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David Poland

By David Poland poland@moviecitynews.com

Poll du Jour: The Rules Of Journalism?

This week, two New York papers decided to break the decades long tradition of not reviewing a show until the producers say it’s complete. It’s Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark… a hot story and a record-breakingly expensive show.

I see only one reason for the breach… to get attention. It’s not to inform the public. The show has had enough negative press to fill a stadium (or the Foxwoods Theater, which is almost as big). It’s not because people are paying to see the show, since that is the case with every single show that has previews, which is all of them for decades. (The issue of reviewing out of town is more complex, as the shows that play out of town do have openings and do get reviewed locally… when they open locally.) And it certainly isn’t because reviews are going to change the box office outlook for the show… people are going to pay a fortune to watch this circus… and the more people who get broken, the more people will come.

In a Twitter exchange, internet journalists seem to take the position that if there are paid shows, it’s open season and that in this era, you can’t expect a show to go unreviewed, And indeed, S-M:TOTD has been reviewed by people on the web… but not by professionals… not until this weekend. What is the difference between professionals and everyone else with web access? Intent, access, and rules… all of which, in the entertainment coverage business, are the product of relationships.

Theater rules are not movie rules. “If there is a paid screening, embargoes are off” is not the standard. Never has been. Perhaps the people who are tweeting this meme are just ignorant of this history. Dear God, I hope so. Or are we so disinterested in the standards of professional conduct that we need to go to the, “Is it okay if I kiss you? (explicit consent) Is it okay if I touch your breast? (explicit consent)” game?

And I am talking about professionals, not the public at large. Is this some game we are all playing with the businesses we cover? Is the standard, “If you don’t explicitly restrict it with my consent, sod off, I can do what I please and keep the moral high ground.”

“Uhhhh… really good date… you like me well enough to sleep with me… and I have gotten a pretty good idea that you are either completely unwilling to be anally penetrated or you are very cautious and selective about when you do that… but you didn’t tell me not to, so “Surprise!!!”

Something a little less extreme? “It doesn’t say in the menu that the food hasn’t been spit in!”

More mundane? “There is no rule about leaving the shopping cart next to my car when I leave so that no one can part in the spot that was next to me!”

Making excuses to serve our selfish needs is not good behavior. And as professionals, we have higher standards. Ask the publications who haven’t published all the WikiLeaks stuff… or the New York Times, which took a long time to vet the Pentagon Papers, for that matter. That would be the NYT that hasn’t run something from their critics… like the NY Post, where Riedel is infamous for pushing the envelope… and hasn’t here.

One gentle soul tweeted that the show may close before previews, so the critics should see and review now. But sorry… that’s bullshit. News is news. And there has been plenty of it. No one is saying that the news should not be reported. And really, there is zero reason why critics can’t buy a ticket and see the show now, in case it does close (less than 5% chance of that). But there is no excuse to review an admittedly unfinished show… period. Not for pros.

Movie studios try to run the inverse con sometimes, taking a film to a festival, pushing for media coverage, but claiming it’s not finished and shouldn’t be reviewed. That’s BS too. Sometimes, an event that is seen as private is suddenly seen as a “real” festival – Butt-Numb-A-Thon comes to mind – and overnight, rules change. I think that’s bad hoodoo too, on both sides, but a much grayer line… and once crossed, those rules are The Rules.

Of course, studios are chicken shit about enforcing their own rules. If you are muscular enough, after you screw them deep and hard, they will slap your wrist before they buy you lunch to kiss your ass for the next thing they need you to promote. If you are a little guy, they will disinvite you from all-media screenings and not even listen to your pleadings for mercy (as in, “Every major paper in the country has reviewed it and you’re going to beat me up for running it two days before opening?”). If studios simply enforced their own rules with an even and decisive hand, none of this would be much of an issue.

And believe me, I’ve been right in the middle of the old “this isn’t really a review” scam, which, in the end, is a half-ass lie the serves neither the writer nor the studio that is splitting hairs in the writer’s seeming favor.

