Last week the online community of journalists got an email from Universal publicity, the gist of which was “When you go to junkets don’t hound the talent for autographs, photographs or ask them to record special messages. Act professionally or we’re going to freeze you out.” This email came on the heels of Paramount’s latest junket weekend, where they had to specifically ask people in advance not to go for autographs and such. I commiserated with my Universal contact – sure are a lot of dumb whores at these junkets, huh? – and left it at that.
But the folks over at Cinematical took this as a call to arms, a battle cry against the bad internet press (ie, most of them). And just to make the point, writer Ryan Stewart, who seemed nice enough, if kind of non-social, at the roundtables where I have seen him, declared he would start printing the names of the autograph whores if they didn’t cut it out.
Now, I don’t like the way some of my “peers” behave at these junkets. If you buy me a beer I’ll have many stories about the cretins, retards, opportunists and film illiterates I have to deal with at most roundtable interviews. But printing their names? That’s weird, and it made me wonder where this guy is coming from, that he thinks a campaign of public shaming is in order. I have come to the conclusion that Ryan is both suffering from a superiority complex when it comes to internet journalists (and seriously, it’s hard not to) as well as an inferiority complex when it comes to the press in general. He feels that he’s better than his colleagues but maybe not as good (or perhaps just taken not as seriously) as the print folks.
He’s probably right on both counts – as I said, I’ve been at roundtables with Ryan and he doesn’t ask stupid or embarrassing questions, which puts him ahead of 80% of the onliners. But he’s online, and in the current world of publicity that is always worth less than print, unless we’re talking about a small genre film. It’s frustrating, especially at some studios who disdain online so much that even the online publicists don’t want to bother dealing with web outlets (for the record, Universal is not one of these studios. They’re great with onliners), but that’s how the game works right now. The solution? Do better work and get to know filmmakers and go around the publicity system. That’s how I ended up on the set of United 93 – it wasn’t like Universal was dying to send “CHUD.com” to visit the big 9/11 movie. But I used that opportunity to do good work, and in February Newmarket Press is going to be publishing a United 93 script book that includes an interview I did with director Paul Greengrass. The fact of the matter is that respect doesn’t come with page views, it has to be earned.
It’s these conflicting feelings that make Ryan side with the studio on this one, even though they are, in the end, dead wrong. Why? Let me list the ways:
- It’s the studio’s fault. Most of the major studios invite anyone with a URL to press days lately. Heck, I’ve been on set visits with sites that I never even heard of, and a big part of my day is spent trolling the web looking for interesting news bits. These small timers tend to be less than professional, and many of these sites are willing to send any warm body to attend the junket. Obviously the only reason why I know this is because some studio took a chance on CHUD and invited us to some press days, but the fact of the matter is that not every guy with access to blogspot should be lobbing questions at Robert DeNiro.
- The studios shouldn’t be lumping us all together. Let’s face it, Ryan is accepting the idea that all online outlets are created equal. It’s not true, and the publicists know this. And they wouldn’t deliver the same kind of threat to print journalists – just because the guy from the Brooklyn Eagle newspaper acts like a dick at a junket doesn’t mean that Time Magazine is getting frozen out in the future. And just because the guy from AwesomeCinemaNewsDude.com is a douchebag doesn’t mean that I don’t deserve to be there. Hell, I deserve to be at these tables more than most of the print journalists I sit with. More on that later.
- Many of these annoying online people are not online people. This is the kicker. The junkets that sent Universal over the edge were in New York City, a town where freelancers line the street like parking meters. They’re everywhere, and what happens when a freelancer can’t get assigned to cover a junket is they pretend to be online to get in. Which is actually more work than necessary – I know some people who were not invited to Paramount’s big junket weekend two weeks back and just showed up and got in anyway. And got a gift bag, too. There’s tighter control in LA, where the gossip rags often try to get in and ask awful questions. Meanwhile in New York any jerk off the street could conceptually walk in and sit down at a roundtable with Matt Damon if he just knew where to go. This is not an exaggeration, by the way. And that, again, is the studio’s fault, not ours.
You know whose names Ryan should be listing? The people who come to junkets and don’t ask questions. The stringers who are sent by big magazines to sit there with a tape recorder and bring back the answers to the questions I asked and then get paid more money for it than I do. I have seen answers to my questions turn up in major magazines and newspapers again and again. I see many print folks at junkets who never speak, and then go back to the newsroom, write up a piece based on my work, and pay off their mortgage.
Or maybe Ryan should be raging against the publicists who jam online press into rooms with college press and bullshit gossip and lifestyle people – “What’s your favorite travel destination, Brad? Are you going to kiss anyone under the mistletoe this year, George?” – who ruin the mood and momentum of a good roundtable with their inane questions. Or how about the people who dominate a table, acting like they have a one on one and talking over not just other questions from the press but the talent themselves – and who get invited again and again to junkets?
But the fact of the matter is that no studio is going to freeze out online press. Except maybe Fox, since that seems to be their corporate philosophy in the first place. Here’s the thing – we’re easy and cheap. We don’t make a ton of demands because most of us are sheer amateurs amazed by a free buffet. And in the end we reach more people than most of the newspapers who get better treatment – combined. We’re probably going to eventually get elbowed out by the guys who provide content for cell phones or some shit, but at the moment, we’re a great and easy way for marketing to ensure that lots of people gain awareness about whatever junk is being peddled at cineplexes this week.
In the end many online journalists are just as awful as Universal’s email indicates. But rather than whine about it and snitch about it, do something about it. Do better work. Get more exclusives with filmmakers and actors. Raise the level of discourse and improve the image of internet journalism. And while many online journalists ARE awful, don’t buy Universal’s line and divide the world into the bad ones and the ones who “follow the rules.” There are plenty of smart, incisive people who I look forward to sharing tables with, and at the end of the day what’s important isn’t that post-table crush but the questions that get asked and the content that comes from them.