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Unwelcome changes

Update: I have some confirmed circulation figures from the paper itself. Even more depressing.

We interrupt normal – slightly stuttery – programming to bring you news of some changes in the Wellington media scene that might have an impact on the content that you see here.

Pg1-iss3821-bigThe Capital Times newspaper will be ceasing publication on – I think – 10 April. The reviews that I re-publish here were all written for them and it is their Monday morning deadlines that I meet every week. Broader discussion of the impact on Wellington’s local media – it leaves only Fishhead as an independent print publication serving the city – and trends in traditional versus digital media in the struggle for advertising yadda yadda, will be better off elsewhere, but the impact on me personally? That belongs here.

The first question is simply “to be or not to be”. The Capital Times is a recognised Wellington media institution with a decent circulation and a large audience. I was told that they print over 15,000 20,000 copies each week and the readership is estimated at between 40,000 and as much as 60,000. That’s significant, and made it worthwhile for me to write for and for exhibitors and distributors to support me by giving me tickets, previews and screeners.

By comparison, the audience here at Funerals & Snakes is in the hundreds each week. I cherish you all but I’ve never been able to turn this site into a traffic magnet . Has anybody in NZ managed to pull that off? Flicks, I guess (but their business model is quite different). Lumiere? Cinefile? It’s conceivable that I might have done more to promote the site if it wasn’t for the built-in audience that I had at the CT. In the meantime, F&S has become a lovingly-curated archive and a way for out-of-towners to read my work.

Why do I do it? It ain’t for the money, that’s for sure. I have written weekly columns for the Capital Times for six and a half years – for free. The only consideration has been the free tickets and the occasional cup of coffee from a friendly cinema owner. It has cost me money to produce this body of work. I do it (did it?) for the audience, for the knowledge that I was having an influence on people’s choices, that I was entertaining more people than just myself.

The CT was really good to me. They never cut me – except for length occasionally when ad sales were down. They never told me what to write or how to write it. They let me evolve a format that I am pretty pleased with. They let me find my voice.

I am realistic. Paid gigs for film reviewers are going extinct. It’s the same all over the world and it isn’t any better here. So I have not much hope that a better or more lucrative offer will come along from the mainstream media. At least until Simon Morris retires from Radio New Zealand.

I’d love to carry on producing these columns and I’d love to grow the online audience for them. Maybe I should reconnect with the Wellingtonista – a wonderful resource that is kept going by enthusiastic citizens with limited amounts of spare time. Maybe there’s another online channel that I can partner with. But how do I get those 40,000 newspaper readers to come to a website each week? To remember to come to a website each week. (And Google Reader is closing down…) And if I can’t manage that, where will those 40,000 get their film opinion from? Some films will simply not get a print review in Wellington now as the Dom-Post will only run three of Graeme Tuckett‘s reviews a week (at most).

Even before this news, I’ve been thinking about ways to generate some revenue from all this content – thousands of reviews. Is there a future for a paid subscription model? Would people pay $1 a week for what I do? And if – lordy – 1,000 people choose to do just that, how influential would those reviews be compared with 40,000 print readers? It’s the paywall argument in miniature and – to be honest – is probably moot in any case.

So, advertising then. Maybe I could cover the cost of hosting with some Google ads in the sidebar to the right. But if Theatreview struggles to sustain itself with all of the specialised content that it presents, what hope is there for this site?

So, I throw the discussion open to fans and friends – what should I do after the 10th of April?

  • Keep going for free (and hope that cinemas continue to support me with tickets)
  • Find another online or print partner (any ideas?)
  • Start a subscription-only service to try and recover some of my costs
  • Give it away and go and do something more rewarding but less fulfilling
  • Cross my fingers and hope that someone buys the Capital Times and works out how to keep it alive

Share your thoughts in the comments or Twitter or Facebook. Cheers.

 

Dan

About Dan

31 Comments

  • Simon Vita says:

    I know the feeling, I’d probably still be writing newspaper columns if I had an outlet.
    I’ve got a blog that I update so infrequently that it doesn’t bear a mention. As for the way forward, I don’t know. I’m not sure if the CCN stable is looking for a reviewer, they might be keen for someone other than their overworked journos to file film copy. Other than that there is value in you continuing to keep this site going, if only to keep your hand until a reviewer gig pops up.

