What You Gonna Do With All That Junket?

Hi, I've got a burning question for The A.V. Club that doesn't involve half-remembered made-for-TV movies from the early '80s. Love to get an answer from your culture-savvy staff, even if you don't print it:

So it seems like movie critics have been playing a larger and larger role in a movie's commercial success. Nowadays, every movie poster and advertisement features glowing quotes from critics, and even real stinkers always seem to dredge up a couple words of praise for display, even if those words come from local radio stations or blog-like websites. Predictably terrible films now open without previews to prevent the customary excoriation from critics.

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It seems like a good quote or two from a "compensated" critic on a movie advertisement could sell a lot more tickets than a carefully-planned marketing campaign, and I'm sure that studios' marketing companies can see the difference on return in investment. So how prevalent is bribery in the movie-reviewer world, and are there any checks and balances in place to prevent this? Is bribery commonplace and just not talked about (i.e. Capitol Hill) or are movie critics pillars of integrity? Thanks,

EJ

I do not mean to question the integrity of The A.V. Club's journalistic credentials or the honesty of the reviews; this is not intended to be accusatory in any way. That said, have any of your staff reviewers been targeted by record labels, film distributors, or publishing houses with offers to sweeten the deal in exchange for a favorable review (Ă  la payola)? My guess is that the dodgy marketing tactics of these companies are more sophisticated than that, but I'm still curious. How prevalent is the practice of bribing (in whatever fashion) reviewers?

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Josh Reitze

Squeaky-clean Noel Murray replies:

Well, as you sort of hint at, Josh, there are bribes and there are bribes. Some people might argue that every freebie reviewers accept compromises our integrity a little—even if it's just a promo CD. Most of the critics I know do their jobs without worrying whether any one review will anger a publicist and get them taken off the goodie list, but still… savvy artists and publicists do try to be extra-friendly with some writers, in order to develop a beneficial relationship.

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When I was a young music critic, I once wrote an unsigned review of a local artist for an advertisement that the artist's manager took out in the publication I wrote for at the time. As he handed me my check for services rendered, he asked if he could pay for a real review sometime. When I gave him my shocked refusal, he showed me a book of guerilla marketing tactics that had "cozy up to the local press" as one of its key tips (followed closely by "pay off the local press"). That was the first and last time I ever took a dime from a musician.

I know some of my colleagues will take money from musicians to write bios for press kits, and while I believe they maintain their integrity by not writing a review immediately afterward, I personally can't do it that way. I'd rather write a published review, and if the publicist wants permission to quote it at length in the press kit, they can do so for free. I bent my rule once recently in order to write the liner notes for the DVD edition of Sheriff, a documentary I really like, but all I got in return—and all I asked for—was a copy of the finished product.

So in short: Yes, there are some shady practices afoot in show business when it comes to dealing with critics. It's up to each individual writer to decide how much they can take from the industry—a movie ticket? A round of drinks? An all-expenses-paid trip to Palm Springs?—without losing the ability to stay clear-eyed about what they're being asked to cover.

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Nathan Rabin adds:

EJ, I'm flattered by your belief that film critics wield increasing power in determining a film's commercial fate. I'm afraid the opposite is true. From a commercial perspective, film critics have never been less powerful. Older critics are being put out to pasture at an alarming rate, moviegoers are increasingly relying on amateur user reviews on sites like Amazon or the Internet Movie Database, and film-critic positions at major newspapers and alt-weeklies are disappearing. Furthermore, fewer and fewer films are being pre-screened for critics, out of a perhaps-justified belief that timely reviews for what are considered "critic-proof movies" can do more harm than good.

I'm afraid a complimentary quote from a friendly critic, compensated or otherwise, is no match for a carefully planned marketing campaign. Then again, that doesn't keep studios from attempting to influence critics in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.

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The best-known tactic is probably the press junket. In press junkets, studios fly Joe and Jane Second Stringer to Beverly Hills, put them up at a fancy hotel (probably the Four Seasons), give them a gift bag full of goodies and $100 a day per diem, show them the film that's being promoted, then arranges round-table interviews with the cast and crew, 'cause boy oh boy, there's nothing more riveting than exploring the psyche of the guy that produced Senseless.