Anyway… I guess some people are comfortable living under “there’s no honor amongst thieves” rules. Outraged when they themselves get tweaked… perfectly comfortable looking the other way when someone else is getting squeezed. Or even better, perfectly happy to hold people who they think are too powerful to a different rules than the ones to which they would like to be held in their real lives.

If I am in a relationship, of any kind, I try to adhere to The Golden Rule. I screw up… too often. As a journalist, the rule is not “do unto others as you would want them to do to you.” The people I write about are public figures and choose to be public figures. (This is one of the reasons why I don’t rush to scoop and rarely write about hirings and firings anymore with execs who are not really public figures.)

When someone forgets to tell me about the embargo and i know it’s an issue, I ask and don’t write the review and then make excuses. (This was not always true a decade ago.) It’s not just about the movie, but someone screwed up and it’s a shitheel move to leave them in danger to satisfy my urge to publish a review FIRST.

On the other hand, a festival screening or a sneak preview in theaters and all bets are, indeed, off. And I let the studio know it’s coming. And they can hedge all they want… they crossed that line, hoping to win, and lost. These are the rules. I don’t get to tell them when to screen for Peter Travers, but I sure as hell get to mention publicly the vomit that comes into my mouth when I see him quoted before the other quote whores (or after, really).

How far do I go? What endangers relationships built up over years and decades? If you do this job and do it honestly, you are going to piss people off. You are also going to be well loved at times. Some studios will call you “relentlessly negative” while willfully overlooking the movies they release that you LOVE. Some studios will only notice when you they feel like you are shiting on them… others only express emotion when they feel like you are licking their asses. Many stew silently, whether you are being kind or cruel. It’s like any other relationship… truth is subjective and personalities mean a lot.

“Us vs Them” is not a relationship. And in most cases with most professionals, it is a lie a journalist tells themselves to get over their self-loathing. There is an adversarial nature to this business. The producers of S-M:TOTD surely didn’t enjoy all the articles about injuries on the set, delays, etc in Newsday and elsewhere. But they had no argument. It is the fact. It is, for the most part, news. That doesn’t make it a free for all. That doesn’t negate long, long symbiotic relationships.

It may make you a “man” to punch the bully in the face in the playground. But it doesn’t make you a man to punch the most popular kid in the school in the face in that same playground because a bunch of people would love to see him/her knocked off of her “high horse.” That makes YOU the bully.

But you tell me…


13 Responses to “Poll du Jour: The Rules Of Journalism?”

  1. PaperlessWriter says:

    Probably not the last time the Spiderman show and the phrase “anally penetrated” appear in the same story.

    So when does this thing open?

  2. Crow T Robot says:

    I do remember one “journalist” who used a review of a Broadway preview to draw attention to himself…

    http://www.thehotbutton.com/today/hot.button/2007_thb/070827_mon.html

  3. IOv3 says:

    FOUL… CROW T ROBOT… USING THE HOT BUTTON TO MAKE A POINT! 15 YARD PENALTY… REPLAY FIRST DOWN!

  4. LYT says:

    If it’s open to the public, it’s open season for review. Because old media not doing that while Some Guy With A Website does (and said Guy With A Website, by the way, is not breaking any law or agreement by doing so)…that is why old media is dying.

    This isn’t about advance screenings and embargoes. Sure, if you’ve traditionally had a “gentleman’s agreement” that new media increasingly makes null and void, I’d say it’s only courteous to let the person on the other end know that you’re changing with the times…then maybe they’ll adapt and not have advance shows for the public. So be it.

    A more appropriate analogy from the movies…I seem to recall that TEAM AMERICA: WORLD POLICE was screened for press the Tuesday before it opened, which, at the weekly where I worked at the time, was too late for print deadline. However, there was a national sneak in theaters the prior Saturday. I bought my ticket, and reviewed from that. I see no problem there.

    I do see that that’s a little different from live theater, where a performance can change…I suggest Broadway move toward a version of “test screenings” — free with signed nondisclosure agreements — and all will be good.

