Fade to Black  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   June 1997

Fade to Black   

When it comes to managing the news and keeping the press in the dark, the movie industry is in a league of its own.

By Sharon Waxman
Sharon Waxman covers Hollywood for the Washington Post.     


When it comes to managing the news and keeping the press in the dark, the movie industry is in a league of its own.

Why are so few news stories broken in Hollywood? A reporter/acquaintance from Washington was in town the other day asking that very question.

It was a good one. Up to that point I'd only really considered why I hadn't broken more stories in Hollywood. But in the year and a half since I have been on the West Coast covering the entertainment industry for the Washington Post's Style section, it is true that almost no stories that might qualify as "scoops" have emerged. The daily trade newspapers, Variety and the Hollywood Reporter are filled with leaks about impending projects — this production deal signed with that studio, this star attached to that upcoming film, this screenwriter paid a certain amount of money to adapt that novel. This is not really news, it's just the wheels of the entertainment business turning.

Then there's all the gossip published in Liz Smith's column and aired on shows like "Access Hollywood," which I'm not prepared to consider news, even if it is Mick Jagger divorcing Jerry Hall or Johnny Depp's latest tattoo.

From time to time there is news of the non-promotional sort that is broken by the media out here. Time magazine had a piece about the cast of "Friends" going on collective strike to demand more money in their new fall contracts, a story picked up and spun out everywhere from the news wires to Jay Leno. (It turned out that many other sitcoms, including "Seinfeld," have used the same tactic.) There was the news about mid-year in the New York Times that Disney was cutting back its film production by half, a piece of information that sparked a spate of articles about Hollywood reducing production because of the high cost of films. (A "trend" borne out by only one other studio, Paramount. Disney officials told me that studio executives had made that decision nearly two years before.)

There was a front page story in the New York Observer claiming that Michael Ovitz's infamous severance package for leaving the Disney presidency in disgrace was nowhere near the $70 to $90 million reported in the media and was

probably less than half that amount. (The story was proved wrong by the company's proxy statement a month later, but according to the reporter, the piece correctly reflected the studio's internal debate at the time.)

And I had my own little scoop, a lengthy exposé of the bogus Golden Globe Awards run by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA), a tiny group of aging foreigners who are mostly not journalists and who are routinely lavished by the studios with gifts and trips. But that story — while it caused a stir — was not news to anyone in Hollywood; everyone in "The Industry" already knew that the HFPA was not a serious group. It's just that no one cared to report and write the story in detail. Even more edifying was the fact that nothing happened as a result; despite a fair bit of criticism prior to the ceremony last January, the Golden Globes proceeded on NBC without apology. All of the stars attended, no rules were changed, nobody even seemed embarrassed. And that was that.

This is what I've learned about Hollywood in my brief time here: The entertainment industry is distinctly uninterested in reportage of the newsgathering variety. They worry little and care less about the rare skeptical observer. They ignore the still-rarer critical account. And they can. Access is theirs to give or deny. They shrewdly punish and reward journalists according to their perceived allegiances, a carrot-and-stick system that generally succeeds in evoking the desired response.

Why does it work? Most media are eager to remain on the good side of powerful studios, celebrities and agents. "Entertainment Tonight" has an awful lot of air space to fill and the Hollywood Reporter, not to mention the Los Angeles Times, seems inordinately sensitive to the whims of its most prolific advertisers.

John Lindsay, Los Angeles Times assistant managing editor in charge of entertainment and arts coverage, says the criticism that the L.A. Times is soft on Hollywood is unfounded. "It's not true," he says. "I'd like someone to bring me proof that it's happened.... I encourage people to do investigative pieces." He adds, "We do all the soft stuff, but you have an audience that wants and expects that kind of coverage. Not everyone is interested in the intricacies of the agency world, they're interested in the next movie so and so is doing."

Indeed, the media are well aware of what most interests its broader American audience: not the reality of inner Hollywood, but the myth. It is the job of the studios to provide that myth and the job of the media to maintain it. Or so the presumption seems to go.

