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Can the Q&A be saved?
Some notes towards sparing us all.
It’s been a while for this publication, troublingly close to a year, in fact. Partly that’s about time available to me. When I started writing this in earnest, I was furloughed and full of thought about what cinema could be while it was on a mandated pause. I’ve started taking some time away from my main gig – subtext: you can hire me to do cinema things with you on a freelance basis! – but I’m also going to be using the time to pick up on the Making A Modern Cinema series I trailed many moons ago. For now, this is a little amuse-bouche – if something so long can remain amusing – while I’m doing interviews to make that series work. If you have some perspective on what it takes to make a cinema work these days from any angle, drop me a line.
Now that cinemas are able to gather enough people together in a room to make both the economics and the experience of it worthwhile, it feels time enough to put down some thoughts on the Q&A, in hopes that it can be saved. Because the gap between what it could be – lively, enlightening, the best of personal conversation yet directed into specific, revealing places – and what it is – stilted, deadening, somehow both overextended and glancing – has become no less glaring in the time we haven’t been able to meet each other. But Q&As make a major contribution not just to the bottom line, but also help launch films with audiences, by uniting the devoted and deepening their experience. So, they play an important role: how can they be better?
Not unusually, the problems of the Q&A can be solved with an application of money (spent in its rightful place i.e. as a route to grace otherwise denied us by capitalism) and a little bit of strategy. I am talking about the following largely from an audience perspective. I have hosted several Q&As – and would like to host more, email me! – but I have attended far, far more, and enjoyed only a quantum of those. I know that practicalities stand in the way of making any of the suggestions below a reality. For Q&AS that are easy sells with audiences, there’s dealing with ‘the talent’ that is the draw; for harder sells, there’s the constant anxiety about whether the numbers on stage will be greater than those in the audience. These take up time, drain the opportunity for reimagination. But hopefully the below gives some thoughts in your path about ways they could be better.
There’s two utopian ideas that outstrip anything in importance to what I’ve written below. The first is that the work of moderation should be well paid. I more than understand why the cost of a moderator is a bridge too far for venues: after getting the guest there, their bar tab, the uncertainty of tickets selling… paying someone decently to ask the questions then takes ‘marginal proposition’ to ‘impossible to break even’. A good friend of mine who is one of the few people I would trust to do a Q&A will regularly re-read all of the interviewee’s books in preparation for the interview. How can the money paid for interviewing ever reflect that? I’d make a suggestion for a brave cultural institution: pay someone to be critic-in-residence. An enthusiast in chief, their job is to step aside from ‘marketing’ and advocate for more interesting conversations around films, as well as writing and reflecting on those films and those conversations. They provide some wraparound and recognition with audiences. They build up a sense of the venue and become skilled at giving Q&As.
Having someone with that level of consistency stands a good chance of landing on the other utopian thought: what if Q&As were part of a genuine enquiry? Too often, it’s a threadbare endeavour, where it’s all too transparent how the conversation is just another stop on an endless round of being asked the same six questions in different locations. What if the conversations were the point itself, and not the afterthought? Without sounding too moon-eyed, something a little bit searching, a turning over of an idea. Film seasons organised by a desire to get at a certain series of questions about filmmaking or life itself, and to draw in the best people to talk about those subjects rather than who is proffered your way by a distributor.
Right, let’s get into it…
The questions and the moderator
If I can generalise, people who work in film exhibition tend towards the introspective and introverted. The types of people drawn at a young age to sitting in darkness, in silent reflection while emotions overtake us, tend not to be the ones to whom public speaking is a first choice as vocation. Yet these are the people who are called upon to deliver Q&As. It’s hard to unshackle the necessary panoramic knowledge of film with introversion, so perhaps it’s best that we give programmers the chance to train themselves. This programme from Voices in Contemporary Art does just that. More of that!
One mitigation taken by your average cinema employee against the anxiety of appearing in public is to densely study the area of the interviewee, rewatching films, reading about the national cinema they emerged from, marshaling trivia as a shield against being exposed as ignorant in front of an audience. Yet as writer/wonderhuman So Mayer put it to me, “What I’ve learned over the years (painfully, in that it’s the opposite of everything Film Studies presupposes and I’ve had to unlearn) is that filmmakers are incredibly practical hands-on people and taking craft seriously is the way to get the memories and ideas to open up.” In other words, preparation and intellectualisation is neither protection for you, nor a tool to open up a filmmaker. The bind of being a moderator is that you must be the avatar of the average audience member – who has almost certainly not put themselves through a cramming session on contemporary Latin American cinema in the run up to the series – while also being able to wander thoughtfully and attentively into any area the interview subject should wish to venture. What the moderator can do with this Gordian knot is stick to very simple, practical questions about how the film was made. This is, after all, how filmmakers have to deal with the end product. Not in the world of theory – though it may have begun with these thoughts – but in the realities of making it happen in practical terms. Films, unlike novels, are made in hundreds of different ways, and so asking simple questions about how it was delivered are enlightening and show a lot more about the conceptual underpinning than a thousand densely packed theoretical questions that can almost only be answered with a single word. Here are five that are almost infinitely applicable to fiction films but can spin off into a thousand different directions:
What was the starting point for this film?
