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A Lesson in Movie Industry Semantics

By Dustin Rowles | Film | December 2, 2009 |

By Dustin Rowles | Film | December 2, 2009 |

We’ve been incredibly lucky for the last month or so to have something of an extra, anonymous contributor here on the site in the form of The Hollywood Cog, who has provided — and continues to provide — quite a bit of industry news that few others have access to, and allowed us to report it. More than lucky, really: We’re fortunate in that we’ve cultivated a reader who thinks enough of us to stick his neck out. But when a movie website that’s not been known for breaking stories starts doing so on a regular basis, there’s likely to be some skepticism with regard to the quality of the information. And there should be. I probably wouldn’t be that inclined to run a news item that another site I’d heard little of (and that rhymes with “vagina,” no less) had reported without at least providing some caveats. Luckily, several of our stories have been confirmed, and the more that are in the future, the smaller that grain of salt will be. For us to run one of these stories is almost a no-brainer — our source has not only gained our trust, but backs up his news items with evidence, which is to say: There’s a lot more here than overheard agency gossip. In fact, we’ve been able to additionally double source more than half of the stories we’ve ran (though our second sources have also remained anonymous).

But in presenting these news items, it is important that we contextualize the information, which I feel we’ve done well so far. The issue, however, is that in contextualizing some of these stories, some of you may not be completely familiar with the terminology, or at least its application in the world of trade news. For instance, the word “attached” could easily be misunderstood. There are hundreds of movies currently in development, but in many cases, no one will pay attention to an in-development project until a named actor or actress is “attached.” Does it mean that he or she will actually end up making the movie? Well, let’s put it this way: After Valkyrie, Tom Cruise was attached to something like 10 or 12 movies then in development. And so far, he’s only in the process of making one of those. Some of those projects have gone on to other actors — Johnny Depp is now attached to The Tourists and Ryan Reynolds is set for Motorcade, for instance — and some projects Cruise will remain attached to until either they are made, they are passed off to another actor, or they eventually burn up in development hell. All of which is to say, if an actor is “attached” to the project, whether he or she ends up making it it depends in large part on how many other projects he or she is “attached” to. In the case of Tom Cruise, “attached” probably means there’s around a 10 percent chance he’ll actually end up making that movie, but a pretty decent likelihood that the movie will be made with someone (after all, the idea was good enough in the beginning to attract Tom Cruise).

Another common term is “set.” There’s more certainty in “set.” It suggests there’s actually a deal in place. Take Will Smith, for example. He’s currently “attached” to something like 25 films; obviously, only three or four of those, at best, will be made with Smith in the lead role, and obviously, where there are sequels (Hancock 2) or prequels (I Am Legend), they’ll only be made if he decides to make them. However, as we reported a few weeks ago, Smith is set to produce Flowers for Algernon, which he’s also “attached” to star in. His production company (along with another one) bought the rights to the book, with an eye toward featuring Smith in the lead role. Will this movie actually get made? There, you have to use your judgment: He bought the rights; he’s set to produce; and the part is an ideal one for Smith, so I’d put the odds at around 60 percent that Flowers for Algernon will be made, and 50 percent that it’ll be made and ultimately star Will Smith.

So, no: It’s not a sure thing. Much will ultimately depend on the script that is produced, the availability of Smith, and who he’s able to coax into directing it.

The driving issue here is the process in which movies are made. I’d say that 80 percent of movies start out as a pitch and usually a lame one, at that. Someone — either an actor or director — will attach themselves to a pitch, often before a script has been written or a writer has even been hired. Take, for instance, the pitch we first mentioned a few weeks ago, a movie called Little Big War, about two guys who discover a 3D copier that allows anything they put into it come to life, so they copy pictures of supermodels. It’s being described as a modern-day Weird Science. It’s a pitch — so far, that’s all there is to it. And Walt Becker (Old Dogs, Wild Hogs) is attached to that pitch. But a lot has to happen before it gets made — namely, someone has to turn that pitch into a screenplay, and then the studio has to attach talent to it and only if everything aligns correctly will it actually get made. If the script blows, Becker may fall off; if the script is really good (ha!), a better director may come aboard. And between the pitch and the script, five different actors could attach themselves to the project. Essentially, they’re acting as placeholders, but as long as someone is attached, the project will continue to develop. But the project never would’ve moved past the pitch stage had there not been a director or an actor attached.

Moreover, directors fall off projects all the time, though it’s rarely reported. In the last month, we’ve reported that Peter Berg left Dune and that Robert Rodriguez left The Jetsons, while The Playlist reported that Paul Greengrass left Bourne 4. It’s fun to report when a director leaves a project — there’s more certainty to it. And as movie reporters, we don’t have to worry as much an actor replacing another actor who was attached to a project before the former is confirmed, thus making us look like big asses.

But we are careful to report only what we know — if someone is “attached” or “set” to star or direct a movie, we say as much, whether the majority of our readers understands the implications of that, or not. Still, until that actor or director is already filming, there’s no guarantee he or she will make it — and in some cases, an actor can be replaced during filming (as Ryan Gosling was during The Lovely Bones).

In other words, contextualizing is important, as is the way you frame the story, and so is your source, otherwise you end up with something like this, from CHUD:

May 8, 2009 Yesterday we learned that Brett Ratner looked to be out of the director’s chair on the new Conan movie, which possibly shoots this summer. The producers have been wasting no time in trying to get a new helmer for the franchise reboot, which after months of development still needs some script work and a leading actor. And according to my very trustworthy, very much correct in the past source, they’ve found their director:

James McTeigue.

one month later

The meetings have been taken. The lists have been winnowed. The director has been signed.