In exchange for treating longsuffering entertainment scribes like big shots and giving them access to big movie stars, studios understandably expect some positive coverage of their films in the form of puff pieces and softball interviews where movie stars sit in front of a poster of the movie they're promoting and gush about how wonderful everyone was to work with, and how they just couldn't be prouder of movie X. On the plus side, junkets give smaller media outlets access to A-list interview subjects who would otherwise be out of their reach. On the downside, they make journalists feel like complacent gears in the publicity machine.

I am not at all proud to admit that I did a few junkets early in my career before The A.V. Club adopted a blanket no-junket policy. I think it's safe to say that the ambivalence and self-loathing I experienced during these soul-sucking forays into the seedier depths of the entertainment world found its way into the pieces I wrote from the Idle Hands junket. Looking back, it brings tears to my eyes to see myself with so much hair.

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Another way studios try to influence critics is by sending them promotional items pimping their movies. DreamWorks is the undisputed king of over-the-top promos. I still use the "Old School" George Foreman grill they sent out to promote, um, Old School. Some magazines or newspapers make a big show of donating these items to charities for widows and orphans, to rid themselves of even the appearance of a conflict of interest. I've always found that approach silly and self-righteous. I somehow think I can maintain my sense of journalistic ethics and enjoy the free candy the Cartoon Network sends me all the same. In other words, they'll have to pry the promotional Advanced Automorph Technology Optimus Prime figure DreamWorks sent me from my cold, dead, freebie-loving hands. Incidentally, you know that big Transformers movie everyone's talking 'bout? Big pile of shit. Pass it on.

At any rate, here are some links to A.V. Club features highlighting some of the more ridiculous promo items we've received.

In addition, I can think of a fairly recent, clear-cut example of a corporation exerting undue pressure to try to garner positive publicity. A while ago, I attended a concert put on by a major corporation that will remain nameless. The show was an obvious attempt to engender goodwill among consumers and the press for a company with its share of detractors. I was given backstage access, plied with free beer and food, and permitted to mingle with some of the artists performing.

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I was ostensibly there to do an interview with Musician X, the evening's headlining act and a very respected figure. The main publicist I dealt with couldn't be nicer, and assured me I'd get at least five minutes with X, but as the evening wore on, my chances of scoring an interview looked slim.

After the show was over, I gravitated to the press tent to make one more last-ditch effort to interview X. When I asked if there was any chance I could still do the interview, a second publicist took me aside and said they wanted to speak to me alone, something that immediately put me on the defensive. What kind of motherfuckery was this?

He then explained that Musician X—who had just spent two hours performing, and consequently wasn't exactly bursting with energy—had time for exactly one interview. In somber tones, I was told that that one special, precious interview was reserved for me. (I somehow suspect I wasn't the only one told this.) "But," the second publicist continued ominously, "if we give you that interview, you're going to have to do something for us. If we give you this interview, you'll have to include a quote about the event from the VP of marketing for the corporation behind it."

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Now, relationships between critics and publicists are generally symbiotic—studios and publicity companies give the press access to movies and stars, and in return, the press helps publicize and promote their artists and films. There's nothing particularly sinister about that. But in my 10 and a half years of writing for The Onion, nobody had ever flat-out said that they'd give us access to someone, but only on the condition that we insert a clumsy, conspicuous, pre-scripted plug for a corporation into the resulting article. That was clearly crossing a line. It's very rare that your ethics are challenged in such a clear-cut fashion. I politely declined.

The bitter irony is that Musician X is one of the most incendiary, anti-corporate artists out there. I like to think he'd be horrified to learn that he was being used as a pawn to get positive press for a consumer product manufactured by a giant multinational corporation. And while I certainly respect Musician X, he's not exactly a mega-star. It was a little like those comedies where some dumb sap tries to bribe the cops with a $5 bill. If you're going to try to buy someone and compromise their integrity, you should at least make it worth their while.

Not Hooked On Classics

I am a huge movie fan, having seen pretty much all the greats from the '70s on. However, I felt my knowledge was lacking from having not seen many of the consensus greats from the '60s on back. Working from several top-100 lists by reviewers I like, I began watching these oldies, and found they weren't so great. I found The Big Sleep to be a huge letdown, with Bogey's hammy line readings and an uninspired story. I understand why Citizen Kane is considered great, but I had to hear the commentary to really appreciate it. It is not until the French New Wave of the '60s that I find films I really dig. I wonder: Do these old films seem mediocre because I'm seeing them after witnessing the films they inspired? Was acting in the '40s and '50s not real enough? Am I the only one who thinks that these films, while great at the time, should be looked at as historical sources of modern cinema and not placed above far superior modern films?

