Starting a Career as an Entertainment Journalist
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Career Fair Gone Wild with Fred Topel- Episode 014
High school career fairs can be a bore as you maneuver your way through the typical careers of lawyer, doctor and realtor (all awesome professions mind you, but not on everyone’s bucket list). This week, I’m doing something new with my podcast.
As a school counselor, part of your training is to help students analyze their career choices. Career coaching can be fascinating…when you have the time to spend with each individual student! The responsibilities of a school counselors often extend beyond the scope of their extensive training. This leaves them with little time to work with students one-on-one in career planning.
The thing is, most of the students I work with don’t want the typical snore and bore careers. As such, I thought it would be cool to pull in people who have unique jobs and talk about how middle school and high school influenced their lives and careers.
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The Career Path of an Entertainment Reporter
This week, I’m talking with a former classmate of mine who is now an entertainment reporter in Hollywood – Fred Topel. And although we went to elementary school and high school together, I’ve realized this might be the longest conversation we’ve ever had.
Fred: I regret that we didn’t have longer conversations, but I’m glad to reconnect here.
I’ve been an entertainment journalist for almost 20 years. People who remember me from high school say that this is perfect for me because I was always into movies, even if I didn’t quite know what I was going to do with it back then. I always pursued film. After high school, I went to film school, then started pursuing entertainment journalism, and that became my career.
Marni: It’s Fascinating that you say others who knew you then say it makes complete sense. You had your own TV show in high school. How could you not know where you were headed?
Fred: I knew I’d do something in film, and thought that meant editing. I didn’t know how journalism could be a paying job and I guess it didn’t, if you weren’t writing for a paper.
I did a TV show on public access because it was the only form you could find at the time. I often think that if it were now, you could just do content on Youtube. I also think I was always more of a writer. In the early ‘90s, there weren’t as many outlets for writers. If I were in high school now, there would be plenty of outlets where you could publish writing. That was relatively new when I got out of college n 1999. I think that had a lot to do with me focusing on journalism.
Marni: You said that for you, it was almost easier to film, edit, and somehow get permission to put a TV show on local access; that was an easier process than connecting with a local newspaper? I never in a million years would think that putting out a TV show was easier. That’s really interesting!
Fred: That was all stuff I could do without someone else’s permission, except, the theater gave me permission to shoot there. Public access was required by law for cable companies to have. As long as I wasn’t violating anything, they had to put it on.
Marni: For people listening, back in the 1990s, Fred created what you would see on Youtube now. He had to go to the TV station, fill out legal – did you have to fill out paperwork? How did you figure out how to get it on TV?
Fred: I’m sure there was minor paperwork, but I don’t remember. I knew what public access was, because the Wayne’s World skits on SNL existed. That was a spoof of public access TV. It wasn’t even in my hometown at first _ the first shows were in Fairfax, Va. I’d make weekly trips to Fairfax, and it was a summer activity. I did a show a month for a year and then wondered if I should find out if there’s public access in Annapolis.
Marni: Do you ever look back – for a 15-year-old to do all those steps and create something you were passionate about in film review – do you ever look back and say that took a certain kind of person, certain kind of kid to put all this together?
Fred: I’m proud of the ambition. It paved the way for me to do things professionally where I was looking for money for my work. I’m also more self-critical of the things I said as a teen. Sometimes I think back to some of the mean things I said about celebrities and I go “Wow. I’m glad I grew out of that. I’d never say that now.”
Marni: You’re probably also glad that the internet didn’t record every minute of it.
Fred: Fortunately, there’s no archive of it. No one I’m in business with now can see if I said something terrible about them, for which I’d absolutely apologize now.
How School Shaped the Career of this Entertainment Journalist
Marni: What were you like as a student in middle school and high school?
