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How to Be a Better Whore: Where Is the Line Between Studio Publicist and Movie Critic?

By Dustin Rowles | Think Pieces | March 18, 2011 | Comments ()


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Earlier this week, a big stink was raised about an email that was sent by Movefone, under the direction of Summit Entertainment, to a blogger over at TechCrunch, asking that blogger to tone down the snark in her coverage of the promotion for the movie, Source Code. The fact that even that streamlined synopsis of events (that leaves out the common link here, AOL, which owns Moviefone and Techcrunch) can be so convoluted speaks to how many conflicts of interest are natural in the existing corporate media structures. It'd take a graph to better illustrate what happened, but it raises a lot of questions about media ethics, journalism, and conflicts of interest, questions that have been well explored mostly on the tech blogs this week, but the movie blogs -- at least from what I can see -- have been mostly silent on the issue. Why?

But before we address those issue, let's back up here and detail what exactly happened. Last week, a TechCrunch blogger, Alexia Tsotsis, was invited by Summit Entertainment to a screening of Source Code, an invitation that was arranged by Moviefone. AOL owns both Moviefone and TechCrunch. After Tsotsis did a video interview with Jake Gyllenhaal, she wrote a post about a lot of the silly promotion Summit Entertainment used at SXSW to promote Source Code (and having witnessed the promotion, I can vouch for its silliness). After the piece ran, Moviefone sent an email to Tsotsis at TechCrunch suggesting that Summit Entertainment "felt it was a little snarky and wondered if any of the snark can be toned down?" (There's a lot more to the email you can read here). An outraged Tsotsis, in turn, posted the email.

Soon thereafter, Moviefone Editor-in-Chief Patricia Chui made matters worse in trying to address the situation. She said that, while she'd never force a writer to edit herself for a studio, she stressed how important it is to "stay on good terms with studios," which is why she passed along the notes from Summit's publicist to TechCrunch in the first place.

So, clearly, while there was nothing changed in any post, the fact that Moviefone would even pass along notes from Summit to a tech blogger is troubling, and it potentially suggests that similar notes from studio representatives have been sent from Moviefone's Editor-in-Chief to the writers on Moviefone and Moviefone's blog, Cinematical, all in service of "staying on good terms with the studio." In fact, in the wake of all this, what hasn't been much reported is that long-time editor at Cinematical, Scott Weinberg, quit in response to this mess (he was not, in any way, implicated in the scandal -- he quit out of protest, because he didn't want to be associated with the troubling ethical issues raised by Moviefone. In other words: He quit because he has a soul.).

Finally, Paul Carr, TechCrunch's Editor-in-Chief, in turn suggested that Moviefone's Editor-in-Chief should resign in shame, adding this applause-worthy postscript:

"An editor-in-chief wrote these words: "we work with movie studios every day, and it is in our best interests to stay on good terms with them". Actually, Patricia, you only have two loyalties: one is to your readers and one is to the company that signs your paychecks. That's it. You do not - emphatically do not - have a responsibility to "stay on good terms" with movie studios. On the contrary, when a movie company asks you to try to strong-arm a colleague into dialing down her editorial voice, it's in your best interests as a professional editor to tell them to go fuck themselves. The fact that you didn't do that is bad enough, the fact that you're so bad at your job that you still believe you acted correctly is unforgivable."

And that, folks, is what separates some the tech blogs from many of the movie blogs who really do seem to exist to be in service of the studios. In fact, this was a question that we returned to repeatedly during two movie blogger panels that Daniel Carlson and I sat on during SXSW. Our position was essentially: Don't be whores. The other position tried to find justifications for being a whore by suggesting that, in the right context, being a whore can actually improve your movie reviews. In other words, interviews and set visits, which serve no purpose other than to promote a film, can apparently also add flavor and context to your reviews.

Meanwhile, there are other movie blogs that really do seem to be additional promotional arms of the studios where the writers focus on getting their pictures taken with celebrities or cultivating Twitter relationships with filmmakers above all else. To many, the victory at the end of the day is not to inform or entertain their readers, but having their names below a blurb on a movie poster (and if you follow these cats on Twitter, every time someone gets their name on a movie poster or in a movie trailer, there's a round of congratulations, as though helping a studio promote a film is the apex of the movie-reviewing experience).

But the real troubling thing here is that if a studio publicist is putting pressure on a tech blogger to tone down the snark in her coverage of a film, how many publicists are putting pressure on movie bloggers to town down their negativity in reviews? This is apparently going on, as Cinematical Editor-in-Chief Erik Davis has suggested:

Naturally it is pretty common for studios to at least ask to tone down something that's particularly negative -- especially if they've given you special access (real early screening etc) to that movie -- but no one has ever forced me to change a post in order to please a studio. No one was forcing TechCrunch either -- Moviefone was just passing along Summit's message, leaving it up to TechCrunch to decide what to do editorially.

What? Because we don't work with publicists, I had no idea that "it is pretty common for studios to at least ask to tone down something that's particularly negative." How many critics are going to allow that pressure to influence their reviews out of fear of having their access withheld? Or because they don't want to piss anyone off. Personally, I don't like confrontation -- how many critics soften a review to avoid that confrontation with a publicist?

This is the danger of working with publicists in the first place, and part of the reason that this site does not: Whether you're taking cues from them or not, if you're working with a studio, if you're paling around with a filmmaker, if you're visiting the set, readers have every right to question your reviews. And now, because of the Moviefone/TechCrunch scandal, that concern is going to be heightened (and I'm going to fucking help heighten it).

In fact, it's why I'm concerned that some of the other major movie websites haven't openly expressed outrage. Is it because their response would be similar to Erik Davis' response? Because if my boss passed on a message to me saying, "I'm not forcing you to change anything, but the studio would like you to tone it down and we need to remain on good terms with the studio. You do whatever you think is right (*whistles*)," I think I'd think twice before using that 17th profanity, if my job depended on it.

I'm not saying that's what's going on, I'm just saying: That's probably what's going on.



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