  • Martha says:

    I think you should write for the Wellingtonista, I’m sure you’ll get tickets and our readership will SOOOOOOOAR.

    xm

  • HJW says:

    I say you make a Funeral and Snakes app.

    I say you hit up Wellingtonista, Flicks, DomPost and other film related media outlets and get links to your app posted everywhere with promise of sponsorship (does it work that way?).

    Then, your readers can be updated as soon as you watch a film and review it with push notifications, see a short review and read a longer one if they like, or be redirected to the website.

    Commenting, retweeting, Facebook sharing and emailing URLs can all be done from the app. You’ll be the first NZ flm reviewer to have an app. And it’ll be open nationwide to download like the website instead of just Wellington newspaper readers.

  • Hugh Lilly says:

    The audience for my blog was, at its peak in May and June of 2010, also in the mere hundreds each week. If I had put a donation box on the site back then, I would have been lucky to have taken in $50 to date.

    I was extraordinarily lucky to have the opportunity to write for the Listener for three months last year, but doing so revealed to me just how little arts criticism is valued — in monetary terms, and otherwise — in this country. Film reviews are valued even less than, say, theatre or book reviews: a few people might still want to pay for journalism, but no one feels like the need to pay for a film review. 90% of people who go to the movies don’t even read reviews. Why would you need to analyse something that’s meant only as entertainment?

    Now that I (finally!) have a 9-5 job, I’m finding it more and more difficult to motivate myself to write — not that it matters, since I’ve been blacklisted by every distributor except Trigger; even if I wanted to write for free about films put out by Fox/Sony/Paramount et al., I wouldn’t be able to.

    While I was writing for the Listener, Paramount barred me from attending their press screening of MOONRISE KINGDOM. If I hadn’t seen it at the film fest, there would have been no review of it in the magazine, and Paramount would have been fine with that. It was the only five-star review I wrote for the magazine (out of 7 columns total).

    I firmly believe that most film distributors in this country would love to do away with reviewers full-stop. Most of them have enough in their marketing budget to offset a bad review, and I’m sure they’d love to spend that money elsewhere—e.g. putting on more friends-and-family/word-of-mouth screenings. The Herald’s borderline-sycophancy w/r/t major-studio releases is, I’m absolutely certain, more about appeasing distributors than thinking critically about the movie at hand. The head of Fox NZ, Mark Croft, told me directly that he saw no value in inviting me to press screenings.

    So it’s not simply a case of newspapers and magazines folding or providing less and less space each week or month in which to cover new-release films, it’s about insanely risk-averse distributors actively preventing critics from seeing their films for fear of a bad review.

    That risk aversion is becoming more acute year on year: it’s now pretty much a given that anything even vaguely adventurous or independent will screen only in the film festival, and then have only a 50-50 chance of getting a home-video release nine to 18 months later. The most obvious problem here is one you and I have discussed (in oftentimes heated debates) on Twitter: films get released in the US in theatres, and then on home-video, many months before their cinematic run here. A recent example is Park Chan-wook’s STOKER: originally slated for NZ release around the end of this month, it’s been pushed back to August 29 by its local distributor, Fox. It’s been in US cinemas for a few weeks now, and gets a DVD and Blu-ray release there in June. It won’t screen in our film festival, and when August 29 finally rolls around Fox NZ probably won’t even bother to hold press screenings of it.

    Sorry, I got off-track there a bit. Back to your closing question: I would keep writing for free as much as you can mentally, financially and physically handle, but apply for funding from anyone you can—except the Arts Foundation’s new faux-crowd-funding initiative, Boosted, which seems to exist only to give already-established artists even more money. (Plus, there’s no indication that they’re interested in funding projects that discuss and critique art, only ones that produce it.)

    Don’t put up a paywall, but do put up a donation box. Keep doing the great work you’ve started with Cinematica, and don’t be afraid to get in people’s (by which I mean distributors’ and exhibitors’) faces—who knows, maybe some of them will start to see value in what you and others like you do.

