I started online in May 1997, 2 months short of 17 years ago.
People get a quizzical look in their eye when I mention what the web was like back then, but here is what the official Disney website looked like back when I started on the web. Here is what roughcut.com—already a year old—looked like when I joined the site. And roughcut.com as html started becoming something that you didn’t need a graduate degree to master.
I was writing a lot back then. And I was one of the few out there doing it. Here’s a October 1999 edition of The Hot Button and you can see, I’m all over the place. Back then, it was rare, now it’s the norm.
It was the Wild West, in many ways. I was working for a massive corporation but I had the firm support of my overlords and could go pretty much where I liked. I also was pretty good about separating my opinion from the facts in any given story… and I was writing about dozens of stories every week. My style, to be fair, did cause some readers to have difficulty making that separation, but in a decade-plus of writing The Hot Button, I was asked only once to make a retraction based on fact… and that was Anita Busch, re: Fight Club, and the facts were and still are accurate, though Anita still tries to argue otherwise.
The internet was still “the fucking internet” in those days. I remember one top publicist who refused to communicate via e-mail (though when I brought it up over a cocktail a few years ago, the by-then fully-wired guy completely denied it). Ain’t It Cool News was an inside/outside outfit, both playing and being played by industry insiders while pissing off studios by getting in the way of their publicity departments. Jeff Wells started his version of The Hot Button for Reel.com a couple of years after I launched online. (Here’s the earliest column I can find, from November 1999.)
Blogs were recently described as having a 20th anniversary, but I don’t recall the word being used much at all before 2000. And there were no real film blogs. Sasha Stone’s Oscarwatch.com and Tom O’Neill’s Gold Derby both preceded the blog, and both started as bulletin board sites. Many of those who went on to blog began as commenters on those sites, including Kris Tapley. And there were consultants reading the comments/postings on those blogs on a regular basis. A particular early aficionado of Oscarwatch was Tony Angellotti, long-timer with both Universal (live-action) and Disney (for animation). So awards consultants working the websites is hardly a new phenomenon.
In 1998, I remember feeling like I was a real contributor to the Oscar campaign of underdog masterpiece The Thin Red Line. I had left Entertainment Weekly in 1997 (I had been a contract writer for the magazine) but my relationships from the couple years I was there had translated to access for me and roughcut.com in those very early days of the internet participating in junkets and any studio-level stuff. And it wasn’t that I was any more insightful or worthy at the time. I would say that I was less so. But it was me and a bunch of newspapers and magazines and the trades. There was no Envelope… no Carpetbagger… no Deadline/Wrap. Moreover, I was free to write what I wanted. So while the trades were nothing but puffery and the major papers were self-positioned as being above the fray, I could fight whatever fight I wished.
Did I actually have any effect on the push to get The Thin Red Line nominated? Who knows? However many Academy voters were reading me in 1998, there was a lot less noise overall. With all three of the original major networks programming an 11:30/11:35 talk show, none of the three shows can ever be the old “Tonight Show,” not just because the format is less popular and not just because there is more outside competition, but because the multiplicity of three similar voices with some slight tonal variation lowers the water for all boats.
In 2001 and 2002, I was still explaining to most of the studios who the online Oscar players were.
Flash forward to 2013/2014…
Websites, Blogs and Twitter have eaten Traditional Media alive.
David Carr’s successful rise to beloved media celebrity, through a combination of a jaunty attitude as The Carpetbagger, a brilliant piece of reported autobiography, and playing the lead in a doc on the media department of the Paper of rRcord, has led the New York Times towards a level of Oscar obsession heretofore unseen (which Carr would have mocked in his Carpetbagger days… if it were some other paper doing the obsessing).
The LA Times has come out of bankruptcy… but is still living on the edge of the razor.
Both printed trades have owners who had no stake in Hollywood 10 years ago.
Longtime Hollywood Reporter princess Lynne Segall had spread her Oscar season advertising fairy dust on both the LA Times and Deadline and rthen eturned to The Hollywood Reporter, where trade journalism has given way to fashion coverage with a Hollywood twist. Now there are 3 outlets that rely on Special Issues and selling Oscar ads to stay in business.
Part of the success of The Hollywood Reporter, though many still claim that the pseudo-trade is high-profile but not profitable, is that they have brought glamor to the trade business. But the disconnect in this regard is that the interest in glamor has brought with it a distinct lowering of the bar for content. There are still critics… many of them the same ones you were reading 20 years ago. But facts have been replaced by factoids. And this is not just at The Hollywood Reporter. The bar has come down on content and up on style all over this area of journalism.
The mad genius of this is that outlets like THR and Variety and even the LA Times have figured out that even though their pot is smaller than it was in past seasons, it is still bigger for them than pretty much any internet-first outlet that competes on this front. So they can spend and offer cross-compensation for high-profile access that keeps them on top of the food chain. They can’t dominate on content anymore, so they have lost interest in great content (not that the trades were, in the good old bad old days, ever really after that) and are led around by hype.
But here is the subtle subtext of this movement that people—including those in the middle of it—tend not to think about. As the game of access becomes, even for trades, the coin of the realm, the power of the people controlling the access supersedes everything else.
The disruption of The Internet is no longer a disruption. The best whores/brokers have risen again… because in the end, who else will the powerful hand power to… and why would they do otherwise?
Further dissipating the authoritative voice is the teeming mass around these re-engaged top outlets. Out of sheer necessity, they create endless noise, obsessing on a handful of things each week, beating those issues to death, while not digging much deeper than the reactive mindset, and moving on to another set of “important issues” the next week.
Everything is an opinion. Everything is a whim. Everyone is an expert on every single thing.
