By David Poland email@example.com
When The Messaging Eats The Medium
I am about to turn 50. I have lived through the days of wonder in the film business, much as my father lived through them in the real world as he saw the car become mass produced, the Depression in the US, war across the globe, man walk on the moon, and ultimately, cellular phones and the dawn of the internet.
People in their 60s have lived long enough to remember the end of the studio system era, the flailing of the late 60s and early 70s (which didn’t just glitch businesswise to create the opportunity to make great films, but was also connected to political turmoil that influenced the work), the corporatization of the studios, the birth and explosion of wide release, VHS, DVD, and now streaming.
Of course, you would have to be in your 70s or 80s to really remember the one big delivery shift in the first 70 years of “filmed entertainment”… the birth of television.
As I screened Into The Storm, I was thinking of Twister, which was the first studio DVD… released less than 18 years ago. That’s not a short time, but given the ubiquity of the DVD and now, the hasty retreat of the form as catalog content moves to streaming, it’s remarkable.
The Great Train Robbery premiered in 1903. Sound didn’t break through until 1927. Color started showing up in the mid-30s. We went through about 40 years until the next big things… cable TV (and HBO with it) and VHS. In the 40 or so years since that, we have been through paradigm shift after paradigm shift, making progress both in delivery systems and in the technology of film (or what we still tend to call “film”).
Historically, most of the big changes in the movie industry have taken place because of failure. For instance, Warner Bros was in trouble financially and thus, The Jazz Singer… Fox was having a bad run and released 3 of its biggest hits on the burgeoning VHS platform… and digital projection has been driven by studios looking to cut distribution costs.
But I sense a major shift in the film business lately that isn’t so easy to turn into a snappy news headline. As the corporate parents of the major studios seek to turn the film business into a commodity, less vulnerable to the ups and down of success and/or quality filmmaking, they have also sought to turn media coverage of the film business into a commodity as well.
Of course, publicists have always wanted to control media. And media has always flexed muscles of independence.
But we have a different media landscape in 2014 than in the past. The “freedom” of the internet has led to a much lower bar for independence in journalism. And the financials on “Old Media” have become so bad that the standards for not only independence, but for what qualifies as News amongst the legacy outlets have been considerably lowered.
The following clip was clearly intended to be funny… but as a professional journalist, the laughs make me sick because they are so reflective of the reality. Internet didn’t kill the newspaper star… the newspaper star is willingly cutting the throat of journalism in the name of instant, short-lived popularity…
And as long as I am showing you video, here is another hilarious/horrible piece that aired after I started writing this entry…
I started thinking about all this a lot in recent months, but particularly after seeing Guardians of The Galaxy, a mediocrity of a movie and a likely hit. (Ed Note: I wrote this before the release of the film… and it is, indeed, a Top 5 summer hit.)
This is the point when some of you start mumbling that I hate Marvel or comic book movies in general, so my opinion doesn’t matter. And on some level that is fine. But mostly, it’s not. It is a symptom of a disease that is not just about me or you or Marvel or any other specific film or genre or franchise.
Forget about the idea that critics no longer matter. We don’t. At least not in the major studio release universe. There is a real and measurable influence on indies, particularly on a city-by-city basis. But against the onslaught of advertising dollars, critics can make neither Shinola nor shit. People are inundated with the materials and they make their choices.
But what I find truly scary is the machinery that clouds the minds of even some of the most intelligent people I know and read about how film is approached. (The cabal is even smaller and more authoritarian in TV… but that’s a different conversation in many ways.) Media is being managed like… well… the audience. Marketed to within an inch of its life. Abused and manipulated. Pre-sold becoming preordained.
Journalists are human beings, after all. The same way that film marketers convince ticket buyers who care about opening weekend to commit to going to Movie X on opening weekend regardless of reviews or even early word-of-mouth, studios are now convincing the media. And once that commitment is made, like most human beings, journalists don’t want to change their minds.
I have witnessed the phenomenon on Broadway for years now. People pay $100+ for tickets and suddenly, every show deserves a standing ovation every night. This devalues those shows that really deserve spontaneous passion from the audience. But, as people will argue, there are great performances and good moments in pretty much every Broadway show or it would not have gotten to Broadway. Or there is an actor that we, as an audience, really really love. So what’s the harm in showing appreciation to hard working actors and crew for doing their job for our pleasure?
“Harm” is a relative thing. We are talking about movies (and/or theater). Can there really be any harm? No one gets ill from being disappointed at a movie. No one dies from having a hyper-inflated experience at a movie caused by their determination to not be disappointed after investing emotionally.
But more and more, my sense is that media is not only a part of the packaging of a film, but is expected to be a part of the packaging for the film. A junket, which used to be about spreading the word to cities that were not located within the natural geographic sphere of the film industry, is now – in an era in which every print interview and every piece of video tends to end up online – about density of message.
And no outlet is above it.
The most effective lie is one that is mostly true. And the best manipulation is one in which the subject does not think they are being manipulated at all… to the degree to which they will fight anyone who even suggests that there is a problem worth considering.
I guess that what scares me the most is that outlets that would consider themselves journalistic no longer feel compelled to actually be trusted by the reader. They have stopped taking that responsibility. Nowadays, they are just conduits of information, not arbiters of it.
I am not saying that every journalist is a suck-up or is a shill. But (almost) everyone seems to be hanging on by their fingertips to such a degree that the sin of omission or self-imposed. blindness is just a few Hail Marys, Our Fathers, and a couple of “everyone is doing it… can’t be avoided”s from absolution.
I am not pure. No one is pure. I expect no one to be pure. But there is a big space between virginal innocence and giving it all up.
Film marketers, who are much smarter than most of you understand, have figured out how to maximize every element they have in selling their products. They fail, too. But their ability to turn out the media instead of answer to it is… just breathtaking.
And it doesn’t matter whether I like The Product or not. Don’t lean on that to absolve yourself of thought about this issue. It’s not about the product. It’s about the end game for journalism. It’s not about fireworks, it’s about the constant flow of solid, clean journalism on a daily basis.
It’s about the authoritative voice and whether it will ever come back in force. The only way it can is for journalists to hold themselves accountable to the degree to which they can earn authority and maintain it.
And it gets harder – for all of us… for any of us – every single day.
Perhaps this is something to think about the next time some form of advertising is positioned and embraced as content. Because if ads are content, than content can be wholly about manipulation and not about truth. And as soon as we lose the ability or will to distinguish the two, we are finished as a meaningful culture. And if our culture is lost, our nation (you know… the serious shit) will soon follow.