Five Years of Film Blogging, 2015 – 2019

In November of 2014, I was laid off from a call center job that completed its government contract, leaving me with a lot of unexpected free time. It was a struggle to find comparable full-time office work in the couple years that followed, but I did my best to occupy myself (and pay my bills) in ways that related to the hobby I’m most passionate about: watching & discussing movies. Not all of these schemes worked out; I did not manage to turn on-set PA work or location scouting into a decent living, and the movie theater kitchen where I eventually worked as a grill cook no longer exists. The one major satisfying success from that post-college search for purpose is this lil’ ol’ film criticism blog you’re reading right now.

Swampflix started as a group effort between me, Britnee Lombas, and James Cohn after we were all left unemployed by the same defunct call center job. Our first collaboration as a group was listing our favorite films of 2014, and we’ve posted at least one piece of film writing or film-related criticism a day in the five years since that launch. Our crew has since expanded to include at least five other contributors – most significantly Mark “Boomer” Redmond (who has anchored our silly-ass takes with astoundingly thoughtful academic writing since year one), Alli Hobbs (who stuck with us for three out of five of our years), and CC Chapman (whose work in zine production, film festival coverage, podcasting, and behind-the-scenes support has kept us afloat through the many crises when it felt like the ship was going down). We’ve gradually ballooned from a small collective of amateur film bloggers to include projects as wide-ranging as podcasting, zine-making, library science, andthanks to our newest crew member Hanna Räsänenholiday card illustration. We even started our own Mardi Gras krewe. This is easily the longest I’ve ever collaborated on a single creative project with a group of friends, and it’s exciting to know it’s still alive and evolving five years later.

I have absolutely zero qualifications to run a film blog. My college degree is in Poetry. The first time I ever wrote critically about a movie was in the comment section of an article on The Dissolve, a now long defunct film criticism website. When The Dissolve crashed, I saw a group of much smarter, more talented, better experienced writers suffer the collapse of quality, lucrative online criticism – which has since devolved into a mess of freelance desperation & attention-grabbing hot takes on Twitter. Still, writing about movies (and setting my own arbitrary one-post-a-day deadlines) has been a great personal motivator in a way no other project has proven to be post-college. The earliest, primordial incarnation of Swampflix was when I “published” combination movie & restaurant reviews in the call center newsletter Britnee organized when we worked together, a section we called “Movies and Munchies.” In those days, she and I would trade DVDs of films from our personal libraries that the other hadn’t seen yet, a regular recommendation structure not unlike our Movie of the Month conversations that persist until today (a format I wholly ripped off from The Dissolve, I’ll admit). We write with no real authority and no significant audience, but we write with an enthusiasm for bizarro cinema and a joy for trading recommendations for little-seen movies we personally love.

A D.I.Y. film criticism collective with a niche audience & no proper qualifications, I like to think we function like an online zine. The high-contrast Sharpie illustrations we post with each review have come to feel at home with that digi-zine aesthetic, but I doubt that’s what I had in mind when I first started doodling them. Honestly, I don’t know that I ever have anything specific in mind at all for where Swampflix is going, other than I want us to do better and to do more. With this article, we’ve reached five consecutive years of daily posts – a personal, arbitrary achievement I’m proud of, but am also ready to slack off from so we can aim for bigger, broader goals. I don’t know what’s in store for us in the next five years (assuming humanity’s existence on Earth makes it that far), but I do have some big ideas on the backburner: a proper zine store, a YouTube channel, a more functional web design, public movie screenings, etc. No matter what we do or don’t accomplish going forward, however, I’m already very proud of the quality & consistency of the work we’ve already put in over the last five years. Our work isn’t always timely or precise, and it takes us about a year to reach the pageview counts that legitimate, professional blogs reach in just a month, but it’s been a personally rewarding creative project for our small crew of Southeast Louisiana film geeks.

Thank you if you’ve ever read anything we’ve written or—better yet—if you’ve ever taken one of our movie recommendations. We’ve been having a lot of fun figuring out exactly what it is we’re doing and how we can do it better moving forward. As a minor victory lap, I’m going to list below five projects we’ve tackled so far that I’m especially proud of. Enjoy!

Movie of the Month: Every month, one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. I’m particularly proud of this year’s coverage of Matt Farley’s Local Legends (2013), a bravely honest and darkly funny look at what it’s like to produce amateur art in the digital hellscape of the 2010s.