  5. David Poland says:

    Crow… the show opened in Seattle and I waited for the opening and local reviews. That would be an example of working within the rules.

    And Young Frankenstein in preview in New York? Off limits to reviews.

    And I love that you think, Crow, this was somehow equivalent. Yeah, the world was beating down my door to get that Young Frankenstein review. That’s why I went to see it in Seattle. Building that audience!

    This is how it works in theater. Theater is not movies. But some of you really really really don’t seem to get the distinction.

    And even if you want to use the test screening analogy… I don’t know anyone in the business who thinks that test screening reviews are in any way a positive step in the evolution of making movies. I’m still looking for one story of a movie that was made better by a test screening review.

    Isn’t the goal to actually make the best show for the ultimate audience? Is writing about the show early more important than that? Because “maybe they’ll adapt and not have advance shows for the public. So be it” is about as unhelpful a piece of advice about theater as I have read in years.

    Theater needs an audience… especially new shows. It’s not some fuddy duddy old school whine. It’s not test screening, which often has a lot more to do with marketing than with filmmaking.

    But I have to admit… what really pisses me off… is this idea that we somehow have to accommodate technology as though we are its tool. It’s very short-term thinking. Yes, there are real revolutions sometime. But they are not nearly as common as people choose to believe. We see them come and we see them go… and never seem to remember the consequences or lack of them.

  6. IOv3 says:

    It’s not that we are the tool of technology as much as technology has made rules such as this one outdated. We simply do not live in an age where we can wait even if it’s to the detriment of journalistic integrity.

    So… we have to ask ourselves if we want to wait like we used to do or do we want it now like we usually want most things these days. Given how things are, I am going with this rule being antiquated because it’s about to be 2011, and we want to know NOW! DAMN THE TORPEDOES!

  7. El Bicho says:

    Aside from the writing of the article, which screams of someone sexually frustrated, your position no longer fits the times. Technology has caused a change in business models and the old standards no longer apply. If newspapers are the only ones that have to wait to review shows, who will be turning to see what the newspapers think about those shows? Considering more and more people are turning away from newspapers, you appear to be on the wrong side of the issue. You are certainly entitled to not like what’s taking place, but it doesn’t mean you’re right.

  8. Joe Leydon says:

    I wish I could remember specific titles to back up what I’m about to say, but… Actually, there are precedents for this. As I recall, there have been a few — very, very few, but a few — very heavily hyped, mucho expensive Broadway shows that kept pushing back opening night until the NY Times and other outlets more or less said, “Screw it. They’re charging full price for tickets. They get reviewed.” As I say: Can’t recall the last time this happened. But it has happened. And, yes, one of the reasons given by the critics was, by this point, it’s as much a news story as an entertainment event.

  9. LYT says:

    “And even if you want to use the test screening analogy… I don’t know anyone in the business who thinks that test screening reviews are in any way a positive step in the evolution of making movies. I’m still looking for one story of a movie that was made better by a test screening review.”

    That wasn’t quite what I was saying…I’m saying that if you don’t want test screening reviews, don’t make the test screenings public events that you sell tickets to. If Broadway doesn’t want reviews like this, start handling the advance showings more like recruited test screenings.

    “what really pisses me off… is this idea that we somehow have to accommodate technology as though we are its tool. It’s very short-term thinking.”

    Kinda pisses me off too…but that doesn’t make it not so.

  10. Jason says:

    David –

    You are a nice man. A good writer. A great source of info. A cool dude. A gentleman.

    But what’s going on here? Seriously – this handwringing stance is so strange from someone who is so in tune with, supportive of and successful on the Web.

    David – the newspaper business is cratering. I’m not ringing that bell again as a panic response or as a phrase to get easy attention…I’m just stating a fact. Newspapers need to change. Even they admit that.

    So is it possible that certain rules, over time, have to change a litte? Didn’t baseball eventually implement a version of instant replay because eveyone agreed that getting it right was important? After 100 years, they evolved. So isn’t it possible that newspaper editors nowadays have to evolve too…and say something like this…’Look – the Web communituy is kicking our ass. People are tweeting, people are posting early reviews…so we have to fight back to keep readership. We have to start thinking a little different. We have to review things before we are LAST.

