The Reeler


November 20, 2007

Flack From All Sides

How PR zealotry is killing film journalism -- and how to stop it

(Photo: Punchstock; Illustration: D. Fith)

Once upon a time, a little newspaper had been promised an interview with a big star. The star's new film, which was getting major buzz, was about to open, and even though the paper was small in circulation, the studio wanted to give it the interview because it was on a major wire service and its stories ran everywhere.

But the star's publicist said the studio wasn't supposed to offer him to the little paper, and canceled the sit-down. This really annoyed the paper's features editor, who felt he had accepted the offer in good faith. If the PR company didn't produce the star, he said, then the paper would not do business with that company anymore.

And they didn't. This seemed to amaze almost everyone in Hollywood, since the PR company was one of the biggest in the business and controlled access to many major actors. But months went by, and the little paper stuck to its guns.

Finally, someone from the big PR firm asked what it could do to get back in the good graces of the little paper. The answer was this: "Your boss [a powerful legend in the PR business] has to take our features editor out to lunch and be really, really nice to him."

So she did.

This is not a fairy tale. This actually happened when I was working for the Los Angeles Daily News back in the late '80s (the star, film and PR firm shall remain nameless), and it's the kind of occurrence that could never happen today. In the 20 years since, PR firms and personal publicists have gained more and more influence over the entertainment news process. During the same time, the number of news outlets has grown exponentially, particularly on TV and the Web, which has created desperate fights over access to the stars. As a result, too many outlets have allowed themselves to become little more than mouthpieces for the PR machine, and many entertainment journalists are now being forced to put up with practices that were unheard of two decades ago:

* Publicists now regularly sit in on interviews, vetting questions and cutting the already minuscule time short (one-on-one interviews used to last a full hour; now you're lucky if you get 20 minutes) if they don't like where the reporter is going.

* Many reporters sign legal disclaimers stating their story, and the photography accompanying it, will not show up in any publication other than the one they work for. This means freelancers cannot resell stories even if they own the rights, and newspapers supposedly cannot put their staff-written pieces on the wire. Only a handful of outlets refuse these extortionate agreements, and they are usually punished (read: denied access) for doing so.

* Publicists demand guaranteed play, i.e., "You get the interview only if we get a cover." Most outlets happily agree.

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Thanks in part to all of this, the term "entertainment journalism" has practically become an oxymoron, often uttered derisively. It has become more and more difficult to pitch stories with any kind of depth. Except for a handful of publications -- The New York Times, LA Times, Washington Post and occasionally Entertainment Weekly -- almost no one is covering the film industry as an industry anymore, and even fewer are dealing with it as a cultural force whose images influence billions of people around the globe.

Needless to say, all of this is shortchanging you, the reader, who is being force fed a steady diet of warmed-over, surface-thin interviews -- gossip disguised as news and cheerleading pretending to be criticism. Editors assume this is what you want, so they regurgitate the same tired stories about film openings, celebrity bad behavior, features that read like ad copy and stories about why such-and-such [insert term here] is the latest cutting-edge [insert additional term here].

Can anything be done about this? Probably not, given the craven state of entertainment coverage these days, but I do have at least two suggestions, naive though they might seem.

First, film journalists can refuse to do business the way flacks want them to. If just a few major outlets took a principled stand -- no, we won't sign your disclaimers; no, we won't guarantee a cover -- publicists would eventually get the message. If nothing else, the studios and distributors, who are not the villains here (most studio publicists will confess off the record how much they despise the personal publicists), would confront the personal publicists about changing their ways.

More importantly, editors must stop assuming their readers are idiots. Just because US Weekly and InTouch sell millions of copies doesn't mean that's all anyone wants to read about showbiz. I know this from experience: The most reader feedback I've ever gotten was not from any celebrity interview I've ever done, but from in-depth feature stories that probed topical Hollywood issues. (Remember what happened last year on this site when I called out the sycophantic press corps covering Borat?) Readers actually like, and respond to, provocative reporting -- same as it ever was.

