Advice for People Trying to Get Into Online Movie Writing

Over the past few years, I've gotten e-mails from a bunch of people who have asked for advice on how to get into online movie writing. Here's an excerpt from one I received this morning:

What sort of advice do you have for a guy such as myself? I know you don't just start out writing for a high level blog such as Slashfilm and I know a blog doesn't start out as high as Slashfilm. So how do I get people to read what I have to say? Both regular readers and people who might be willing to take a chance and let me write for them. And while I'm already firing my barrage of questions at you, how do you come across film news? The obvious way and the way I've done it to this point is to be reading and listening to what everyone else is saying. That just seems like a fairly ineffective way to come up with anything new or unique to say. I guess what makes it new and unique is your own personal spin and the type of content you decide to publish.

I thought it might be useful to write up a brief manifesto that I could share with people when they approach me with this question in the future. So, here's some advice for people trying to get into online movie blogging, and make money while doing it:

[Note that, by necessity, the following only constitutes my advice, culled from my very limited experience. I have been in "the business" for a fraction of the time that some of my colleagues have been in the business, and they are probably far better equipped to answer these questions than I.]

Get started immediately - It goes without saying, but it helps to have a solid body of work to be able to show people if/when you apply for a job. Start a blog, write reviews for a local paper, write for free for a website. It helps to get your foot in the door.

To succeed, you don't have to be the best, but you have to at least be very good - The internet allows anyone with an opinion to publish it and make it available for a potential audience of billions. I already understood this when I started writing online, but it wasn't until I started working for /Film and people frequently shared their blog posts with me that I grasped the magnitude of this. To quote Tyler Durden, you are not a unique snowflake. There are literally millions of other people just like you, who have a movie blog and write regularly about their opinions on films.

This doesn't mean you have to be an extraordinary writer to land a gig, although that certainly helps. But you have to at least be very good or somehow different. Maybe your work offers a unique spin on things, or you have some sort of industry expertise that others don't have. If at least one of these things isn't true, and your writing isn't above average, I say work on making your writing above average.

Pretty much everything you might have to say about a film has probably been said, and said better. So, why try? I honestly don't know. You have to answer that question for yourself. And if you don't have a solid answer, you probably shouldn't be doing this.

Be willing to do grunt work at the outset - At both the film websites I've written for (CHUD and /Film), I began by doing as much work as humanly possible, even when I was writing or reviewing film/news that I wasn't particularly interested in. But, as with any job, if you prove you are reliable and hardworking, you may be rewarded with superior assignments later on. Note that this often means you will work for free at the beginning, or in exchange for things such as set visits or DVDs.

You will most likely not make a good living off of it - Make no mistake: even if you succeed, the life ahead may not be one that you are accustomed to. Most full-time movie bloggers don't have health insurance and barely get paid above a living wage. The days when you could make $2/word off of a film review are totally over, and they are never coming back. There are, of course, numerous rewards to writing online. But to paraphrase The Architect from Matrix Reloaded, there have to be levels of existence you are willing to accept.

This issue is exacerbated by the fact that the world of online movie websites is in flux. Brands are changing and it's likely that in five years, many of the "successful" websites that exist today will no longer be profitable. Many webmasters of today can't even agree on fundamental issues of what are acceptable methods of making money for these websites - issues which the much-more-profitable and much-more-widely-read tech blogging world already resolved years ago. Pave the road to your financial future carefully.

Get connected - Participate in the online conversation with people in your field, via Twitter and comments and online forums all other forms of glorious internet media. Do you know how I got connected with Peter at /Film? By following him on Twitter, and engaging with him. DO NOT SPAM. Relevant comments, interesting insights, etc. These are the things you should be sharing. Many people often get hired by actual publications because they have been active, intelligent, gracious commenters. I cannot emphasize this last point enough. [Corollary: Try not to be a dick to people who you might apply for a job from later.]

There are very few paid positions and lots of interested candidates - Let me be brutally honest here for a moment. I'm an extraordinarily lucky individual. I get to write and speak about movies to an engaged and (in my opinion) large audience, and get paid a modest sum while doing so.

But if were to be realistic, I would have to say that I've won the lottery of online film gigs. For every podcast like the /Filmcast, there are literally hundreds of other comparable podcasts that languish, unheard and unpaid. For every movie writer that gets hired by /Film, there are hundreds, maybe thousands of writers that toil in obscurity, their freely available words read only by a small group of friends and colleagues. To paraphrase Vincenzo Natali, I say all this not to say there's anything great about me, but to impart how F*CKING LUCKY I feel I am to be doing what I'm doing.

