MCN Columnists
David Poland

By David Poland poland@moviecitynews.com

20W2O: LA Times A1 Piece On 12 Years A Slave Could Be A Hit Job By An Awards Rival

And now, I am going to do what the LA Times didn’t have the decency to do with its front page story on the marketing of 12 Years A Slavetoday… explain what the author of the story under that inflammatory headline actually knows and doesn’t know.

I don’t know – and i don’t think – that a rival studio put John Horn or the editors of the LA Times to do an old school backhanded slam piece on the movie that is currently considered co-front-runner for the Best Picture Oscar.

I don’t think John Horn is a racist, even if he is doing a story aimed at white, aging Los Angeles (the audience for the LA Times) that uses an aging white film critic’s words to tell us what director Steve McQueen intended then invokes Kanye West and Sean Combs, often seen in aging white cultural as dangerous black guys, as the front men for the film.

I don’t think that Mr. Horn is trying to spin a story that he decided to do into Fox Searchlight’s creation, telling readers twice in the first 2 paragraphs what Searchlight felt, but not quoting the studio denying his premise until Paragraph 9.

I don’t think Horn was trying to con people by leaving comments – that belie his story – from someone who had actually seen the movie until the last 3 paragraphs of the story.

All that said… this story is a textbook example of how to give a hard backhand slap to a movie that someone sees as having vulnerabilities. None of the Oscar Whisperers out there could have asked for anything better, short of a series of stories that people had actually gotten ill or had to run out of the theater to avoid the horrors of this film. It’s a marketing story! Why would that be bad?

And of course, there is the date of the story and placement that also suggest skullduggery. This is not a story you run the weekend after a hugely successful limited release… a release you undercut the importance of in the story. This is a story you run a month before release, in anticipation of the potential marketing problem, which was being discussed endlessly at and after the Toronto Film Festival. Or this is a story you run a couple of weeks after the film goes wider and fails to find a bigger audience.

How does running this on the front page of the LA Times on the first day of the film’s 2nd weekend with an expansion to 12 more markets serve any serious journalistic inquiry? It does not. It is cradled precisely in a spot where it is too late to be speculative and too early to offer readers much factual information. Moreover, it fails utterly to offer the factual information that does exist… and here it is… as easy to find as actually asking the question and making a trip to Box Office Mojo…

In the last 20 years of box office history, only 8 films have opened on between 9 and 25 screens and had a per-screen of over $45,000 on that opening weekend. Those films are American Beauty, Black Swan, Lincoln, Michael Clayton, Mystic River, Precious, Up In The Air, and last weekend, 12 Years A Slave. You might quickly note that every one of the prior films with this strong a limited release got Oscar-nominated. You might not know, off hand, that the lowest domestic grosser of all of these films was Precious‘ $48 million. The high was Lincoln, with $182 million domestic.

Mr. Horn may well have forgotten Lincoln, as it was a whole year ago, starred Daniel Day-Lewis, who had never been in a movie that grossed more than $78 million domestic, and was centered around the fight over slavery.

But instead of that comparison, we get Searchlight desperately begging Puff Daddy and Kim Kardashian’s baby daddy to front their movie, “lynchings and whippings, rapes and the separation of young children from their mother” right up front, and a deconstruction of the funding of the film that suggests that Fox doesn’t really believe they can make this film profitable. (Of course, this studio also gave up a large chunk of Avatar a few months before it grossed $2.7 billion… but that’s a different conversation. And one film that is mentioned, Slumdog Millionaire, was rejected by the company that produced it, Warner Bros. Also another conversation.)

So what was the purpose of this story running today on Page One? Well, more paranoid people than I could easily suggest that it was intended to damage the film in the eyes of the LA Times’ primary audience… older people in Los Angeles, some of whom are Oscar voters. Worse? That the intent was to put a coat of blackface on the film. To scare white people away from the film this weekend who were considering going because of incredibly strong word-of-mouth.

But I don’t think all that is true. I think this was an act of journalistic incompetence thrown onto Page One by an editor who was, ironically, looking to capitalize on the word-of-mouth around the film, thus compelling people to read the story and maybe even pick up the paper when they might otherwise not.

