Behind the scenes at Film Inquiry

14 min read

We discovered Film Inquiry by chance, while on one of those Google searches which lead you from link to link. We were looking for film magazines from around the world, ones that didn’t cater to populist sensibilities. Film Inquiry is a long-form online film magazine, founded by Manon de Reeper, who is still the editor-in-chief. We asked her many questions, and she was kind enough to answer them all, allowing us to learn about her process, and her thoughts on a wide range of subjects.

How did you come up with the name Film Inquiry? Was that your first choice?

Film Inquiry went through a number of name changes. Most of them don’t need to be mentioned ever again—after all, it started as a personal blog! I came up with Film Inquiry because I felt it was necessary to become a bit more formal, more organized, with a more ‘official’ brand name. The concept of inquiring really fits what we do—we cover films in a more in-depth way than many other outlets, and often take a more educational, or more educated, approach. I had about a 100 other options that I considered… another more practical consideration that helped me make my decision was that the filminquiry.com url was still available at the time.

What are some of the challenges of publishing long-form articles in the age of reviewing movies through live tweeting?

Live tweets are fun, and they give a good sense of someone’s initial response, but they never allow people to really explore films in a deeper way. 280 characters only allows for so much. Our reviews are often around 1000 words, and we’ve published features and resources going up to tens of thousands of words. There’s so much to be said and discovered about movies. You lose the context of film history with live tweets, or hyper-short reviews.

One challenge is that long-form is not for the masses, so we don’t generate massive traffic. On the other hand, that’s fine. Each niche needs to be served—and the niche of passionate cinephiles is not currently being served very well by the big magazines. We’ve always been consistent about that mission, yet we straddle the line between being entertaining and being serious cinephiles. I think what connects us—the writers and our audience—is that we simply love movies, and want to talk about it all the time, and want to know everything there is to know. We want to infuse our lives with the art of cinema, get giddy about it, and share that with likeminded people.

Honestly, that’s the only challenge I see. If people can’t pay attention to reading an article for more than two minutes, that is their problem, not mine. It most likely just means they are not our audience. If someone watches a three hour long movie from 1963, or a vague, underseen indie film from 2017, and wants to learn more about that movie, they will spend more time reading, and those are the people who come to Film Inquiry. That’s the audience we write for. It’s self-filtering.

Social media has evolved to such an extent that many magazines create platform-specific content, like short clips for Instagram, video reviews for Youtube, memes for Facebook and so on. Does Film Inquiry have any such plans or will its focus continue to be in-depth articles published on the website?

Our main outlet will always be the website, with its long-form articles. We have published short books in the past, which we will continue to do. Stephanie Archer does an amazing job running our Twitter account, and engages with the social media audience in ways that I would never be able to. I feel much older than I am when I say that I just don’t get Instagram, and I’m too paranoid to trust Facebook (and with that, Instagram); I don’t want to rely on those platforms too much, and honestly, it doesn’t really fit our brand. I would love to do educational content and host webinars on Film Inquiry. We’ve also been trying to get into publishing more videos on Youtube, but for us to put out anything of high quality, consistently, would require us to have some sort of studio, and we’re too scattered around the world and work on too much of a shoestring budget to really manage that, unfortunately. That’s my biggest dream—more videos, podcast-style round-tables, more video essays, video coverage of film festivals… But that’s very hard to achieve.

Editor/Contributor/Social Media Manager Stephanie Archer, Contributor Lee Jutton, and Operations Manager Kristy Strouse at Tribeca Film Festival 2018

Given that film involves visuals and audio, do you think the medium of video essays is better suited for film analysis as compared to the written word? What do you think a written article can do better than a video essay?

Actually, I don’t think that’s true at all. You’re not going to paint a painting to criticize a painting, either. Each medium has its own purpose and allows people to express themselves in other ways. And writing in particular is great because it allows you to be very specific. And in a way, you could argue that video essays are still written essays, as they are basically written essays read out loud in an engaging inflection and tone, over good-looking video/film footage. You could put any article of ours over video footage and turn it into an interesting video essay (which, in fact, people have plagiarized our articles for, in the past).

Does Film Inquiry try to focus on current events in pop culture (reviewing the newest releases and so on)? Have you had to accommodate ideas that you weren’t completely on board with, but decided to go ahead with, because it would increase your readership?