    • Dan says:

      Thanks for the kind words and the positive reinforcement. Much appreciated.

      So it’s not simply a case of newspapers and magazines folding or providing less and less space each week or month in which to cover new-release films, it’s about insanely risk-averse distributors actively preventing critics from seeing their films for fear of a bad review.

      That’s not the case here in Wellington though as I have always been well-supported by exhibitors. The only obstacles that distribs put in my way nowadays are the lack of screeners and even that can be gotten around.

      The reduction in media though, and the lack of money sloshing around, is a thing.

      And you know how I feel about release schedules – everyone in the world has a grievance about releases and the noisy ones should all just grow up a bit. 😉

      Congrats on the day job, though. Was wondering why things were so quiet.

  • Grant Buist says:

    I’ll probably continue drawing ‘Jitterati’ online, if anyone’s interested…

    • Dan says:

      I’ll host it for you here, if you like.

      • Grant Buist says:

        Kind offer! I have a serviceable webpage, it just needs some tweaking. We can do links, though. I don’t feel as bad as I did when ‘City Voice’ blipped out of existence, maybe because we have a bit of notice this time. With your writing rep you should have some interesting opportunities.

  • doug says:

    To add to the statistical analysis, we (meaning Auckland Cinephile) seem to hover largely at 20-50 for a post … super-popular ones get up to 150, and that’s with Lumiere, Dan, et al retweeting them. (I don’t know if those numbers factor in RSS, or if they only count URL clicks vs people who go to the site directly every Thursday, if in fact such people exist.)

    We’ve only been going since September and haven’t marketed it hard, and we’re not a traditional review site so slightly different focus … but looking at the number of Twitter followers Lumiere has, for example, I don’t think there’s a huge upper ceiling we’re not hitting. But maybe I’m wrong.

    • Dan says:

      Do you know how many RSS subscribers you have? Also, the future of RSS is in doubt at the moment which I find extremely frustrating as I use it all the time.

      But none of that compares to a well-distributed print publication and yet advertisers are taking their money elsewhere. Perplexing.

  • Chris Hormann says:

    I never realised you did the CT reviews for free Dan, which makes it astounding that you have kept going for so long and so enthusiastically. But I think you have made your mark with the Wellington cinema-going community in that your CT reviews are very widely read (dare I massage your ego by mentioning you winning the annual popular vote in the CT awards regularly).
    For me, having something tactile to read on the bus, or when I’m grabbing a coffee makes it more likely that I’ll read a review than if it’s on a blog. I tend to read blog reviews only when I’m actively doing research on a film rather than casually browsing. I know that doesn’t help as the print media outlets for film reviews in Wellington are rapidly disappearing. I do hope there is a gap that can be filled for something in print for Central Welly and that you figure somewhere in those plans.

  • I’d echo a lot of the sentiments that are being expressed here. I maintain a site (www.moria.co.nz) that is getting around 7000 visits a day – and is still not breaking even. I’m facing the exact same problems that you voice here – and coming to the conclusion that if I cannot find another revenue stream then the site has to bite the dust. I’ve successfully produced about one review of 1500-2000 words a day since 1999 but it is nearing the point where the entire site is going to have to bite the electronic ether as the amount coming back in is not even enough to cover basic hosting fees.

    I left living in NZ for Vancouver a few years ago. The situation is not quite as dire over here as Hugh says. In my experience, access to screenings depends on the distributor and the degree of schmoozing one is prepared to do. Some are friendly and welcome critics, especially the small arts outlets. The worst to deal with are 20th Century Fox.

    The main problem I find is in dealing with press outlets that are still stuck in print media format with a viewpoint that is entirely local. All the focus is on getting material out on opening week in the local area. There seems no understanding of the idea that you would publish for an audience all over the world. Not to mention the idea of archiving material for historic interest. Also in that I am reviewing genre material, you end up being regarded as the nerd cousin who is seen as too socially ill adept to be invited to the party – no matter the fact that my demographic is the very one that the material I am covering is being sold to.

