A transcript of my interview with film journalist Charles Gant where we discussed his career, the film industry and contemporary film journalism.
LC: Could you briefly describe how your journalism career began?
CG: I basically started off as a sub-editor and a production editor and I was working on a monthly magazine called The Face, which was a very hip style magazine in the 80s and 90s that covered fashion, music, film and culture. I joined in 1990, a long time ago, as production editor, but the production of the magazine was inefficient, there was barely any copy flowing through for the first two weeks of the production cycle, I was doing hardly anything in that time. I thought I’ve got to find something to do before they realise that I don’t need to be here at all. So I started to take charge of the film coverage, which had been run on a rather ad hoc basis, not really properly planned. The best thing about film release dates is that there is nothing secret about them – you know what they are for the year ahead. I started a dialogue with Hollywood talent publicists and started booking interviews with stars six months in advance of the films coming out. As a consequence of that I began attending film screenings, to see movies and help with the planning. I started doing some writing and the guy who commissioned the review section of the publication liked my writing and when our film critic left he pushed for me to replace him as film critic. I spent a number of years balancing the role of deputy editor, fundamentally running the production of the magazine, in addition to being in charge of the film coverage. At that time I made the decision that film was the direction I really wanted to go in. When Heat launched I persuaded the launch editor Mark Frith that it would be a good idea to have a full time person on the staff steering the film content of the magazine and he agreed and appointed me.
LC: In terms of academic background, had you done a film degree or journalism degree?
CG: I hadn’t no. I’m obviously quite a lot older than journalists starting out their careers now and when I was a student it was pretty rare to do a film degree and also in fact rare to do a journalism degree. I actually studied history and though a few people did a one year post-grad course in periodical journalism, I didn’t. I got my break in being a sub-editor without having the relevant training at all really; I literally did a one week course run by the NUJ (National Union of Journalists). I think things are different now, people with my lack of relevant qualification would find it much, much harder to break in than I did back then.
LC: Please explain why you have chosen to focus on the money and box-office numbers for films.
CG: I don’t think I totally focus on that, what I would say is that I’m interested in numbers. I think you need to follow your interest because that is where your competitive edge is likely to be, statistics was definitely my best subject at school and even though I didn’t study it at university I think I could’ve done. Potentially if I’d wanted to be wealthy I’m sure I could’ve gone into studying investment banking, because I’ve always had a good grasp of numbers. My interest in numbers and also film put me into a weird, small category. A lot of my peers are not that numerate, I hadn’t realised that being numerate was a rare skill for a film journalist. When Sight & Sound wanted someone to do a column about the box-office for art house movies, I was the obvious person, and similarly for The Guardian online when they decided they wanted someone for the UK box-office. I’m interested in business, filmmaking is an art form, but it is also a business. You can’t look at one without looking at the other. It’s not simply just a business, they are not just products, it’s not just about profit and loss, but nor can you look at it as an art form in isolation from the business context. That’s always been my approach, even in my reviews for Heat and before that at The Face, my approach was always to say this is what’s going on in Hollywood, this is where we are in this genre and how this particular film fits into that. That’s hopefully not all that I do, but it’s always my first approach. It’s possibly no surprise that Variety asked me to join their team of reviewers, because when you review for a trade publication you’re assessing the film, but also considering who the audience is and what the likely success of the film will be. When I come out of a film I’m not just leaving with my reaction and how I felt, my instincts are always to consider the other topics as well.
LC: Do you think there is a general equivalence between the quality of a film and its success at the box-office?
CG: There’s not an equivalence, but there is definitely some kind of positive correlation between the two, overall. Sometimes people will say there is negative correlation between the quality of a film and its success at the box-office – the worse the film, the more it succeeds. I disagree with that, on the whole the better Hollywood blockbusters will do, on average, better than the bad Hollywood blockbusters. I’m not a fan of the Transformer movies and they have consistently succeeded, but if you look at last summer in general there weren’t many surprises. Green Lantern deserved to fail and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 deserved to succeed. If you look at Pixar’s movies, Toy Story 3 deserved to do better than Cars 2, and it did. I think there is some correlation, but, no. Of course there isn’t an equivalence, because there are so many other factors that come in to how and why a film succeeds. It’s down to what we call the marketable elements of a film, which could be stars, the premise or a really strong marketing campaign. A movie like, say Chronicle for example, really engaged with its audience with good positioning in online media. I liked Chronicle and I think it deserved to succeed in any case, but the savvy distribution affected it. Though of course it is possible to market a bad film and make it succeed, if you have the right elements.
