April 05, 2010
A thought by James Berardinelli

One subject that fascinates me relates to the boundaries of journalistic ethics. At what point does legitimate criticism and reporting cross the line into the realm of promotion and marketing? This question can be approached from any number of angles. Remember the fake reviewer "David Manning" created by Sony to supply fabricated quotes to their movie campaigns? What about the "quote whores," supposedly "legitimate" critics who will say nice things about any movie in return for favorable treatment by a studio? Or some of the tactics of aint-it-cool-news.com, which has allegedly been used as a funnel by filmmakers to generate excitement about a new project? For the purposes of this column, I'd like to throw out some thoughts about three recent case studies, two of which relate to movies and one of which does not (at least not directly), before pondering considerations of where I fit into the overall process.

I'm going to start with the iPad. In fairness to all, I should also note that I have no "axe to grind" where the success or failure of the device is concerned. I'm neither one of the Apple True Believers nor one who accepts the doctrine that Apple Can Do No Right. My computers are PCs (largely because I think they offer more "bang for the buck," although I recognize they require more maintenance than Macs). My cell phone is an iPhone because, at the time I purchased it, it was by far the most versatile handheld device available. (It still is, but the gap is shrinking.) I admire what Apple has done. I think that, in addition to being technological wizards, they are marketing geniuses. But I am unwilling to anoint every new device they release as the Next Great Thing. And that brings us to the iPad.

I have no doubt it will be successful. If nothing else, it's sexy, and that will create a sizeable customer base. It seems geared toward members of two camps: Apple adherents, who will buy anything new, and computer-phobes, who will appreciate the user-friendly (some might say "idiot-proof") approach of the iPad. I'm a gadget-lover and part of me would love to bring home an iPad because it looks cool. The problem is, once I have dropped $600 to $1000 on it, what then? It's a Jack of All Trades, Master of None. As a pure e-book reader, the Kindle is a better choice (its size and e-ink are selling points when you're talking about reading entire books). As a web browser and/or word processor, laptops hold a trump card because of the iPad's lack of Flash capability and the need to buy a separate keyboard for touch typing. As a way to watch movies - let's just say that except in extreme situations (like being stuck on an airplane), the idea of experiencing a motion picture on such a small screen is galling. There are other issues with the iPad, but I don't want to belabor the negatives - merely to point out that there are some. Which is more than some writers are doing.

Reviewing a product is different from reviewing a movie. Product reviews must, by their nature, be largely OBJECTIVE whereas movie reviews are SUBJECTIVE. So, although it's legitimate for a review of the iPad to carry an enthusiastic tone, a failure to point out the device's shortcomings pushes the review close to the line that divides useful consumer information from marketing jargon. And there's a lot of hyperbole out there, with numerous reviewers calling this a "game changer" and others claiming it will all but kill the laptop and the Kindle. The iPad may be a neat little device but it's hard to imagine it doing all of those things at its current price point. Yes, it will sell millions, but how many of Saturday's 700,000 customers are going to go home and throw away their Kindles, PS3s, and laptops because the iPad has rendered them obsolete? My guess: none. There have also been reports (although I can't verify their accuracy) that some of the toughest reviewers were not provided with pre-release iPads to test. If true, this would mean Apple was controlling the early word - a savvy marketing ploy. We'll see whether there's a change in tone of the next (post-release) batch of reviews.

Some of the more enthusiastic iPad reviews sound like they could have been written by or for Apple. They are love letters. It's fine for a reviewer to express appreciation for a device as long as they weigh in with all the pros and cons. (Bloggers who make no claims to be writing a review are not held to this standard.) We have entered an era in which good copy can be bought for the price of a pre-release look at a high profile gadget. Don't underestimate the impact to the ego of getting to play with an iPad before it has been released. Apple knows the goodwill this can generate, the cachet it conveys upon the "reviewer." Steve Jobs is purchasing a lot of cheap, positive publicity from writers who are so flattered at getting an early chance to use an iPad that they forget the #1 rule of product reviews: their job is to inform consumers not act as an arm of the manufacturer's marketing division.

Now that I have courted the ire of every Apple devotee reading this, it's time to irritate those who think I write too much about 3-D. Yes, I'm going there again, although hopefully this time it's from a different perspective. My goal is not to bemoan the rampant excesses of theaters and distributors in their campaign to ram 3-D down the throats of movie-goers, but to discuss how the media views 3-D and, in particular, the abomination that is the converted 3-D used in Clash of the Titans.

Most reviews of Clash warn viewers to avoid the 3-D version and, for those interested in seeing it, to instead seek out the 2-D version. Roger Ebert was unable to comment on the bad 3-D because he saw it in 2-D and admits to this. Nearly every review or article I have read about Clash discusses the 3-D debacle, with one exception. Entertainment Weekly covered Clash of the Titans in depth, but the only mildly negative reference to the 3-D comes in Owen Gleiberman's lukewarm write-up: "There isn't a single good 'Wow!' of a 3-D shot in the entire picture." Most of the Clash of the Titans 3-D comments in the magazine issue are either neutral or positive ("If nothing else, Clash of the Titans will make you believe a horse can fly - especially if you are watching the winged Pegasus in 3-D.")