    This kind of small-mindedness and reprisal to adapt to the new media is going to bite distributors, if not leave them in the dust. All that ends up happening is that you shrug and go “oh well, I can download that one in a matter of weeks.” The problem with distributors marginalising outlets like this is that it creates an Us and Them situation. With the ease and availability of download material, it only becomes a matter of time before piracy download sites figure they could get a lot more traffic going their way by throwing some advertising at the bloggers and even less time before impoverished bloggers figure what the hell about maintaining moral scruples about watching material legally and start taking the money.

    I’m slightly off track. I’d urge hanging in there. Apply for arts grants, whatever you can do to keep the site going. Seek as many links as you can to boost your SEO. Also switch your domain from .net to .nz – that way you’re ranking higher in local NZ searches.

    • Dan says:

      I’m glad you are still going, Richard. Your slightly masochistic posting schedule was definitely an inspiration for me when I started.

      Thanks for the tip about .nz too.

  • Mike D says:

    I really appreciate Auckland Cinephile (http://aucklandcinephile.blogspot.co.nz/) popping into my RSS feed each week, keeping me up to speed with what’s opening and with any special screenings; if it were bundled with Slevin-like reviews it’s a service I’d pay a little bit for, especially given I hardly bother buying the Herald any more. I love Cinematica but don’t get time to listen to it every week, so something I can read in a few minutes would be great. Bearing in mind I usually check Metacritic before heading off to see a movie, so general reviews are not as interesting as knowing what screens/soundsystems/discount movie nights something might be playing at locally. Local content would be the selling point here, especially when a large or small film festival is coming up. So maybe free stuff on the web (with a searchable archive) and a value-added app, subscription, or email for a small fee? Jitterati too would be nice.

  • Jeremy Rose says:

    Hi Dan, keen to have a chat about possibly running your reviews on scoop. Let me know if interested.
    Cheers
    Jeremy

  • Grant Buist says:

    Problem solved!

    Stuff Nation assignment: Be a movie reviewer for Stuff

  • tony m says:

    At the Lighthouse Cuba is a wall with poster of the films screening, next to each is …not critics quotes, but Rotten Tomatoes fresh ratings.
    I know you are all passionate about your personal bodies of work, and your relationship with your audiences, etc , but as evidenced by my first sentence, i’m afraid your services have gone the way of the dodo.
    Please dont shoot the messenger. I’m merely conveying the reality of the paradigm shift that has changed from earlier last century, when commentators services were barometers of culture , whose opinions were of vital importance to the general public. In the 21st century, for the vast majority of cinemagoers (who are under 30, and have media saturation ADHD), a glance at thumbs up or down, or a freshness rating higher than rotten is simply a faster way to decide whether to watch a movie, than wading through the opinion of an anonymous stranger with the label ‘critic’.
    Its a sad fact. but a reality.

    • Dan says:

      But where do those Rotten Tomatoes ratings come from? Out of thin air?

      No, they are the result of informed and intelligent reviewers writing up their feelings about films.

      The responses to this post have shown me that people do care, do make decisions about viewing based on reviewers, do like to debate. So, I dispute your observation and your conclusion.

      • tony m says:

        You missed my point. Audiences these days dont even bother to read the RT reviews. They simply respond to the ‘fresh’ rating. Eos.
        And no , they dont come out of thin air…the vast majority of them are from little fish reviewers writing for under the radar sites, no name blogs, . Heres some reviews from RT’s LIFE OF PI page (picked at random).

        Eclipse magazine, Sci-fi Movie Page, Movie Metropolis, Fan the Fire, KWQC-TV (Iowa), COEDMagazine.com, Cinema Crazed, MovieDex, 3AW,
        The Mercury, The Popcorn Junkie, Cinema Autopsy, ABC Radio Brisbane, HeyU guys, View London, (it goes on for another 9 pages, but you get the point)

        How many do you follow? and how many do you trust in terms of taste, judgement? Unless you follow them all, how can you make the blanket statement that they are informed and intelligent? All you can safely say is that they are writing up their feelings about film. 99% of todays veiwers dont care the opinion of a film by someone they dont know.