I think the lottery comparison is apt. Very few people who want to do what I do will get a chance to get paid to do what I do. Do you have the unflinching drive and will to succeed? Do you have something to say that no one else has said? Is your writing of excellent quality? Then you have a shot.

But is it a shot I'd wager several years of my life on? No.

All of the above advice may be completely invalid - Because you might be a 24-year old movie blogger who liked The A-Team and Roger Ebert may pluck you out of obscurity to give you a spot on the flagship film review television show in the U.S.

***

Clarification - My last point above, made slightly tongue-in-cheek, was only meant to say that sometimes, good things still do happen to people that are talented and work hard. I have nothing but the utmost respect for Ignatiy's capacity as a film critic. But most of us (including myself) will probably never reach his level of ability, let alone opportunity.

If you've read this far, you might also be interested in my advice for when you're applying for an online writing job and my guide to starting a podcast.

13 comments :: Advice for People Trying to Get Into Online Movie Writing

  1. This came to me at the exact right time when I was about to shoot you an email. Thanks again David, you are an inspiration (though you would likely reject this notion.)

  2. Thanks for that man. Though the majority is pretty much common sense, it's always useful to read what those of you lucky enough to have "made it in the business" have to say on the subject.

  3. This sounds like great advice. I was worried that you might describe some real catch-22 methods for breaking in, but your points actually make sense and seem reasonably doable assuming a bit of talent and luck are thrown into the mix. I think in my case my biggest problem in terms of keeping my own site going is that it's very easy to be discouraged. I do go through spells where I update a lot or barely at all, but what's clear is that to really do it you have to keep at it, be creative and make the connections.

    Thanks for writing this article, and also for your How to Podcast article from ages back. That second one actually provided the template for how I approached my own podcast. The podcast isn't going anymore, but when it was I was actually very pleased with it's quality and a lot of that came from advice I got from you.

    I do have a question for you, Dave. Do you find that it becomes difficult to do film writing work when you have other work and/or school obligations during daytime hours? How do/did you manage that?

  4. @Corey: How do I manage that? Poorly.

  5. David Chen, you're awesome.

  6. Hi David, I have a question for you.

    Do you think there is a potential readership for a blog about classic cinema? I love film, but unfortunately I live in a place where films are sometimes released months and months after they are in cinemas in The US. I figure writing about films like A Single Man (starting in my local cinema next month), will not attract many people. Due to new films not being readily available to me, I am undertaking an exercise on educating myself on 'classic' films, whereupon I watch a so-called classic and keep notes on it. For instance This evening i watched Philadelphia. Do you think it's worth my time in publishing my (refined) notes in a blog?


    Thanks

    Pete

  7. Pete,

    I don't think I can tell you anything more than what I've said above. There are probably dozens of blogs about classic cinema, written by intensely talented people. If you can offer something that they can't, then go for it.

    But in general, it doesn't sound like you are looking to make money off of such a venture. You'd be doing it for the love of it. So I say, why not?

    -David

  8. Thanks for the prompt response.

    Well, I'm still thinking it over. If I do start a blog, apologies in advance, because I'll be posting links to it on your fb page!

    And no, I'm not interested in making money, more in engaging discussions. (plus, I love my job too much)

    Thanks again,

    Pete

  9. Posting random links on my Facebook page is a really good way to get yourself removed from my friend list.

  10. Fair point, duly noted.

  11. Great article, Dave. I always found the hardest part of writing about movies to get the proper motivation to write. I love film, and I love writing, but there was always a sense of uselessness whenever I would publish an article. Who reads this? Who cares? Why even try?

    That's the first thing you need to conquer when preparing to write about movies online. You may not get a lot of comments, you may not get a lot of hits. But you need to stay committed if you really want to succeed.

    Now I get paid for what I enjoy and, well it's not something I can make a living off off, the sense of satisfaction is more then enough to encourage me to continue doing what I love doing.

    And I can thank you, Dave, for most of that. The /Filmcast episode you did way back in 2008 (don't remember the episode, but I'm pretty sure it was 2008) really inspired me to keep writing, no matter what. I can only hope that other people gleam as much inspiration from this article as I did from that podcast episode.

  12. Matthew,

    Thanks for the kind words. Glad I could help.

  13. Hi David. I really appreciate you posting this. I've recently started my own movie blog. Nothing major, just because I love writing about film.

    I was wondering how do the blogs get connected with the studios and such? Is it just calling relentlessly to the PR department until they start granting access? Thanks for your help.

    Greg

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