All of this contributes to a fundamental difference in the role filled by journalists in Movieland as compared to other places that I've worked (mostly abroad, mostly in politics). There is no notion here that the press serves a watchdog role of any sort, that members of the media are meant to be critical observers on behalf of the public. At best, the media are treated as the industry's lap dog, an extension of the studio marketing department, paid off in catered press junkets and cocktail parties in proximity to movie stars. At worst we are regarded as a nuisance, a fruit fly buzzing above the cornucopia of wealth and celebrity of Hollywood to be swatted away — viciously if necessary — or ignored.

An example will illustrate. After the Post published a profile I had written of actress Gwyneth Paltrow last summer in time for the opening of her film, "Emma," I was amazed to learn that my editor had received a barrage of phone calls from the distributor, Miramax. The Disney-owned studio had gotten wind of the fact that the article was somewhat skeptical of the newborn star (this was my own fault, having hinted at this to the studio publicist) and harangued him about the forthcoming piece, complaining about my demeanor during the interview (at which Miramax representatives were not present) and offering several times to set up special screenings of the film for him so he could judge the movie for himself. My editor, John Pancake, kindly protected me from this during the writing and editing process, but we both wondered later why a studio would go to such lengths to annoy a newspaper — a tactic that could easily backfire. I posed the question to a former Washington Post reporter who is now a studio executive; he reacted as if this were normal behavior. Miramax, he said, was just doing its job. To me the incident was educational: The studio could not accept a lack of control over any aspect of the movie's promotion.

When necessary, Hollywood will play dirty with journalists. Publicists or studio flacks have not hesitated to lie outright in attempts to discredit or bully me into compliance. A Disney publicist called my editor — after we declined to storify a truncated interview with Madonna — and told him I had been "hostile." A DreamWorks SKG spokeswoman called to accuse me of "bitch journalism" after I wrote a vaguely critical piece about the two-and-a-half-year-old studio belonging to Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen.

These experiences are far from atypical. But even when one understands that Hollywood does not regard journalists as having a legitimately independent role, this can create frustration and a sort of cognitive dysfunction.

"We're partners," Ed Russell, the head of publicity for Columbia-Tristar, told me to my astonishment after a heated discussion about marketing budgets recently. I knew what he meant — he was trying to be conciliatory — but I asked him to spell it out anyway. He did: "If I have access to a Tom Cruise or a Cuba Gooding [Jr.] because they're in a movie of ours" (they were), "and you want to interview them, whatever you write will sell a ticket or two. And whatever you write will sell a paper or two. Just as I try to sell movies, you try to sell papers."

Well, not really. When I told him that I did not consider part of my job to be selling papers, he didn't seem upset, just bewildered.

The public does, in fact, have knowledge of how Hollywood really works. The interested observer can learn plenty about the inner workings of the industry, not by reading the entertainment press — but by going to the bookstore.

Every few months another book seems to come along that promises to expose the seamy underside of the world's most glamorous business. Some are fiction — in the past year there was "I'm Losing You," a screamingly scatological black comedy by screenwriter Bruce Wagner, with recognizable fictive characters; the latest is "Pay or Play" by a writer/producer, Jon Boorstin, with some illuminating details that seem to come from personal experience (like information about who actually nominates for Academy Awards — the geriatric and unemployed members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences). On the nonfiction side, the past year brought us "Hit and Run: How Jon Peters and Peter Guber Took Sony for a Ride in Hollywood" by Nancy Griffin and Kim Masters, both journalists with a long-standing history in the entertainment world, telling the now-notorious tale of two high-flying producers who managed to spend Sony into a $3.2 billion hole. Producer Lynda Obst ("Sleepless in Seattle," "One Fine Day") weighed in with "Hello, He Lied and Other Truths from the Hollywood Trenches" about her trials in Babylon. The latest is "Monster" by author-screenwriter John Gregory Dunne, with an amusing and frank account of his eight years spent writing and rewriting the schmaltzy romance "Up Close and Personal" with his wife, Joan Didion, for Disney. An upcoming book by veteran writer Nikki Finke analyzes the agency wars over the last three decades.

