“Let me try and be as direct as I possibly can with you on this. There was no relationship to repair. I didn’t intend for Harvey to buy and release The Immigrant – I thought it was a terrible idea. And I didn’t think he would want the film, and I didn’t think he would like the film. He bought the film without me knowing! He bought it from the equity people who raised the money for me in the States. And I told them it was a terrible idea, but I had no say over the matter. So they sold it to him without my say-so, and with me thinking it was a terrible idea. I was completely correct, but I couldn’t do anything about it. It was not my preference, it was not my choice, I did not want that to happen, I have no relationship with Harvey. So, it’s not like I repaired some relationship, then he screwed me again, and I’m an idiot for trusting him twice! Like I say, you try to distance yourself as much as possible from the immediate response to a movie. With The Immigrant I had final cut. So he knew he couldn’t make me change it. But he applied all the pressure he could, including shelving the film.”
~ James Gray
By Kim Voynar Voynar@moviecitynews.com
Chaos Reigns at What Remains of Moviefone
I’ve been hearing from a couple of insider sources, who I am keeping anonymous for their protection, that things around Moviefone — one of AOL’s most highly trafficked properties — are imploding at light speed.
Among other things, numerous inside sources have told me that when Patricia Chui was fired, her Moviefone colleagues were reading about it on the Internet before she even left the meeting to clear her personal belongings out of her desk.
Apart from the fact that this is just a shitty way to handle such a thing on a human level, it really does raise a relevant question: who among AOL/HuffPo management was aware that Chui was about to be fired, and who strategically leaked that information to the press before she’d even been told? And, more importantly, why would they do such a thing? It’s a relevant issue that speaks both to how HuffPo/AOL as a corporation treats the individual people who work for them, and the politics of corporate spin.
The answer to the second question, at least, I would speculate, is a combination of both the need of AOL higher ups to have a scapegoat to hang everything on, and the desire to get rid of an experienced, long-time editor for whatever their real reasons were, while satisfying HR and legal that they had just cause to fire Chui, to prevent any allegations of wrongful termination.
There’s nothing Chui has done here, from defending the Moviefone staffer who sent an email to TechCrunch asking a writer to “tone down the snark” of a pair of Source Code interviews, to sending an email to Moviefone and Cinematical writers seeking to clarify for them what was going on around there, that should have — in and of themselves — merited her being fired in a sane business environment.
In the former case, Chui wasn’t doing anything any differently than what’s always been business-as-usual around Moviefone: the business of maintaining good relationships with the studios who pay the bills. And in the latter case, she was doing what should have been going on all along around AOL: communicating information to the people being directly impacted by managerial decisions.
Most of the freelancers who’d worked their asses off for little pay and NO benefits for years were canned unceremoniously by a form email sent by former Weblogs lead Kristi Anderson — an email that didn’t even do the freelancers the courtey of addressing them by name.
Here’s the email everyone got, summarily showing them the door — after days of being left with no communication as to what the hell was going on:
Hi there –
Thank you very much for your contributions to AOL. As we have discussed on calls and in emails, going forward our editorial direction is to build a great team of full-time editors, writers, and reporters. To that end, we are reducing the scope of AOL’s freelancer program.
Per the terms of your agreement with AOL, this note confirms the end of your engagement for content services effective Wednesday, April 6, 2011. Rest assured, you will be paid for your content and services through this date, disbursed to you per AOL’s regular payment schedule in late May.
We greatly appreciate your contributions and are available to answer any questions you may have. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org with any inquiries.
So with all these people losing their jobs — both freelancers and staff editors alike — who’s running things around what’s left of Moviefone at the moment? A “senior programming manager” (read: bean-counting business guy) named Willy Volk.
Volk, who was business-managing a few blogs including Cinematical back when I got the hell out of there, has been put in charge of Moviefone (at least for now) in the wake of the unceremonious and questionable canning of Chui who, although she worked for Moviefone, which as a site I have practically no respect for, was actually experienced and passionate and cared about movies and the people she worked with. So now HuffPo/AOL has put a manager-type — not a movie journalist or editor — over Moviefone — a highly trafficked property about the movie business. What’s Volk’s background in movies? None, that I know of.
