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.
Kohn lives in Brooklyn, and there is a strong kinship between the Locarno and New York Film Festivals, so it was natural for him to bring the idea to New York City. The first New York Academy ran in September 2012, just a month after the Locarno version.
The second New York Critics Academy finished its run this October. A hundred applicants—twice as many as last year—were whittled down to just eight. They are an eclectic bunch, interested in everything from Gainsborough melodramas and New Hollywood to Polish cinema and Satyajit Ray. But they do have one thing in common: a strong point of view. The ideal candidate for the Critics Academy, Kohn said, is “somebody who is not just movie obsessed, but movie obsessed with a mission and with a voice.”
As in Locarno, participants divide their time between screenings and workshops. Guests include critics from Time Out, The New Yorker, and The Awl. Discussions are off the record. “What they’re going to get out of it really depends on how willing they are to invest themselves in those conversations,” said Eugene Hernandez, the director of digital strategy at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. (A founder of Indiewire, he collaborated with Kohn on the Locarno academy.) These candid talks help young critics understand the demands of the profession: who they should be pitching to; how to formulate an idea about films they are passionate about; and how to track stories based on when specific movies appear in the marketplace.
This year’s class is entering a field already clamoring with amateur voices. In the age of the internet, every blogger with a film ticket can be a critic. But Kohn believes critics remain essential “cultural gatekeepers,” helping audiences sort through the deluge of celluloid. “If you’re really passionate about this medium, there’s absolutely a way for you to figure out what the demands of media are right now, and superimpose your way of doing it onto that model.”
The Film Society at Lincoln Center and the Swiss Association of Film Journalists certainly agree. Both the Locarno and New York Critics Academies will continue next year, and Indiewire is collaborating with the Sundance Institute to launch a similar program at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2014.
In the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, at Lincoln Center, in a green room that is in fact gray, half a dozen aspiring critics were perched on sofas and stools, discussing the audience turnout for screenings of Cannes-favorite Blue Is the Warmest Color. The walls were adorned with chic black-and-white portraits of actors and directors—Ang Lee and Michael Fassbender among them—each autographed with a flourish, in black ink. Most of the official festival portraits were taken in this room. It’s also where Kohn and members of the New York Critics Academy met in mid-October for one of their last roundtable sessions.
The festival was ending the following night with a screening of Spike Jonze’s Her, and the critics were taking stock of their time in the Academy. Judith Dry, a 26-year-old Brooklynite with an interest in Queer cinema and music documentaries, was struck by the importance of advocacy, and “the idea that my voice is being listened to and people care about what I have to say.” She watched Fifi Howls From Happiness, a documentary about reclusive Iranian artist Bahman Mohasses, and was so impressed that she immediately felt a responsibility to write about it for the many who wouldn’t get a chance to see it.
Vanessa Erazo, 34, specializes in Latino films and appreciated the insider’s look she had been given of the industry. “I think [the Critics Academy] provided what [Kohn] set out to do in that it provided a realistic picture of what’s going on right now,” she said. The prospects for budding critics no longer seemed so dire, and she was much more pragmatic about them. “It’s just a changing world and you need to find your own place in it.” Mark Lukenbill, 21, a senior at New York University, agreed. Although staff positions for critics are now few and far between, “you can carve out a personality and niche for yourself and if people are interested [they’ll follow],” he said.
When young film buffs think of the golden age of American film criticism, they usually imagine the late Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris, effortlessly exchanging barbs and bon mots in a smoky New York bar. Kohn once mentioned this idea to Sarris and his wife, film scholar Molly Haskell—they laughed. No, they said, we went through the same daily grind critics do now, except we had typewriters, not keyboards.
The Critics Academy is Kohn’s and Hernandez’ way of helping aspiring critics realize that there is still room for them, no matter how harsh the professional climate may seem.
Michael Pattison, 26, is proof of that. Pattison had a masters in film but had only been writing criticism as a hobby before he was selected for the Locarno Academy in August. Being able to put faces to people he had only known through their bylines was exciting, and meeting the cast, crew, and publicists for various films broadened his understanding of criticism as a profession.
“You become aware immediately that writing’s not this solitary, insular profession,” Pattison said. “You’re meeting people who have actually had a human contribution to something that you’re writing on,” he said, and “you become very much aware that what you’re writing is actually going to have an effect on people’s lives, and people’s enjoyment and appreciation of cinema.”