August 4, 2016
SCA Alumni Stories: Katie Walsh
By Eileen Kwon
After earning a Bachelor’s degree in Film Studies at Wesleyan University and working in the film industry for several years, Katie Walsh ’13 launched her academic career at USC, finishing her MA in Cinema and Media Studies. She now works as a nationally syndicated film critic, while on leave of absence from her PhD work in Communications at Annenberg. Walsh recently discussed her beginnings in PR, her academic accomplishments, and her current role as a writer and film critic for the Tribune News Service and LA Times.
How did you get started at Lionsgate Entertainment? How did your time working in PR impact you and your academic path? After my undergraduate studies at Wesleyan, I needed a job and ended up working in the PR department at Lionsgate in New York City. PR was interesting for me because I discovered all these other aspects of the industry that I didn’t experience during undergrad since I was only analyzing and studying films in an academic context. I was intrigued by this side of the industry that I didn’t even know existed—it was all new to me. In PR, you’re in touch with every aspect of the filmmaking process, working with executives, talent, directors—all of these different people. That job helped me figure out what I wanted to do. I learned that working in the studio system and the industry weren’t for me.
Now as a film critic I still work in the industry, but it’s more industry-adjacent. I realized that I wanted to be able to express my own opinions and thoughts. Coming from a little bubble like Wesleyan, I didn’t realize that the industry is very much business decision-oriented. I realized that what I wanted was to have my own voice and I sort of fell into writing film criticism completely by accident.
After earning your MA in Cinema and Media Studies at SCA, you started a PhD in Communications at Annenberg. Can you share what inspired you to continue to pursue an academic career at USC? I really loved working with students, and that was the main motivating factor for me to pursue a PhD. It definitely inspired me. I worked in the Writing Center and I was also a TA. I just love working with students, especially in the one-on-one setting. It’s the best feeling in the world for me when I could explain something to students and see their brains explode. I love being able to help shape their understanding of the world, and seeing them understand difficult concepts, or write an awesome paper is empowering.
I also felt that the two years I spent in my Master’s wasn’t enough time. I wanted to do more. I wanted to think more. Most of my academic interest was in TV and social networks. So, when I was applying to PhD programs, the Annenberg path seemed like the better fit; my focus being the way that audiences interact with TV as empowered by technology.
During that time, I was writing film reviews for The Playlist. Then, eventually the LA Times got in touch with me to write for them, and then I was offered a job at the Tribune News Service. So ultimately, I decided to take a leave of absence because I knew both my studies and my work would’ve probably suffered if I had tried doing both at the same time.
Could you share about your academic work on reality TV? I’ve always been interested in the things that are not taken seriously or considered lowbrow. When I was doing my PhD I would always have to defend what I was writing about because people thought it was silly. But so many people are watching reality TV. Masses of people are consuming certain expectations and false images of reality that some of these shows promote. I’m also interested in the evolution of reality TV as some of these shows become more self-aware since audiences are beginning to watch reality TV more ironically.
Reality TV in itself is quite a cultural phenomenon. What are your thoughts on the rising audience awareness of the manufactured “reality” portrayed by these shows? Audiences are becoming more and more media literate. I think it’s important to teach people how to understand that people with certain agendas, especially business-oriented, are making these shows or movies. Understanding that reality TV “reality” isn’t real, but is created and edited to look a certain way, and shaped by people who have ulterior motives other than showing reality. People are definitely getting to be savvier about it.
Could you talk about your role as a film critic in the current technological climate, especially in the context of the massive evolution of Internet platforms that allow people to write whatever they want? Film criticism has proliferated and become more democratized because of the Internet, which I think is a positive thing. I would not have my job if it wasn’t for the Internet because I started writing for my friend’s blog that eventually helped me build my credibility, hone my voice and skills as a film critic, and gain exposure as a writer. So I owe my career to the Internet.
In terms of my role, in a teaching setting, I try to explain and translate a piece of media or reading, and that’s sort of what I do for people reading my reviews in the newspaper. I try to contextualize the meanings of films for the readers.
I’m also aware that you can’t grade or really rate a piece of art. Watching movies is so subjective. Each person brings his or her whole identity to it. I bring my age, my personal taste, my gender, and all these parts of my identity play into how I see and respond to a movie. That’s why I think it’s important to have more women, more people of color as film critics because everyone brings a different perspective.
I want to be able to show the people who read my reviews that these movies are not just escapism—they mean something in the world. Movies use imagery and symbols to tell us something about ourselves and show us how we understand the world we live in. I learned about this in Drew Casper’s classes. I always want to talk about what the movie means. Behind all the technicality of the movie, I try to write about the larger meanings. That’s my goal every time I write something, asking myself, “What does this really mean?” And sometimes movies don’t have an underlying meaning. There’s merit in that too—movies that are purely entertainment.
With the new rise of feminist voices in the industry, how do you see it beginning to impact the cultural nuances of film and television? Championing female filmmakers has been one of my serious causes. When I was working on my PhD, I was a research assistant for Stacy Smith at the Media, Diversity and Social Change Initiative at Annenberg. I was a research assistant on one study that was funded by Women in Film and Sundance. We looked at the trajectory of women directors and their careers in Hollywood. On the independent film festival level, the gender breakdown is more equal. But once you get to the industry, it’s terrible. It’s really hard for women to get second and third movies made, whereas a lot of male directors are plucked out of Sundance and are given huge blockbuster movies. Most of the people in charge are men, so unless you make a concerted effort to have more diversity, the industry is going to remain the same. There needs to be many different voices creating art. Having just one perspective is extremely limiting. Audiences are super diverse so why not have the creators of the art reflect the audience? Because ultimately, more voices allow for better art.
It’s important for audiences to think about how a lot of the movies they’re watching are made from the male perspective, and then thinking about how that has affected the way they see women. There’s been so much discussion about women in film and diversity on screen, but I don’t know that it’s actually changing things. But the discussion is bringing a lot of attention to this issue and allowing for some really exciting steps to be taken. It’s still an uphill battle at this point.
Do you have any advice for current Cinema and Media Studies students? My advice is always to network laterally. It’s incredibly fruitful to network among your peers and to build that network on a foundation of friendship and trust. Also, you don’t have to be successful right away after graduation—it takes a really long time. I’ve had a lot of different jobs and have taken a totally winding path. You just have to be patient and work hard.
What are you up to now and what are your plans for the future? I’m still writing for the LA Times, the Tribune, and The Playlist. I also had an article published in Playboy this year. For now, I’m trying to expand my writing portfolio. I won’t be going back to school next year, so that I can keep writing for the time being and see where it goes. I’m also interested in working on a short documentary and a screenplay. I’m excited about trying to work on more creative stuff along with film criticism.