Fred: I knew I had to get good grades and I wanted to get good grades because I knew that would be important to getting into college and maybe getting a job. I also knew the work I was doing wasn’t anything I’d be doing later, so I saw it as a necessity and got my work done. There were classes I’d liked more than others – like I was a good math student. My favorite class ever was Music Theory with Dr. Layton. So, I guess I was a little more artistic. I was studious to the extent that I had to be. But, my passion was always somewhere else: doing a show, working at the movie theater or seeing the movies I wanted to watch.
Marni: You were able to make the connection that what you were doing in school was not what your career was going to be, but you could see how it could progress you to the next stage and get you closer to what you wanted to do. That is so important to highlight.
Fred: I didn’t want to get in trouble so that I couldn’t do what I liked. I also knew that doing badly in high school wasn’t going to be a good thing for many reasons.
Marni: Your high school career was surrounded by movies. What was your parents’ support like?
Fred: I think they were concerned that I wouldn’t eventually make a living at it, but again, if I was doing well in school, getting good grades and I wasn’t getting in trouble, it wasn’t a problem. My parents supported me going to film school and moving to Los Angeles. I didn’t get any opposition there.
Marni: Did you always love movies?
Fred: I always did. It must have come from my mom. She was the one who first took me to movies. Dad took me too, but I think it was more an interest of my mother’s that she shared with me. This was before there were streaming services that beam them directly into our homes.
Marni: Do you ever leave the house now?
Fred: have to for work, and to go to screenings and to do interviews. But, I often think that if we had Netflix and Hulu back then, it would have been overwhelming and kept me home even more.
Marni: A student who wants to be a doctor is told they should study science. An engineer? Study math. A lawyer? History. What did you go to school for that led to your current career?
Fred: In high school, the only thing that helped was learning writing. I always had a problem with academic writing because it was “Write 10 pages on this subject.” I was like Why? I can tell you why in one. Why do you need nine more pages?” It was a skill and learning how to use words for a certain type of assignment.
Marni: How did film school help?
Fred: I always knew I wanted to be in film, so film school seemed like what you do for college. Ithaca College had a great film program that I never would have heard of, except that my father took the initiative to start looking for film schools and schools with film programs that we could visit when junior year came. Ithaca was the first college we visited and I fell in love with it, so we didn’t end up visiting anywhere else. The beginner classes were basic film production – and I was thrilled we got to use 16mm film cameras – they don’t that at all now – everything is digital. Film theory, analysis courses helped with what eventually became journalism. The most significant piece I think was that I started writing for the school paper – just writing reviews, and one week a feature on someone or something. I discovered that I have a knack for writing not only reviews, but also interviewing people and writing about them and about things that are happening. By my senior year, second semester, I had a goal to write one story a week. I did come up with a story every week. Now I think one story a week? What a light load that was! But now it’s a full time job, not just an extracurricular activity on top of school. Writing for the paper put it into my head that journalism was something I could pursue in addition to film.
The Importance of Relationships in the Entertainment Industry
Marni: In learning more about you, I was looking at your Linkedin profile and it struck me that you wrote about how important the relationships are with the you people you work with. I read from that that you have a lot of respect for people in the industry, and that’s what sets you apart. How did that philosophy develop?
Fred: I think it’s a basic thing – being professional and respectful of other people. That mostly came from the summer between graduating high school and college. I read Dale Carnegie’s books: “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” and “How to Stop Worrying and Start Living.” It was “How to Win Friends” that hit most: treat people in a way that honors them and respects them, and is selfless, I guess. That became my philosophy.
Marni: Do you think it’s generally reciprocated?
Fred: Yes, definitely. Every once in a while, there will be a wall you can’t break through. But, over 20 years, the strongest relationships developed with people who were willing to go out of their way for me or go to bat for me because we’ve done things for each other over the years. Like the publicist who has a client and wants them to talk to me because they know my interview quality.
