Recently, two major events occurred in my life: my daughter Tabitha’s first day at school, and releasing my second feature as director, The Mirror.
The two have more in common than you might think.
As Tabitha disappeared into the bowels of her new school, waving merrily, thoughts raced through my mind: would people like her? Would she have lots of friends? Would she have any enemies? Would anyone be really mean to her, and if so, what could I possibly do about it?
Similar thoughts occurred when The Mirror premiered at Frightfest last month. It was my first time at the world-renowned horror festival. I’d heard Frightfest audiences were a particularly vocal, passionate bunch. Would the slow-build of The Mirror alienate, frustrate or anger them? Did they know it was found footage, and would they care? Did it matter there wasn’t a violent, gory death in the first five minutes? Would people… walk out?
Within the first minute, we had the first walk-out. Uh-oh. A lady in her fifties – wearing sunglasses, strangely – apologized to me as she passed by. Found footage films gave her motion sickness. Completely understandable. I nervously waited for others to follow suit. Miraculously, no-one else budged for the entire 82-minute duration. People were glued to their seats. Laughing. Jumping. Actually enjoying themselves.
During the Q&A after, the mood in the room seemed upbeat. Tweets from audience members started to roll in: ‘What Paranormal Activity should have been, with fun, likeable characters and eyeball theft’.
Then this, from a film blog, moments after I’d exited the screening: ‘I’m coming close to burnout when it comes to found footage movies… endless scenes of nothing and small talk are likely to test the patience of even the most forgiving horror fan’.
It felt like a gut-punch from a random assailant. Possibly the reviewer was in the same room. What to do, if they were? Try to convince them otherwise? Charm them? Buy them a drink? Kill them? Thankfully, I elected to do none of these, forgot about it and got hopelessly drunk instead.
Then, a day or so later, another shocking review: ‘It’s films like ‘The Mirror’ which make one despair about the current state of films in general… has all the finesse of an amateur dramatics production’.
Yet another negative review: ‘The found footage concept adds nothing to the story, which could (and should) have been told better without every single thing being a POV shot’.
In addition to sharing views on how the film should have been made, the reviewer chose to reveal crucial plot details as a stick to beat the film with. Repeatedly.
The worst thing about getting bad reviews is that you have no right of reply. You have to sit there and take it. Which is, of course, a vital part of being a filmmaker. Major filmmakers have the insulation of a studio PR team to shield them from critical brickbats. It’s different when you’re an independent filmmaker: you’ve made sacrifices, built something out of nothing – and people try to kick it down. It feels personal, even if it’s not intended that way. It hurts.
In case anyone reading this ever finds themselves in a similar boat, I hope that the following (slightly random) observations on my recent experiences will be of some use:
1. Some people really hate found footage films. Why? Because there are so many of them out there – not all of them good. They’re cheap to make, which makes them accessible to lo-/no-budget filmmakers. Be prepared for people to hate your film because it’s found footage. To me, hating a film because it’s found footage is like hating a piece of art because it’s Cubist. Found footage is a story-telling device, no more. It’s the quality of the story/characters that really count.
2. Try not to read your reviews one by one. A really awful review can ruin your day. Next time round I plan to let reviews accumulate (for at least a week), settle down with a cigar/good bottle of wine/shotgun and absorb them all in one go. Some filmmakers never read reviews (or claim to, at least).
3. The rise of the film blogger is a wonderful thing. Like the advent of digital filmmaking, it democratizes film criticism, making it accessible to all. Influential bloggers can have a huge impact on a film’s fate through audience/distributor awareness. However, some bloggers will mercilessly attack you and your film. My advice is: look how many people follow them on Twitter. If they have 5 million followers, that’s concerning. If they have 5, don’t sweat it.
4. Bad reviews are their own obituary. No-one is going to shout about them (least of all you the filmmaker… unless you’re writing an article like this…). The crucial thing is that you have enough good reviews to fill a side of A4 paper to show people when getting your next project off the ground. The industry will understand that people love, hate or feel indifference towards the same film. Even ‘Blade Runner’ got bad reviews.
5. It’s much better to make a film that polarizes opinion than a collective ‘meh’.
There is a happy ending to this story. Jamie Graham of Total Film nominated The Mirror for his Top 5 Scariest Movies at Frightfest (and Top 3 Found Footage). Luke Owen of Flickering Myth (excellent blog if you’re not aware) gave it 4/5, calling it ‘the best British horror for quite some time’. UK Horror Scene gave it 9/10, Love Horror 4/5 and it’s been at No.2 on the iTunes Horror Chart for a week. Plenty to fill a sheet of A4. Thanks for reading.
You can rent The Mirror on iTunes here: https://t.co/QqgEsLaHUA