An email went out earlier today from Volk to what’s left of the Moviefone/Cinematical writers. This email, and the chain of replies to it, ended up in my inbox yesterday. It started with this email from Volk, helpfully titled “Moviefone Next Steps:”
On Apr 7, 2011, at 2:49 PM, Willy Volk wrote:
Hi everyone. A few quick points —
1.) Brian, Gaby, Eric, Chris, Chris and I will help guide Moviefone going forward. If you have questions, please feel free to ask us.
2.) If you have dedicated columns that you “own,” please continue to write them. If you usually “pitch” work to the eds, please continue to pitch those ideas to Brian, Gaby, Eric, Chris, Chris, and me. In short: it’s business as usual.”
3.) We are currently looking for the following stories to be written. If you’re interested, please let us know —
* “New ‘Arthur’ vs Old ‘Arthur'”
* “25th Anniversary of the Bad News Bears”
If you have questions, please let me know, and I will do my best to answer them. Thanks.
Now, what’s particularly interesting about this email from Willy Volk is that he sent it to a bunch of people, including several who had already resigned and were no longer working for AOL/Moviefone. Folks were understandably a little confused.
Another writer (not putting the most of the names in the thread in here, btw), who apparently knows a bit more about movies than Volk, replied to the email to clarify that it’s the 35th anniversary of the Bad News Bears, not the 25th.
So then another writer, apparently the only person at Moviefone who didn’t read about Patricia Chui being fired before she was even out of the building, asked:
“And is Patricia still on board?”
Apparently Volk couldn’t answer that question himself, so HuffPo’s Nico Pitney chimed in with this:
“No, Patricia is no longer with AOL.
The Huffington Post Media Group”
…At which point someone else decided to clue Pitney and Volk into the unfortunate fact that this email thread was being sent to people who no longer work there (I counted at least five in the “cc” list, there might have been more:
“I’m fairly certain that a substantial number of the people on this mailing list are no longer with AOL.”
Then from a former Cinematical writer:
“I’ve watched my fellow team members get unceremoniously dumped, a respected colleague and editor fired, and have no interest in watching AOL’s continued chaos and lazily scant information. I resigned two days ago, as did many people on this list.
Please stop replying to all.”
… and this was followed by another writer:
“I turned in my resignation early in the week, with the (MOVIE TITLE DELETED) review (now scheduled in pending) being the last post I agreed to complete.”
And another one:
“In case my previous email wasn’t obvious, I tendered my resignation yesterday following the firing of Patricia Chui. Good luck to you.”
So. Things are obviously in a chaotic state around Moviefone. Morale, no doubt, is even lower than it normally is around AOL. People who don’t know the subject matter are being put in charge of sites so they can tell editors what to assign and writers what to write based on numbers and traffic.
Now I want to reiterate an important point here, for those of you who might be thinking, well, they were just freelancers, tough break, but no big: When we’re talking about people who freelanced for AOL, we are not talking, for the most part, about what many people think of when they think “freelancing.” This was not a situation where freelance writers would write one piece on spec, or pitch it and get it accepted, and then get paid as a one-off.
The freelance contracts with AOL specified how many pieces a writer was expected to write a day, or a week, or a month, and how much they were paid for short blog posts versus features (i.e. interviews, reviews, longer columns).
In addition, editorial people (aka “lead bloggers,” which sounds ever so much less professional even though the work they were doing was absolutely editorial) were also paid a monthly stipend. For many of Cinematical’s team, that site was their only job, and some of them (Erik Davis, Peter Hall, Scott Weinberg and Monika Bartyzel, in particular) worked pretty nearly full time, under daily pressure to increase traffic, while being told by people like Willy Volk that this or that topic was “hot” and “driving traffic” and therefore should be written about.
And while I’ve written mostly about the Cinematical freelancers, because I feel very deeply and personally for all of them in this mess, let’s keep in mind that freelancers across the board at AOL were affected. Here’s an excellent post by another former AOL freelancer that tells his story. I have no doubt, his experience speaks for the many.
Frankly, if they keep writing any original content around Moviefone at all for the long term, I’ll be surprised.