LC: Do you recognise a correlation between a film’s success at the box-office and its success at the major awards shows?
CG: Well, the awards are doing their own thing really. When the American Academy invented the Oscars in 1929 the awards were purely a marketing platform for film, that’s all it is. That’s the only reason that someone creates an awards show, to create awareness for their products. Over the decades the Oscars have evolved in certain directions where they’ve become slightly separate from the rest of Hollywood, they are rewards for the best kind of awards movies. They’ve invented a new category of film, which will come out in America, close to the cut off release date, that use the whole Oscars awards race, as well as Golden Globes, BAFTAS and others as a huge awareness raising exercise for the film. At the moment The Artist in the US has actually only taken $30 million dollars, this is obviously a decent number for a black and white silent film, made by a Frenchman with no actors the American public have heard of, but it is still not an amazing number. Certainly The King’s Speech last year did better, the year before The Hurt Locker was an interesting one. It was quite modest at the box-office and had already been at cinemas and was coming out on DVD at the time of the ceremonies, that wasn’t a huge correlation there, between box-office and awards success because it beat Avatar for the Oscar, famously, which was huge –an international blockbuster and by far the biggest grossing movie of all time. The year before that Slumdog Millionaire was a success so, it’s a different picture every year, I think certainly the movies that succeed in the awards races usually are going to grossing better than the other prestige films that have been released and aren’t getting awards attention. For example this year’s are Young Adult, Coriolanus, A Dangerous Method, Shame, Like Crazy, Martha Marcy May Marlene and J.Edgar – all of those films were positioned for awards attention and had they received the significant nominations and wins they’d have all done better than they have done.
LC: Is there space for an Academy category or standalone festival that celebrates the box-office?
CG: Absolutely not, if you succeed at the box-office that is its own reward. [Laughs] you don’t need a film festival to celebrate that; you’re being celebrated every week. Particularly in America box-office gets much, much more widely reported than it does over here in the UK. All their major newspapers publish box-office charts and have much higher awareness of what film is doing. I don’t think we need to do any more than that. Interestingly, are you familiar with the Orange Rising Star award at the BAFTAS? It’s the category that’s voted for by the public, it’s only been in existence for seven years and before it there used to be a different award that was also voted for by the public, the Orange Film of the Year award – the eligible candidates were the ten biggest grossing films of the year. The box-office defined the nominees and the results were really boring, because it tended to be the biggest film of the year was also the one that was most popular with voters, which didn’t really tell you anything. It was a really boring award that was entirely predictable. That isn’t to say there isn’t space for an awards voted for by the public. There are three different kinds of awards I would say: Firstly, the Oscars, BAFTA etc, they are voted for by peers, i.e. the filmmakers and industry professionals. Secondly, you have the critics groups, they are the expert commentators. And thirdly you have those voted for by the public and into that category you’d put MTV Movie awards and The People’s Choice awards in the US. Obviously within this category you get very mainstream films being celebrated, but I think they are all valid, and all three groups have voices that should be heard. I’m interested to know what people who are working in the industry think is best, what critics think is best and what the public think is best.
LC: How much of a film’s success is related to its marketing and release date?
CG: The release date is something you have to get right, but it’s also about the competitor environment you place your film in to as much as the date. Cinema-going changes in patterns throughout the year, during holiday periods are a good time to release a family film; the summer would be good, but also half term weeks and Easter holidays. But you’ve got to consider what kind of competitor environment you are going in to, so for example the summer is very competitive for blockbusters so if you are say John Carter the new Disney film, directed by Andrew Stanton of Pixar fame, they’ve put their film into March, rather than being yet another summer blockbuster. Hollywood has done very well putting summer blockbuster-type movies into other different times of the year. Although your audiences might not be as available as they would be if they were on school holiday, the competitive environment works much more to your advantage. 300 would be a good example of a film that came out earlier in the year rather than going into the cauldron of the summer period and also last year, Fast Five did really well by going slightly pre-summer with the date. A film’s release date is absolutely key and if you get it wrong it can be disastrous. Sometimes you can be unlucky with the weather on your opening weekend, particularly if you go for a late spring date and you happen to have a really hot weekend. Particularly in Northern European countries like the UK, the audience just will not go to the cinema, they have waited all winter for the sun and your film won’t be seen. In terms of marketing, it’s absolutely crucial every aspect of it needs to be working; you need to spend your money to get your message out.
