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In Conversation with Mike Williams, Editor-in-Chief of Sight & Sound

With the highly anticipated issue dedicated to Sight & Sound’s best films of the year 2019 now on stands, new editor-in-chief Mike Williams sat down with Strand Magazine to discuss the point of compiling such a list and the role of cultural journalism on the work of artists, how it is time for the film industry to stop resisting the changes brought on by the explosion of streaming services, but to embrace it, and the future of Sight & Sound itself.

Image: Mike Williams,

What was one of the most exciting things for you about compiling it?

Well, this is the first “event” issue that I’ve done as editor of the magazine, as I’ve only been here 3 months. So anything like this, whether you’ve been there for years or if you’re new like me, it’s always really exciting to put a list together as there’s the weight of expectation that it’s going to become a big talking point outside of the office, and there’s that almost gleeful delight knowing that not everyone is going to agree with it. Lists are quite odd things in that way – why are we saying what films are better than others, what meaning can we add to the compiling of a list to make it more interesting. End of year lists really bring the year into focus – what themes have been coming up this year, what’s cinema trying to say, etc. So by choosing and ranking films, we think it’s interesting to look at why we think that, as in why we connected with it. Is there a disparity between what the public thinks and what the critics think?

Although having said that, I do really like when people start arguing about this ranking because they disagree with it. Nothing really excites people’s passion about their subject like the idea that someone would rank it and it’s not you that gets the opportunity to do it. And it becomes fun when we people who disagree with what I say and think I’m wrong tell me what they think is right, as then it becomes an exciting conversation.

While “The Souvenir” isn’t a controversial choice in the sense that we haven’t stirred things up in anyway by selecting it as number one, it’s more of a surprising choice. As this list is compiled through a polling process and with so many people voting for that film, it feels like you’re getting a real sense of “taking the temperature” sort of moment.

So what is it about “The Souvenir” that you think made its way to the top?

It’s a very personal film about an aspiring filmmaker, so that sense of creativity I think resonated with film critics. The narrative is told in such a compelling way that it does a great job of showcasing the two incredible talents that are Tom Burke and Honor Swinton Byrne.

As for the top 3 films of the list, “The Souvenir”, “The Irishman” and “PARASITE”, do you think there is anything that binds them together in themes, style or cultural points of view? Or how different they are?

Stylistically they are incredibly different, but thematically, they are all about the different sides of the same coin, all evoking characters that do not want to be defined by their past or background.

But looking at the wider list, you start seeing there are a lot of heavily politicised films, personal accounts and analysis of the society we live in. Apart from a few “blockbuster” type movies, such as “The Irishman”, “Once Upon A Time… in Hollywood”, and perhaps “Uncut Gems” as the third one, being the slick, quick American movie you’d expect, the inward journey analysis has absolutely dominated the films that have made the list this year.

Many of the films on the list haven’t hit UK cinemas yet and have primarily screened at festivals. What do you think the role of film festivals does for film culture?

The industry has to keep asking itself is how do we continue to have an impact and meaning in a rapidly changing landscape. It has become incredibly easy for people to access high quality content in whatever situation they want. There’s a bit of a “raging against change” in film culture that is trying to retain the status quo instead of finding your place in it. So if you think about the whole film ecosystem, you’ve got to find your space. From a critical point of view for example, what is the role of a film publication now, or a film journalist? If it all gets skewed through the idea that we’re losing something we had and we’ve got to fight against it, then it becomes a losing battle and everything becomes really negative. Whereas if we look at it from a different perspective, for example through the success of BAIT, there’s no doubt that Mark Kermode backing it had a massive positive impact on it. It’s a niche story, from a niche community, shot in an unconventional way that would ordinarily be thought to only exist in a really small art-house environment, and it ended up being a huge success.

I worked in music for years, and at the point I started working in music journalism, the music industry was in a similar position the film one is in now. The record labels were really resistant to the digital changes that had already happened and consumers had already moved to this place and yet the labels were still focussing all their energies on trying to sell CDs in TESCO. Now, the music industry is thriving because they’re realised that the middle is a place that no one really wants to be, and on one end there’s a load of either free or very cheap content that everybody can consume, and at the other end, there are really expensive heavyweight vinyls that the superfunds want to buy. The middle between those two extremities doesn’t exist anymore, and the film industry’s equivalent is upon us. If you can understand what your identity and purpose is, then you can be on this specialist end and deliver high value criticism or art, you can find ways to appeal to enough people who can feed that ecosystem.

Is that how you see the future of the magazine?