Honestly, we’re still not a website that focuses on current events primarily. Yes, we cover new releases, and we do interviews with folks who have new films to promote, but we also still cover a lot of older films and older TV. We have bi-weekly and monthly columns focusing on science in film and TV and LGBTQ+ films etc., which mostly don’t deal with new releases. It’s something I try to balance, honestly, I don’t want for Film Inquiry to only be about new releases. If you do that, you lose sight of how each film made today only exists within the context of film history.

How does Film Inquiry sustain itself financially?

We are sustained by a combination of advertising and a subscription platform—the problem, though, is that people don’t want to pay for journalism anymore, and have become used to journalism being given away for free.

We… about break even on our most basic costs. I’ve put in thousands of dollars to keep up the website in its first few years. It takes a special kind of dedication, passion, and madness to keep this going. I would also not have been able to keep going without the help of Kristy Strouse, our operations manager.

Manon de Reeper & Operations Manager Kristy Strouse at Sundance Film Festival 2020

How do you pick your writers? What qualities do you look for? How do you decide which writer is most suited to review a specific movie?

We generally accept applications to join our team in busier times of year, and close for applications in summer and around the Christmas holidays. I always go over a writer’s application carefully; their answers on the application already tell me a lot. If there are grammatical errors, or if they give me the idea that they don’t quite understand what Film Inquiry does (for instance, they pitch listicles, which we do not publish), it’s a pretty easy decision. We also ask who their favorite directors are; this generally gives me a very good indication of their taste, as well as how in tune they are with the current events in the film industry. I also scrutinize previous articles they have written. I frankly don’t care whether they have been published by a big publisher or if they send me a school essay, it’s honestly always about the writer’s voice, knowledge, and keenness to explore film more in-depth, than their credentials.

Contributors Brent Goldman and Kevin Lee at NYFF 2019

What is the one quality that you think is essential for a film magazine editor? (You can tell us more than one too!)

Have a good sense of what your mission is, and what makes you stand out among the crowd. Know the niche you are serving.

You also have to be able to take a break. The 24/7 work cycle that the internet has us believe we all have to live is unhealthy, and it’s going to send many of us either to an early death or a mental institution. Set boundaries, take off on the weekends, rest well, eat healthily—maybe turn off your phone after a certain time at night and decompress (for me it’s 8 PM). I don’t even have any social media apps installed on my phone anymore, and all notifications are switched off at any time. What I pay attention to is completely in my control; apps are designed to be addictive. There are so many better, more efficient, more worthwhile ways to spend your time and energy. I think editors have to be particularly cognizant of how they spend their time and energy, especially if they have a full-time job or other pursuits next to the publication they’re running.

Don’t take the movie industry too seriously. Or yourself. Also, it’s okay if you haven’t seen all of the movies. No one has, and there’s always going to be someone who’s seen more or different movies than you. And that’s fine. It doesn’t make you a lesser editor.

We assume you have attended many film festivals around the world! Which is your favourite and why?

Personally, I have attended the Sundance Film Festival, SXSW, Austin Film Festival and LA Film Festival (RIP), so honestly not that many! I love Austin Film Fest for its focus on screenwriting, which makes it my personal favorite. Sundance and SXSW are also great, but very different. Sundance is great for its small-town vibe and for basically transporting the entire film industry to a more easily navigable place than LA, and I kind of love the cold. SXSW is soooo massive! But I just love Austin, and it means I get to hang out at the Alamo Drafthouse Lamar for a week. Austin FF and SXSW are easy picks for me because I’m based in Houston, so I don’t have to travel as much.

Manon de Reeper & Contributor Kevin Lee at SXSW 2019

Do you think the big film festivals dictate the global tastes of cinema? What can magazines like Film Inquiry do to encourage smaller film festivals?

Yes, this is definitely true. The bigger film festivals are very elitist and exclusive of the general audience due to deterringly high badge prices (e.g., an express badge for Sundance for 5 days is $4000, and a SXSW film badge is around $1500). Even general screening prices go way up. It’s the same thing at festivals around the world, one of our Australian writers told me they charge AU$60 (~US$40) for single screenings at certain premium Australian film festivals.