Marni: I think having that reputation comes with time, but I think you’re right. You would have been that type of person, regardless. I don’t think that’s something people can be taught. It’s something they’re born with. If you look at your relationships in middle school and high school, a lot of the conversations I have with students are about how do we respond and react to people (especially teachers and authority figures) that you don’t care for, and what future life lessons that serves. In your career or in college you remember a moment where you had to do something you didn’t want to do, or deal with people you didn’t want to deal with, that you’re like that actually served me well in my career today?
Fred: I don’t know if I can think of a single example. It’s probably more than 50 % of the job. I’ve actually said to people that a lot of our job is dealing with difficult people – at the studio, or people controlling access, or our competitors we have to interact with and work with. You have to be able to deal with difficult people. I don’t know that I thought I practiced dealing with teachers. I’m sure I did. Probably a lot of it had to do with dealing with customers when I worked at the movie theater. There are certainly lots of customers who complain, and you have to be nice to them.
Marni: I’ve told my daughters they will have a job waiting tables. They will work in retail. I will string them up by their nose hairs if I see them sassing someone who is there to help them. I can certainly see how that retail experience would help if you want to learn how to manage difficult situations. If one of my students came to be tomorrow and said I want to be a Hollywood journalist, what would you tell them?
Fred: I think there are many more avenues to it now than when I did it. I definitely still recommend going to college because that’s an experience you’re never going to have again. Being in a school with that much freedom from what you had in high school, live on your own and be with so many people your age. Actually, I met someone who is a freshman at Ithaca who is already getting paid to write journalism, so you can get jobs, I don’t remember who I’m quoting here but don’t ask for permission, just do it. Don’t wait for someone to give you the opportunity or job. Just find something you want to write about, find a place to publish it and just do it.
Rotten Tomatoes - The Good, Bad and Evolution of Film Critiques
· Marni: If anyone can say that, I think it is you with your Wayne’s World Public access TV show. I did go through your reviews. Because I was like when am I going to have the opportunity to tell a film reviewer you’re wrong on your opinions, and then we agreed on many films. I did see two, and one of these I actually fall asleep with my headphones in watching it, but you gave the Descent a BAD review. The quote jumped out at me “When she said we all lost something in that crash!” You didn’t connect to the backstory and I was like “She was having an affair with the woman’s husband – how could you miss that?”
Fred: I haven’t seen that since I wrote that review, so that does sound like a subtext I should have picked up on. That’s a pretty icky thing to say to a woman whose husband just died. Neil Marshall’s films haven’t worked for me, so maybe that’s one I should take another look at because it’s become sos significant in the female empowering horror genre.
Disagreeing on films anyway- I don’t know how I got this sense- I already knew that I liked movies no one else did. My theory is this: I’m not trying to convince anyone to agree with me. That sounds like an absurd thing to tell someone about a movie and that’s going to dictate their opinion. That never happened for me. I think the reason we talk about movies is so we can learn about each other. Learning about you doesn’t mean I’ll have to figure out what I missed about The Descent, but I probably will.
Marni: I totally agree with what you’re saying. Do film critics think it’s their job to convince people to agree with them?
Fred: Yes, unfortunately they do. It goes back to the Siskel and Ebert type of… Siskel and Ebert is where film criticism got mainstream and popular. I have to give respect to those who did it in print before Siskel and Ebert. It’s only gotten worse because of social media and people arguing. To me it reads as blatant insecurity if you’re arguing with someone over your movie opinion. Is it really that important? Do you remember all of the last Jedi backlash – was that two years ago now?
Marni: there are probably people listening to this who know what you’re talking about, but I don’t like Star Wars, so I don’t know.
Fred: I didn’t like the Last Jedi, but I’m not going to spend any time contacting the director directly to tell him what he did wrong with it. And I don’t feel like he should respond to it either because he got to make a Star Wars movie, so he wins. And he’s actually been very good about being judicious about what he responds to and keeping a good humor. That’s just an example of how social media has empowered people who write reviews and those who don’t who get to harass people. If I don’t feel that it’s my job to convince people about a movie, what’s the point of the review? It is informing about a movie. There are cases where you can champion a film that maybe people haven’t heard about, and hopefully bring attention and all I’m really asking is someone see it and give it a chance and maybe we can have an interesting discussion about it.
