The problems with being a red carpet reporter

Is it all glitz and glamour on the red carpet? According to one veteran reporter, the reality is a bit more mundane...

Last week, Buzzfeed published a report from the BAFTA red carpet, where they posed to male attendees “the same sort of banal fashion questions that female stars often get asked.” As an exercise in hitting the mark it was flawless, with the video receiving nearly half a million Facebook likes, and being picked up by a slew of other outlets. But in terms of addressing the very serious problem of sexism in media and the film industry, it was, to be honest, less successful.

I’ve been reporting on red carpets for the last six years, primarily for the website HeyUGuys, but also as a freelancer for a variety of major publications and content syndicators. In that time, I’ve seen first-hand the bizarre and ridiculous nature of these events, as well as the incredibly inane questions asked of both male and female attendees. At the same time, I’ve endeavoured to ask all attendees, regardless of gender, sensible questions that actually relate to the film they’ve made.

This hasn’t always been easy. Promotional interviews are by their very nature strange and awkward interactions, with the subject contractually obliged to discuss a project that, more often than not, they finished working on months, if not years, beforehand. Red carpets only magnify the discomfort by turning the whole process into a contrived conveyor belt, with the background noise of screaming fans, and more often than not, the shittest weather Britain has to offer.

Here’s an example of one of mine.

Indeed, for all the artificial ‘glamour’ we sell to the public, the reality of a red carpet is at once more mundane, and more ridiculous, than the public are led to believe. The perception of red carpets – at least the perception I had before I started covering them – is of a scrum of journalists screaming to the talent, desperately trying to call them over for an interview. While this is true for autograph hunters, the reality for press is entirely different: the red carpet is an intensely stage-managed affair, where the press outlets are arranged in a long line, in order of perceived importance. Attendees walk from one end to the other, staging fresh and ‘spontaneous’ interviews every few yards.

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At the top end of the press line, the first to talk to the talent are national and international broadcast outlets like the BBC and ITV. Further down the line are syndicators like Reuters, the Associated Press, and Getty Images, followed by crews from major newspapers. Interspersed amongst these are “print clusters,” groups of journalists with dictaphones hoping to grab a quick quote to go in the next day’s paper, or the next week’s magazine. At the tail end of the line are crews from movie websites, and beyond them, the no man’s land known as “the blogger pen.”

As an accredited reporter for a chosen outlet, you are expected to turn up about an hour before the talent arrives. Thirty minutes later, the line is ‘locked down’ – no one in or out – then, eventually, the arrivals begin. In theory this happens about 90 minutes before the screening, although in reality a combination of London traffic and human nature means that everything usually starts late. When the talent finally arrive, they tend to do so in order of importance, with less well-known cast and crew turning up first, and the stars of the show often not arriving until the very last minute.

And, of course, even when they do arrive, their focus isn’t entirely on the press line. Initially attendees will be taken to the photographers, and then to the stage to perform a live interview for the benefit of the crowd. Once this is done, they’ll sign autographs, before spending their remaining time (anywhere from 20 to 60 minutes) with the press.

The upshot of all this is that while big-player outlets at the top end of the carpet might get four or five minute interviews, the majority of journalists are lucky if they get a question each. Indeed, by the end of the line, reporters are often grouped together, trying to find a question or two that can play as well on a specialist film website as it does in a women’s weekly, or on a breakfast radio show.

Compounding the problem even further, it’s often not clear who is going to be in attendance until the event begins. This is particularly true of awards shows, but is even the case with film premieres. As a result, it’s difficult to prepare any meaningful questions before the event. Even more frustrating is that, at some premieres, press haven’t been admitted to screenings before the event and are thus unlikely even to have seen the film. When faced with such odds, it is hardly surprising that the majority of journalists resort to asking banal, generic questions.