Did the script change much from original conception to what we’ve just watched?
How did you arrive at the decision to work with [actor’s name]?
What was the editing process like for the film?
How have audiences reacted to it so far?
How to stop this mode of questioning turning into a kind of conveyor belt junket interview comes with follow-up questions. This is the aspect that requires most mettle on the part of the moderator, an ability to step away from the fixed rails of the carefully prepared questions and to venture into the terrifying world of an actual dialogue. This is what audiences crave, to be listening in on what feels like a genuine (if elevated) discussion that we know from our lives. It is not easy to do: the moderator is not engaged in a normal conversation after all. They are watching the time (while also giving no signal to the interlocutor that they are); they are watching the audience; they are pushing away any bruising moments with the guest that have come up prior to standing on stage; they are pushing away the realities of how they might be feeling that day to put their best foot forward; and they are managing their own self-image in front of an audience who is entirety disinterested in their presence. What’s required of them with all this on their backs is also deep listening beyond even what good conversation requires of us. However, if the interviewee feels that they are being subjected to a battery of discrete questions to be passed through in succession – a Voight-Kampff test that establishes their veracity as a director – soon enough they begin to answer as though at an interrogation. Short, unembellished answers, keen to move to the next and get it done with. But if we engage with what has just been said, drawing out what the moderator themselves finds interesting, and the interviewee will understand they are being engaged with and respond more open-heartedly.
One thing I have no certainty about how to cultivate but a sincere thirst for is the kind of conversation that you know that the interviewer and interviewee were getting into just before they stepped on stage or just after being on it. Not something incestuous or unconscious of people listening in, but one that takes risks. This requires generosity on the audience’s part too. One chilling effect on a Q&A is the expectation that something you say may be taken out of context and hurled into the unforgiving space of Twitter.
Who should be conducting the Q&A and what about?
One fatal error is assuming that film people are the best to speak about films. Even ignoring the reservations above, it’s a missed opportunity to situate your event and draw out a new group of people if we limit ourselves to ‘film people’ to conduct interviews and be their subjects. ‘Film people’ already know about your event. They’re subscribed to your newsletter, they get your brochure. If a debut filmmaker is interviewed by a stand up comedian, a musician, an activist, a politician, a writer… in fact, almost anyone except a film person or a generic ‘media personality’, then a new category of people are engaged and given a hint about what the content of the film might be. As long as they sincerely engage with the process – and I admit that you’re multiplying the possibility that neither party will have done the prep or be truly engaged in the experience at hand – they may well ask questions and get to a place someone steeped in film might never be able to.
Interrelated: why are Q&As never specifically themed? Very often, it’s hard for independent films to get ‘their point’ across to an audience. Hosting a generic Q&A (especially for a director who is not ‘a name’) is likely to bring in only the most ardent of the film’s potential audience. As much as directors can shy away from being expected to be an expert on a topic, or having their broad, ambivalent work flattened into talking points, there are many who welcome being able to get meatily into a topic that’s on their mind, perhaps with a interlocutor who is well-informed.
In some utopian version of events where budget is available, the best scenario would be to ask the interview subject who they would like to be interviewed by. At worst, this has the tendency towards the chummy and exclusionary; at best, the interviewee has the chance to ask someone they’ve wanted to speak to themselves. There may have been people who informed their thinking about the film. This is their chance to have that conversation.
Staging and practical questions
A cluster of issues around the Q&A are easily laid at the feet of the realities of fitting in two evening shows in cinema screens. Either cinemas miss out on that crucial second (or first) evening show, or they host a scant Q&A, or they settle the event in a slot that requires all attendees to forego the actualities of living in a human body (eating, moving around, sleeping, visiting the toilet). Are there other models to adopt?
Allow people to leave and come back between the film and the Q&A: Give people the chance to walk around, use the loo or most crucially: leave without insulting the people on stage. Of course, a smaller number of people will remain in their seats after reconvening. Despite having paid a premium for it, many people do not want the extra dish of the Q&A when it arrives at the table. Let them go, and have a more valuable discussion with the faithful.
Are post-film Q&As even the right thing to do? What about an entirely set aside conversation? To its credit, BFI has often separated their top-flight star interviews from a film screening. But what about if a set aside Q&A happened at the end of a film’s run rather than its launch? OK, you miss out on a focused moment of word of mouth building at the beginning of a film’s run, but what if every ticket sold during the run entitled you to come to the Q&A for free. Like a book group, people would push to finish the assignment before the gathering.