So why don't editors understand that? Maybe it's me, just a dinosaur whose time has passed. But back in the '80s, when I broke in as a freelancer with the LA Times, editors encouraged entertainment writers to write about their beats as if they were actually part and parcel of a bigger, more complex world in which movies both reflected and shaped the culture -- where politics, racial and sexual attitudes, sociology and historical context all played a major role. It was actually exciting to write -- and read -- about the industry because it meant something. If those days are past, then we're all the poorer for it.

Comments (6)

aside from totally calling FIRST on a Beale comment thread, I'm all for the changing of PR and world turning into a better place.

But I think we'd have to change too: i.e. no more eating/drinking the junket kool-aid, forcing talent to go off the PR cheat sheet, giving up The Regency's delicious coffee.

I mean, I could do 2/3. But giving up the sweet, sweet free coffee from The Regency? I just don't know.

You also could cover movies that don't have powerful publicists.

It's high time someone said this so forcefully. There's nothing more depressing than feeling like cultural journalism has become a limp extra appendage of the PR industry..or having a PR flack withhold the talent you're actually interested in, and then offer a C-list nobody who's appearing in a 2009 WB cop drama (though to get him/her, you'd have to promise a cover, preferably laid-out in 3-D). Kudos.

Not long ago, the relatively serious Film magazine Premier closed up it's printing shop. One could usually count on interesting articles that offered some depth and perspective.

Since I had quite a bit remaining on my subscription, I was unceremoniously pawned off on the idiot's celebrity mag US Weekly for the duration. Gag. If only it came in a plain brown paper wrapper. I can't help but skim it.. who doesn't love a bit of gossip? But after 10 minutes, it hits the recycling bin. Even their gossip is stale and shallow.

I have little doubt that publicists court US Weekly for placement of their clients in the more flattering pieces and work out deals to avoid unflattering exposure of the major stars. How else to explain the domination of it's pages by the "D" list "stars"?

And the other side of the coin is that as a film publicist who mostly works on small, independent films, I no longer can get mainstream media reporters interested in writing about a small budget film, unless a STAR is involved. They do not seem interested in the industry and the great stories that always come with the making of a small film, PR or no PR.
Anne Howard

I feel that your post has a resounding nostalgia for days gone by – but wasn’t’ there a time in Hollywood when the studios controlled everything their stars AND the covering press did? What is that famous story about Howard Hughes keeping Spencer and Katherine photos out of the US WEEKLY of the time?

I am a flack. An agency one. A little bit in the middle of the studio and the personal talent rep. And it is posts like these that totally derail any kind of advocacy that I as a film publicist try to adhere to. How many social issue documentaries or small but important independent films have you covered in the last month?

And while I appreciate the small but backhanded distinction you make between the studio and agency publicist, it might be more important for the readers of this site to know the difference at the agency level. Many of my co-workers and colleagues at other firms are smart, articulate and have a strong film background and enjoy working with and not against journalists.

Don’t you think we know that being straightforward and honest with writers is a better way to secure ever diminishing column inches for a project that might be more thoughtful? But how do you do that when a paper has no interest in covering anything that doesn’t have a celebrity hook. Some New York dailies don’t even review all the films that open each week anymore. And we know that there isn’t enough space for everything, (especially given the rate that films are released now 15 a week and upwards) but it is an editors choice as to what the paper will cover beyond the required celebrity component. And that doesn’t seem like much these days.

My serious beef with your post though, is your blanket assessment of flacks in general. We are not all gatekeepers or assholes. Basically it would be like a publicist turning around and saying all journalist care about it being fed and getting a free hat. Now is that totally true? Or fair? Lewis, I see the point you are making – talent publicists have a different agenda - but I think your evaluation of an entire group of people working in this industry is a bit insincere. I am sure there are many films you could name that premiered at a film festival that you would never have even considered looking at until a publicist you knew and trusted suggested it. We are here to act as a tool and a conduit for a filmmaker and a project. To be a facilitator and believer. That doesn’t sound so evil does it?

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