The Swampflix Podcast: We’ve gotten significantly better at putting together a biweekly movie podcast over the last four years, figuring our shit out just in time for us to hit our 100th episode in the next few weeks. The new format we started with Episode #81: Christian Evangelicalism was a significant creative breakthrough, and I think the last 20 or so episodes since then have been especially great. I know from experience that it’s difficult to find movie podcasts that discuss low-budget, high-gimmick genre films with sincerity instead of mockery, so I’m proud to be producing one of the few that are out there (even if we’re drowning in a vast sea of better funded, better produced podcast content).

Krewe Divine: In 2017, a few members of the Swampflix crew decided to finally grow up and get serious about Mardi Gras. We collectively shed our annual personal crises about what themes to include in our Fat Tuesday costuming by pooling our resources to pray at the altar of a single cinematic deity: Divine, the greatest drag queen of all time. Our intent was to honor the Queen of Filth in all her fucked up glory by founding Krewe Divine in her honor, a costuming krewe meant to masquerade in The French Quarter on every Fat Tuesday into perpetuity.

Film Festival Coverage: Some of the most rewarding experiences we’ve had reviewing tiny films without much public visibility have been at local film festivals, something we’ve been getting more & more involved with as the years roll on. In 2019 alone, we covered dozens of films across four local festivals: New Orleans Film Fest, New Orleans French Film Fest, Overlook Film Fest, and PATOIS. Each hosted screenings of some of the best films we saw projected in proper movie theaters all year, a significant portion of which we would not have been able to cover for the website otherwise.

Zines: Thanks largely to the New Orleans Comics and Zines festival (R.I.P.), we’ve gradually gotten into the business of printing physical copies of pieces we’ve written & illustrated for the site – making our function as an online zine a literal, physical practice. It’s a rewarding (although labor-intensive) ritual both because there’s a tangible product associated with our work that we obviously don’t get from blogging and because it helped us contextualize everything we’re doing as an amateur film criticism collective with no chance of ever going legit. Basically, everything we know about blogging & online self-promotion we learned from physically tabling zines in the real world, mostly at NOCAZ.

-Brandon Ledet

Blogging & Zine-Making in a Post-NOCAZ World

When we first started this blog in January of 2015, I had no idea what I was doing. From a web design, self-promotion, and editorial standpoint, it’s arguable that’s still true in our fifth year of operation. Swampflix is still an exceedingly amateur blogging project – somewhat by choice. I do think we’ve come to properly contextualize what we’re doing as an amateur film criticism collective over time, but our initial months were purely run on impulse. It was a time when all my favorite professional critics were losing their staff jobs on dream projects like The Dissolve (R.I.P.) to enter into the nightmare world of writing freelance, so I had no ambitions to turn this into a lucrative profession. Mainly, I just wanted to write. A few years away from the college classroom (where I l earned a very useful degree in Poetry), I found that I was no longer writing anything creative without the impetus of deadlines or a community to share feedback with, so I created both stimuli as best as I could in Swampflix. After we were all simultaneously laid off from the same call-center job in late-2014, I banded together with James & Britnee to fill our sudden wealth of free time by putting into print what we were already doing on our work breaks: chatting about movies. I set arbitrary goals for myself: writing one new movie review a day for two consecutive years while pushing my collaborators to post as much as they could contribute and both editing & illustrating each post myself. While I can say for sure that my Sharpie-doodle illustrations have noticeably improved over time, I’m not sure the same is true for my writing. I feel like I’ve hit a personal plateau with the quality of my craft in the past couple years and have only continued to produce daily #content out of pure personal compulsion – both the compulsion to discuss & discover movies with a like-minded community and the compulsion to do something creative with my free time. Those early jobless months have gradually given way to a newfound bureaucratic routine that pays my bills, but at least I have a somewhat creative hobby on the side in Swampflix to keep myself sane & entertained.