Marni: I think that’s an interesting take. I’m in a weird age bracket. I was born in 1980, I’m not Gen X, I’m not millennial. Don’t know where I fit. But I do remember clearly growing up with Siskel and Ebert thumbs up thumbs down. There was also a movie review show on MTV that I would watch, but I can’t remember the name of it. I feel for me, I’ll look at Rotten Tomatoes and that percentile will almost be the indicator to see a movie or not. What is your opinion on Rotten Tomatoes?
Fred: there’s been a lot of controversy about Rotten Tomatoes, and I guess I should be careful because I work for them. I’ve always thought, honestly that Rotten Tomatoes is a great idea and I don’t see anything wrong with taking all of the reviews and saying how many are good and this is how many are bad. It’s certainly gotten more complicated since it started, because there were only newspapers when it started and now they’ve had to figure out how to incorporate every review that‘s ever been written online. I just think the biggest thing with that is Meryl Streep pointed out a few years ago how few female critics there were on Rotten Tomatoes and they’ve made efforts to include more women and more diversity. More LGBTQ, so I think it’ll only get better the more perspectives there are. I don’t have a problem looking at the score and saying “a majority of the reviews are fresh or a majority of the reviews were rotten.” I’ve always had critics that I liked to read and just wanted to know their perspective. Right now my favorite film critic is Outlaw Vern, who I discovered because he wrote a book about the films of Steven Segal. I thought “anyone who will take the films of Steven Segal seriously is someone I want to read.” He’s actually not on Rotten Tomatoes, so that’s either irrelevant or completely relevant that I found a critic who means more to me than anyone who’s on Rotten Tomatoes, including myself.
Marni: That’s interesting. I’m still trailing a little bit behind with the whole Meryl Streep comment and how that changed Rotten Tomatoes. I feel like a book about Rotten Tomatoes is in order and the whole modern movie criticism.
Fred: Yeah, Totally. There’s 20 years of history.
Marni: Come on now, get on that. You’ve got room on top of those 5 articles a week. I feel like I take an opposite view of Rotten Tomatoes. If I go to a movie and it has high reviews, I feel like I’ve been to enough movies where Rotten Tomatoes gives it a 90% and I’m like This is the worst. I’m more inclined to see a movie with a low rating than a high rating, but I don’t think my thought process works the way everyone else’s does in that regard.
Fred: That’s good. I like the way you think. Remember. Rotten Tomatoes doesn’t give it anything it’s all the critics who gave it good or bad reviews and Rotten Tomatoes just tabulated that. I think I’m more like you. I was not going to see Venom, because it looked completely mediocre to me, but because so many said how outrageously bad it was, I thought “Now I want to see for myself.” It was a little overhyped. It was as mediocre as I expected it to be.
Marni: I’m not a big superhero person, so I haven’t seen it, but I want to see it.
Fred: Which part looked good to you? The special effects or the crazy parts? If it were all crazy parts, that I’d be interested in.
Marni: It looked intense. It looked dark and intimidating. This is going to be a cool movie.
Fred: that’s probably what a Venom movie should be and maybe one should be, but it’s still a PG-13 superhero movie.
The Schedule of a Film Critic
Marni: what is a typical work day or work week like?
Fred: The thing I like the most is that there is no typical day or week because it’s always different. I don’t think I would do well in a routine that’s the same every day. Most weeks I have some combination of going to screenings, doing interviews on the phone or going in person to press junkets and doing them and coming home to write. There are times that I travel – like I go to the Sundance Film Festival and do all my work there for a week or 10 days. Twice a year, the Television Critics Association has a press tour where every day for two weeks I’m at a hotel with networks doing presentations and I’m running around to get interviews behind the scenes and write news stories as panels are going on – those can be intense work weeks. There can be slow times, but there aren’t that many slow times where there’s nothing to go see or no one to talk to, but I guess that’s mainly the holidays. Thanksgiving or Christmas the industry does shut down so I’m not running around. Most weeks are some combination of running around and finding time at home to write.
