Movies and Manipulation

Movies and Manipulation how studios punish critics

by Glenn Lovell

Do movie studios manipulate critics? Of course they do. And the effort goes well beyond the recently publicized, decades-old practice of finding nominal critics willing to put their names to any prepackaged rave (“funny, funny, funny!”) sent to them by the studios

In a ten-month survey underwritten by the National Arts Journalism Program and carried out at the University of Southern California School of Journalism, we turned up accounts of everything from forcible ejection from pre-opening screenings to blackballing by a studio for “the tone” of one’s coverage or breaking a review-embargo date.

The survey concluded that manipulation of the media has never been more rampant; that Disney, Miramax, and Warner Bros. are perceived by the entertainment press as the “most manipulative” studios, and 20th Century Fox and MGM the “least manipulative”; and that many in the media – including this reporter while covering film for the San Jose Mercury News – have been blacklisted by studios for “not playing by the rules.”

Worse yet, as movie budgets increase, marketing departments try to safeguard their investments by developing newer and more expedient ways of sorting friend from foe, the “studio shills” (as Armond White of the now-defunct City Sun in Brooklyn tarred them) from the independent-minded journalists.

More than 100 questionnaires went out to critics, reporters, and entertainment editors at magazines, alternative weeklies, TV and radio stations, large and small dailies. At this writing, 62 people, from the New Yorker critic Pauline Kael to the Osceola (Florida) News-Gazette ‘s reviewer, Peter Covino, have replied. Responses ranged from “Check the mirror – we’re our own worst enemy” and “Publicists are paid to manipulate” to “Finally, someone addressing this issue!”

Some of America’s most influential critical voices have been muted by angry publicists and powerful agents. The venerable Kael and Judith Crist (formerly of The Today Show and New York magazine) were barred from screenings by Warner Bros. in the 60s and 70s. Jami Bernard (New York Daily News), Jonathan Rosenbaum (Chicago Reader), Judy Gerstel (Toronto Star), David Elliott (San Diego Union-Tribune), and White of the City Sun have all been punished for various trespasses on studio sensibilities.

Kael, now 77 and retired in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, says she paid a heavy price for her independence. “It’s very embarrassing when your friends and colleagues are getting into a movie and you can’t,” says Kael, generally regarded as the best American film critic since James Agee. “On one occasion I was invited to a screening by mistake. When I got inside and sat down, I was asked to leave. On another occasion, when the studio publicist saw me, I was told the screening had been canceled. Later, I was told that as soon as I left the building, the screening was called again.”

More recently, Bernard of the Daily News was blackballed by former Disney boss Jeffrey Katzenberg for “the tone” of an Eddie Murphy interview, and White of the City Sun was barred from Columbia’s Get on the Bus screenings because of a longstanding feud with the film’s director, Spike Lee. (Eventually, thanks to pressures by the New York Film Critics Circle, White was admitted to a screening.)

Rod Lurie, formerly of Los Angeles magazine, said he was “banned for life” by Warner Bros. for describing Danny DeVito as “a testicle with arms” in his Other People’s Money review. Gerstel, then new to her beat at the Detroit Free Press, filed an early report on poor audience response to Steven Spielberg’s Hook (“Hook Sinks”) and received a stern lesson in studio politics: she was dropped from Columbia-TriStar’s and Amblin Entertainment’s press lists and (because “loose cannons” are considered a communal problem) soon found herself barred from Warner Bros. and Universal functions as well. Two years later, Amblin allowed Gerstel only minimal access when Spielberg’s Schindler’s List opened.

Not even the Thumb Boys, Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel, are impervious to such treatment. In 1990, the two were dropped from the 20th Century Fox screening list for badmouthing Nuns on the Run on the Live with Regis and Kathie Lee show. Unlike Gerstel, who wields nowhere near their clout, Ebert and Siskel were reinstated in less than three weeks, with Fox calling further measures “counterproductive.”

Obviously the Hollywood freelancer – whose livelihood depends on easy access to stars and screenings – is most susceptible to the studio ban. Jeffrey Wells, a longtime industry reporter, and Patrick Goldstein, senior writer for Premiere and a frequent contributor to the Los Angeles Times, were blackballed by, respectively, Columbia and Sony Pictures for stories that were called “irresponsible” and “vicious.” Wells’s report on a Last Action Hero research screening Columbia swore never took place ran in the Los Angeles Times‘s Sunday Calendar and resulted in threats to cancel advertising (then worth $5 million annually). Goldstein’s Los Angeles magazine exposé on Sony (“Inside Hollywood’s Most Clueless Studio,” February 1996) brought the expected protests and penalties.

How petty can all this get? Very.

Bernard was exiled to the balcony at a Disney preview after attending the Central Park send-off of Pocahontas and filing an early review. (Janet Maslin of The New York Times also filed early but was not penalized.) Richard Von Busack (San Jose Metro) was cut from Universal’s junket list for “not putting Chevy Chase on our cover for Fletch II.” Peter Keough of The Boston Phoenix claims: “Disney has banned us because a cover slighted Pocahontas.” San Francisco’s Jan Wahl (KRON-TV, KCBS) said she was thrown off Alcatraz by an irate Disney publicist – for not asking the right questions of Sean Connery and Nicolas Cage at the world premiere of The Rock. And Rosenbaum of the Chicago Reader was banned by Warner Bros. for three years for not giving up the colleague who told him about a secret New Jack City screening.

January/February 1997

Columbia Journalism Review

Lovell was film critic for the San Jose Mercury News and Knight-Ridder Newspapers. His survey of critics – “Caught in the Machinery: How Hollywood Subverts the Media” - was carried out at USC and published by the National Arts Journalism Program.

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