LC: Within your Guardian articles there isn’t much room for your opinion of the film; do you ever find this frustrating or difficult to achieve?
CG: No, I don’t really consider it; I have other platforms to express my opinions. In Heat we publish reviews and for Variety my writing for them is review based. The Guardian already have Peter Bradshaw and the other reviewers, I think my box-office analysis has to remain quite dispassionate. Though I can certainly indicate where the marketing has missed its mark or if I think a release has been wildly optimistic. This week for example, there’s a film called Black Gold, a period, desert adventure set in Northern Africa, with an international cast, it has been released on 95 screens and that was never, ever going to work. I can comment on that, but I think the column should remain neutral about the quality of the film. This week I also talked about One For The Money, the new Kathryn Heigl film, I talked about it drifting across the Atlantic having failed in America, I can talk about the weak critic scores on Metacritic or Rotten Tomatoes, or I can quote the negative opinions, which can make it more interesting for the readers. That’s what I should do instead of including my own opinion.
LC: What do you think the role of a film journalist is, and how has it been affected by the internet?
CG: Well when people talk about film journalism they talk about film criticism, forgetting that most film journalism is not criticism. If you pick up a copy of Empire magazine, the reviews do not form the majority of the pages of the magazine. Most film journalism is feature based or interview based. Similarly with national newspapers, every week you’ll get reviews, but if you add up all of the film content and the supplements, most of it is interview and feature based. I think that’s probably grown in my lifetime, it’s really hard for you to imagine, but newspapers didn’t have much in the way of film content, you didn’t have so many interviews with stars, you had reviews sure, but you didn’t have so much content overall. For one thing newspapers didn’t have all of the sections they have now. They are cutting down at the moment and becoming more focussed but the explosion of news print in the 80s and 90s in the last decade and created space for more film coverage. I remember a time before Empire and Total Film magazines, there weren’t monthly magazines for film, not in the mainstream. There has been a massive explosion of media and that’s before the internet came along. Obviously we have to talk about the celebrity culture; I think there has been increased interest in movie stars and the private lives of movie stars inevitably. If you are a film journalist, if you are someone who can basically do interviews and churn them out, create relationships with commissioning editors and know your film, but also be willing to ask the cheeky question about their lives engaging with them on a human level, not just as an artist, then there are lots of opportunities for you. In terms of the internet it is still really too early to call. The internet is still not really creating huge value for the media owners; the employment opportunities on the internet are modest. The Guardian have people working on the film section and the contributors get paid modestly for their contributions and Empire put a lot of resource behind its website, but in terms of the professional sphere, I don’t think the internet has had much impact. In terms of the impact it had on journalism, my criticism of the internet is that there isn’t such a premium on space. With young writers, certainly reviewers, if they’ve only really been published online, there tends to be a lack of concision in their writing. When you’re writing for print you really have to learn how to communicate a lot of information hopefully entertainingly and wittily in an incredibly concise space. So that’s something that is missing from the writers coming through. On the other hand, there is a site called Ultra Culture, which is run by Charlie Lyne, what he does is very clever. He’s evolved a new way of writing about film where he uses the format of the internet; the text is always scrolling down and you can’t see what is coming, unlike the printed page where you can see everything as you turn the page, and he’ll pop in a photograph in a witty way. He’ll talk about a film showing a penis, and then to remind you what a penis looks like he’ll then show you a picture of a penis. It works uniquely on that platform because on print you’d immediately see the penis on the page, and the whole rhythm of that joke just wouldn’t work in print. There are people doing interesting things with the form, it’s just whether or not they can make an effective living from it.
LC: Do you read the comments on your articles? If so, have you ever had bad experiences that you don’t mind sharing?
CG: Yes I do, I’m ashamed to say that I’m rather interested in my comments. I normally wait until it’s been up for a day then I take a look at the comments and usually I’m impressed with the level of debate. A lot of people know what they’re talking about, sometimes… Someone once slightly misinterpreted what I said about The Inbetweeners Movie when it opened and I was accused of being woefully ill-informed. And although I thought they’d misunderstood what I was saying it was interesting to read their well-informed comments. Occasionally you’ll get the comments that are just “first to respond, yay… exclamation mark”, but it’s very rare that I get stupid and offensive comments.
LC: Do you feel the reader response to your articles is important?
CG: I recognise that not everyone will be interested in box-office figures, and those who read it will be mainly people within in the industry. Whether it’s comments, retweets, links or Facebook likes, it’s nice to know that wider audiences are reading your articles.