How to Get your Foot in the Door as a Movie Reviewer
Marni: In your description of what you do, if I just decided to start writing a blog and start reviewing stuff, I feel like I wouldn’t be able to just walk in and be like “Hey, I’m here to interview you.” if you’re one of those modern start a blog, start to write people, what is the process for getting into those events?
Fred: You’re absolutely right. This is the routine/non-routine that I’ve established years ago. When you’re starting out- when I was starting out, it was a process of getting accredited. If you have a blog, you’re publishing and you want to review movies and go to early screenings, that process would be contacting every movie studio, finding their online department, introducing yourself and asking to be included in press screenings. What you’ll find is most will be accommodating. Some will be more difficult and you’ll have to work harder and longer and find a bigger/more traffic outlet before you can get their attention. It’s the same with interviews. You would say “Here’s my blog. I’d like to interview so and so about this, or I would just like to do interviews on a regular basis. Here’s what I can offer you as coverage on my site.” Again, some will be imitable write away, others you’ll have to work harder on. It’ll be a process of building and networking and once you have some interviews and some reviews, you’ll have some examples to show the people you’re not working with. Not just studios. There are PR agencies that handle independent films. Some may be easier to get in with, because any reviews, even not on Rotten Tomatoes is helpful to an indie film trying to stand out. A studio may have to be a little pickier because they have hundreds of people coming to their screenings as it is and limited space.
Marni: What I took from that I always give my students a hard time about - is email skills! You would be amazed at how many of my students who have never crafted an email. I think it’s really unfair that adults expect them to be so tech savvy when they haven’t been trained that way. They’re just given an iPad at 3 years old. There’s no communication skills taught to them.
Fred: There weren’t professional writing classes in high school either. So I think I must have just taught myself. It comes from writing and reading Dale Carnegie, how to phrase things as – not “I’m here and give me this!” but rather “Hi, I’m new and here’s something I hope I can do for you.”
Marni: Right. It goes back to relationships, writing skills, it goes back to research, and as much has I hate and despise anything math-related, if you’re and independent blogger and you’re approaching anyone, you need to know the numbers. You need to know the analytics. You need to know how many people are coming to your blog, how many viewers you have, where the traffic is coming from. You need to know how to keep track of data and what those numbers actually mean. . So, yeah, some basic algebra comes into play.
Fred: You’re going to be asked for your website traffic, so that is math and numbers.
Marni: There’s a lot of things you want to keep an eye on when you’re in school about how it can better your career.
Fred: The broad strokes of what I was saying is this: Do it yourself. Don’t wait for someone to give this to you, go out and find it.
Marni: The worst thing you can do is sit and wait for permission. Don’t break any laws, but the school system today is very much test, test, test, follow these rules, do it this way. The students that I work with are like “I don’t fit in that way of thinking and now I have to sit in 12 years of school and be miserable. I’m like “no, no, no. We just have to figure out what it is you’re going to take from this experience and how you’re going to translate it into what you’re going to do in life. Otherwise, you’re going to be sitting bored for the next middle school, high school years. We don’t want to waste your time, we want to figure out how you’re going to use it to your advantage.
Fred: I didn’t even think of the whole teach to the test mentality that you and I went to a school that very much was not like that. As much as I didn’t enjoy high school because, who would enjoy high school, it was valuable that we were taught in a way to think. If I were in a teach to the test situation, I would hopefully see it as something to rebel against and find my own voice. I’m optimistic like you that there’s a way for students to carve their own path in that kind of school.
Marni: I’m forever optimistic. I almost had that optimism crushed, but I will always keep that mentality. For the student who may be listening and think “I’ve never thought of this career” and want to pursue it, I want to know: What is one of the most glamourous rockstar things that you’ve ever come across? What is one of the most horrible?
