Could film critics do more to spoil less?
Oh how I love being a film critic. The sheer thrill of screening invites arriving daily into my inbox. Then the anticipation of said films; sitting alongside similarly respectful folk (no beeping mobile phones or casual mid film chat - bliss!) in cosy Soho screening rooms. Sometimes even with a drink and a nibble thrown in. Though sadly the days of platters of yummy sandwiches seem to be long gone. The main perk of seeing these films ahead of release, is not even the privilege of consequently enjoying them devoid of the hype, rapturous praise, or crushing critiques contained in the subsequent reviews by people like me that fuels audience expectations. It is, specifically, viewing future classics (and other lesser oeuvres) for the first time, and seeing the story unfold - without the experience having been undermined by any plot spoilers.
For me, this privilege is so important, that for the 23 years I have been critiquing films for broadcast media, I have gone out of my way to protect it for others. To be honest, I consider it my basic responsibility. My job is to give my verdict on a film, give you reasons why it is good bad or otherwise, make reference to what the film addresses, the performances etc. And yes, I need to do that in context. But I can do that without blurting out a large chunk of the plot. For me it's a no brainer that the joy of a story is watching it unfold. Sure, how it unfolds is important - but as a critic, so long as you keep industry rumour and early bird reviews from America or elsewhere at arm's length, then you get to enjoy both. As a fan I want both - and so, is my understanding, do other film goers.
But perhaps I'm wrong - after all, most reviews do present a large chunk of exposition to set up the author's verdict, or plot details are peppered throughout. To be fair, some reviewers will flag up spoilers - but chances are you'll accidentally catch sight of the offending words before you can stop reading. Or, as is more likely, you'll read on regardless as you're already invested in the article. And the writer probably knows that.... I personally continue to be perplexed by what constitutes a spoiler and what doesn't - because for me: any plot detail spoils. "Oh don't be ridiculous Wendy", you might be thinking right now: "you've already admitted that some info is required to give context to any review!?" True. But I reckon there's a big difference between providing story context, and detailed plot. For most films, you need only give a general overview about the story theme before you can move on to your actual review. There Will Be Blood? "The life and times of a crazy mean oil baron in turn of the century California". Surely that's plenty - before you can then spout off on the performances of Day Lewis, Dano et al, and the way PT Anderson brought it all to life etc etc? I'm not going to walk you through specific epic scenes, or regurgitate lines verbatim - I'd like you to be surprised/shocked/moved by them yourself. My job is to give my interpretation of the film: how it made me feel; what it made me consider and reference, and why I feel and think the way I do about it, etc. With that information, you, it's potential viewer, can hopefully a) decide whether you want to see the film or not and b) still have the story thrillingly unfold if you do.
It has consequently become a game I play automatically when reading a review - of a film that I have already seen I hasten to add. I identify the chunks of plot they choose to reveal, then decide whether it was really necessary to do so, in order that their consequent points/verdict could be made. Nine times out of ten I don't believe it is.
But maybe it's just my thing - film critics provide an important service for all film goers, and I myself am always keen to glean insight from my more cinematically learned fellow critics. It's not my place to say they are wrong. That being said, I regularly straw poll my position on omitting plot from reviews: I can honestly say I not only receive unanimous support, but people usually take the opportunity to then bang on to me about their resentment of 'too much plot' spoiling their viewing pleasure. Oh the irony.
One thing's for sure: the studios themselves have no qualms about giving away plot - just sit through any movie trailer for confirmation. There's no doubt movie trailers have got longer, and more detailed - and more revealing of the entirety of the film's story. You used to get act one, maybe a bit of act two, and then: COMING SOON. Ooh! - you're tantalized! You can't wait! These days I am the mad woman who sits staring at her lap and maniacally wiggles her fingers in her ears in an effort to stop the ruination of a forthcoming film - all because a wall-to-wall spoiler of a trailer is onscreen. Trailers I have seen of late happily include scenes right up to practically the final shot!? It's arguably comedies that come out worst in this: in a bid to get bums on seats studios cut a trailer with, naturally, all the best jokes in it. Well you would wouldn't you? Except those jokes don't work nearly so well the second time around. Funny that. Comedy requires a large chunk of - surprise! But hey - who cares? - you've bought your ticket, your bum's on that seat: studio wins. Long term though, isn't there a chance that people who end up thinking they didn't find a film funny actually had the film spoiled for them by the trailer they saw the week before? Isn't there a chance they now won't go see the next Adam Sandler film? Sorry. Couldn't resist.
