By David Poland email@example.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.