Tweeting Cinema: Covering Film Festivals in the Age of Social Media
by Alex Billington
January 16, 2014
To Tweet, or not to Tweet: that is the question… I remember the first time I really got into Twitter. I was at SXSW (in 2007, my first and only year there) and I remember driving down Congress discussing the merits of Twitter with my film blogger colleagues. Why would I want to be on there? Is there anything to say, what would I tweet? How far we've come… Now seven years have passed and Twitter is not only still around, it changed the world, and it's booming. They just went public on the New York Stock Exchange, they have 230 million users from all over the world, and it has become an extremely powerful service for communication, influence and interaction (and beyond). And I still love using it every day, especially to cover film festivals.
Whenever I read articles written about film festivals and social media, they always seem to refer to "social media" like it's this wild, runaway train that just keeps speeding up, causing more mayhem unless you can somehow grab hold while it flies by and hang on for dear life. I couldn't disagree more. Social media, and for the sake of this discussion, Twitter in particular, has grown to become much more than just a "tool". It's a communication medium, it's a form of connection that has completely changed the way we interact with, well, everyone. From celebrities to critics to filmmakers to up-and-comers of all sorts, social media has reshaped communication in this modern day and age and will continue to change the world as time goes on.
But I don't want to get too prophetic talking about Twitter, as this is really just about film festivals and, to put it simply, promoting and discussing independent film. While I do have a widely read blog and do write reviews from film festivals, Twitter (@firstshowing) is my go-to for any/everything at festivals nowadays. From following all the hype/buzz/discussions, to reading early thoughts/reviews, to connecting with friends and filmmakers, to figuring out plans/strategies to make the most of my time. However, in the last few years we've been a key part of the rise of the "insta-tweet" review, or the "insta-review". As expected, many old guard film critics/journalists hate "insta-reviews" and often strongly voice opinions in opposition to them.
The "insta-review" is disliked by some critics because, first things first, it's only 140 characters per tweet (less once you put in the film's title and a #Sundance tag). But mainly it's believed that proper film criticism, and opinions about films (especially the ones as complex as those at festivals), deserve additional reflection and consideration before being distilled into one-or-two half-sentences. This is true, and I won't dare argue against that, but it's also no reason to argue against the concept of instantly tweeting a thought, reaction, or opinion the moment a film ends. Mostly because this gut reaction can sometimes be the most honest or real.
Ironically, one of my colleagues tweeted about these concerns just the other day. Scott Renshaw, a writer for Utah's City Weekly, wrote the following about Sundance (running from January 16 to 26 in Park City, Utah):
I want so much to avoid insta-tweeting reactions after Sundance screenings. I can do better. But also I'm weak.
— Scott Renshaw (@scottrenshaw) January 14, 2014
Tweeting is now part of me. I can't not do it, and I think this is a hint that Twitter is here to stay and won't be going away anytime soon. It's a part of our culture now, whether you like it or not. And when something is a part of our culture, it's valuable and important to contribute. My own mantra, which has even seeped into the name of this website, is to always be one of the first to respond/react to an experience. I love being one of the first ever to see a film and tell the world, or at least those who are following, what I think about it. Or how it made me feel. Especially right when it ends. That said, there are moments when I need extra time.
Take, for example, Shane Carruth's Upstream Color, which I saw at the morning premiere at Sundance 2013 last year. I was a bit confused and didn't know what to make of it the moment it ended. Discussions about it still rage on today, and that's an example of art at its finest, encouraging and creating discussion no matter how much time has passed since inception/creation/debut. At the time, I tweeted: "What was that?! What a trip. Carruth's abstract drug film didn't really do it for me." I ended up talking about it with friends the rest of the day, and never wrote a review, because I didn't think I had enough time to reflect (I wanted to see it again well-rested). I felt bad, but there was nothing else I could do, because more time was required.
My point is that, despite knowing I needed more time to think about the film, I still had an instant response. And that instant response was more honest than any other thoughts I've had. It starts the discussion, it sets a precedent in terms of general feelings towards the film (be they good or bad), and opens the door for more reflection. Let's say my response was: "Pigs get more screentime than humans." Others who loved the movie might then start with that and explain why they feel there is more depth, and defend its merits, which only makes their argument stronger. And that's just one example. There are 121 films playing at Sundance 2014.
