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Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

This Space for Sale?

There’s been an interesting debate going on (some might say raging) around Facebook and Twitter today around film blog Slashfilm running a piece on Sam Mendes with a preamble noting that the post was “sponsored by” Focus Films. This post stirred a hell of a shitstorm up on Twitter and Facebook today, prompting Slashfilm to put up this post clarifying what exactly happened, and what their editorial policy generally is. A brief excerpt of the explanation:

Here are the basic facts: Focus Features purchased an advertising campaign on our site for “Away We Go.” This campaign encompassed elements of our site that are clearly separated from editorial content as advertising. We were not paid to write an editorial about “Away We Go,” but we agreed to support the advertiser by crafting an editorial relating to the director or stars of the film, provided we could exercise complete editorial control of the piece.

Did Slashfilm’s editors think they were walking a fine line ethically speaking? I’m going to give them the benefit of a doubt and venture that they were aware this could be a dicey issue, did what they thought was appropriate in ensuring they handled it properly, got a fair amount of negative feedback on that decision, and have reassessed. Nonetheless, the whole situation has raised some fascinating and serious ethical issues about the symbiotic nature of our business relationships with publicists and studios that bear consideration and discussion.
Should there always be an absolute church/state separation between film journalists and film sites, the studios whose films we write about, and the publicists who flit back and forth between both worlds? Is there a difference between “paid content” that’s clearly differentiated as being sponsored by a studio, as the Sam Mendes piece on Slashfilm was, versus an opinion piece like a review? Is there a difference between this and accepting ads from studios to run your site as a profitable business venture that allows you to pay your writers, versus writing content specifically paid for by a studio, whether or not your site’s policy is to maintain editorial control over such pieces?
And if we’re really being sticklers about the journalistic integrity issue, how do we differentiate, objectively, between accepting paid ads, writing paid content, and seeing the films we review at free screenings, having DVDs sent to us (free) for our review, and getting a stack of awards season screeners at the end of the year? What about set visits and junkets? Is our individual conviction that we will act with ethics and caution and write our honest opinion regardless of who’s footing the bill enough, or is the mere suggestion that we might be compromised enough to damage out integrity?
These are going to continue to be issues we face moving forward, as sites struggle to figure out how to keep operating and pay their writers to write the content they need to survive. You can’t pay a staff without some source of income, and the most likely source of income right now, at least until someone comes up with a better business model, is ad sales. Should movie sites be looking to sources other than the studios whose films we write about for their ad income? Coffee ads, perhaps, or condoms or tampons or frozen foods? I don’t think so — after all, haven’t print publications relied upon those same advertising dollars for years, without the suggestion that to do so indicated questionable ethics?
I’m not going to pretend to have the answers here. Hell, I barely have the questions, and I’m sure there are layers and layers of ethics around all this that we could unearth through more discussion. But I do think it’s a crucial issue for film journalists and film sites to be considering and debating and even heatedly arguing about, as we all try to figure out how to survive in this field.
I’d love to hear from other folks where they think the ethical lines in the sand lie. Bring it on.

**Hat tip to Devin Faraci, Drew McWeeny, Mark Bell, Todd Gilchrist, and others I’m no doubt overlooking for the many fascinating Tweets and Facebook updates that inspired this post.

4 Responses to “This Space for Sale?”

  1. don lewis (was PetalumaFilms) says:

    I think when writers get things “free” that make it possible for us to do our JOBS (DVD screeners, press screenings, festival trips comped) we’re under NO pretext to respond positively. However if a studio pays a site to runa piece that looks like an ad (like /film did) that’s borderline shady. No one who readds blogs and sites all day clicks ads so you’re basically tricking your readership into reading an ad. Not cool.
    I also think if a site visits a film set, that film is OFF LIMITS in terms of a review later on. Visiting a film set-when it’s paid for by the studio- is nothing more than trying to accrue good faithin a review and helping to build buzz on a film. The line between a set visit and a studio paying you to run an article on a film or filmmaker is the same line. You become part of the PR machine and not a journalist who is going to be looking at material for what it is onscreen.

  2. The InSneider says:

    Completely disagree with Don Lewis re: set visits. You’re not TRYING to build buzz for a film when you visit the set. You report on what you’re seeing, whether it looks good or bad. The finished film is completely different and just because you went to the set, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be able to review the film, nor does it imply a favorable review.
    Case in point, Drew McWeeny’s review of Year One on Hitfix. He went to the set, talked to Ramis and some of the cast. And then his review took everyone to task for making a bad movie. Don seems to be arguing that Drew never should’ve reviewed it since he visited the set. That’s ridiculous. A good, responsible journalist can separate those two completely different assignments.
    I really don’t think the /Film piece was THAT shady. They ran a disclaimer. They didn’t get paid specifically for that piece. The piece was critical of Mendes. It just allowed Focus to include Away We Go in a /Film story. No different than a publicist calling to pitch a movie or a client. Hey, we’re paying for an ad campaign on your website, but we’d love to somehow be included in your editorial content. Could you write something, anything, that relates to Away We Go? Sure! Why not? What’s the problem with that? Seems to me that people are totally overreacting.
    Besides, Away We Go is one of the best movies of the year. And no, this post was not sponsored by Focus.

  3. don lewis (was PetalumaFilms) says:

    So InSneider, how many set visits are there where the reporter comes back and says “Sweet CHRIST whatta clusterfuck!! It’s a mess! These people are clueless!!” There’s zero posts and pieces like that.
    No one does it because that’s like shitting where you live. That’s like pissing on your host. There’s simply no way a reporter can/will say “hey, thanks for flying me out to New York, putting me up in a 5 star hotel, comping my meals and drinks and giving me access to your set. Too bad you morons are clueless.” It’s a conflict to take the trip unless you are actively helping the studio to build buzz for their movie.
    Plus, if you’re a frigging journalist, how much do you *really* know about a film production. You see what they want you to see and you talk to who they want you to talk to. It’s all a ploy to play into most writers aspiration to make movies and if you think it’s something else, you’re wrong.
    I’ve given Drew grief about his set visits coupled with his reviews in the past and he’s proven capable of being a pro when it comes to reviewing bad films that came from sets he visited. He was honest about Mummy 3 and I respect him for that.
    But again, what PURPOSE does a set visit serve other than to butter up a writer?
    And the /Film thing is borderline shady. it *looked* like a feature piece the way it was placed on the site and the way it was written. Even lameass Perez Hilton colors his ads that look like stories differently so it’s easier to differentiate. The fact that the Mendes ad looked like a story on /Film which made people click the ad unknowingly ahead of time seems shady to me.

  4. Kim Voynar says:

    Don, you are spot-on on that … remember when Eric Snider did that junket whore piece dissecting junkets from the inside? Anyone who thinks there’s never studio retribution for biting the hand that’s feeding you is kidding themselves.

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