Even argument has been reduced to how people manage their Facebook/Twitter/Instagram/Snapchat feeds. You can argue within 11 degrees of your opinion and occasionally, you will be attacked by someone 180 degrees on the other side, which instantly devalues that person’s opinion into being over-the-top and fringe.
There are very few real arguments, which lead to honest, earnest disagreement that may never be solved, but can be put aside for a time to appreciate your opponents wider array of positions… because disrespect has become the norm… because why respect anyone you disagree with since you can just surround yourself with a digital cabal of people who will tell you that you are right and the other side is solely for morons.
I truly miss arguing with assholes I know well. There are great big fights that need to be fought… but I now spent far too much time shocked by how lazy and disinterested the New York Times is about the beat I have lived in for the last two decades. It’s petty. So petty. But except for the people being directly damaged by the stupidity, which is often no one, given that the stupidity is often just publicity pretending to be investigative reporting, no one cares. Really. No one.
Nikki Finke has a lot of remarkable skill sets, many of which used to be what were considered the skills of a reporter. The ability to be an objective, honest journalist has never been amongst them (at least in the 15 years I’ve known her). But no one cares unless they are being yelled at her or having their truth shredded by her because some Nikki Whisperer told her to shred it even if she has no real understanding of the story or it hurts their cause in some way. As long as someone else is getting screwed by her gamesmanship, she is funny or even “a truthteller.” Of course, this is self-involved bullshit. When dealing with someone like Nikki, what is true when your advisor is being pummeled is just as true when you are the target.
And Nikki has become the template for a lot of journalists and a lot of outlets. Why? Because she got paid and she got relatively famous. And it doesn’t matter how and it doesn’t matter why.
That, my friends, has always existed. But it used to be a sideshow. Now it’s 90% of the carnival.
When I started in this business, if the reporting on a seemingly hot story didn’t turn out to be so heated, there were a few options. 1. Publish the reporting, even if it’s not so exciting. 2. Hold the story until there is a way of getting to the meat that the reporter and the editor can smell what’s rotting. 3. Spike it.
Nobody spikes anything anymore. (“Spike” meaning to just drop the story.)
One of the darkest days in the history of journalism was when the NY Times relaxed their unnamed source rules and came up with the “wouldn’t go on record because…” con. And it’s not because the New York Times has abused it so (though they certainly have at times). It’s because everyone else seems to have decided that the journalistic standard is now one source and a sense they are telling the truth, even if they are inherently biased and have skin in the game that makes it possible, if not probable, that by sourcing them without a name you are doing their bidding.
I have spent much of the last 17 years of doing what I do: decoding news stories. My favorite pieces are ones that I do not have to decode. My least favorite stories are the ones in which I can tell you—with 90% certainty—who sourced what angle in the piece and what their real goal is in doing so. Can you tell by the tone of this piece which way the trend is going?
I guess what I am really wanting to say is… this used to be more fun.
And I don’t want to part of a collective that, even if they let me do my work as I see fit, is likely to force to me to make lame excuses for poor journalistic decisions made in the name of keeping the operation going.
I don’t want to be part of the noise, indistinguishable, even to myself, from the din.
I want to let movies breathe. I want to breathe. I want to believe in the ambitions of most everyone who does something along the lines of what I do. I want to be challenged smartly, beaten as appropriate, and made better by my failures. I want to love things without cynicism.
I love so much of what I have had the privilege to do for a very nice living for a very long time. But I do feel these days like I am being moved around the chess board in a way that stifles growth.
For the first time in my journalistic career, I have to remind myself to play the game.
I hate that.
Because playing the game reflects as poorly on my as it does on anyone I point my finger and an accuse of playing the game.
I got to spend some time with Mike Fleming. I like Mike Fleming. But I don’t know him well enough to know who he was 10 years ago. All I do know is that he does the thing he does really well. And now, there are 10 other people trying to do what he does. I wonder if he cares. I wonder if he is okay with the changes in his game that he has been forced into by circumstance (mostly profitable circumstance).
I love doing DP/30 because it is, like me and my style or not, a simple attempt at finding something real. People who do the work of making movies and television are passionate about their work. They truly give a damn. And they would, most often, rather focus on their work than on the business manifestations around it. I cherish that. I am hungry for more.
So, of course, that work is not a significant revenue stream. If it was, my life would be an embarrassment of riches. And who needs that.
I miss a lot of the work I have left behind. Some of it has been imitated. Some of it has been made irrelevant. Why do I need to do my own daily chart—which no one was doing until years after I started doing it—when there are so many others doing the same thing now? Would I really be serving anything other than my ego and my hit count? But much of it was fun. It was simulating. It was challenging.
I write most of the things I want to say, professionally, on Twitter now because 140 or 420 characters should be enough. I appreciate the economy. And I tend to lecture (see: above).
I’m not going anywhere, if you thought that was where this was leading. But I do feel like I am back at the bottom of the hill, looking up. And the challenges are quite different. “What I want out of this” is a much, much more complicated thing than it used to be.
I mean… it’s not. I want to do the work I want to do and make a reasonable amount of money doing it in order to keep doing the work and paying for a life.
But Eskimos want saunas and monkeys want opposable thumbs and all that. I’ve had my sauna and my thumb for a long time… and eaten them too.
I don’t want anyone off of my lawn. I like people on my lawn. I like living in big, loud cities.
I guess I just want to see everyone working to the top of their intelligence. That is something I learned in improv. It’s something that I want from myself. Because it’s fun.
I spend 6 months of my year dealing with a statue of a bald guy named Oscar handed out by 6,000 people who can’t agree on anything except for their own importance (and not even that, really) and shouldn’t it be fun? It used to be fun.