LC: With their increasing notoriety at the moment, journalists are somewhat falling into the cult of celebrity, do you recognise this stretching onto film criticism. Do you think there is too much attention given to certain “celebrity” critics, Mark Kermode for example?
CG: We have to be little hesitant about that, Mark Kermode may be a household name in your household, but I don’t think my mother has ever heard of him. But I understand that people such as Jonathan Ross and Claudia Winkleman are celebrity critics, because they present other shows. I think if you are working totally within the film realm as Kermode does, I think there is a limit of how much they can be referred to as celebrity. I don’t really have a big issue with it, I think broadcasting is very, very hard, I appear on television and radio from time to time and I don’t underestimate how good the people who are good at it are. They show enthusiasm towards the subject and deserve their success.
LC: Is there currently too much money in the film industry?
CG: I don’t think of things on those terms, the market behaves as the market behaves. I think what is the case is that Hollywood studios are increasingly making massive blockbusters with huge production costs and big marketing spends and they are going for the prize. That’s the game they’re in, making these big blockbuster events that they can hopefully create a franchise from, because that’s a huge benefit for them. They can create something; they can create a series of films and then create synergy between those film products and their amusement parks, video games, merchandise, those sorts of things. Then of course you have the small films, the great upside is that you can make The King’s Speech, for example, on a relatively modest budget that use marketing tools such as the Oscars to reach a wider audience. What is missing tends to be the mid-level drama; those films aren’t being made. The Social Network is a rare example of a reasonably budgeted film that tackles a serious topic and is not really a marketable genre, those kinds of films are usually being made in the ten to fifteen million dollars budget range. The Social Network is a rare example of something that is funded at a more generous level and it worked. So maybe, and hopefully, there will be more examples of that. With my critical hat on, I don’t have a problem with the money being expended, what I do find sort of depressing is the sequel model. I generally am not excited about sequels and the problem is that because these films are so expensive Hollywood becomes risk averse. They’re placing these big financial bets and they really want to be confident and limit their risks as much as possible. The main way they limit their risk is by having what they call established elements, or existing material. So by using familiar comic book characters, or do a remake, or base it on characters coming from fiction, young adult fiction such as Harry Potter, Twilight and The Hunger Games or television programs. They are limiting their risk and for me that is less interesting. Only the most powerful directors in Hollywood, people like James Cameron or Christopher Nolan are privileged enough to be given big budgets to make original stories, like Inception. I don’t think many other directors would’ve been backed to make Inception, or Avatar. There was no existing character that Cameron was using, it wasn’t based on a comic book that people already knew about and obviously he is a very powerful figure. Outside of those two, I think you’d struggle to find a filmmaker who is being handed that kind of money to tell their stories unless there is some kind of established element that is giving the studio a comfort zone that they feel their risk is being appropriately balanced.
LC: I have written for Sabotage Times, a university run film website Rushes Magazine and a personal blog, which are all good, but don’t make me any money. What recommendations would you have for a young critic trying to make a living at his craft?
CG: The unique challenge for a young critic is that the form that you have to be a film journalist most easily is as a critic, i.e. you can see films, you can assess films, and you can write the criticism and publish it online. But that’s not necessarily the easiest access point into the paid media, or professional space. If you look at Empire’s film pages, their reviews are written by their most distinguished writers, Kim Newman, Angie Errigo and their staff members. It’s like the thing you have access to is films, is also the space hardest to get access to. People are most likely to commission interviews and articles like that. It’s really, really tough. I don’t really have any great advice, because it was a long time ago that I’ve been through your experiences. What I would say is to try to get any access into journalism whether it’s sub-editing, or working on the picture desk, there are many different departments in a magazine. Once you’ve got your way in, then you can start making relationships with commissioning editors and using those networks to make connections and getting more work. I think it is hard to convert from writing for free to getting commissioned. I can give you some examples of people who jumped. Guy Lodge, who writes for US website In Contention which tracks the awards race, I would guess his word rate is relatively modest, but because he is a gifted writer he got attention from Variety and has joined them. Charlie Lyne, who I mentioned before, who through his Ultra Culture website and doing events at the ICA at London, he attracted celebrity champions such as Edgar Wright, and so was chosen as a contributor for Film 2011 after Jonathan Ross left. In a matter of time he’s gone from running his own blog to appearing on the most watched television show about film. What I would say is it is important to be doing something different and be thinking strategically about getting attention for what you’re doing.