These questions usually follow a similar line: “tell us about the film”, “what was it like working with x?”, “was it fun to shoot such-and-such a scene?” or the perennial classic “did you do your own stunts?” Believe it or not, I’ve been on press lines where nearly every single interviewer asks a variation of these same questions. The belief amongst a great many editors and producers is that this is all the public at large are really interested in, and so reporters stick to the same set of questions no matter what event they’re covering, or who they’re interviewing.

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When it comes to the specific issue of red carpet fashion, on British red carpets, at least, most of the questions come from print journalists for the tabloid press or for women’s weekly/monthly magazines. As such, it doesn’t matter particularly whether the answer comes from the talent or from a publicist, and many publicists now walk ahead down the press line letting reporters know who made their client’s outfit. And while personally, I find the question of clothing particularly dull, it does serve a purpose. At most film premieres and awards shows, prominent actors and other ‘celebs’ wear outfits loaned to them by designers expressly to generate publicity. It’s expected that the star will talk about the outfit in exchange for the loan, and it’s not uncommon for them to bring it up, even if they’re not asked.

As a side note, while it’s not quite as frequent an occurrence, it’s not actually all that uncommon for men to be asked about their outfits. The reason Buzzfeed’s reporter got such strange looks was because she asked “what are you wearing?” while the standard format for the question is the somewhat nonsensical, “who are you wearing?”

In fact, while I’m on the subject of the aforementioned Buzzfeed video, it’s worth pointing out that in the UK, at least, it’s often the same twenty to thirty reporters who cover these events week in, week out. As such, they tend to avoid the most probing and impertinent questions, because otherwise they’d end up banned from attending premieres. Even when they do ask a more personal question, most reporters will couch it in a way that it relates to the movie, or the industry at large, for instance asking how Angelina Jolie managed to find time for her family while working long hours on Unbroken.

The majority of the more blunt and personal questions aren’t asked of film talent, but are restricted to the reality TV stars and other z-listers, who are only too happy to bare their personal lives to gossip rags. In an ideal world, film premieres would be above this sort of thing, but with limited access to film talent, many outlets rely on these interviews to justify their attendance at the event.

Of course, while this is a general rule, it’s not hard and fast. On bigger red carpets, for world premieres and award ceremonies, the number of media outlets multiplies threefold. Reporters fly in from around the world, and companies who usually wouldn’t bother covering a minor film premiere, send crews down. These outlets tend to focus on what might be termed, “a general audience” and steer toward the banal, personal and fashion-centric questions in the belief that it’s what their audiences want.

It’s also these large-scale events where many UK-based outlets – often the ones most likely to ask pertinent questions about films – miss out on accreditation. There are limited spaces, and publicists need to be certain of coverage. Ultimately, whether right or wrong, they generally value international broadcast outlets over British print and online ones, even household names, so these outlets get the boot in favour of TV crews.

And this is the crux of the issue. I would love to live in a world where the questions asked on red carpets are thoughtful, intelligent, and focused on making movies. I’m sure the majority of actors, directors, screenwriters, producers and even publicists would agree, but for that to happen broadcasters and publishers need to see the value in asking intelligent questions over the current way of doing business. And publicists need to see the value in accrediting outlets who ask interesting questions over those that ask the same banal bullshit.

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Thanks to Amy Poehler and the #AskHerMore campaign, as well as the likes of Upworthy and Buzzfeed, the spotlight has been turned on the ridiculous and sexist nature of red carpet coverage. But the only way we’ll change this forever is by proving there’s an audience out there that want reporters to ask sensible questions. Indeed, we need to prove that audience is as big, if not bigger, than the fashion fans, and outfit-shamers.

So the next time you see a red carpet interview, and the reporter asks an interesting question, share it. Tweet, Facebook, Tumblr and e-mail the living shit out of it. Believe me when I say that every single hit helps. And if you really want to make a difference, the next time you see a link for a gallery of pretty dresses, or even worse, some snark-piece about horrible outfits, don’t click it. Ignore it. And maybe, eventually, if we’re very lucky, it might just wither away and die.

Ben Mortimer is a freelance film reporter. You can find him on Twitter, here.