Caffeinated Clint : Paid Speech

It was a lot easier (and I’ll say, a fair bit more enjoyable) being an entertainment journalist a decade ago – these days, you might as well be carrying around a heavy sandwich board on your back, advertising that week’s film releases. That’s pretty much what your job has boiled down too. Sad, I know… but true.

In say, 1999 (which is around the time I started in the game), your publication was your publication, your website was your website… your opinion was your opinion. If you wanted to run an early, negative review of say, ‘’The Bone Collector’’ – you could. Nobody much cared. And if you wanted to ask Angelina Jolie – doing PR for the latter – how many happy meals she’s forced to buy each week for her horde of online purchases, you could. Nobody would stop you. In fact, Jolie would probably appreciate being asked something different to the twelve other saps that interviewed her the same morning. And the publicist would get a much-needed laugh.

But today, unless you want to be blacklisted from screenings and/or interviews, you’re not really allowed to have much of an opinion – ‘be nice or be seeing the movies on DVD at your own expense’ seems to be the go motto – or ‘other angle’ than what the publicist is thinking when it comes to an interview.

…. Oh, and as for whether that publication or website is yours, and wholly yours, that’s a question I’m unable to answer – because I’m not really sure anymore.

Do studios own Moviehole? No, not really – but some do have a big say in how it’s run (others even more so, for financial reasons – - you’re ‘supposed’ to be kinder to the films that spend money on sponsoring you; whether you do or not is up to the editor).

Do studios dictate what can and can’t be said on Moviehole? Sure, they try – and on a couple of occasions we’ve even had our power unplugged until we conform to their wishes.

But we, and say, CHUD, IESB, and Bloody Disgusting, don’t believe in being forced to stick one’s tongue sideways down a dry landing strip. It makes us contentious, frightening to the studios, and a little harder to deal with (or so they believe)… but at the end of the day, it leaves us with just a bit more dignity than someone whose completely agreed to just let studio A and studio B dictate what runs on their website. And believe me, there’s a bunch of websites out there that are happy to do that – and why not? You get free Spider-Man underoos and glow-in-the-dark Narnia toys if you do! But seriously, who wants to read a website with top-to-bottom glowing reviews and EPK-style interviews? I’d rather buy a subscription to Dolly!

Sticking to your guns, and giving it to the man is all well and good, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t getting harder to remain an independent voice among the film community. Heck, if you have any kind of opinion about a film (especially one that isn’t good) – you’re the William H.Bonney to a studio publicist’s Pat Garrett.

The Age ran an article this week about just how much more difficult it is for an entertainment journalist these days – what with studio bullying, on-hand masking tape, and all-controlling publicists. It’s a frightening read…

The article starts off by stating that film publicists are screening films less and less for press (especially as early as they use to) for fear a critic may say [god forbid!] something negative about the movie. And we’re not just talking “G.I Joe Vs. Jason” or “Saw 23″ – we’re talking worthwhile flicks.

Says the paper, “The one hardball tactic that seems to have crossed the Pacific is refusing to let critics see populist films before they open. These are generally big-budget stinkers but are thought to have a good hope with a target audience if no pesky reviewers get in the way. But it can go further. When Valkyrie was screened in London, no journalist who had seen it was even supposed to tell anyone.”

The article continues to say, “Meanwhile, interviewers are told to sign forms promising to place stories only in approved publications; a form for the latest Narnia film from 20th Century Fox, for example, specifies that nothing we write will appear, even as an excerpt, on the website – and only when the studio gives the go-ahead. Those forms, de rigueur overseas, are now arriving in this office, as are suggestions as to which journalists – tame ones, please – should do which stories.”

That happens to me all the time. We do set visits each and every week, and immediately have to agree not to even ‘mention’ that I was on such a set visit, let alone say anything about what I saw. And yeah, on several occasions I’ve been asked not to send so-and-so on such a set visit… because he’s not as ‘tame’ as say, one of my other writers… or me.

‘’Once they’re in the door, of course, they’re expected to behave. Personal questions are often specifically forbidden by publicists who sit in corners, ready to jump. After Sylvester Stallone had his little run-in with Australian Customs, interviewers were asked “as a favour” not to mention it because if they did, the interview would stop. Editors here are still shocked by this kind of power play but it works elsewhere.

‘’In the US, it’s not uncommon for journalists who break any of these rules to be banned from interviews’’.

Freelancers get a raw deal – but so do the vets of the game.

‘’For freelancers who rely on these interviews for a living, it pays to be obliging. The same system works for troublesome critics, who get dropped from press guest lists or even summarily turfed out of their seats before screenings.

‘’This can happen to even the most respected reviewers. According to Slate magazine, The New Yorker critics Anthony Lane and David Denby only get asked to the final previews a day or so before films are released so their reviews always appear a week late.’’

I agree with a lot that’s said in the article. For example, I can tell you there’s been numerous occasions when Moviehole’s been blocked from interviewing someone, or checking out a movie at a long-lead screening, for fear that we (probably me – the ‘smart ass that runs the Caffeinated Clint’ column) we will ask something ‘not found in the production notes of said film being spruiked’ when talking to the talent, or running a review of whatever particular film we’re being barred from seeing (until the week of release) for fear of it getting less than 4-stars.
As most of my colleagues know, there’s a few actors out there who just won’t talk to the internet (Russell Crowe is one), but a lot of the time, it’s the publicists that are deciding not only who the talent will be speaking to – but what they’ll be allowed to ask in the interview. Personally, I couldn’t give a shit about the nude photos of some wannabe starlet, nor do I care about his or her’s relationship with the greasy tycoon, and I don’t plan on asking him or her about her dead mother – the drug-dealer – either. What I care about is giving the audience an interesting interview to read – and by that, I mean a piece they can’t read everywhere else. You have to keep it personable, light, interesting and sometimes ask the out-of-left-field stuff if you want to keep your viewers interested – and a lot of the time, the talent is quite happy to be asked something a little different. It’s refreshing. They got to be less ED-209 and more Alex Murphy.

A filmmaker may be a huge fan of your website, and may even tell the studio promoting his or her film to make sure you’re included in the interviews for it, when they come up, but you can pretty much guarantee they won’t listen to him/her. Disrespectful, right? Well, it’s just another way of letting folks know who is boss. Martin Scorsese to PR chick : “I’d love to do an interview with Filmnerds.com”. PR Chick to Scorsese : “Not happening Marty. You’re too busy – now let’s get you over to Regis & Kelly”.

Thankfully, I only know of a couple of studios down under that try and bully websites (and print publications) into 24-7 running what they want (be it a 5-star review, a boring plug-plug-plug style interview, a series of film-related widgets sprayed across your web-page) in exchange for admittance to screenings and future interview opportunities – the rest are fuckin’ awesome! – but I’ve heard it’s getting a lot worse in the states (but I suppose they can’t all be as wonderful as Tamar and Orna!) where many websites and writers are being black-listed for either a) running a negative review of one of the studio’s recent films or b) asking something ‘a little more daring’ in an interview with an artist. It’s a shame… what I’ve always loved about film criticism is that it’s roots stemmed from the notion of free speech. But like 12-inches and good Val Kilmer movies, seems even it’s on the way out!

As The Age says, “As studio films increasingly dominate our screens, there is going to be more of this sort of squeeze on Australia’s press. Does it matter? When it comes to reviews, only in the sense that free speech matters. As far as interviews go, it matters only in the sense that unfettered journalism matters. And it matters to readers because they’re the losers if journalists are too nervous to ask that curly question and critics know they must avoid giving any film a pasting. If that happens, we’ll all be part of the publicity machine.”

Keeping it real!
Clint