Something else that has always bothered me is that the big festivals generally play too many studio films, and lean too heavily towards straight white male films, excluding other voices almost by default (which is also in part because they mostly show studio films). Indie films don’t get the same type of attention, but that’s also because they don’t have the same promotional budgets as the big films. It’s a vicious circle. And film festivals are expensive endeavors, too. I’m not saying they are all wrong to do what they do, but it’s just something to keep in mind.

So, you could argue that the festivals dictate global tastes, yet, the general audience doesn’t have the money to attend the festivals. They rather dictate the tastes of the press who do get access to these festivals, and through their writing, aggregators like Rotten Tomatoes, as well as the marketing around and after the festivals is how the audience’s interest is piqued, and eventually taste is influenced. The general audience doesn’t know about a movie if no one writes about it, or if a film has no marketing budget (or, maybe even worse, the film is marketed the wrong way and/or to the wrong audience).

What are some qualities that you find missing in film journalism today?

I wish film press would focus less on current events, and focus more on knowledge and education. Films often deal with pretty serious topics, yet for some reason critics rarely talk about the actual topic of a film. Personally that’s what I love and value most about movies, the way they can influence and inform the audience about how to feel, how to empathize with people that have different life experiences, or how to make decisions in their lives—most of this subliminally. It’s a great disservice to film as an art form that people consume so widely to only consider it for its face value.

On a more specific note, this is something I’ve noticed over the years—film critics tend to refer to female filmmakers by their first name and male by their last. It’s subtle, but it’s infantilizing, and it contributes to women not being taken seriously. I’ve seen critics across the board do this, both male and female.

A continuing issue is that people don’t want to “consider diversity in matters of art.” I’m referring to Stephen King’s tweet, but it’s something that still persists at every level and every form of art, including the film industry, and film journalism. There’s a continuing, pervasive sense that quality equals films by white males. There’s a dire need for more diversity among film press, because as I established previously, the critics dictate the taste of global audiences. People love seeing stories they can relate to on the big screen, yet historically, what is quality has long been determined by straight white male critics, ignoring and denying the quality of more diverse stories. Films about women and/or people of color are often rated poorly because male critics can’t relate. That doesn’t make a film bad, or of poor quality. It just means it was not for them, and that’s fine. It would be in the advantage of film studios, PR agencies, and film festivals to involve more diverse critics and publications because it would help them reach their intended audiences, and thus, make more money in the box office. I hope that that’s a shift we’ll see in the next few years, although the influence of film press continues to be undervalued and underappreciated.

Lastly, I hope the listicle goes away. I think they are one of the worst things that have come to prominence with digital journalism.

Manon de Reeper & Editor/Contributor Jake Tropila in Los Angeles

You wrote the How to Analyse Movies series on Film Inquiry and prepared a beat sheet for the same. What motivated you to do this?

This was born directly from my Criminology master’s degree and the semiotic studies I did for my thesis. I studied over 60 dystopian science fiction films that deal with law enforcement and punishment, and found that there’s no real systematic/methodological guide towards studying a film. So I wrote that guide for my peers. My university professor continues to share it with students who want to do the same type of semiotic study of film, even though I feel like he would have preferred for it to be published in an academic journal rather than a self-published book on Amazon!

Could you tell us more about this thesis? How did you develop this idea and what was the conclusion of your thesis?

Basically, I found a way to make my non-film-related studies about films! My professors, thankfully, were very open to this idea. I was one of few students (or maybe the only one in my year actually) who chose to study films for their master’s thesis. Essentially, I wanted to figure out whether policy and lawmakers should consider using dystopian science fiction films towards making decisions and to deepen their understanding of developments in law enforcement and punishment and their possible negative effects. I mentioned that I used about 60 films, but the main analysis focused on six movies: THX 1138 (1971), Blade Runner (1982), Minority Report (2002), A Clockwork Orange (1971), Fortress (1992) and Children of Men (2006). The discussion focused on developments in punitiveness, surveillance, crime risk management, privatization of law enforcement and punishment, governance and policing of the ‘global city’ and the ‘other’, and the intention to use robotics in law enforcement.

