-packed schedule of new film releases, hosting Q&As with the likes of Timothée Chalamet, Regina King and Barry Jenkins to name but a few, the Academy Awards build up, and of course the coverage of it all, The Telegraph's Lead Film Critic Robbie Collin was able to meet with me in Covent Garden over coffee, to discuss various aspects of his career in film journalism, his take on the film industry, and also provided some incredibly useful advice for aspiring journalists.
Image: Robbie Collin, photo taken by myself following the interview.
As an experienced film critic, how do you experience the Academy Awards each year?
You get so acclimatised, when you’ve been covering the Oscars for a few years running, you get so used to the patterns, and then you realise that it’s all this arcane knowledge that no one else really grasps – and then they go to the Academy Awards every year and it’s like “Aw why has this happened?” At least then even though you can explain why something better should have happened instead, you can say well this sort of accounts for what’s going on.
The Academy in general (and the American industry at large) is in such a period of tumult at the moment, the Academy has brought in a lot of new members, lots of people from overseas and non-white backgrounds, to try and make its membership more reflective of the film industry at large. As a result of this, you have a push back form the older cohorts who think that they know what cinema is, and it’s not what these new people – you know, it’s not super hero films, it’s not Netflix – it’s good old fashioned, road movies, period drama. And it’s funny, because Green Book was framed as the people’s favourite, but it was never a box office smash – Black Panther was a box office smash, A Star Is Born was a box office smash. But because of Green Book’s particular style, it was being seen as a people’s choice, which it wasn’t. What it is is very old fashioned. And it’s not at all reflective on where the discussion of race is in cinema now, for people who aren’t too aware of what’s been happening to the discussion over the last thirty years. It’s fairly “likeable”, so unless you feel slighted by the politics, which a lot of people have done, for legitimate reasons, it’s also funny and ingratiating, and enjoyable in an easy way.
You’re lucky really if there are 3 Best Picture contenders that you think should be there. The year Mad Max was nominated for example, I couldn’t believe it – I was over the moon – I mean I thought Mad Max was full stop the best release of that year. And the fact that it was even there was great. It was never going to win, but it’s being there showed recognition.
Academy Awards have often been late to the game, take for example the Forrest Gump/Pulp Fiction/Shawshank Redemption year (1994). There was this far more cutting edge, influential film but there was also one that was a genuine people’s choice, that they overlooked because Forrest Gump was very old fashioned. I’ve got time for Forrest Gump, but of those three films it’s decisively the least good, least influential and the most traditional.
I’m dreading the point in my career where I will be that grumpy sod where I’ll be like “Oh no what’s this? Cinema’s ruined!” And it will happen, because that effect tends to be quite cyclical.
Can you recall your early interactions with Cinema and the effect it had on you?
I can tell you about my first ever cinema trip: we went to see The Jungle Book (the mid-Eighties re-release), with my grandparents. I grew up in Edinburgh, and we went to The Dominion (3 screens, really gorgeous, classic cinema, deep red carpets, art deco). For a young mind, it wasn’t like going to a multiplex. That in itself made a big impact, and of course the film itself is completely wonderful, and to the extent that, I am told that I made my grandparents march home like the elephants the “2, 3, 4, in the military style” thing.
I wouldn’t say I was a cinephile from a young age – even at high school, I had a friend (Ross Maclean, now a freelance film journalist and broadcaster) who was more on top of film releases, and with film festivals he would do the choosing and I’d be happy to just be guided. I did a four-year degree in English and Philosophy – mainly philosophy of art and films. It of course feeds into your work massively and shapes your skills, but I did it not thinking it ever would. I edited the student paper while I was there, and really enjoyed being forced to write quickly, hammer out copy, and aiming for it to be as good as it can be.
I was in touch with film culture, but my interest was always working for a newspaper, and certainly in Arts and Culture. I did some work, “desk monkey” stuff, for The Scotsman during my time at university, such as coordinating which critics were attending what for the Edinburgh festival. You could blag your way into shows at night, and Edinburgh being what it’s like, you could be out seeing these shows until four or five in the morning, crash on someone’s sofa, and you’d be back in the office by nine.