Fred: Glamorous rockstar thing: My favorite is the Sundance film festival. It’s funny that’s less about the stars and directors who are there, but I just enjoy meeting other people who love film as much as I do as we wait to get into a sold out Sundance screening. When I started, standing on red carpets, or sitting in round table interviews or press conferences with people who made movies I’d been in love with my whole life -that felt like the most glamorous exciting thing I’d ever been a part of. Now to have relationships with some that I’ve talked to once a year or more frequently on a level that they remember me or this is someone I talk to every now and then, that’s really special. The worst experience is a very inside technical freelancer thing. As a freelancer, I write for as many outlets as I can to stay in business. There was a time in 2005, where I was told by a publicist that I could only cover for one approved outlet and none of my others and I thought my career was over and I would never make enough money to get by. Fortunately, it has a happy ending, because what I learned is that it happens from time to time and it passes they stop worrying about you. Trying to explain to people about the rules is that you do need to get permission and approval to do interviews for certain outlets and I would certainly advise people to avoid. You’d obviously know that you don’t want to approach a celebrity to say “I want to interview you for the National Enquirer.” That would be a no, obviously. You might not realize that sometimes magazines like US Weekly or In Touch are also forbidden. It’s different for each celebrity. Some may be happy to be included in those pages, but others may have had something bad written about them so they say no. Even people magazine sometimes gets blocked. You do need to do everything above board and say “This is everyone I’m writing for.” Every once in a while like me, you might be told we don’t accept that, but this too shall pass, nothing lasts forever.
Marni: It sounds like going back to your relationships that you’ve developed- having integrity is important. Don’t ask for permission, but you still need to play by the rules that are set out for you, so that you establish a reputation amongst people, and that will take you far in what you want to do.
Fred: As scary as that situation was, agreeing to it and showing that I’m amenable ultimately made me a more desirable person to work with because I showed you could trust me and that I wasn’t going to violate their requests, eventually I became someone they’re happy to work with, frequently.
Marni: I appreciate hearing some of this background information. Again, this is the longest conversation we’ve had in all the years we’ve known each other. I can’t remember if I was a freshman when you were a senior. I don’t remember. but I had it in my head that I was low man on the totem pole – don’t talk, don’t look at older people or something, I don’t know. I’m just super excited to see how you’ve taken what you loved from high school and built it into a career that you totally love and appreciate the craft. Are there any last minute thoughts or words of wisdom you’d like to impart?
Fred: I can’t think of any. You’ve asked some really good questions and that is something I very much appreciate. You thought of the important things about this job to get me talking about them.
Marni: I certainly encourage people to check out your work and look for your name on
Fred: We Live Entertainment is where I write all my Franchise Fred stuff because I do believe that every movie should have a sequel. I also write at Monsters and Critics and Bloody Disgusting. You can also see all of my reviews under my name at Rotten Tomatoes.
Woooo! We covered a lot of ground there! I am so thankful that Fred took the time to speak with me about his career. I found it particularly interesting that how you handle relationships with authority figures (such as teachers) can easily be translated to working with editors and publicists. Many of my students encounter assignments they would rather not do and people they would rather not interact with. Even when you pursue a career you are passionate about, you must find a way to handle the parts of the job you dislike.
If you have a quirky career and you turned your high school passion into a career, I would love to hear from you. You can always reach me at Marnipasch@teampasch.com.
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Fred Topel | Entertainment Journalist, Film Critic
Fred Topel has been an entertainment journalist since 1999, after he graduated film school at Ithaca College. After freelancing for a The Palisades-Post, Fred became a full time entertainment journalist and has written for About.com, E Online, Hollywood.com, Syfy, Crave Online, Slashfilm, Rotten Tomatoes, Monsters & Critics, We Live Entertainment, Bloody-Disgusting and many others."