This article is not our usual cup of tea. Instead it is part of a new series of articles by our union local for freelancers that will examine the various issues faced by workers who’s sector is, by its very nature, unpredictable and subject to change from day-to-day. And, more importantly, what we can do about these issues.
Does the film critic matter anymore? I’ve seen rumblings to this effect more and more lately, but as with all things, this too shall pass. It’s a transient take; I’m barely in my 30s and cinema has died and been saved about a dozen times while I’ve been alive. Critics are thinkers; they contextualize the art of the world. But I’m not here to debate the role of the critic. What I am here to do is break down the labour that goes into a fairly standard film review. Because, naturally, criticism is work.
Little is taken more for granted than the written word as published online. There’s been a steady devaluing of internet culture writing as a paid service for over a decade now. Legends in the field can’t hold down a contract. Editors are in a race to the bottom to see how much content they can squeeze out of their stable with a next-to-nonexistent bankroll. Everything you see online has been written by someone and a shocking amount of it is done for peanuts.
So how much is a film review worth? Let’s break it down.
Now before I go any further, I’d like to point out this is 100% guesswork. The rates I’m going to be using are based on some solid hunches and a little fifth-grade math. What I’m trying to get at here is a ballpark figure that’s higher than, well, zero.
Now, before you even set pen to paper to write that vicious pan or that gushing notice, you actually have to watch the damn movie. So it stands to reason this is part of the job, and thus you should be paid for it. Consider it like a form of training; this is the part of the job where you learn what you are dealing with. Without it, you can’t do the job. Critics should absolutely have the time they spend watching movies remunerated. Now, I know that critics are often invited to screenings or get links or are otherwise provided with a copy of the film. But you’re not watching this for funsies, bud! If we are going to exist in a capitalist system, and if someone is going to extract value from your work (in this case, a piece of film criticism), a fair wage should be expected. That time when your butt is parked in the theatre seat is part of that value extraction because it’s an inextricable part of the work you are doing. No movie, no review, simple as that.
“So wait,” someone in the wings will undoubtedly say, “does that mean a video game critic should be paid for the hours and hours they sink into a game in order to write about it?” Absolutely. 100%. “But Breath of the Wild is like a 45-hour game?!” You want me to play the whole thing and write about it? Pay up, son.
So if we assume an hourly wage of $15 an hour (and really, why wouldn’t I) and an average movie length of two hours, that’s $30 that should be in your pocket right up front. We haven’t even started putting words together. Again, using some shaky math assuming a 1:1 running time-to-writing time ratio, a $15 an hour wage, and a 700-word text, we end up with a rate of about four cents a word (which is on the low end of what freelancers charge). So the minimum rate for that 700-word text would be $60. A short 200-word capsule adds up to $38. A 1,000-word longread would be worth $70. This rate of four cents a word plus a living wage for the runtime of the film is the absolute floor of what your labour is worth.
Now this is all for a single movie. These numbers absolutely do not scale for a whole week; those keeping score at home will notice that our average 700-word piece has cost four hours of labour: two to watch, and two to write. There is no way in Hell someone is going to watch ten movies in a week and write about all of them. That is a surefire way to annihilate your work-life balance. Plus, the high end number of new wide releases in a given week is four, with the average being closer to three. But let’s assume a publication’s movie section has one person on the new release beat, and let’s say there’s a big four-movie weekend coming up. Let’s take April 6-8, 2018 as an example. This weekend saw the wide release of:
A Quiet Place
The Miracle Season
All four of these were covered in the New York Times So using the numbers established above with the length of their respective review in the Times as a baseline, let’s break these movies down as far as the labour cost goes (i.e. 15$ an hour of runtime, four cents a word):
A Quiet Place: (651 words*$0.04) + (91’*($15/60’)) = $48.79
So if one person covers the whole weekend’s slate, that adds up to a payout of $196,57. Now these movies are a bit on the short side and one of those review is basically a capsule; if we maintain our two-hour, 700-word example, a four-movie weekend would add up to a $232 payout, which is still not what I would call a living wage. But there is precedent for being able to live off the new release grind. Let me take you to the far-away, pre-recession land of 2008, and the working rate of Mike D’Angelo, currently one of many film-crit lifers working as a hired gun. As per this tweet, he was paid $400 per review while working at the Las Vegas Weekly. That’s four zero zero. That’s a rate he negotiated up from $200 a review because, according to him, he didn’t “need the gig.” Mr. D'Angelo, and presumably other full-time critics around the same time, was pulling enough dosh writing to earn a living wage writing two or three reviews, or about 2100 words, per week, and held enough saw to negotiate twice the rate he was initially offered. It boggles the mind.
Let’s get depressing: let’s take the rate D’Angelo was pulling in 2008 according to his tweet (i.e. $400 per review, 600-800 words per review) and break it down. Let’s keep the same hourly rate of $15 for the time spent watching movies and assume an average weekend release of three movies, at two hours a movie. Six hours, $90. This would leave $310 for the actual act of writing, and if we assume an average review length of 700 words, that gives us a per-word rate of just north of 44 cents.
This was a roundabout way of saying something you already knew. Capitalism collapsed whatever safety net writers had a decade go and has hastened a race to cut the most corners since. But you should be compensated fairly for your work, no exceptions, and by banding together, fair rates can become a reality instead of a rarity.