SXSW 2013: Peter Hall and John Gholson, Critics Being Critiqued (Part One)
By John Gholson
[Editor's note: Please welcome local film writers John Gholson and Peter Hall to Slackerwood. Gholson decided to interview Hall about what happens when film bloggers (and critics, journalists, columnists, etc.) move into filmmaking, since they were both involved in SXSW films this year. This is an issue that affected Slackerwood this year, too, so I'm pleased to present this conversation to you. It's long and in two parts, but fascinating and worth the time to read all the way through.]
It was an unusual year for some movie bloggers at SXSW. Peter Hall, an editor at Movies.com, produced Emily Hagins' Grow Up, Tony Phillips, a film that made it into the fest (and one that features appearances by movie bloggers Brian Salisbury, J.C. De Leon and Scott Weinberg), and I, a writer at Movies.com, have a role in Zero Charisma, a film that went on to win the Narrative Spotlight audience award at the fest. It was a year where we went beyond our typical coverage of the festival, to having a personal stake in the reception of the films that played.
For us, it's been a slow and natural evolution, but for readers, does the involvement of bloggers in the filmmaking process begin to color both professions in a negative light? During SXSW, one acquaintance insinuated that the film I was involved with got a great review from a certain website because the company doing the PR for the film was also handling the PR for the website where that positive review ran. Now, I know that wasn't the case -- no one was doing anything corrupt -- but it's a common perception that's worth discussing. What are the obligations a film blogger has, in their relationship with filmmaking, and how should our readers perceive these relationships, especially since the line continues to blur on a daily basis?
I sat down with Peter Hall after SXSW to discuss the question and our experiences, being bloggers who are now involved in the other side of the moviemaking process.
John Gholson: There are people who think that those who write about films should have no other involvement in movies at all -- that there should be a clear line between the critics and any aspect of filmmaking, because suddenly anything that you write suddenly becomes suspect. Do you think that's true?
Peter Hall: No. I don't think it's true. Interestingly, I used to think it was true. Back when I was just a reader of film sites, I used to be able to piece together, "Oh, this writer is friends with this filmmaker. They shouldn't be writing about them." But now that I've been on the other side of the looking glass, I've seen that, in my case, it doesn't influence my opinions of films whatsoever -- either knowing people involved with films or being involved with films myself. I mean, obviously, I'm not going to review Grow Up, Tony Phillips. I shouldn't be doing that. I wouldn't write an actual review of Zero Charisma, but just because you're in it, I don't think that precludes Movies.com from covering it. It just won the audience award at SXSW; it's a film people are talking about.
Gholson: I've found a misconception that people are very easily bought and easily swayed, and being in this for a few years now, I've not found many people that I feel are easily bought or easily swayed. Everyone's stock and trade is their opinion. It's one of the things that makes their writing of value, so if they lose that, they become less valuable. I think people hold on to it, and I don't feel like I've seen that kind of thing where, "Oh, you're so-and-so's friend, so of course you liked it." Even though it seems like most readers think it's that way when their favorite writers or bloggers get involved with the filmmaking process, I personally haven't seen a lot of that firsthand. There's definitely people who may not outright come out and bash something, but nobody's praising anything that they don't already like. People may keep their lips sealed when it disappoints, but nobody's saying "Hey, I really liked Grow Up, Tony Phillips!" but deep in their heart they hated it and feel like they have to say it's good.
Hall: I haven't experienced that yet. The friends who I've talked to have been very honest about their opinions. Maybe that's why we don't have very many reviews out there. Maybe people are keeping their lips sealed. I don't think that's the case, but ...
Gholson: Sometimes writers feel conflicted. Especially in a case like Grow Up, Tony Phillips, where so many people at this point within the blogging community have met Emily [diector Emily Hagins] or met you. You've been writing for a while and people know you; they know your stuff. They know Brian Salisbury, Scott Weinberg, Eric Vespe [Quint on Ain't It Cool News], all these different bloggers who have some relation to the film, and I think it ends up backfiring if it is good, because then it's "Well, I don't want people to think that I'd say it's good because I know Pete" or "I don't want people to think I'd say I'm bought because I know Emily" or "I can't say anything because I was an extra in My Sucky Teen Romance" or whatever. Then the opposite effect ends up happening. If you're not seeing that much press, it makes me wonder if more writers are concerned about that perception.
Hall: I get sort of overly paranoid about it, myself, if I know the filmmakers involved. But at what point do you have to stop disclosing? Sinister was legitimately my favorite horror movie of last year, and I'm also good friends with [screenwriter C. Robert] Cargill, but the two aren't associated. I have other friends who I'm better friends with, who have made movies that I don't like. So, the actual friendship doesn't factor into it, but it's hard to convince people of that. It gets to the point where if I disclose it, people are going to dismiss my opinion; if I don't disclose it, and someone discovers it later, they're still going to dismiss my opinion.
Gholson: Cargill for instance has drawn a line and he's not writing about films anymore [Note: He wrote for AICN for years as Massawyrm]. I mean, he may come out if there's some movie that he must tell the world about, but he's pretty much retired from blogging and is now writing fiction and screenplays.
Hall: I haven't talked to him about that, but I imagine that comes from no budgetary need. He makes enough money from this new part of his career. He doesn't need to continue blogging. I still need to write about movies; I imagine you still need to ...
Gholson: It's a question I've always had about Drew McWeeny [of Hitfix.com]. He's a screenwriter as well as a blogger and very strongly opinionated, and I've always wondered if his opinions as a critic have held him back from screenwriting success because there might be studios that he's burnt bridges with or something like that.
It makes me wonder if there is a correct path; if there is a point where you have to draw a line and go, "I can't write about films anymore because now this is an industry that I am participating in. I can't publicly criticize, or talk about, or get excited about projects because I'm involved in too many projects myself." Or are we going to reach a place where it all becomes a part of movie fandom? That's sort of the way I see it -- if we all love movies, it makes sense for some of us to be involved with movies. I've always liked acting, and I've always liked writing about movies, so I'm going to continue appearing in movies, and I'm going to continue writing about movies.
Hall: I was making movies before I was writing about movies. No one saw them; they were awful.
[Photo credit: Still of John Gholson from Zero Charisma; John Gholson and Scott Weinberg at Fantastic Fest 2011 by J. Kernion; Drew McWeeny moderating the Grow Up, Tony Phillips Q&A at SXSW 2013, by J. Kernion.]