Not every film is appropriate for a post-event Q&A anyway. I remember very clearly seeing Harry Wootliff’s teary romance Only You at the Barbican, followed by a Q&A about infertility. I’m sure it’s easier to sit through if you’ve seen the film before, but in all honesty, the film had done its job successfully enough that the last thing I wanted to do was to sit through a Q&A about such a sensitive topic (though I’m sure it was enlightening for others).
‘Just a few minutes for questions from the audience…’
The audience portion of the evening is often the worst or the best part, and that’s usually a reflection of how well or how badly the rest of the conversation has been going. An earnest question: do people come to Q&As specifically to put a question to the great and good? I can only judge personally, but I’ve never turned up at a Q&A thinking, ‘I want to be able to speak to this person.’ Why this matter is that there’s a good argument for dispensing with in person questions, and reverting to an electronic solution. Having used Menti and Slido for Q&As (i.e. people have to submit text questions via phone to the moderator), the upsides are obvious. Having to type out a question makes you more concise; people who feel too shy to ask questions out loud, in front of their hero, will put questions to you; people ask questions that they are interested in but wouldn’t necessarily put their face to; the moderator has control over which questions get through to the interviewee. But if people are desperate to talk to their heroes, you’re losing out on a big chunk of the audience by going this route. Is it worth alienating this chunk of the faithful to build a better experience for everyone?
Although they are usually the first people to put up their hands, try not to let a man ask the first question. The first question is usually what sets the tone of the audience section, and offering the mic to the gent with a burning, profoundly niche question is the first nail in the coffin. The flurry of questions towards the end of the Q&A usually shows that once people can see how they will be responded to and the type of questions it’s acceptable to ask, more people will ask them. Women will usually ask questions if another woman asks a question; reverse that, even in audiences that are overwhelmingly made up of women, and it has a chilling effect.
What can often work well – but again, requires mettle from the moderator – is to break off relatively early for audience questions and then return to moderated discussion and reflection. This prevents audiences feeling stymied and excluded, held off until the last minute. It also keeps momentum going because avenues haven’t been exhausted by the moderator before it gets to the audience.
‘This is more of a comment than a question’ has become enough of an established punchline that it instantly inspires groans (but not enough that people don’t continue to say it!). But in all honesty, a well-framed comment that sincerely engages with the work can be more appreciated than a rambling question. Any serious artist wants response and any worthwhile comment invites dialogue, just as much as a question. On the flipside, a moderator should feel ready from the outset to shut people down who are endlessly rambling. We all have one short life to live and everyone else in the audience will thank you.
A rubric I respect (and would be willing to risk sounding like an arsehole to begin discussions with) is ‘Ask yourself before you ask your question: if I were anyone but me in this audience, would I be interested in the answer to this question?’
Has anyone made anything of live streaming Q&As? Almost no cinema (barring the Watershed) seems to have installed a permanent camera set up. Is it a doomed enterprise anyway, reducing the scarcity appeal of a Q&A while also not garnering enough online interest to justify the investment? The BFI – a national institution with videos with millions of views – has 385 Q&As on its Youtube channel and the average on these is less than 3,000 views for anything that less than stellar guests. Is this worthwhile?
I would be hugely relieved if we totally dispensed with the spectacle of trailing the director’s presence by asking them to appear before the screening. ‘I don’t want to say too much about the film before you’ve seen it…’ Well, who would? If the film requires a director’s framing prior to seeing it, it’s very likely a failed enterprise. The moderator can just as well point the attendees to the fact there will be a Q&A after the film themselves.
I’ll close with the words of Ashley Clark, who I threw this question to spontaneously in a Q&A. His insight and candour as an interviewee speaks to his talents as a moderator. He had this to say about what makes good moderation:
“Before the Q&A begins, wherever possible make sure at the bare minimum watch the film. Do a little bit of research on YouTube to understand the guest’s speech patterns. Some filmmakers react badly – and it’s just generally bad practice – to insert your own interpretation into a question. You can be a bit nervous, the lights are on you, it’s a filmmaker you admire, but if your first question is a big, long two- or three-minute long and winding road of your interpretation of the film, you’re giving the filmmaker the opportunity to give you a one-word answer. Remember that nobody is there to see you as the moderator. Moderators sometimes see it as an opportunity to hone some of their stand up comedy skills. Keep your questions short, try to give room in your questions to elaborate. Have a sense of your timing, move things along. Try to be patient but firm with audience members. Listen carefully, listen to the answers. Remember that when it comes to audience questions, you have to listen carefully so you can in a sense transcribe and slim down a question. So it’s really active work, you’re listening and processing all the time.”