A Word from the Man Behind the Curtain

Back in January, 2011 was looking to be a very good year indeed. I had just finished compiling the votes for the inaugural CAST Awards and was pleased with the level of participation.

In March, I was flattered to be included on a panel on online film criticism among such exalted company as longtime film critics Adam Nayman and Jason Anderson and filmmaker Margaux Williamson. You can listen to us bat the subject around for almost two hours, if you like.

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In May, I was contacted to talk about Toronto Screen Shots for a blogging conference and the result is the video you can see above.

My confidence was rising, which helped because, also in May, I quit a very lucrative job. It was the first time I’d ever left a job with nothing else lined up already. Maybe I thought the film business was waiting to welcome me with open arms.

It wasn’t.

In the midst of a very tough job search, I was at least fortunate enough to be able to attend a number of press screenings, and enjoyed the deepening camaraderie with a number of colleagues, people writing about film on both a paid and unpaid basis. It was at this point when I probably should have hustled a bit more.

Blowing My Own Horn

Personal aside: I’ve never been particularly good at “tooting my own horn.” I suppose this could be partially responsible for my zig-zagging career trajectory. I’ve been happy to be a jack-of-all-trades generalist in the belief that it makes me a more “interesting” person. So while I believe I’m pretty good at most everything I try, I’m not confident enough to scream, “hey, look at me! I’m awesome!”

I began to notice a few of my blogging friends picking up paid writing gigs, and privately I was a bit envious. But instead of asking them how they did it, I continued to sit back and wait for others to come to me. When they didn’t, I reasoned that maybe I just wasn’t good enough, or that I really didn’t want it enough.

I do think both those things are true, by the way. Not that that can’t change.

The web is a wonderful thing, and I’ve been fortunate to have been riding the wave of internet publishing (“blogging”) since pretty close to the beginning. But I’ve increasingly felt out of sorts with the way the Internet has enabled the most obsessive among us to succeed. Remember, I’m a generalist. Even among some of my dearest film blogger friends, many of whom are a generation younger than me, I feel at once less serious about film and yet more connected to the rest of the world. I feel inferior and superior at the same time.

So I began trying to figure out what I wanted Toronto Screen Shots to be. I knew from the very beginning that I didn’t want it to be a “movie news” site, trying to break stories about the casting or budget of the latest blockbusters. I prefer to focus on reviews. But even keeping up with the new releases each year, whether theatrically or on DVD, has become next to impossible for me.

Media Firehose

It could be simply my age catching up to me, or maybe the pace of life really has accelerated, but I find myself unable to keep drinking from the firehose of media, especially when so many other outlets are doing a fine job of it already.

My aims for beginning this site were pretty straightforward: I wanted to become a more knowledgeable cinephile, and a better writer about film. I also wanted to share films that needed more exposure with an audience, however big or small. I’ve tried to write more about documentaries, or foreign films, or films that are not new.

I think I’ve gotten away from that over the past year or two, as the profile of film blogs has allowed more of us access to press screenings and DVD review copies. As the industry’s need to keep feeding us new product to sell overwhelmed my own need to deepen my appreciation for film, I think Toronto Screen Shots lost its way a little bit.

Another problem is that smaller film festivals which used to realize a huge benefit from online coverage (Toronto After Dark, Reel Asian, Cinefranco, European Union Film Festival) no longer really depend on me the way I used to think they did. Out of loyalty, I have kept trying to cover them, and this year in particular, I feel that I failed.

Back in the summer when I was riding high, I applied for TIFF accreditation for the very first time. When that didn’t come through (along with my rejection for membership in the OFCS, received around the same time), my confidence took a hit, but in hindsight, I’m glad I wasn’t thrown into that maelstrom. It’s clear to me that I need to slow down, to cut back, to reflect more.

The online environment has room for all kinds of writing. I’m disappointed that perceptions of film blogging seem so tilted toward blockbusters, toward discussions of box office numbers, toward only the newest films. That kind of coverage will be as disposable online as it is in print.

Writer's Block

So I hope you’ll bear with me as I try to realign Toronto Screen Shots with what my original goals were back in 2007. I hope that freeing myself from the “firehose” will break the crippling writer’s block I’ve been feeling for the past few months.

Maybe when I get my (modest) mojo back, I’ll actually start asking if anybody out there wants me to write for them. Stay tuned.