There are many others, from Julia Phillips' "You'll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again" to Steven Bach's "Final Cut," and one can learn from all of them. From Wagner, about the bizarrely interconnected world of Los Angeles, where the exterminator may end up producing a movie because his mother is psychologist to the stars. From Griffin and Masters, how mega-corporation Sony exercised almost no oversight over the men it hired to run Columbia Pictures, which it spent a fortune to buy. From Obst, how women are slowly carving out a power niche in the movie business.

But nearly all of these more or less revealing books were written by real insiders, the people who took the meetings, pitched the stories, got the studio notes and schmoozed their hearts out to get financing. (And in Dunne's case, wielded their lawyers to get paid.) The reason they know about Hollywood's inner workings is because they lived through it. Journalists have no obvious way of gaining access to the process of making movie deals or casting decisions, handling budget overruns or release schedules. Without the details of negotiations or meetings, it becomes difficult to write the fly-on-the-wall accounts that are so popular in political reporting. When they learn details, it is usually far after the fact, once the newsworthy drama has ended.

But sometimes information is valuable and worth pursuing even when late. Griffin was until last year a top editor at Premiere magazine (she and others resigned when the publisher killed an investigative story); and Masters started out covering Hollywood for the Los Angeles Daily News and Premiere, moving on to the Post's Style section and now Vanity Fair and Time magazine. They succeeded in their research after their subjects, ex-producers Jon Peters and Peter Guber, became so notorious that people were happy to gossip about them. And also after they had fallen from power. The same was true for the spate of articles about ex-Disney president Ovitz, who had far too many enemies to be spared a public flaying before his demise.

But in general, one must assume that a considerable amount of interesting, juicy and no doubt important stuff goes unknown in Hollywood except to a select few. Is it coincidence that neither Variety nor the Hollywood Reporter have examined the slow start of DreamWorks SKG, which was expected to set the entertainment world on fire? Why have there have been no stories about the box office woes of Warner Brothers, one of the most inaccessible studios in Hollywood? Variety offered to reprint my Golden Globe exposé in its advertising supplement for the awards, then — not surprisingly — declined after an editor actually read it.

Editors at the trade newspapers respond that they often write stories that anger the Hollywood establishment, but note that their function is mainly to inform, not investigate, the entertainment industry. Robert Dowling, editor in chief of the Hollywood Reporter, says, "When there's bad news, we say it and get out. We don't go on and on and on."

But John Gregory Dunne recounts how he, Didion and producer Scott Rudin precipitously quit "Up Close and Personal" over conflicts with director John Avenet, once Robert Redford and Michelle Pfeiffer were in place and a big budget was approved. "Nothing happened," he writes. "No one went public, no one bad-rapped, no one compromised the picture. Nor were Redford and Pfeiffer immediately informed of what had gone down. Maybe it would sort itself out; maybe it wouldn't. Writers are replaceable, so are producers. Low profile it. Make nice. Keep it out of the papers."

Dunne writes as if this is uncommon. But it is actually more the rule than the exception.

So to what part of the movie-making process are entertainment journalists privy? The part that involves selling the film.

The media are considered a key element in any movie's marketing campaign, providing free publicity in addition to the millions of dollars spent on commercial advertising. Indeed, some studios flat-out refuse to have anything to do with journalists unless it is in the context of a promotional event; MCA-Universal and Warner Brothers make no pretense of offering information to inquiring journalists otherwise (unless you have a direct connection to the studio chiefs), although they do have large media departments. Other studios are more cooperative, if only because they figure they'll need you later on.