It's a debate I'm keen to open up to critics and regular film goers alike. It's possible I'm not meeting and consequently discussing my position with film goers who love to get a heads up on the minutiae of the plot. I can't work out why you'd want that - but I'd love to understand it if that's the case! As a broadcast film critic, perhaps reviewers for publications might argue that a written analysis requires more plot detail for some particular reason I am missing....? I'm keen to know. Perhaps many people do also have their own limit on plot revelation, but it differs from mine. I'm keen to hear. For the moment though, I don't see me changing my very hard and fast rule anytime soon. The plot's safe with me.
Having worked for over twenty years as a voice over artist, I've had plenty of time to consider what makes me succeed at this peculiar vocation whilst other might not. In that time, being a voice over artist has gone from a profession open only to those who secure the holy grail of a reputable agent, to something anyone can have a go at from the privacy of their own home. Well, technically....
The tumbling cost of broadcast quality equipment in conjunction with modern broadband capabilities has of course levelled the playing field across the board in media production. It's 8 years now since I invested in a home set up, at a price that would have been unthinkable only a few years before. In line with this, websites have sprung up worldwide that enable anyone fancying themselves as the voice of a breakfast cereal or medical explainer video to pitch for a job. Websites like bodalgo and voice123 allow you to set up a free member page and post demos. Interested clients can then contact you direct, but to actually audition for jobs you need to pay several hundred pounds a year. For many, this is still a tantalizing opportunity: the rates secured by professional voice over artists have long been admired. This is especially true in the UK, where a concerted effort on the part of agents (such as my mighty crew at Yaketyyak) and Equity has maintained respectable fees - particularly for commercial work. Ironically, the gold rush over recent years and influx of people keen to have a go is now chipping away at those professional rates - as are those very same websites. As companies look for ways to cut corners, they start questioning the value of that voice over. Surely someone somewhere will do it for less.....? Indeed - they will! It is true for everything. But just as we all luck out with the odd bargain, it's also usually the case that real dependable quality costs the going rate. I have no qualms at turning down low paid projects - I am not going to undermine business for myself or my colleagues. Importantly, however, I'm finding that reputable clients still seek out experienced pros like myself, and expect to pay the going rate for our services.
So what is it that is central to the skill set of a voice over artist? What ensures you'll earn the going rates (apart from being prepared to turn down low fees, see above)? Well I'm not going to profess some magical insight about who may or may not have potential, but I have come to the conclusion that to be a successful voice over artist, you need to be a 'performer', and have significant performance skills and experience behind you. So I get paid hundreds of pounds for a one hour booking - and I might actually get the job done in ten minutes? That's not a fluke, nor because it's 'easy': it's because I began my voice over career off the back of an already ten year career as a radio and TV host (I started young!). Skills as a presenter meant I could "switch it on" under pressure; in a heartbeat, with lots of people looking on and chipping in and changing the direction of what they wanted. And I've been building on those skills ever since. Live radio in particular gave me the slightly mad ability to shave half a second off a script without batting an eyelid. Having to 'talk up' to on-the-hour news junctions during a three hour radio show every day made this kind of sensitivity to time second nature. And as a performer, you are doing all that, whilst being sensitive to all the other creative factors. A voice over is usually the component that brings all the media within a project together - the picture, music, performance from actors etc. Registering and communicating all of this is a subtle thing - it's the difference between a voice sounding right for a project, or not. Ironically, however, for many projects a voice can be said to be perfect if you don't notice it; because it fits so well.
If that all sounds a little ethereal and vague, it's because it is! But if you are a performer, there's a chance you'll get it, and be able to deliver it. And you'll feel it - and know it - when you do. And that's why I continue to love the challenge of each and every voice over I do - there's always something to learn, there's always another way you can try it. And yes, there are very often times when you might not agree with the direction your client requests. But if you're a performer, there's a very good chance you'll be able to provide them with it nonetheless.