Comic-Con, Jon Stewart, and How Film Bloggers Became Part of the Marketing Strategy
I made the mistake last Saturday night of dialing up my Twitter account during Comic-Con’s fever pitch, around the time that the full Avengers cast — including Mark Ruffalo (The Hulk) and Jeremy Renner (Hawkeye) were lining up on stage with Joss Whedon for the first time. I’ll grant that it must have been an exciting and even exhilarating moment for the people in attendance, and like most of them, I’m very much looking forward to what I hope will be a satisfying all-star geek-friendly cast (although, at times, the idea of The Avengers movie recalls in my mind Hanna Barbera’s Laff-a-Lympics, with Grape Ape, Captain Caveman, and Huckleberry Hound, et. al.).
What I saw on Twitter from the convention floor was about what I’d expected to see: Essentially, conventioneers treating this event — seven or eight people lined up on stage — how a 16-year-old Twilight fan-girl would react to seeing Edward and Jacob showering naked with Bella in the woods. There were ‘gasms of all variety. For instance, “Did anyone ever think that one day we’d ever actually see The Avengers line-up like this on the Comic-Con? Can’t. Wait. For. 2012!!!!!!” was a fairly typical Twitter reaction, give or take an “OMG!!!”
But what I found unsettling about the proliferation of breathless nerd-squees emanating from my Twitter account was that those reactions weren’t from the rank-and-file Comic-Con nerds (who earned those squees by standing in line for hours on end dressed uncomfortably as their favorite Avengers character); they were from the journalists and film bloggers covering the event. These were people — many of them paid professionals that thousands of others apparently trust in delivering news and reviews — who were absolutely losing their shit over what was essentially a marketing ploy. And it wasn’t isolated to just The Avengers panel. All weekend long, film bloggers around the Internet were posting — and gloating — about the merch they were being gifted by the marketing arms of studios.
I was both embarrassed of them and for them and, quite frankly, a little disturbed by how easily they were manipulated by studio marketing gimmickry. (For the record, this wasn’t all the movie blogs, of course. Besides our Hall H-less coverage, I saw very even-handed coverage from Film School Rejects, the usual excellent news reporting from The Playlist (with our own Drew Morton helping out), and the always spectacular crass cultural commentary from FilmDrunk, and I’m sure other outlets saw the event for what it was, too: A huge, elaborate, very expensive commercial manufactured to create hype around products).
Granted, this is not a complaint isolated to Comic-Con. The freebies, set visits, the paid trips, and the sycophancy are obviously year-round, though my awareness of it is usually only heightened during big events like Sundance, SXSW, or this. But Comic-Con is different from film festivals in one major respect. At film festivals, film bloggers and critics are often hyping movies they’ve actually seen, and they’re — in effect — helping to get out the good word for movies that don’t yet have a distributor (or, in some cases, crushing some poor indie filmmaker’s dreams). That’s a good critic’s job: To help spread positive word of mouth about great films, especially those that need it most. Comic-Con, on the other hand, is a 4-day marketing event for hundred million dollar films — film bloggers aren’t losing their shit over a finished movie, they’re losing it over a trailer, a poster, or a brief exchange or handshake with a celebrity. They’re doing the marketing department’s job for them: They’re selling a movie to their readers based on the adverts and merchandise. And they’re doing so after being worked up into a whipped frenzy. And the studios love it. It’s exactly what they want. They’ve manipulated the film bloggers into doing their work for them.
What’s nearly as troubling — I think — is also the close relationship that many of the bloggers develop with the filmmakers, which also becomes more obvious during events like Comic-Con, where those very filmmakers are in attendance. It’s a smart marketing move by the filmmakers — Kevin Smith and Edgar Wright, among others, are notoriously good at it — and I don’t blame them for angling for free positive coverage, especially the way they target their attention to those bloggers who would better reach their own target audience. That’s good marketing sense, and I’d do the same thing if I were in their position. It’s the film bloggers who buy into it so readily that concerns me — those starry eyes have a way of making it into their coverage (full disclosure: Wright DM’d me on Twitter one day and I ignored it. Not because I was trying to be a dick — I love his first two films, and I’m certain he’s a brilliant filmmaker and all-around awesome guy — but because I didn’t feel comfortable having an exchange with someone whose films I might be called upon to offer an opinion. I’ve also had a very uncomfortable exchange with Kevin Smith on Twitter about our negative review of Cop Out.). That’s sort of the point, really: How can you write honestly about a film after you’ve had drinks or shared a dance floor with the filmmaker, or even shared your vision of Star Trek with J.J. Abrams? It’s going to be difficult to continue that relationship — real or fake — without some awkwardness if you’ve shredded apart two years of their lives. At least it would be for me. Directors are going to take that personally, and I think a lot of film bloggers will probably end up trying to out-rave each other in order to curry the most favor from that filmmaker. It’s all fun and games until that director makes a dud, and then a blogger/critic will have to choose between hurting a filmmaker’s feelings or being honest.
This is not an attack on the film bloggers and movie journalists, really. After all, if you weren’t a huge fan of movies, you’re in the wrong profession if you’re writing about them, and you should express enthusiasm where enthusiasm is due. I just find these practices ethically unsettling. But then, many of the sites operated by the very people who cozy up to filmmakers or spray their enthusiasm (either genuine or not) on their blogs are incredibly popular and reach thousands, if not millions of people. And it’s not as though they’re not transparent about it (at least if you follow them on Twitter). So, their readers, for the most part, probably understand the conflicts of interest. They just don’t care. And as long as the audience doesn’t care, the journalist and bloggers feel no obligation to raise the discourse or avoid these potential conflicts. The system is working in their favor — they’re part of the marketing machine! — and no one really gets hurt except for the occasional moviegoer who relies on the opinion of a critic who has a Twitter relationship with the director of a film they’re reviewing. Big deal. It’s $10. No one’s losing sleep over it. And it’s not like people haven’t been burned by my own honest assessments.
So, good for those bloggers. Really. You can share a drink with a famous person, help them to sell their movie, and get paid for it. It’s kind of the ideal job, and the only downside is that some old-school douchebag with ethics hang-ups and a stick up his ass might express some reservations. So what, right? It’s old vs. new journalism. They’re changing the playing field, that’s all. Switching the dynamic from who could make the smartest, most honest observations about a movie to who could gain the attention of more filmmakers or express their enthusiasm about pre-publicity materialist the loudest and to the most people. Starfucking is not my game, but that’s just me. And obviously, I’m wrong because this site is not nearly as popular as some of theirs. Maybe we’re doing it wrong.
Look: This is not politics. It’s not life or death. At the end of the day, it doesn’t really mean anything. We’re talking about movies. Two-hour entertainments meant to help pass the time. There’s no sense in taking it too seriously. It’s not real journalism. And for God’s sake, don’t take my word for it. I write ridiculous random lists ranking the attraction of ginger celebrities. What the hell do I know?
Yet, I can’t help but think — if you change “politicians” to “studios” — that Jon Stewart’s comments to Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala several years back on “Crossfire” are, in their own way, appropriate in this context. On a much, much less substantial scale, of course. But germane, all the same:
“It’s not so much that it’s bad,” Stewart said of shows like “Crossfire” and their ilk. “It’s that it’s hurting America. Right now, you’re helping the politicians and corporations. And we’re left out there to mow our own lawns … [It’s not that] you’re too rough on [politicians] … You’re part of their strategies. You’re partisan — what do you call it? — hacks.”