In order to maximize their coverage, Hollywood has invented something called the "press junket," a two- or three-day affair in which a studio will fly in a couple hundred journalists to a hotel, wine and dine them, then bring in the cast and director of the upcoming film for non-stop interviews. The stars usually dread this ritual, and with cause: A lead actor may easily do 60 to 70 television interviews in a day. There are fewer print interviews, but the deadening effect is the same: We all tend to ask the same questions. This is about as far from a spontaneous Q&A situation as one can imagine. Less prestigious journalists participate in roundtable interviews; newspapers like the Post may be rewarded with "one-on-ones." (The Post and other high-profile newspapers do not accept travel or accommodations from the studios, but many entertainment journalists commonly accept such perks.)

Lack of spontaneity aside, the junket has become a culture unto itself; there are journalists who spend their careers traveling from one event to the next, comparing notes with colleagues on food, accommodations and the "freebies" that accompany the press kits, anything from baseball caps to T-shirts to CDs of the sound track to the book on which the screenplay was based. At the "Evita" press junket, a lavish affair at the Ritz-Carlton in Marina del Rey late last year, Disney gave journalists an elegant black diptych containing the sound track CD of the movie, a baseball cap, an "Evita" book and a copy of the screenplay, each one autographed by director Alan Parker. Incredibly, the studio also provided journalists with a form for reimbursement of "miscellaneous expenses" incurred during the event. Journalists invited to screenings during junkets commonly receive free meals throughout the trip.

Under these conditions, one might expect the most studio-friendly sort of interview and coverage. But Hollywood can't leave even this much to chance. Journalists allowed access to A-list stars may be requested to sign waivers specifying taboo subjects and where the story may run. If it's Demi Moore, no questions about her mother. If it's Tom Cruise, no questions about Nicole Kidman's fertility. Even more amazing, in "Monster," John Gregory Dunne reveals that he wrote answers for Michelle Pfeiffer in anticipation of questions about newscaster Jessica Savitch, on whose life "Up Close and Personal" was loosely based. He reprints the interview script:

Q: Didn't this start out as a picture about Jessica Savitch?

A: It did. For about 10 minutes... "Up Close and Personal" is about two people right now, two very strong-willed people, falling in love against their better judgment and trying to defend and hold that relationship against everything that works against it. And what works against it are the kinds of problems people have right now. Not 30 years ago.

Q: What kind of problems?

A: Wait and see the picture.

So much for the celebrity interview as a format. Even face-to-face the words they use may not be their own.

he most pathetic aspect about this giveaway culture is how easily journalists are bought off. Junket journalists are one thing. Ersatz critics are another. With nothing more than the prospect of seeing their names in print, a whole stable of film critics — often freelancers or writers for small radio operations — are prepared to provide studios with quotes for use in film ads. These 'critics' will concoct quotes for films they do not intend to critique, may send studios advance copies of their reviews and in some cases are not even critics at all, except for the purposes of film blurbs. This oft-quoted group is well-known to publicists, sometimes called "blurbmeisters" or, less kindly, "quote whores." They do not deny the practice but usually point the finger at others.

"There are a lot of critics out there, and definitely some who want to see their names in print," says Joey Berlin, a writer/producer for a syndicated radio feature called "Sixty-Second Preview." He provides blurbs under the name Jeff Craig. "The studios know better than anybody. There is a legitimacy that comes with being recognized by them."

Paul Wunder, a critic with WBAI radio in New York, responded to a survey conducted by San Jose Mercury News critic Glenn Lovell: "I wrote long quotes for a studio with lots for them to work with," including, he said, for films he didn't like. The practice came under scrutiny last year when it emerged that studios sometimes actually make up lists of quotes and ask critics to attach their names to them. Wunder declined to attach his name to any of the quotes faxed to him. And despite exposure by the serious press, the habit continues unabated.