        You say you had 40K CT readers, and you have had less than a dozen replys to this post, yet you dispute my conclusion. C’mon…eleven people dont prove to me “that people do care, do make decisions about viewing based on reviewers”.
        Like i said, dont shoot the messenger, but you are living in a dream world if you believe that to be the reality.

        • Dan says:

          Tony (if that’s your real name…)

          If what I’m doing is so pointless why are you here arguing the toss about it?

          I’m sure you have far more interesting things you’d rather be doing and so do I.

          • tony m says:

            i couldnt give a shit to be honest. its just excruciating hearing film bloggers whine about how hard it is to survive, how distributors are scared of bloggers with audiences less than 100. You write reviews for the gratification of yr own ego. Eos. Your audience is infintesimal, the market is glutted. Its all one huge blob of sameness, average to bad writing and no astonishing insights to stand out from the mediocrity.

            you can puff it up with lofty terms like ‘my body of work’, and delude yrself that your intelligent opinions are cherished by readers. Send your reviews to a mailing list of those who enjoy, but please, dont elevate your status to that of indispensible taste guide to the great unwashed, who of course, know no better and indeed need guidance.

            The reality is that film reviewers, in print, and online are ignored by 99% of the demographic that the studios are chasing for $$$. They rely on their peers for deciding what they watch. eos. The currency you trade in, i.e having watched alot of movies, in the current climate is is as over-inflated and worthless as a Zimbabwean trillion dollar bill, You seriously overvalue your stock, because guess what- EVERYONE has seen alot of movies. honestly, i dont know anyone under 30 who bothers to read reviews. Seriously.
            Sorry to point out the obvious pointlessness of it all. no need to be petulant in the face of reality.

          • Dan says:

            You write reviews for the gratification of yr own ego.

            Actually, I write reviews to make people laugh. And enough CT readers enjoyed what I did that they gave me a prize every year. Judging by your anonymity – and the IP address – I’m guessing you are the same person who was rude about Cinematica when it started, so you obviously do seem to give a shit – at least more than you let on.

            So visit or don’t visit. Read or don’t read. It’s all the same to me. I don’t expect to be enjoyed by everyone. But don’t come into my (online) home without introducing yourself and then insult me. Go and do something else, like watch a movie maybe. A movie you chose by – I don’t know – liking the colours on the box cover or the typeface on the poster.

  • sue says:

    well i think ithe ista is the best most wonderful option EVER
    , there is a firmly established readership and you are beloved by aeveryone involved. Perhaps maybe for you film fans a specific link is in the sidebar that goes to just your film reviews

  • Sam McCosh says:

    I was very surprised to hear that you don’t get paid for your outstanding work with the CT. It’s a real shame for Wellington cinema lovers that the newspaper is shutting down. While I do believe that online is the way of the present/future, there are still so many people who read papers, even if it is simply because it is there in front of them.

    I hope that you can find another outlet to support/host your great writing. Until then I really hope that you continue to write about film – even if it isn’t about new releases. You have a great voice and I would truly miss you writing.

    Have you thought about changing F&S to a .com ? Also, do you/have you thought about adding your reviews to IMDB? A large percentage of my traffic comes from people clicking on my reviews through the “critics review” section for films on IMDB.

    Best wishes Dan.

    • Dan says:

      Hi Sam

      Thanks for the kind words.

      I haven’t looked in to IMDb or RT for a while now but as I recall you have to meet certain arbitrary standards like only reviewing one film per post and writing a minimum of 300 words on every film.

      Neither of those restrictions appeal to me but I’ll look again.

      Things are a looking up though. Updates soon.

  • Max says:

    Maybe put Flattr buttons up?

    http://flattr.com/

    That way people can support you with a click! 🙂

  • Theresa says:

    Dan, as an ex-Wellingtonian (I lived in your fair city two years), I remember well your insightful reviews. I hope that you continue to write them, and harness the power of social media to get the word out to the masses. The Wellingtonista is a great place to cross-post: I’m still an avid reader of it, 2.5 years after leaving Welly.

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