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Brian P. Adams

A mortified Noel Murray replies:

First off, when you refer to "far superior modern films," you do realize that you're talking about a matter of taste, right? There's very little that's quantitative about evaluating movies. For example, naturalistic acting is just fine, but it's far from the only effective mode, even in 2007. Christopher Walken is about as natural as high fructose corn syrup, but when he's on the screen, it's hard to look away from him—even in bad movies. Similarly, no one kind of storytelling is superior to another. In fact, sometimes "storytelling" is the last thing on a filmmaker's mind. Just read interviews with the late Robert Altman, who considered his films' stories secondary to their record of human behavior. Or hold a séance and consult with the creators of The Big Sleep, who were more interested in rat-a-tat dialogue and abstracted tough-guy posturing than in revealing who killed who and why.

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It's not that the classics are unassailable, by any means. They can be problematic thematically, too clunky in the staging, and, yes, the acting can be distractingly broad. But when seen in the context of the other films from their era, the reasons why they're considered great—and not just "great for the '30s"—become plainer. Once you get used to some of the snags of older movies, from the accidental racism to the fakey studio "exteriors," you can focus on other things, like the odd charisma of stars like Humphrey Bogart, the intense clarity of the images, and the complex revelations about human nature.

What you don't want to do is become one of those willfully ignorant movie buffs who becomes convinced that film art has been perfected in the last 10 years or so, and that everything that came before was just a trial run, not worth studying in and of itself. That's such a shallow, arrogant, wasteful way to approach art. It's basically saying, "Since I only want to see what's familiar and immediately enjoyable to me, yet I still want to think of myself as a person of taste and intelligence, I have to find some way to assert that the things I already like are the best, and the things I don't want to deal with are inferior." Brian, you seem smart and well-meaning… please, don't be that guy.

See The Birdie, Be The Birdie

I remember watching a cartoon in the late 1980s when I was a very young girl, but I can't remember the name of it. I remember it had characters that looked like Barbie dolls, and I also think they were maybe in a band and had crazy '80s outfits and sang songs. I only remember one episode specifically, because it was one of those mandatory anti-drug episodes. One of the girls, I think she had red hair, is on a playground or something and is offered some pills by a boy. (I think it was supposed to be PCP; I remember PCP being used a lot as an example of bad, bad drugs in the '80s, for some reason.) She takes the pills and then she happens to be in a room/apartment and starts to hallucinate. There's a picture of a tropical bird in the room, and she imagines that the bird comes to life and flies out the window. She then wants to be a bird herself, and tries to fly out the window, but her friends save her just in time. I'm interested in knowing the name of this show, because from what I remember, it was pretty heavy-handed for a children's cartoon. Do you have any idea what I'm talking about?

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Liz Silverman

Noel Murray is on your wavelength:

Not only do I know it; I remember it, and I own it on DVD. This was an episode of Jem & The Holograms titled "Alone Again," in which a rebellious young orphan is sent to live at the Holograms' elegantly appointed foster mansion, and causes a crisis when she gobbles down some pills on a playground, almost exactly as you describe. Here's the first act of the episode, which ends with the window incident:

You can find the rest of the episode on YouTube too, but be careful. Jem can be addictive. As I wrote in a review of the first-and-second-season DVD set three years ago, "There's something sweet and even a little exciting in the series' simplified depiction of a music industry where two shallow girl groups—the title characters and the faintly punkish Misfits—battle for chart supremacy and for coveted slots at 'The Music Awards' and 'The World Hunger Shindig.'" I was 15 years old when Jem was first airing in afternoon syndication, and watching it was the first thing I did when I got home from school every day. I didn't like the music and I thought the plots were hackneyed, and yet I couldn't… stop… watching. To this day, I can't come up with a plausible excuse. Maybe it was the PCP.

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Next week: The truth behind new-music Tuesdays, and more. Send your questions to asktheavclub@theonion.com.