The conclusion was that the movies I analyzed sketch a very critical image of developments in law enforcement and punishment, and in the modern world in general. The movies can significantly contribute to lawmakers’ understanding of these developments as they often lack the imagination or are too shortsighted to see and understand what potential effects new policies might have on people.

You were born and brought up in The Netherlands. You launched Film Inquiry after migrating to Australia. Now you’ve shifted your magazine office to the US. What are some differences you observe—in the film cultures of these places, the way people engage with cinema, their tastes, and so on?

Correct! I moved to Australia in early 2014, and to the US in late 2017. That’s a great question. In The Netherlands, the film industry is quite small, although it seems to be expanding lately. The great majority of films consumed are international—mostly American franchises. Australia has a far bigger film industry, and they make great movies, although I believe that, still, the majority of movies consumed are American franchises as well. International distribution is quite hard, however, and so both in Australia and in The Netherlands (and other countries around the world), release dates of certain popular, smaller films can be months and months after they have been released in American theaters. This contributes greatly to online piracy. It’s one of my biggest pet peeves, I wish there was some easier way to get international theatrical distribution for films. Yet, it continues to be an issue.

As for taste, I think you’ll find the biggest difference in comedy. The senses of humor between the US, The Netherlands, and Australia are all incredibly different. The Dutch have a very dry and upfront sense of humor and are hugely into schadenfreude. Australians’ humor is so specific to the language and far more punny, they poke fun at others and themselves. And American humor is not as steeped in irony and sarcasm, it’s more slapstick-y and physical, and sarcasm really doesn’t always land. I can tell Americans are often taken aback by my sense of humor, which is a bit of a mix between Dutch and Australian humor, I think.

Either way, comedy is absolutely the hardest thing to translate, both literally and culturally. I think American comedies have a far harder time abroad than thrillers or action films. Although I do keep reminding Americans that guns, to people outside of the US, are fiction—most of us have never even seen one in real life, and they don’t impact our lives like they impact people’s lives in the US. I certainly never felt the danger of guns until I moved here, which has definitely made me view films that feature (or celebrate) guns VERY differently.

Lastly, I also think that intimacy and profanity on screen is very different between the three countries. America is the most censored in both intimacy and profanity, and The Netherlands is the least censored (where people also freely swear and are never bleeped, and sex and sexuality are really not as taboo), Australia is somewhere between the two. People are more prudish in Australia than in The Netherlands, but profanity is far more accepted than it is in the US. It’s interesting to compare them and see how that reflects in what we see on the screen.

But honestly, other than that, the moviegoing experience has been homogenized in most parts of the world. It’s all safe, big American franchises, mostly, other than your odd local release.

Looking back at your journey with Film Inquiry, which do you feel was a difficult phase for you and the magazine?

Oof! Are we looking back on the journey already? That makes it seem as if we’ve arrived and can finally rest easy, and we haven’t, and can’t, not at all. I feel like we’re still in a difficult phase, just levelled up. And we’re still far from having reached the final boss.

What is the next goal you have in mind for Film Inquiry?

We’re currently considering some changes to our business structure that would be both interesting for me personally and for us as a group, and it would be a bold statement within film journalism. We have some big decision making to do, and it’s still too early to really talk about publicly.

Tell us about your pursuits as a filmmaker. What are you working on currently? In what ways has being a magazine editor impacted you as a filmmaker?

Alongside Film Inquiry, I’m an actively working screenwriter—without produced credits as of yet, but I’ve been lucky enough to have found filmmakers who wanted to hire me to write their stories and who are working on bringing those stories to life. That has been an incredibly fun and rewarding endeavor! I’ve written many screenplays over the years, and hopefully those will be produced, one day, as well.

The way my work with Film Inquiry has impacted my filmmaking work is that I definitely have a good sense of what works in the industry, what is successful, and what piques the audience’s (or critics’) interest—genre and story-wise. I’ve also learned to trust my gut, that while what I write or do may not be for everyone, to trust that there is an audience for my work out there, and maybe also that I don’t want to appeal to everyone. I’ve definitely gotten a good understanding of film press, marketing, and PR as well, which I believe will be a major asset to any story or film I work on. And on top of that, having attended several big film festivals multiple times has given me an insight into the film industry that a lot of people don’t see until after they have made their films!

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