The highs and lows of starting out as a young, unpaid freelance journalist in the world of film writing.
Natasha Jagger (@tashajagger_)
Just last year, I graduated with a first in journalism with a freelance writing career on the horizon. Now? Well, I’m not sure it’s a career that can create a sustainable and liveable income. My university journey wasn’t exactly plain sailing or one that was awash with a ton of alcohol. It was one filled with a number of emotional breakdowns mid-assignment and occasionally rubbing shoulders with a few of Hollywood’s finest. Total opposites I know, it was a chapter of my life that was exciting and opened many doors for me in the film writing sphere. The only issue was that it burned a huge hole in my back pocket. I was being unpaid – unfortunately that’s the sad truth that a lot of freelance journalists can relate to.
My freelance career started in 2016 as I began my second year at university. I was writing for an entertainment website, and my role was to use my writing as a way of connecting fans to upcoming films. I was happy that I had found my niche writing genre. It was under my nose the entire time. Even when I was a small Yorkshire lass, I was a total geek for films, a youngster interested in award nominated dramas.
I went from writing news stories to getting my seat confirmed for my first press screening in London. It was for Alien: Covenant. It was a huge step because I was building relationships with professionals. I had no guidance. I was simply winging it. It worked because from there I got my first red carpet gig. I was in the media line for the Transformers: The Last Knight premiere in 2017. It was a hot day and I sweated 95% of my make-up off. I gulped down lots of water before realising there were no bathrooms around. But none of that mattered because I got my first ever interview quote from Mark Wahlberg.
It was one of the greatest pleasures being given the opportunity to do that premiere. I was a 20-year-old student with arguably no experience in reporting. I learned a lot, both professionally (interaction with other journalists helps) and about myself. If I could do that, any aspiring journalist can too with perseverance and constant nagging. I thank my student loan and my part-time job for funding the trip because I wasn’t getting paid. I’m proud of every bit of press work I’ve done, paid or not. It’s a difficult industry. Press gigs are 98% of the time in London, so it’s hard for those who live outside the capital to get to them. Trains are overpriced and hotels equally as costly, unless you can couch surf with someone you know. I didn’t have opinions on it back then. I continued to do countless overtime at work whilst juggling going into my final year to carry on doing reporting gigs. I loved it, and I still do.
A few months later, and I headed down to London Film Festival with a press pass. I met Cate Blanchett following a screening and a talk on her film Manifesto, which made my entire existence. But the real reward came when I covered the premiere of the closing gala film – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Even with protests affecting the evening, I still managed to have a good talk with the film’s director, Martin McDonagh. The film went on to win numerous awards, including Frances McDormand winning Best Actress at last year’s Oscars. It was a proud moment of confidence for myself, and it was only afterwards that I felt slightly deflated. I wasn’t down about my interview piece, or the fact I spent hours having to edit filmed footage because I bloody smashed it, and I liked being in control of creating multimedia for my work. It was more that my friends and tutors were telling me I should have been paid, or had my transport reimbursed, for such a high-profile and successful gig.
That’s when I found that unpaid writing can affect your state of mind. My lecturers could see that despite the cost struggle I thrived in film reporting, and from that I was a nominee for Student of the Year at the PPA Under 30s Awards last year. The recognition of hard work is uplifting for anyone, but I began to feel like I just couldn’t hack it anymore, mainly because I didn’t think I could afford it.
I began to write less freelance-wise, but doing a journalism degree I was never not writing. My last deadlines approached and I felt like I was going through a break-up, even though that aspect of my personal life is the happiest part of this. I was beginning to fall out of love with writing. I felt somewhat unfulfilled. And this wasn’t primarily because I wasn’t gaining a profit from my writing, but more that I felt like I wasn’t that good a writer.
I took around a six-month break. I finished university, continued to spend time with my boyfriend and did a paid internship in film PR. I wanted to write but it was all blocked inside my head. I had lost total confidence. I had the passion and the drive; it was my mental health that denied me the ability to believe what I was capable of. A part of me blames the timing of me starting to freelance, only because no one prepares you for post-university times and figuring out the crucial parts of what you want in life. I don’t regret it because even though unpaid journalism is common and incredibly difficult, the paradox is that it’s rewarding seeing your work being published and read by others who share common interests as you.
I did events that made me come out of my shell, and that’s an important experience for anyone wanting to get into film journalism. It should still be paid, though. If you’re a new writer, don’t think it’s impossible to be commissioned or recognised. Some days you may feel like you’re being taken advantage of, true. Keep hold of the fact that you’re doing something you love, and sharing that with readers is in itself confirming that you’re good at what you do. I got my first paid gig this year. You can too. You’ve got this.
Get a railcard: This will be your friend. Gigs are often last minute and trains are expensive. Having one of these on hand helps a lot.
Create a portfolio: You may not be getting paid for your work, but you can use it as a portfolio. I used mine for my final year university project. You own your words unless you’re being commissioned.
Use your contacts: This is key. This is an industry where it is about who you know. Whether it’s your lecturers, friends in the industry or even PRs.
Go out and explore your passions: Even if it’s a weekly cinema trip, or a trip to a vinyl shop to get the newest record. Exploring difference aspects of your passions helps to generate fresh content and ideas.
Keep going: Because you can get that foot through the door; it just takes time.