Marcus Nispel will direct Conan the Barbarian . I get this from an impeccable source, one who assures me that this isn’t speculation or rumor. Nispel has signed on the line that is dotted.

I wonder if it was the same source both times? Anyway, it happens. Trusted sources who have been right in the past can be wrong, and things can change in a matter of days or weeks. But it does raise another question:

If There’s So Much Flux, Why Do We Even Report This Stuff?

That’s a good question, and a fair one. But before I answer it, allow me to provide some context. It all seemed to start around the turn of the century. Until then, Variety and The Hollywood Reporter were the main trade publications — they reported the trade news in a very flat and uninteresting way, and they were the only ones who really did it. But then sites like AICN started to crop up, and people began to realize that they preferred their movie news mixed with a little insight and a heavy dose of opinion. They didn’t mind waiting an hour after the trades published a news item to read the same thing on another site mixed with a little editorial commentary. Then, more and more movie sites began to erupt, and each seemed to have their own spin, designed for their own niche readership. And while THR and Variety were employing hundreds of people to report news in a flat and uninteresting way, these other sites realized they could do the same thing with one or five people in a more interesting way and, in effect, over the course of the decade make those trade publications more or less obsolete. The more pervasive the actual information became, the less valuable it was, which meant that the trades had to cut their staffs to meet the slowing demand.

Now, of course, you can get the same news tailored to your specific tastes from a variety of sites. Slashfilm and Cinematical are like the CNN of trade news; Cinemablend or Coming Soon is like the MSNBC, ( being the Headline News) while CHUD is like Fox News for Fanboys (where Devin Faraci is the Glenn Beck — whiny and self-righteous). Non-discriminating fanboys go to AICN; more discriminating geeks go to sites like Film School Rejects or Collider. Smart folks with bigger attention spans go to the AV Club; people who beat the rest of us up visit Filmdrunk; cosmopolitans with hipster tastes in music go to The Playlist, and so on and so forth (there’s also about 100 devoted exclusively to bad horror movies). Our niche is probably closer to the nerdy pedants (represent!), both on the coasts and in Middle America (and we may be the only movie site that boasts over a 70 percent female and gay readership, making it one of the few places that you can read the movie news and find a random hook-up).

The thing is: We’re not reporting anything that Variety and THR weren’t also reporting at one point and, to some extent, still are. These “attached” stories have been around for decades. How do we know that Tom Cruise was attached to ten or twelve projects earlier this year? Mostly from those trade publications. They still provide a lot of the information we add our spin to, but now there are other sites who break news (largely from nuggets picked up from junket interviews, scouring the web or from their own sources) that the rest of us add our own spin to, as well. The information itself is no longer that valuable; the way in which it is presented is.

Variety and THR used to keep up on the development of movies, from pitch to the screen — and they reported all the changes that happened in between. Just yesterday, they reported that John Madden is “negotiating” to direct My Fair Lady. Does that mean he actually will? Well, four other directors have been considered for the project, but there’s a good chance, all the same. But in the past, the trades were on top of the story before this point. Sure, they often use other movie blogs’ research to build their own stories (for instance, they will confirm an anonymous sourced story on another site and take all the credit). Now the trades don’t even have the manpower, it seems, to follow up on news items first revealed on other blogs. They just sit back, collect the same press releases most of us get, and turn them into their coverage.

But for us, there’s more to it than “we do it because they do it.” We do it because we’re not meant to be the Associated Press. I loved EW in college, back before they ran it into the tabloid ground. That, in a way, is what I aimed to replicate on the web, only with a more cynical and hopefully more intelligent perspective. We run four or five features a day (reviews, lists, Guides), a book review, Pajiba Love, and Blog Trends, but we start the day with news stories, which we’ve only been doing in earnest since September 2008 (though Pajiba itself is coming up on six years old). We like to shoot the shit about what’s going on in the industry; mock it; reveal it for the sham it is. It’s no different than pre-draft prognostications in the NFL or Hot Stove talk in baseball. A lot of stuff we discuss will happen; some of it won’t. Moreover, it’s fun to get ahead of the trades, because we can frame a story the way we want to present it, and not the way that the studios want it presented. It’s our small and ultimately insignificant way of sticking it to the man.

But mostly, like the movies and television we cover, Pajiba — and other sites of our ilk, which appeal to other niches — are here to entertain; we’re here to break up your day, or to give you something to chat about with your peers (or amongst each other). We take that job, the quality of reporting, and especially the reviews very seriously (most of the time), even if we don’t take the industry all that seriously. It’s fun and rewarding to screw with the system or influence our readers’ movie choices, even from this small place of the web.

We like to report the news; feign our suicides; bitch, moan, and bellyache. But we don’t really take the development of another remake that seriously, and anyone that does take their movie news too seriously has some messed up delusions of grandeur about their position in the world — at the end of the day, we’re reporting on actors and actresses and movies and a fantasy land, not world events, climate change, or the financial crisis. It’s important not to lose sight of that. We love movies; we love to hate movies; otherwise, we wouldn’t be doing this. But you’ve got to look at it with a healthy perspective: If you start getting self-righteous about movie news, then you’ve lost perspective, son. You need to get out of your own head a few hours and focus that self-righteous indignation on something that really matters, and not on how many more Twilight movies there will be or whether Anna Faris will actually star in a remake of Private Benjamin.*

*Our source says she’s “set” to do so.

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Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.