I responded to Renshaw after he wrote that tweet seen above and asked his thoughts on why he doesn't like "insta-tweet" reviews. "I just think filmmakers deserve a moment of reflection before passing judgment. But I'm also a bona fide Twitter addict," he explained. Indeed, same here. Before I could even address the "moment of reflection" issue, another tweeter chimed in with thoughts about that "moment of reflection." Certain cinephiles like myself don't often need more than 60 or 120 seconds of reflection, because our minds have been processing the film as it unfolds in front of us and we revel in our emotions. Rob Thomas wrote:
— Rob Thomas (@robt77) January 14, 2014
Reflection is indeed a very important part of criticism and cinema. One of my favorite parts of Sundance is being able to discuss films with friends non-stop. I can gain entirely new insight about a film I saw on the first day in a discussion on the last day, days after my review and tweets have been written. But again, that's why Twitter is great for cinema. Discussion doesn't only happen the moments after a film ends, that's when it begins. And someone, even if it's 10 film critics sitting in darkened-theaters at Sundance, needs to be the first to say something and start that discussion. If we're making any difference, it's hopefully to encourage additional consideration, on top of contributing our own honest thoughts that may help (or hurt) the buzz.
Nowadays, film fans all over the world are watching the festival from Twitter. They want to know what films are getting good buzz, and they want to know what all of us think the moment a film ends. You can be sure many people will be patiently waiting for The Raid 2 to let out on Tuesday night. Will it be as good as the first? Maybe even better? All they need are reactions from trusted sources - and Twitter is the first place to find those reactions because it's so quick to get them out. Then they can decide on their own if they want to see the film and have their own thoughts. Maybe they'll see it and hate it, or love it, and will have something to say about it, driving more interest in independent cinema which is healthy for this industry's progress.
Social media is here to stay. Those who can't stand it either need to eventually learn to accept it, or ignore it entirely and stop complaining. Twitter is more than a tool. It's a way to gauge buzz, to create and encourage discussion, and to spread the word to people who care about what you're saying. Even Cannes, the world famous film festival where the snobbiest critics appear, is rampant with "insta-tweet" reviews. Many of them may be doing it just to stay relevant, but others may be tweeting just because they have a thought and want to get it out. They have something to say. And technically, if no one really cared about what others had to say, then no one would be following. But enough people do care. And they do follow. They do want to hear.
In my mind, it's almost as if this is the next evolution in cheering, or booing, a movie. The feeling to respond (with applause, verbal acknowledgment, or even silence) when a film ends is natural. It's part of being alive. It has evolved along with technology in this modern day. Nowadays when we react, it involves a message in tweet form, a sentence, a simple thought, something to sum up our feelings as we're feeling them. There is more time for reflection later; there is always more time for additional consideration, and I appreciate the thoughtfulness that goes into reviews. But at the same time this does not mean "insta-reviews" should be condemned or hated, especially if they encourage more conversation and interaction than they discourage.
My suggestion for those that hate instant reactions - just don't participate, don't read the tweets, just ignore them and wait for the reviews. Wait for more reflection, wait for more discussion. Fellow critics - you don't have to "insta-tweet" if you don't want to. Waiting 2 hours to write a more thoughtful tweet won't make any difference. Waiting 6 hours to write a more intimate review won't make any difference. Do what you feel is right, use the medium that you feel most comfortable with, and say what you have to say whether it's in 140 characters, or 140 pages. There's nothing problematic with these "insta-reviews", and as long as we do have a moment of reflection (or two) at some point, the more healthy discussion about indie cinema, the better.
As usual, for the next 10 days at Sundance I will be tweeting (as @firstshowing) reactions, updates, details, discussions and thoughts about films and the festival and my experiences. It just wouldn't feel the same if I couldn't express myself in this way. I'll still write longer reviews, I'll still have reassuring discussions, but hopefully at the least we can help good films break out, highlight others worth seeing, and share our love for independent cinema with everyone. Whether I do that in 140 characters or 6 paragraphs, it doesn't matter. As long as we've encouraged someone, young or old, to seek out unique, moving, innovative, original films.
Final reminder: please remember to TURN OFF YOUR PHONE as soon as the lights go down, and keep it off or in your pocket, or purse, until the lights come up at the end of the movie. Only then can you tweet.