Note: I tried to find information about the images used in this post but was unable to. If you are the copyright owner, please contact me should you want the images removed or proper credits attached.

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7 Responses to A Word from the Man Behind the Curtain

  1. Ryan McNeil says:

    There is a lot of honesty and introspection here James, and that sort of content is far more valuable and rare than being the 45th blogger to post that a TIFF premiere was a rousing success.

    I myself have had to take stock on more than one occasion, and in those instances, it was bloggers like you that I turned to in order to get my bearings.

    So on behalf of many like myself who read your words, and value your opinion, might I offer that yes; we will happily bear with you.

  2. James: I could just as easily have written this entry myself. Which leads me to suspect that both of us, and many others I presume, are part of a larger wave. I, too, am struggling with finding a proper balance in my film coverage, and measuring the price of “success” as compared to the joy of my initial passion for writing on film. I like the metaphor of the firehose that you’ve astutely utilized here. I too have felt inundated.

    But that’s the nature of the beast, if you’re going to deal with theatrical. My first decision was to give up as much of theatrical as I could and its ever-demanding calendar. I’m trying to pare the writing down to what honestly interests me and not what a publicist–theatrical or festival–wants me to do. Which means abandoning the notion of film writing being a “career”.

    It’s an ongoing adjustment and one I’m still negotiating. But like Ryan, I must say that I am one of your faithful readers, although–again, like the larger wave–I rarely comment these days. However long it takes you to find a new groove, and however that groove might configure itself in months to come, please know that I await the change in solidarity.

  3. CS says:

    What I love about this post is that it addresses several issues that all bloggers have thought about at one point or another. Regardless of whatever direction you decide to take the site, I will continue reading. Just ensure that your decision ultimately brings you joy. Do not go down a route where either writing and/or watching movies starts to feel like a chore.

    Personally, I like that your site covers more foreign films and documentaries. It has exposed me to films that I would not have otherwise heard of. The fact that you were invited to participate in conferences and receive invites to press screenings (not to mention frequent DVD screeners of new releases) is no small feat. I wish I was that fortunate. I still get excited when I get the odd email from a struggling director asking if he/she can send me a copy of their film. It is rare mind you, but I am appreciative nonetheless.

    However, I guess it all comes down to how one personally defines success. While all bloggers in Toronto would love to get TIFF accreditation, it is not necessarily a proper indicator that one has “made it”. Anyways, as was mentioned in the comments above, take your time when sorting things out. If you need an ear to bounce ideas off of, or a place to vent, myself and the rest of the local blogging gang are here for you.

  4. I appreciate all of your support, guys. Each one of you inspires me and I’m so glad that writing about film has led me to meet each of you. I’m confident that we all have something unique to contribute and that I will sort myself out soon. I have definitely been sitting on a few ideas for longer posts and maybe now would be a good time to get around to them.

  5. Andrew Parker (@AndrewJParker) says:

    I have huge respect for you James, and I do honestly believe that you’re at the top of the list for film writers not yet working for a major outlet.

    It’s funny writing about film, in general. You don’t always get what you want, but then when you finally do get what you want, you either don’t think you are getting enough (and you get arrogant and standoffish) or you think you bit off more than you can chew (making you feel meek or ineffectual). I’m definitely in that second category most of the time. It doesn’t pay well, if at all, leading it to be this construct driven almost entirely by ego or by love.

    I know you have a deep love for film and it shines through in everything you do. What you do requires real passion and to be able to share your thoughts on your current situation is really inspiring. For what it’s worth, I don’t think you ever really lost sight of your goals. You simply got distracted by life. That happens to everyone. I mean, I churn out a lot of content, but there are a lot of reviews that I look at and think that I could have done better had I not had a deadline. You’re doing a great thing with this site, and I for one am not going anywhere.

  6. Joel Burman says:

    Thanks for sharing James. This is a very honest reflection on blogging and I can definitively recognize myself in some of your points.

  7. Andrew and Joel, thank you both for your comments. As I mentioned to Andrew on Twitter, when you aren’t writing for money, you’re writing for love, both love of film and to hopefully connect in a meaningful way with other cinephiles. If that’s the only currency I end up writing for, I’m a rich man already.

    And Joel, nice to hear a new voice here, especially one from a country with such a great cinematic tradition. Welcome, and hope you’ll return!

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