“How Can I Get Screeners?”

“How can I get screeners?”

I get asked that question a lot. And given that in the great chain of important film critics descending from Ebert on high, I rank pretty low, I can only imagine how frequently other critics get hit up for tips about how to get free movies. Either that or furtive requests that maybe, you know, when you’re  done with it….?

Consider this then a Public Service Announcement. I won’t say it’s on behalf of movie critics everywhere, because who knows, maybe the guy at your local paper will gladly hand over his complimentary copy of Pitch Perfect 2 after he’s duly considered Rebel Wilson for Best Actress in a Supporting Role. But it’s on my behalf, and I’ve been meaning to write this out for awhile so that I could just cut-and-paste-it the next time someone I don’t know sends me a friend request on Facebook followed by a “You don’t know me, but…” message.

  • First, it never hurts to define our terms. A screener is a copy of a film provided to a film journalist in hopes that he or she will review it or consider (“For Your Consideration”) voting for it for awards given by a group in which he or she is a member. Screeners are different from screenings. The latter are private, theatrical showings of a movie to which film journalists (or others) are sometimes invited. Because screenings are more common in metropolitan areas, critics outside areas where screenings are common may occasionally ask for or receive screeners outside of awards season. (I had to ask for a screener of White God because the film did not have the budget or interest to set up a theatrical screening in my market.)
  • The first step towards receiving screeners or invitations to screenings is accreditation. Most studios do not have the time or inclination to vet every single critic individually. They will hire marketing firms or publicists to arrange local screenings for critics or vet requests for screeners. These companies usually have criteria for whether or not to accredit a journalist (or an association), though they may vary by region. Accreditation can be (usually is) affected by one’s outlet–where one’s reviews or essays appear. Do you write for a magazine, a local newspaper, or your own blog? You should be able to provide circulation numbers (or analytics for Internet publications). How many people read your reviews? How frequently do you publish? (Do you write one 400 word  review a month for a local newspaper or several reviews per week for your own blog?) Most accredited journalists can tell you where to apply if you think you might qualify, but they don’t make the decision, so it’s pointless to ask if he/she can get you on “the list.”
  • Accredited or not, far and away the most common way to receive a screener is to ask for it. Many critics long for the days, if they ever existed, where a critic could show up at his newspaper, where he had a full-time job, and leaf through the weekly releases that were sent over without asking. Those days are gone, if they ever existed. And if you are asking me for advice, you don’t work at an outlet (or have a blog) that warrants unsolicited screeners. (I have received and do receive a handful of unsolicited screeners, but they are usually from publicists or even directors of small films who are having trouble getting their film noticed.) Asking admittedly requires the critic to do some actual work: visiting the film’s official web site, checking IMDB for the distributor, networking publicists. In order to ask, you have to know who to ask. This is probably a place senior critics or mentors can help. But be judicious in asking for help. An occasional, “Do you know who the publicist is for [indie documentary]?” is less irritating than, “Who can I ask for [a free copy of the movie that is out theatrically but that I don’t want to pay for]?”
  • How often do publicists provide screeners when you ask? Again, it depends. How big is the movie? How big is your outlet? When approaching a publicist, be professional. Introduce yourself, state your request, and explain what coverage you are planning. Affirm that you understand and take seriously the need to keep screeners secure. If you ask for a screener for review…review the movie! Once you have reviewed the film, send a link (if you are an online critic) back to the publicist. (Even if the review is negative, it saves the publicist time he or she would have to spend constantly checking your site to see if the review is posted yet.) When requesting a screener, ask if there is an embargo on reviews and abide by it if there is one.
  • “For Your Consideration” screeners are a little different. They are sent to certified members of organizations that have been vetted by the publicists. So, the most obvious way of receiving FYC screeners is joining a critics’ group or association that receives them. These groups usually have membership criteria that is stated on their organizational web site. Read them carefully and figure out if you qualify. If you don’t, make it a goal to work on qualifying. (Do you need a bigger outlet? Do you need to post reviews more frequently?)
  • Film festivals can be helpful places to build your contact lists. Smaller, regional festivals sometimes have laxer accreditation standards than do companies that screen studio releases. If you have a film festival nearby, check on its web site for instructions on how to apply for press credentials.
  • Publicists for smaller films will sometimes look for critics who are eligible to post reviews at Rotten Tomatoes, Metacritic, or IndieWire. These sites have stated criteria for how to be eligible to participate. Rather than asking another critic how to get on one of these sites, visit the site and read their instructions. (That’s what I did.)
  • Finally, please don’t ask me if you can borrow my screener. Look, I like you (if I know you), or I am sure you are a nice person (if I don’t know you.) But lending a screener is a little like lending the company car or credit card to someone who doesn’t work for your company. It won’t necessarily get you fired, but it could depending on what the person does with it. Most screeners are encoded against piracy, so  if the film is ripped and shows up in Pirate’s Cove or something, the studio can trace it back to who had it last. (I have my doubts if this is the case with some films that are already commercially available for purchase, but then again, why do you want/need my Woman in Gold screener when you can rent it at Redbox for $1.50?)
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