Yes, in many ways. I want to really stamp my own visions onto Sight & Sound, but I need to do that really respectfully to ninety years worth of history. I wasn’t attracted to coming here to completely change it. I was attracted to coming here because it’s a publication that I fell in love with when I was a teenager, and therefore it means something. But, the way it connects with the world has totally changed, and it might sound like a dirty word but magazines need to think of themselves as brands now, and the print side almost becomes the smallest part of your output, but remains the most influential. You hit scale by making sure you’re creating quality output across all channels that are easy to access, either freely or cheaply. That’s how you set the beat of your identity as a brand; your identity is in your print. But you need to balance that with accessibility, making sure that people can reach your work however they wish to.

Netflix have used festivals to elevate their original content – do you think that’s an attempt to win over the aforementioned resistance?

What I’m going to say is very much my own personal view and there are lots of different ones within the BFI and the wider film world. But I feel like the resistance within festivals to screen Netflix films for example is part of what I was saying earlier, “raging against reality”. You’re not going to save the cinema you love by trying to turn back to clock to a time before Netflix happened. There has to be a different way of thinking about it. So, to me, the interesting thing about Netflix backing original films isn’t with films like The Irishman, to them that’s a complete no-brainer, there aren’t many directors that are bigger than Martin Scorsese.

Them backing things like “Atlantics”, “Marriage Story” or “I Lost My Body”, to me, that tells a much more interesting story, one that shows Netflix is becoming a home for things like that. They’ve recently taken on the lease of The Paris Theater in New York. Are they going to stop there? Probably not. The reason they want to be part of festivals is the same reason they’ve taken on a cinema, because it legitimizes what they’re trying to do, it says “we’re part of your world, just let us in”.

With the Academy Awards coming up in February, how do you think the academy will interpret these films?

People are expecting “PARASITE” to do well at next year’s academy awards, which would be a very good move for America right now, with a film that takes an inward look at itself, a choice that would echo a sense of the current state of culture and politics. But who knows, they can be quite formulaic and not much comes out if the blue there.

As for critics’ influence on the Academy Awards, “Joker” will be an interesting one as it went through an eighteen-month hype, going into an almost unanimously positive reception at Toronto, into being almost reappraised within a week to now being criticised as irresponsible, a celebration of incel culture – I don’t know if I watched the same film as people who think it’s a celebration of incel culture – but, I feel that the critics’ story about Joker will work against it at the Academy Awards because it feels as if it’s already had its moment, and its big moment isn’t going to come back now. And I’m not saying it should win an Oscar for anything, but I’m suggesting that as it was a huge commercial success, initially a huge critical success, there’s no doubt whatsoever that Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is amazing. If anything, I think he will get his moment, but the film won’t. It’s not at the right place on the arc now. These things are incredibly powerful in that way, because a film’s release is a part of a story – I don’t want to get too existential here – but as a critic, it is your job to build the narrative around someone else’s creation of a story.

There was an article in The Independent last week about our list, and the disparity between critical opinion and public opinion. Overall it was a good piece, but a lot of what was said was kind of obvious. Headlining the fact that this hasn’t done well at the box office but critics love it – it hasn’t exactly had the exposure that a film that did well at the box office did. So what I hope with The Souvenir being at the top of our list is that people who haven’t seen it will feel compelled to watch it. Journalists, and especially culture journalists, wherever they’re at, they get pet projects, wanting to write about certain musicians, directors, authors, or whoever it might be, and when people have some kind of platform to have that opinion, it can be really influential. Getting the backing of a certain publication or journalist can really help your message get across (“Bait” being a great example).

And a last question for the road, how have you been finding working here so far?

It’s been great; I’m really excited about it. On a human level, everyone is really nice, which is always a good thing [laughter]. I’m really excited by the challenge of it all. Working in the office, getting to know the team and what excites them to talk and write about. I get really inspired by their passion and deep knowledge of cinema.

To go into somewhere and need to rebuild its reputation is a really difficult thing to do, and that doesn’t need doing here. While I feel there’s a lot of work to be done in order to make the Sight & Sound of 2020 as relevant and connected to the real world as possible. From increasing accessibility to who gets to tell these stories, how can we make sure we have a much wider base of writers – how can we make the magazine more connected with the real world in that sense. I think we can make a better magazine, a much more compelling digital platform. But of course, the reputation of the magazine is intact, which is amazing. It’s got 90 years worth of credibility, authority, and an international reputation that’s second to none. Big and emerging directors alike respect the publication and want to be on our radar, and in that sense, it really matters. While it’s going to be a difficult job to do all the work I want to do next year around giving it a bit of a spruce up, it’s all done on a platform where people want it to succeed, and that’s such an amazing privilege to be the person who gets to come and do that.


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