It’s a Friday night in late September, and the Harvard Club, in midtown Manhattan, is busy.
Scores of men and women in black tie and evening gowns mingle and chatter in a hall that looks like a cross between the Gryffindor common room and P.G. Wodehouse’s Drones Club. There are cavernous stone fireplaces, glistening chandeliers, and aged tapestries above dark wood panelling. In one corner, an elephant head is mounted on the wall. A miniature gold ship dangles from the ceiling, while waiters weave in and out of the crowd with delicate white bean and salmon hors d’oeuvres.
This could be an elaborate film set. It’s actually the opening night party of the 51st New York Film Festival.
Upstairs, in a reading room painted gold and white, a gaggle of aspiring young film critics—part of the festival’s Critics Academy—are gathered around an established magazine critic, seeking his opinion of films they have all seen at festival press screenings. Although it’s a casual conversation, it’s clear that the critics-in-training are a little in awe of him and doing their best to hide it—one of them is spouting fast, opinionated quips about everything from Irreversible to West Side Story. They only met him a few days before, but they have already forged a solid professional connection.
Eric Kohn, the chief film critic and senior editor for Indiewire, manages the site’s Criticwire network, and helped found the New York Critics Academy, a three-week workshop that cultivates up-and-coming film critics. Participants in their 20s and early 30s attend screenings throughout the festival and write about them for Criticwire and FilmLinc. They also talk to directors, publicists, and prominent critics in informal roundtable discussions and get to pitch their work to other outlets.
The Academy is Kohn’s way of fostering new talent at a time when film criticism is an increasingly precarious profession. Journalism and journalists, particularly reporters as niche-oriented as critics, have struggled in the aftermath of the Great Recession. Veterans like Todd McCarthy—film critic at Variety for 30 years—were laid off, and many have mourned the death of film criticism. But Kohn saw opportunity in the upheaval.
“That narrative, to me, obscured the fact that there was a much greater volume of opportunities for aspiring film critics—not because they worked for cheap, which is certainly one way this model has changed—but also because there are more outlets, and there are more movies to write about, and media itself just seems to be in a state of evolution that allows for more experimentation,” Kohn said. “It seemed like there was this paradox going on, where it was secretly the golden age of film criticism, even though people thought it was the apocalypse.” The people complaining about the dearth of traditional openings for critics were also often ignoring new opportunities, or reluctant to adapt to them.
But if young critics are to flourish in this new world, Kohn believes they need encouragement and mentors. Which is why he helped develop the New York Critics Academy.
The Academy isn’t quite the first of its kind. Kohn started going to the Locarno Film Festival, in Switzerland, four years ago and became interested in its academy for young Swiss students. He also knew that similar programs were run at the Berlin and Rotterdam Film Festivals. Yet none of them matched the experiece he had at a Museum of the Moving Image workshop in 2008, where he spoke to filmmakers and distributors as well as to other critics. “That dialogue, I thought, was very informative in terms of putting this practice in a more professional context outside of the idea of it being a hobby or vocation,” Kohn said. Training writers in deadline reporting was essential, but so was giving them the opportunity to meet and learn from more established members of their field. Kohn decided to combine the two and revamp the academy already running in Locarno.
In its new incarnation—backed by Indiewire, the Film Society of Lincoln Center, and the Swiss Association of Film Journalists—the Locarno Academy was no longer specifically for Swiss students. Eighty writers applied the first year; only eight were chosen. They spent their first five days in “completely casual, off-the-record conversations” with filmmakers and critics, “that were really meant to demystify the process and give it more value in the context of the industry,” Kohn said. Then “we pulled back and let the participants lose themselves in the festival environment.”
The idea worked better than Kohn expected it too. Indeed, the Academy turned out to be exactly what its members needed.