Then again, I read a line like, “Hoping to position the film as uplifting, Fox Searchlight has crafted advertisements emphasizing the slave’s determination and humanity,” and I have to wonder what John Horn’s fucking problem is. Did he not understand that the film is actually uplifting? Does he not understand that the whole film is about Solomon Northup’s determination and humanity and his fight to hold onto both in the face of having his freedom illegally and unfairly taken… even in a time when much of the country accepted that white people had the right to give or take these things from black people? Has he seen the film? (I am pretty sure he has… but…)

If fact, the name “Northup” is mentioned only once in the article, without a first name, an only as a descriptive of an ad, where he also mentions the lead actor and, for some reason, is compelled to mention that he is British. What’s that all about?

In that “hoping to position”s sentence, Horn reduces the essence of the film to a cynical marketing construct… which is, simply, a nasty bit of work, intended or otherwise.

If you were of a mind to see this piece on the film as an attack and/or dirty trick, it would not be the first of the season. The attacks on Captain Phillips started a few weeks ago. However, those were closer to being real news, as former members of the real-life captain’s crew were turning out to attack the real-life captain. Swiftboating or just real news? I don’t know.

But on this story, I do know that the timing of the story and the giant holes in it make it informationally malnourished and timed in a way to do nothing but damage.

I don’t think it was meant to be malicious. I just think that journalists have become lazy, sloppy, and incompetently aggressive about covering the film industry. Well… I don’t think that. I know it.

What is the story behind this particular article? You’d have to ask John Horn. And people should ask John Horn. And his bosses. I don’t feel compelled to inquire because, in fairness, there is no good answer. The story is published. It’s not about asking for a correction or a clarification. The failure of the LA Times is in running this story as it is at this time… period.

People should question the “news” they consume. Or we put our own freedom at risk… because one day it is something as trivial as the box office or awards prospects of a movie and the next day, it’s the NSA. Seriously.

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10 Responses to “20W2O: LA Times A1 Piece On 12 Years A Slave Could Be A Hit Job By An Awards Rival”

  1. Daniella Isaacs says:

    “Because the film is not populated with recognizable actors…” What’s Horn talking about? It’s FILLED with recognizable actors, not huge stars but absolutely “recognizable actors.”

  2. Mohammed says:

    I read the LA Times story and could not believe what I was reading. But the article is only part of the greater failings of American journalism, where unnamed sources and shadow characters get to make comments from the safety of anonymity and that journalists let them do so.

    Where LA Times has failed, I am glad that NPR has again shown how much better it is than most media by getting informed people discussing the merits of the film, the narrative, while at the same time putting it in historical context.

  3. movielocke says:

    There is only one point of comparison. and the line of response from the 12YaS team is obvious.

    Schindler’s List.

    If you want to make the old white people of the Academy really really fucking angry, ask them, “would it be okay if newspapers and other studios were running around telling people not to see Schindler’s List because the holocaust are so graphic it might make audiences uncomfortable?” “would it be okay to criticize Schindler’s List for making the Holocaust so graphic that goys feel uncomfortable?” “Shouldn’t the holocaust be portrayed in a way that makes goys feel okay with the idea that holocaust happened and was really bad?” “Doesn’t Steven Spielberg have a responsibility to soften the blow of the holocaust? It might make audiences uncomfortable if it is too real!”

    Once you frame 12YaS in the Schindler’s List vein, then the filmmakers of the academy will rally to it and be proud that their art is achieving such a response, a response that is needed and necessary.

  4. pj says:

    hugely successful limited release…

    I stopped reading there. It was not “hugely successful”. It was average at best. This year alone, 5 films have opened with higher PTA. Comparable titles like Precious have grossed more in 3 days that 12 has in 7. I mean it’s doing alright, but lets keep some perspective here.

  5. David Poland says:

    pj… you are just wrong. Keep reading.