    Isn’t that why newspapers are suffering so much, because they are last. All the time? Look – that’s why you are successful, isn’t it? Because you have the power of instant communication and instantaneous reaction. So don’t they have the right to change the “rules” to do that too?

    This “Golden Rule” bullshit for newspapers is killing them. ‘We can’t review a movie until THEY say it’s OK…” Or ‘We can’t review a show until THEY want to…” What happened to church and state. They produce a show to make millions of dollars. So as a quid pro quo, don’t publications have the right to review it when their editors want to ALSO to make some scratch. Maybe not profits, but mojo. They have every right to review something, write something, debate something, air something, etc…when THEY want to.

    Is it possible these “Golden Rules” are part of what got newspapers in trouble in the first place? Where does it stop? Aren’t newspapers commended for breaking from the pack when they do investigative journalism at the dismay of a political camp? So why are basic entertainment reviews untouchable? If a newspaper can report on illegal goings-on of a political campaign without anyone’s consent…why are reviews so different?

    Look – Variety for decades played by these rules. And they still do. People too often tell THEM what to do. So in 2010, as people look back on why they aren’t the kings of Hollywood anymore, this is one of the reasons. They take their cues from people telling them what to do. What happened to “We’re Variety – so fuck you.” I miss that Variety.

    It’s journalism, David. Not a friendly partnership. Yes, sources and relationships matter. But isn’t there a certain Web queen in Hollywood who does what she wants and plays by her OWN rules…and people STILL read her more than they read anyone else. So doesn’t that prove that it isn’t really about loving each other?

    Reviews are part of journalism. Producers are rich and famous and smart and creative and tough. So where on earth did a rule start that says they are immune to being criticized 14 days early. Are you really telling me they can’t simply shrug it off and just accept that it’s part of the game? There has to be such outrage? At what, exactly.

    So what you are saying, while professional and well-thought out, still sounds like this: In 2010, newspapers/writers/critics have to do what the creative community wants…and when they want it.

    David – I know you don’t mean that. Newspapers were at their best when they flaunted these rules. When they flipped the finger at such demands. Isn’t that how the Internet stars were born – they DIDN’T listen. They did what they want. They did it brazenly. They didn’t listen to PR people.

    While that’s not popular, isn’t that better for the world? If you are talking about critic friends talking over dinner about the blasphemy involved with doing things against the rules, that’s one thing…but if you are talking about the general population — about readers — and staying in business, and giving people the truth…then don’t newspapers need to do MORE of this instead of less of it?

  11. sanj says:

    DP – just find a few theatre critics and do a special dp/30

  12. LYT says:

    Ooooh…Good idea, sanj.

  13. David Poland says:

    Jason… I am trying to respond without it becoming a 2000 word rant. It’s all connected to so many things.

    No, I don’t think newspapers need to do what the creative community wants.

    Yes, I think if you have made arrangements with the creative community or anyone else, you are honor bound to them except in truly exceptional circumstances, which Spider-Man does not qualify as.

    If you think entertainment journalism is not a friendly partnership, then you are either unaware of how e-journalism really works or you are in the game and trying to convince yourself that you are a more serious journalist than you are.

    Variety isn’t dying (as Hollywood Reporter was for years) because it lives by fuddy duddy rules. Nikki Finke lives by the same rules… with less accountability! Variety committed paywall suicide.

    Check on your “internet stars” and in most cases, you will find someone beholden to certain studios, certain agencies, certain talent, etc.

    And specifically about stage reviews… do you think anything has actually changed because these two broke the rules? Nothing has changed. The “rules” about how critics handle shows will be the same as ever on the next show… and the show after… and the show after.

    This choice was nothing but self-serving. There is no higher goal. There is no anarchy breaking the old system. It’s “your” wife fucking your best friend… “but it was only the one time and we’ll never do it again.” It’s not free love.

    But some people always think it’s free love… until it bites them. Oh, and then how they reconsider.

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