Even if my personal increase in quality has stagnated in recent years, Swampflix has remained interesting & rewarding to me in how it’s evolved as a collaborative project. Over the years, we’ve expanded the one-movie-review-a-day template into a much more complex routine. A bi-monthly podcast, weekly film-screening bulletins, monthly conversations, recurring features on niche topics, film festival round-ups , and all sorts of collaborative projects have helped define the Swampflix ritual as our initial three-person team has included & cycled through eight contributing writers over five consecutive years of daily posts (with Boomer being our most consistent additional contributor since late in our first year). None of these sub-projects have been as revelatory & invigorating as making zines, which we were entirely inspired to undertake by attending NOCAZ. The first New Orleans Comics and Zines Festival was held in November of 2014, exactly at the time when the original Swampflix trio were about to be laid off & looking for a creative outlet. Without a doubt, I would have started a movie blog that following January even if I had not attended the first NOCAZ; I had already started writing movie reviews in unlikely venues like The Dissolve comment sections and – I kid you not – weekly newsletters Britnee organized & edited for our defunct call center job, so an official blog was somewhat inevitable. I might have even arrived at the zine-like, high-contrast Sharpie illustrations aesthetic without it, given my ancient past drawing up flyers to promote long-dead punk bands I was in a lifetime ago. One thing is for certain, though: there would be no Swampflix zines without NOCAZ. I attended the first NOCAZ fest as a customer, never having made a zine before in my life, and I dutifully distributed Swampflix zines at each subsequent year’s fest until 2019 – the fifth & final NOCAZ. Making movie fanzines for NOCAZ was an intensely rewarding, labor-intensive ritual both because there was a tangible product associated with the work that we obviously don’t get from blogging and because it helped contextualize everything we were doing as an amateur film criticism collective with no chance of ever going Legit. Basically, everything I know about blogging & online self-promotion I learned from physically tabling zines for NOCAZ in the real world.

Self-publishing in the digital hellscape of the 2010s often feels like shouting into the online void. We occasionally receive positive feedback from a reader (or, more often, an amateur filmmaker whose work we caught at a festival), but those exchanges maybe occur twice or thrice a year. Mostly, we publish movie reviews for their own sake – finding enjoyment in the act of writing and the impetus to analyze films on a deeper level than we would if we were watching them purely as passive entertainment. I’ve found the most joy in this project when collaborating with similarly-minded bloggers – We Love to Watch, Luddite Robot, Jean-Pod Van Damme, etc. – but even those exchanges are sparse, as we’re all doing this in our free time outside the jobs that actually pay our bills. What I get from attending NOCAZ every year is a concentrated, amplified macro-dose of my favorite parts of film blogging in a potent two-day span. The New Orleans Comics and Zines festival was an annual opportunity to spend an entire weekend in the nerd-sanctuary of the public library with an overwhelming influx of amateur & outsider artists. Comic, zines, art prints, and everything in-between lined labyrinths of tables in the exhibition room, fostering a powerful environment of pure creativity uninhibited by official publication gatekeepers or access to the means of production. Every year, NOCAZ had the ideal D.I.Y. punk effect on me, the exact spirit you hope to be infected with at any punk community event: it made me want to make art. A lot of work goes into making new zines & buttons for the festival every year on top of our daily blogging, making for the most needlessly labor-intensive form of self-promotion imaginable. Still, it’s a way for us to make sure a few more locals are aware that we exist every year and a way for us to enjoy our own work as a tangible product instead of a shout into the digital void. Most importantly, though, NOCAZ was invigorating & inspiring as a temporary community of artists encouraging each other to keep doing their thing and trading around samples of their wares in conversational creativity.

The fifth & final NOCAZ, held in April of 2019, was a major success for us. We distributed around 40 Swampflix zines, reconnected with zinesters we met at previous festivals like last year’s ALA Conference, and met a real-life fan of the podcast (who is somehow a real human being & not a bot). There was even a sense of accomplishment in finally selling out of some of the zines we made in 2015 for our first year tabling at the festival – bringing our time with NOCAZ full circle in a satisfactory way. I was honestly embarrassed to sell some of those older zines, as I felt like the quality of our work has greatly improved since that first year, but there was still something encouraging about people being intrigued about something we made so long ago. That validation made me want to make more & better art. Talking to strangers about movies all weekend made me want to make more & better art. Being around so many creative, actively engaged artists in such an intimate, real-world space made me want to make more & better art. The final NOCAZ left me feeling the same impulse as every year’s festival before it: the need to do more and to do better. According to their own mission statement, “NOCAZ [was] an attempt to make a space for self-published artists and thinkers to put their work out in the public sphere and be able to reach each other without the constraints and expense of the commercial publishing industry. Zines are a participatory format and we hope bringing multiple perspectives under one roof [created] dialogue and [inspired] more people to express themselves through print.” I can report that, at least for us, the short-lived festival was a resounding success on those terms. I also suspect we were far from the only attendees who started making zines for the first time after attending the fest. The festival ending has obviously sent me into a tailspin of self-reflection and reassessment of what we’ve been doing over the last five years, since so much of our own work has been directly inspired & guided by our NOCAZ experience. There were more than enough people in the library for this last fest to prove that there’s an interest in a new annual zine event to fill that void now that NOCAZ is gone. And believe me, it’s a massive void.

-Brandon Ledet