What are some of the Pros and Cons of the job?
Well, you can’t really complain about being a film critic, ever, because it’s such a great job. But there’s definitely more work and stress involved than people probably imagine.
We’ve got two young boys, five and four years old, so I’ll start work when they’re in school and after they’re in bed. The job is flexible in that way, although it means you’ve got to put a lot of the hours in when you should be relaxing. So, there’s a fair amount of pressure, and as you were saying, there are so many critics around now, in so many ways (through Youtube, Instagram, Twitter, and then of course writing for magazines and newspapers), and I think, to justify being a critic in the first place, at least someone who is being paid for it, you have to try and provide some kind of perspective that is distinctively you. Even if there are countless other straight white guys in their thirties writing about films, which there are, I’m absolutely sure that’s the key demographic that’s doing it, but you at least have to bring something else to the table, like I’m thinking about things in a way that is distinctively “me”. All of the critics that I admire do that, big style. Peter Bradshaw is a classic example, – he is a media type of his generation, just as I am of mine – he writes so distinctively, he’ll walk you through the shape of his ideas, and whether you agree with them or not, his reviews are always pleasurable read. And even more so when you are paid to do it, you should be thinking of the reader’s experience.
Do you get criticism about your film criticism? “Yeah. All the time.”
In what forms do you get it?
Rarely constructive. On the constructive side, you’re edited by people in the office, and there is honestly no greater pleasure than having one of your pieces get a really rigorous edit. It massively improves it. And there’s this great moment when the edit arrives with notes form the sub-editor, and they’ll say, “Okay, this this and this need to change”, and your gut reaction is to be stunned! And then you reflect, and then you begin to see that it becomes so much better, and it’s always that second pair of eyes that help massively.
So that’s the truly constructive feedback. Sometimes, as with Bohemian Rhapsody, which I really disliked, the paper will frame it on social media as: “Okay so we have a critic whose point of view here is manifestly out of step with public opinion – so, tell us why he’s wrong, and he will respond to your points”. So that in one way is quite exciting, because apart from the classic “your work is shit mate”, you’ll get people who say “When you say this, you are completely wrong, because, this is how I experienced this part of the film”, and you’re sort of forced to re-engage with the material.
How does one get into Film Journalism?
First of all, work experience doesn’t really work for a critic. Having a burning angle on a hot topic that hasn’t been done yet is a much more efficient way. My own route to film journalism was peculiar: I was a graduate trainee for a couple years, then going on as a feature writer at The News of the World (which went down in flames in 2011), where the film critic at the time moved on to other things, and I was available to fill the role. Having had that experience, in 2011 The Telegraph was looking to refresh their film coverage, about the same time News of the World went under (and I was thankfully not regarded as “tainted”). I would never have been in the position for an editor to say to me “try out the film stuff” if I hadn’t been written about stuff other than film.
Why you see a lot of people wonder why it is they cannot break into film criticism and it’s because it seems to be either “film criticism or bust”. And certainly in my experience, you need to cover other disciplines first.
What are your thoughts on the future of print and online journalism?
From way back, I have been a big supporter of print media. I subscribe to a few different publications, including The New Yorker, The Spectator (even though I disagree with like 80% of it, I still think it’s beautifully written and evocative and interesting), The Times, obviously am subscribed to The Telegraph, and I donate to The Guardian. The way I strongly feel, is that if you want to see journalism thrive, you’ve got to recognise it’s worth paying for. The expectation for it to be free online is incredibly harmful for the industry.
Do you have any future projects or ambitions?
Alongside my current job, I’d love to have a crack at doing a television series, but finding the time to do it justice would be quite tricky. The medium matters less than the content you’re providing, and it’s more about doing something you get excited about. There’s no actual progression in film journalism – either you’re doing it or you’re not.