Perhaps the first question to ask is whether Entertainment Weekly should be considered legitimate journalism or whether it's just a print version of TV shows like Entertainment Tonight, who exist solely to applaud Hollywood excesses. Once, EW was respected, although not to the same extent as some of its competitors (many of which, like Premiere, are dead). Now, it seems increasingly more like fluff, with stories written by aspiring publicists and marketers. Its unwillingness to say anything negative about the 3-D indicates that, at best, the writers didn't want to step on any toes and, at worst, that they were following a Hollywood script. The bottom line: EW has stepped over the line separating legitimate journalism from publicity. They have become part of the Hollywood marketing machine, which is fine if that's what readers want, but disappointing if you're looking for an unbiased article about some aspect of the entertainment industry.

Why stop my criticism of eroding journalistic ethics with Entertainment Weekly, which at least doesn't try too hard to hide what it is? How about Variety which, until this year, was widely regarded as the most prestigious of the print productions covering the entertainment industry. Two things have sullied that reputation, perhaps beyond repair. The first was the unceremonious firing of chief film critic Todd McCarthy. The second was the now-you-see-it/now-you-don't review by Robert Koeher of Iron Cross. Are the two related? Perhaps, perhaps not.

According to Variety, McCarthy is gone because his position was eliminated - something with which millions of Americans are familiar. The editors have indicated this is a purely economic decision; in fact, rumors indicate McCarthy will be invited to continue submitting reviews on a free-lance basis. However, published reports have stated that Variety is planning to phase out reviews during 2010 and someone as rigorously ethical as McCarthy might have represented an obstacle. It's ultimately all about money, but is Variety presenting the whole story? McCarthy, a class act, has been reluctant to say anything overtly negative about his former employees, but some of his colleagues have been less congenial. It's hard to imagine Variety maintaining a position at the pinnacle of entertainment writing without a solid foundation to its film criticism. Which brings us to the Iron Cross debacle.

Iron Cross, the final movie appearance of Roy Scheider, opened in December 2009 for a one-week Oscar qualification run. The film's producers allegedly entered into a six-figure deal with Variety to promote Iron Cross via ads in the magazine and a specially sponsored screening (here's a link to the on-line announcement of the screening). Unfortunately, Robert Koehler's review was strongly negative and, in the view of the filmmakers, undermined the entire Oscar campaign. (Sharon Waxman's interview with producer/director Joshua Newton provides a decent - albeit one-sided - autopsy.) The review was briefly available through Variety's website then mysteriously disappeared. Eventually, as word of this became widespread, the magazine restored the review, but the taint remained - even allowing for coincidences, the stench of impropriety is impossible to ignore.

Therein lie some of my concerns about the increasingly blurred lines between marketing and criticism. We have entered an era in which opinions and supposedly objective characterizations can be bought for flattery, an exclusive interview, or a large sum of money. The three examples cited above merely scratch the surface, and many of the more common attempts to influence are subtle. I have always been a believer that film critics should not conduct celebrity interviews. Occasionally, in pursuit of background information about a movie, a conversation with a filmmaker might be useful, but even that should be approached with caution. Actors, directors, writers, and producers talk to journalists with one purpose: to sell their film. To that end, they are often charming and chatty. They may joke around and represent themselves as entirely amiable, because getting a journalist to like them is an excellent first step to influencing an opinion.

I have three rules for interviews, and my adherence to them is a reason why I participate in so few. 1: I must not only have seen the movie before the interview but must have written the review. 2: I must like the movie. This is important. This way, even if an interview subject is charming and charismatic, she/he is merely re-enforcing an existing opinion, not attempting to change it. 3: There must be something substantive to gain from the interview. Most of the time, interviewing actors is an exercise in mutual ego-stroking. Talking with a writer, director, or crew member will usually bear more fruit. Given a choice between interviewing the star or the writer of a controversial blockbuster, I'd opt for the latter.

With a self-produced website like mine, it's not just a question of keeping my reviews as free of influence as possible but of maintaining the website's independence. Accepting ad revenue means that occasionally I will advertise for a movie I do not endorse. I accept this as a necessity. But there's a difference between a Google ad for an upcoming blockbuster and participation in a full-force campaign. Recently, I was offered a lucrative deal that would have doubled my website's daily revenue during the period of the campaign without having to worry whether readers clicked on ads or not. It involved creating a specially themed skin for the site featuring the logo of the movie and replacing my current ad slots with movie-related promotional material.

At the time I was approached with this deal, I had not seen the film in question. I asked the ad company what would happen if my review was uncomplimentary. They asked if I would refrain from posting it until after the campaign had run its course (a one week delay). I turned them down. I'd be lying if I didn't admit to being sorely tempted. The thought of letting all those dollars slip through my hands was almost painful and, to add insult to injury, it turned out that I liked the movie in question.

I admit a level of discomfort with how closely linked marketing and reviewing have become. No matter how rigorously I police myself, I am tarred by the same brush that touches all critics. We are, unfortunately, often defined by the least respected of our membership, by those who sell out and accept favors in return for writing something nice. When so-called reviews pimp the products they are supposed to be evaluating, we have lost something important. Marketing and publicity tell us that the iPad is a game changer, 3-D is the wave of the future and there's nothing controversial about the process used for Clash of the Titans, and that Variety will be better without its top critic on salary. The question, however, is not what we're being told, but whether or not we believe it.