    Precious did open better in limited. So did Black Swan. But the list of comparisons are short and other screen counts make 12 Years a fit in this group. $89k for Lincoln on 11 is reasonably comparable to $49k for Slave on 19.

    Lincoln BV $85,846 11
    Mystic River WB $49,293 13
    Up in the Air Par. $78,763 15
    Michael Clayton WB $47,994 15
    American Beauty DW $53,845 16
    Precious LGF $104,025 18
    Black Swan FoxS $80,212 18
    12 Yrs a Slave FoxS $48,617 19

  6. Bob Burns says:

    thanks for this piece. needed saying.

    good thing incompetence in entertainment journalism is rare. please write about it more should you notice incompetence again.

  7. SemiPro says:

    Thanks for the piece. Like you, I’m very tired of being TOLD the film is too difficult to watch. If that’s the case, what do these folks think slavery was like to live through?

  8. marcoVenis says:

    Thanks for your article.
    LA Times’ article is just the last of a long list of articles warning people to stay away from “uncomfortable viewing”.
    To be honest, I feel uncomfortable when watching crap like the last episode of the Twilight saga, thank you very much.
    And, once again, should filmmakers avoid the slavery topic entirely? If you are trying a faithful approach to the topic, the result will OF COURSE be “uncomfortable”. But same can be said about movies dealing with wars, Holocaust, the troubles of growing old, mental health, and so on.
    A director did try a different approach to the slavery topic, and that of course was Tarantino with Django Unchained.
    Was the result any less controversial? No. Regardless of the quality of the movie (Which I personally think is a vastly overrated film), many found that hip-hop, tarantinoesque vision of slavery to be totally disrespectful.

  9. GexL says:

    The white ruling elite don’t want this movie to be seen. Makes them look bad. The long knives were out for HEAVEN’S GATE and it hadn’t even been released yet—the elites knew how it made them look. Takedown pieces were running on the national news about that movie six months before Canby single-handed took it down. Why? It’s a serious critique of capitalism. Maybe 12YaS is seen likewise by the white ruling elite. This country’s early wealth built on the backs of human chattel. Not pretty. Oof. It’s why the ‘noble savage’ and warlike portrayal of NAs came about. Better than the genocide that did occur.

  10. Captain Celluloid says:

    Good piece, David.

    This kind of “low rent” journalism needs to be pointed out on a regular basis.

    Entertainment “journalism” seems to have a much higher component of Schadenfreud Pre Release Hatchet jobs these days.

    Not good for anybody . . . except maybe the LA TIMES and Nikki

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“I always thought that once I had lived in Chicago for a while, it would be interesting to do a portrait of the city – but to do it at a significant time. Figuring out when would be the ideal time to do that was the trick. So when this election came around, coupled with the Laquan McDonald trial, it seemed like the ideal time to do the story. Having lived in Chicagoland for thirty-five-plus years and done a number of films here, I’ve always been struck by the vibrancy of the city and its toughness. Its tenderness too. I’ve always been interested in the people at the center of all the stories. This is a different film in that regard, because we’re not following a couple of individuals over the course of the project in the way that a lot of the films I’ve done have, but I still feel like people’s voices and aspirations and hopes are at the center of this series.

It wasn’t easy. We started back in July 2018, it was actually on the Fourth of July – that was our first shoot. It’s like most documentaries in that the further you go along the more involved and obsessed you get, and you just start shooting more and more and more. We threw ourselves into this crazy year in Chicago. We got up every day and tried to figure out if we should be out shooting or not, and what it is we should shoot. We were trying to balance following this massive political story of the mayor’s race and these significant moments like the Laquan McDonald trial with taking the pulse of people in the city that we encounter along the way and getting a sense of their lives and what it means to live here. By election day, Zak Piper, our producer, had something like six cameras out in the field. You could double-check that, it might have been seven. We had this organized team effort to hit all the candidates as they were voting, if they hadn’t already voted. We hit tons of polling places, were at the Board of Elections and then were at the parties for the candidates that we had been able to follow closely. Then of course, we were trying to make sure we were at the parties of the candidates who made it to the runoff. So, yeah, it was kind of a monster.”
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