What is your favourite cinema to visit?
The Ritzy Cinema and Café in Brixton was our local for a long time, and I love it there. Some film companies will put on family screenings for critics and their families, in Leicester Square, 2 weeks before it’s release. The experience of going to the cinema to see a film, or the theatre for a play, or the library to read, is a great thing for children to become used to. And even though streaming has become much more convenient and common place, I still think those experiences are extremely important.
Could you talk about your experience of the Barry Jenkins’ Q&A at Picturehouse Central for the screening of If Beale Street Could Talk?
I had already hosted the Moonlight Q&A in 2016 at The Ritzy, which went fantastically well. Beale Street confirmed him as the real deal, someone who is operating at the level of what the New Wave people were doing. The influence of the New Wave (Wong Kar-Wai, etc) is massive on Jenkins, and on Lynne Ramsey. There is an amazing control of tone and mood in their films, and anyone can watch it and be immersed in that. Ramsey and Jenkins are those kind of filmmakers.
Something that Jenkins and the brilliant Nicholas Britell told me that was quite fascinating, was that they due to them both being very in tune with each other’s work, the score was ready before the film, which is a very rare thing, and massively helped shape how things should look .
What shortcomings do you think there are in cinemas?
The cinema chain Vue complained to BAFTA that they had rewarded, effectively, a “TV movie”, and as of this week, Cineworld cancelled BAFTA Member’s cards, because of Roma winning best film at the BAFTAs. The time has come for big chains to reflect on why it is their business model is becoming more precarious.
It takes time for films like Shoplifters, Burning, or Roma, to find an audience. The upshot is those films are going elsewhere, such as Netflix. I feel very badly for the truly independent cinemas who wish they could have programmed Roma for example, but couldn’t (Netflix’s theatrical release contract with Curzon cinemas) And Netflix is very selective with what they show in them, as it doesn’t go with their current business model as it stands – they don’t want there to be the option of an “either or” viewing, the primary platform for them to serve and use is Netflix. I hope their stance softens on that, because films like Roma particularly benefits massively from being shown in cinemas.
Something else chain cinemas need to consider is that catering to a mass audience does not mean catering to one audience and hoping everyone else falls in step with them. And that way of thinking is relatively fresh – the enormous profit that Black Panther made has been there for the taking for decades, but no one in positions to make it thought of doing it. And similarly, the Twilight saga, gave way to The Hunger Games, showing that you can cater to an audience that never would have even factored into these equations ten years ago. And whether these films are good or bad, they all made a lot of money because they identified people who were not being catered for. And to do that is not to alienate other people. What I have to do, when I go to films like that, is what countless women, non-white people and non-straight people have been doing as a matter of course for decades (and since the beginning of the medium).
What motivates you to write about your experience of films?
The easy win for any critic is introducing someone to a great film they wouldn’t have otherwise found. The week to week boost from doing the job is that part.
The other part is trying the steer what is sometimes described as the cultural conversation, influencing it for good. A good example is Marvel: it is obviously very popular, but in general the films are actually pretty good. They’ve worked out their formula, and to me it’s like when Heinz stumbled upon the recipe for tomato ketchup in the 1920s or 30s. the discovery of this sort of lucid perfection of the balance of sugar and vinegar and whatever else is in there. The balance between sweetness and sourness; all the tongue’s receptacles are going at once and that’s really what Disney have managed to do with Marvel. With one film you get the “chilli ketchup” and with another you’ll get the “barbecue ketchup” or “garlic ketchup”, but it’s always a spin on ketchup. And so, to try and set those films in a broader context than they set themselves (as in being more than just the next chapter of whatever story it is), is quite exciting. And this translates into Awards Season, where you can then form an analysis of how this applies to the industry in general, as in “the industry has the following hang-ups this year, and they are manifesting in these various ways”.
How would you describe the film critic’s role in society?
I would be hesitant to overstate the critic’s importance, but what they can do is take note of what’s happening, and chronicle it.