But the worst offenders in this giveaway culture are probably the members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. This group, which bestows the Golden Globe Awards every January, is known in Hollywood for the perks its 80-plus members have come to expect. The HFPA travels to junkets around the country at studio expense and is often invited to other flashy events, like the opening of a Las Vegas hotel last fall. Movie stars give them exclusive news conferences and pose with members individually for pictures afterward (it is an HFPA requirement). The group is deluged by gifts from studios around nominations and awards time. The HFPA is almost impossible to join and includes many members who either do not practice journalism at all or are freelance writers for obscure publications in small countries. Meanwhile it has refused membership to bona fide journalists from publications like Le Monde. None of this is true for the deservedly prestigious Academy Awards. The laughable standards of the Golden Globes are common knowledge in Hollywood. But the studios are perfectly content to bankroll the HFPA as a relatively inexpensive marketing tool (the Golden Globes are the tool, not the members' articles), just as they see the press junkets as a cost-efficient method of promotion.

Aida Takla O'Reilly, chair of HFPA, doesn't deny gift-giving, but says, "It is very difficult for Third World countries to give enough money to full time journalists to make a living. Some have to subsidize their income. There's nothing wrong with that. But to make them out as not being journalists anymore is erroneous.

"Every member is legitimate. It is not hard to get in [the HFPA]," O'Reilly says. "..Sometimes people don't qualify under the criteria."

When the carrot doesn't work, Hollywood tries the stick. San Jose's Lovell undertook his survey last year after he was informed by Disney that he was persona non grata at its screenings and media events. The critic had transgressed, Lovell's editor was informed, by giving a "lukewarm review" to "Beauty and the Beast," and by maintaining an objectionable "overall tone" in his coverage (a familiar refrain). When the newspaper backed up the writer, Disney finally relented. But Lovell's survey found many critics and entertainment writers were subjected to similar treatment. Jeffrey Wells, a Los Angeles-based freelancer, was blackballed by Columbia Pictures for a piece he wrote about the dud "Last Action Hero" in the Los Angeles Times in 1993. The studio thóeatened to cancel advertising if his name reappeared. Rod Lurie, former critic for Los Angeles magazine, said he was banned for life by Warner Bros. for describing Danny DeVito as "a testicle with arms" in his "Other People's Money" review.

The studios don't always carry out the threats. In my own case, DreamWorks told me to "lose" its phone number after I wrote an article quoting some of the studio's critics, then cheerfully put me in touch with an executive for a more "favorable" story two days later. But the intimidation is very real, and the criticism quickly becomes very personal. Indeed, nothing undermines a journalist's confidence more than hearing from an editor that a studio accuses him or her of unprofessional behavior. (This in the absence of any concrete factual errors or misstatements.)

But, as I have slowly learned, this is no more than a tactic. Hollywood is full of extremely smart, experienced business people. They know better than to be thin-skinned; but they have learned the usefulness of acting thin-skinned with journalists.

To a considerable degree, Hollywood is able to control the amount of information available about the movie industry. But should it have the right to set all the rules?

The studios may well argue that they are not accountable to the public. This is not, after all, government. But most studios are public companies that are, at the very least, accountable to their shareholders. More important, those who create our popular culture should, it seems fairly obvious, accept some measure of transparence and accountability because of their enormous influence.

These arguments fall on deaf ears in Tinsel Town, despite the decidedly liberal bent of most executives, producers, actors and everybody else in the industry. Moviemaking is a business, they remind you. With the average cost of producing a film some $35 million, with the marketing cost of big budget movies often exceeding another $20 million, Hollywood cannot afford not to control the process at every stage. It cannot afford to treat the media as independent arbiters and certainly not as adversaries. For many in the media, this apparently is convincing. Hollywood does a very good job at molding tastes and opinions. Why should this be any less true for the media?

In any event, journalists may feel they have little choice in the matter. But they do have some choice: They can systematically reject the studio's perks and gifts. Editors could refuse to cave to threats of blackballing their reporters. Reporters could actively seek out information rather than allowing the studios' release schedules to dictate the pace and content of their coverage.

To some degree this is fighting City Hall. Just try and get a movie star to agree to an interview when he or she is not promoting a movie (I have). You can't force a studio executive to talk to you about an issue that doesn't serve his interest. But even more sadly, there seems to be little hope that these sorts of measures might appeal to more than a handful of serious journalists working in Hollywood.

Most are perfectly comfortable where they are. And the studios intend to keep it that way.

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