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Lights, Camera, Action! How to Get Paid to Write About Motion Pictures
by Paul Armentano

Return to Targeting Topical Markets · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

When I was a young child in the early 1980s, my family and I would gather around the television to watch Siskel & Ebert's Sneak Previews (now Ebert & Roeper's At The Movies). Eight years old and wide-eyed, I'd think, "Wouldn't it be great if someday I could make my living watching movies?"

Twenty-four years later, I'm pleased to say that I've enjoyed ample opportunities to live out my childhood dream to write about motion pictures. Below are some tips on how you can too.

Think Local

Perhaps the most practical way to break into the film market is to submit to your community's alternative weekly newspaper. These are the free periodicals stacked knee-high each week at your local newsstands and bookstores. These publications, so-called alt-weeklies, highlight the local community's arts and entertainment scene, alerting readers of what's playing, where and when. Large sections of these papers are written by local freelancers.

Query your paper's arts editor to see if they have a need for a freelance writer to review local movie premieres, film festivals, theater openings and/or other entertainment related topics. I began my own writing career this way by submitting a manuscript profiling three up-and-coming independent directors to the local alt-weekly. The publication of that article eventually landed me a position as one of the periodical's chief movie critics.

When writing film reviews, a few rules apply. Most importantly, your review must be timely. This means that your critique should be written and published before the film opens in local theaters. Fortunately, most major motion pictures enjoy private screenings several days before they open publicly. After becoming affiliated with your local paper, you will be granted access (typically in the form of a pass supplied by the film's distributor) to these advanced screenings, which typically take place secretly at one of the community's local movie houses.

Second, your critique must be impartial. How many times have you decided not to attend a motion picture after reading a negative review of it in your local paper? Well, now it's your words and opinions that have the power to potentially influence the minds (and wallets) of thousands of potential filmgoers. As such, it is pivotal that you give them an honest, objective assessment of a film's worth.

Lastly, your review should be concise and focus on a handful of essential elements, including direction, storyline, genre (i.e. Is the film a comedy, drama, etc.) and acting. Your review should not be a plot synopsis, nor should it reveal any important plot twists. Surprises are best enjoyed by audiences while they are at the movie, not ahead of time.

Of course, there exist plenty of other opportunities to write about the motion picture industry aside from reviewing movies for the local paper. I've published numerous articles on various aspects of cinema, including profiles of film directors, analyses of motion picture scripts, and reviews of film-related books. Many of these articles have been published in film magazines.

Take a trip to your local newsstand and you will be amazed at the wide range of film publications available -- from mainstream publications like Cineaste to scholarly journals like Film Quarterly to niche and fanzine publications like Video Watchdog. Most of these publications rely primarily on freelancers.

A quick and relatively easy way to crack the film magazine market is to submit reviews of film-related books. Many magazines such as Creative Screenwriting and Cineaste devote several pages per issues for book reviews -- often commissioning freelancers to write them. Querying to write a book review is one of the most practical ways to gain assignments from an unfamiliar editor. A well-written book review demonstrates that you can be analytical, objective, and to the point. Once you have established a relationship with an editor, you will have better success querying them for larger feature topics.

More "Getting Started" Tips

  • Be passionate about films and filmmaking. For the successful freelancer, it (literally) pays to write about what you know and love.

  • Seize opportunities locally. Many of my published articles focus subjects of local interest or significance, such as area filmmakers and film festivals. Often I pitch these stories to local periodicals, and then later rework them for national markets.

  • Familiarize yourself with the market. There is a wide range of film magazines in circulation. Many of these publications are 50% to 100% freelance written. However, most focus on particular film genres (i.e., horror, sci-fi, etc.) and target specific, often narrow audiences. Therefore, it's vital to be familiar with the magazine's guidelines, as well as its content and tone, before querying.

  • Be creative. Films are open to a wide variety of interpretations, so don't be afraid to propose articles that explore alternative points of view. For example, several years ago I queried an editor about comparing Ang Lee's action adventure hit "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" to the Shakespearean tragedies of yesteryear. Not only did he publish the article, it's now on the required reading list for a film studies course at St. Michael's College in Vermont.

  • Leave your comfort zone. Although I started out by penning almost exclusively film and video reviews, I now publish articles on a variety of film-related topics. In fact, just recently I sold a feature entitled "Revenge of the Cheerleaders: A Definitive Analysis of the Forgotten Cheerleader Films of the 1970s." Believe me, it doesn't get much more "out there" than that.

Reflecting upon my childhood days, I realize that I'll likely never be the next Gene Siskel or Roger Ebert. But then again, that doesn't mean that I -- or anyone else who possesses a passion for both cinema and the written word -- can't be successful freelancing for the film market.

Copyright © 2004 Paul Armentano
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.

Paul Armentano's work has appeared in dozens of newspapers and magazines, including Creative Screenwriting, the San Francisco Weekly, the Washington City Paper, and Penthouse Magazine. He published the e-book Stranger Than Fiction: The 99 Cent Video Review Guide to The Most Bizarre and Intriguing Documentary Films Ever Made.


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