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How I Became An Independent Film Reviewer

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So… the whole world was gripped by the pandemic and, due to medical reasons, I’m identified as “someone thought to be clinically extremely vulnerable and at highest risk of becoming very unwell if you catch COVID-19,” and, as a result, I was, essentially, housebound.

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I’d gone from going out every day of the week, half of those times being to go to the cinema, to not going past the end of my drive. Fortunately, I’m quite happy with my own company (my wife works in an essential service so she still had to go to work) and I never manage to get bored. Emails were bouncing across the Atlantic between RunPee and me, but, being realistic, it was mostly just to chat, rather than the usual reviews and articles about the latest releases.

Then, in the middle of August one came from Jilly (RunPee COO and co-founder):

Hi crew,

This movie screener looks too intense for me. Let me know if you want to review it.

Again, we are not obligated to make a huge deal out of the review for Indies. A paragraph or whatever you write is sufficient. Some of these indies are decent, but we can be completely honest in the review if they suck.

Tell me if you want the link!

Jilly

The film was called Watch List and was described as a “powerful, timely thriller from Dark Star Pictures and Uncork’d Entertainment” so I wrote back and said “I’d watch that”…and so began my introduction to the world of independent films.

Now, anyone who’s read my reviews has probably guessed that I’m no professional reviewer. I don’t have any qualifications in Film Studies, Photography, or Visual Communication. My degrees are in Design Education, Applied Maths, and Computer Science… absolutely no use whatsoever!

All I have going for me is the ability to string a few words together, enough ego to allow them to be published, and over fifty-five years of cinema-going.

And This Is How It Begins

I’d started writing articles for RunPee, other than reviews for mainstream new releases, back in February when I’d written an article saying why I thought Truly Madly Deeply was a better Valentine’s Day film than Ghost. There then followed the slowing down of the world in general and cinema in particular and I scribbled down some notes on topics as diverse as my first trip to the cinema, how I came to love Guardians Of The Galaxy, and what on Earth the Carry On franchise was all about and why it was so important to the British.  Then a few things popped up on the IMDb news which inspired me to hit the keyboard… Patrick Stewart’s 80th birthday, a rumoured remake of Starship Troopers, and the death of Ian Holm.

Then I was asked by Jill to do a few other articles and followed up with a few reviews of films that got their release via direct streaming mainly thanks to Netflix, Prime Video, Apple TV+, and Disney+…  at least on this side of the Atlantic. No HBO Max, Sling, Fubo, or Crackle for me! And then it all looked like it was getting back to normal. Tenet hit the screens and I managed to get tickets for an advance screening of Ammonite. Those were the jewels of a very tawdry crown and very soon the pickings became very slim indeed right up until the cinemas closed altogether. And then the email from Jilly arrived and I had a new reason to get up in the morning. I won’t go as far as to say that I got dressed as I lived in pyjamas for the best part of six months… full disclosure, I have lots of pairs of pyjamas so I wasn’t as fœtid as it may at first seem.

And So It Goes

Since then I have watched and reviewed somewhere in the region of a hundred independent films including shorts and documentaries. I’ve actually watched many more than that but, despite the original email saying “we can be completely honest in the review if they suck,” I was always loath to be too vicious.

After all, while there may be spoof films, nobody goes out of their way to deliberately make a bad film, especially when you consider that even the cheapest of films costs thousands of dollars/pounds/euro/whatever your local currency is to make.

Even the biggest names had to start on small budgets; David Lynch made Eraserhead for $10,000, Robert Rodriguez spent $7,000 on El Mariachi, Clerks cost Kevin Smith $27,575, Following cost Christopher Nolan £3,000. Peter Jackson had about NZ$45,000 to make Bad Taste. Each of those efforts is still worth a look and, at the time would have been classed as micro-budget independent films.

So What Is An Independent Film?

Quite simply, it is one produced outside of the major film studio system. The majors that spring to mind at the moment are Disney, Sony, Warner Media, Viacom CBS, and NBC Universal.

The ones that I tend to watch nowadays start with names like  Wild Eye, Devilworks, Gravitas, and the aforementioned Dark Star and Uncork’d. Usually, they tend to be written, produced, made by, and feature people you’ve never heard of. That in and of itself is no guarantee of quality or lack thereof. Think about it… everybody needs to start somewhere.

Take a look at the IMDb page of almost anyone and have a look at their earliest entries. The vast majority will have the earliest days of their professions working on either things you’ve never heard of or very minor roles in better-known projects.

Do You Know Where You’re Going To?

Most of the people you’ll see listed during the credits of an Independent film will never be opening films over a bank holiday weekend but some of them just might! Having said that though, there are the occasional films which will feature a cameo, occasionally a larger part, by someone that you recognise and there are many reasons for this. I’ve seen former pop singers and stand up comedians who are trying to branch out, people whose star is on the wane and are desperate for any exposure, and, probably the most heartwarming, stars who are keen to give something back and help out the people who are just starting up the slippery slope. And, in that vein, I’ve had the opportunity to interview some talented and interesting people who, I’m sure, I’ll be annoying my grandchildren in years to come by saying… “That one there! I’ve interviewed them!”

And the main reason why I enjoy watching and reviewing independent films is quite simple. Unlike a box of chocolates, when you know exactly what you’re going to get because there’s a little map inside, you really don’t know what you’re going to get when it comes to independent films. When you toddle down to the local fleapit you usually know what you’re in for. There will have been trailers for anything up to a year in advance; the average is a hundred and twenty-six days or about four months. There will have been a few teaser trailers followed by, maybe, two or three versions of the longer version. You’ll have seen previous efforts by the stars, writers, and directors and be aware of their style. With an indie, you never know what’s coming up. They range from “instant entry to your all-time favourites list” to “having to resist the temptation to clean your eyes and mind with bleach and fire”.

The fun comes from sitting back and seeing what you’ve got.

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Don’t miss your favorite movie moments because you have to pee or need a snack. Use the RunPee app (Androidor iPhone) when you go to the movies. We have Peetimes for all wide release films every week, including Eternals, Dune, Ghostbusters: Afterlife, and coming soon Spiderman: No Way Home. We have literally thousands of Peetimes—from classic movies through today's blockbusters. You can also keep up with movie news and reviews on our blog, or by following us on Twitter @RunPee. If there's a new film out there, we've got your bladder covered.
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  • Dan Gardner Administrator

    This is really wonderful Rob. I’m so grateful for all your contributions to RunPee. You’re writing skills are much better than you give yourself credit for. It really shows that you enjoy what you write.

    I agree with you about giving films bad marks. It used to be difficult for me. And I think I’d still have a hard time trashing an indie movie for the very reason that this is a group of people really giving it their all. There’s no shame in coming up short.

    For me the hardest reviews to write are those C+ or B- movies. You know the ones. They were okay, but didn’t stand out. What is there to say?

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