my outrage over the TechCrunch AOL ‘Source Code’ mess (aka: this is why we can’t have nice things)

Bit of a blowup in the movie-Web world this week. In brief:

1) TechCrunch writer Alexia Tsotsis is asked by AOL — which now owns TechCrunch — to “tone down” the “snark” in her post about how Summit Entertainment is marketing the movie Source Code to techies.

2) Tsotsis posts the email from her AOL overlords, and publicly responds with more snark and a resounding No, she will not tone down anything.
3) The issue blows up over at at the AOL family of entertainment sites, which includes Moviefone and Cinematical. Which leads to Cinematical’s managing editor Scott Weinberg — as respected an editor and writer as online entertainment journalism can offer — to resign over the whole shebang, not because he had anything to do with it all, but just as a soul-saving measure, because he’s one of the good guys in this realm. (Disclaimer: Scott and I served together on the Online Film Critics Society’s Governing Committee two years ago.)

4) Dustin Rowles at Pajiba — a site that has made a virtue out of its refusal to deal with studios and publicists in any way, and good on them for it — posts an excellent essay entitled “How to Be a Better Whore: Where Is the Line Between Studio Publicist and Movie Critic?” (which also offers a good summary of the debacle, if you want just a wrapup). Rowles conclusion about the mess?

But the real troubling thing here is that if a studio publicist is putting pressure on a tech blogger to tone down the snark in her coverage of a film, how many publicists are putting pressure on movie bloggers to town down their negativity in reviews? This is apparently going on, as Cinematical Editor-in-Chief Erik Davis has suggested:

Naturally it is pretty common for studios to at least ask to tone down something that’s particularly negative — especially if they’ve given you special access (real early screening etc) to that movie — but no one has ever forced me to change a post in order to please a studio. No one was forcing TechCrunch either — Moviefone was just passing along Summit’s message, leaving it up to TechCrunch to decide what to do editorially.

What? Because we don’t work with publicists, I had no idea that “it is pretty common for studios to at least ask to tone down something that’s particularly negative.” How many critics are going to allow that pressure to influence their reviews out of fear of having their access withheld? Or because they don’t want to piss anyone off. Personally, I don’t like confrontation — how many critics soften a review to avoid that confrontation with a publicist?

This is the danger of working with publicists in the first place, and part of the reason that this site does not: Whether you’re taking cues from them or not, if you’re working with a studio, if you’re paling around with a filmmaker, if you’re visiting the set, readers have every right to question your reviews. And now, because of the Moviefone/TechCrunch scandal, that concern is going to be heightened (and I’m going to fucking help heighten it).

In fact, it’s why I’m concerned that some of the other major movie websites haven’t openly expressed outrage. Is it because their response would be similar to Erik Davis’ response? Because if my boss passed on a message to me saying, “I’m not forcing you to change anything, but the studio would like you to tone it down and we need to remain on good terms with the studio. You do whatever you think is right (*whistles*),” I think I’d think twice before using that 17th profanity, if my job depended on it.

I’m not saying that’s what’s going on, I’m just saying: That’s probably what’s going on.

So here’s me expressing outrage, because Rowles is right: this is ridiculous, and casts a pall over anyone who is trying to do honest, independent movie journalism online.

I will say that I have never been asked by anyone to tone down any of my reviews, and I have never hesitated to rip into a film that deserved to be ripped into because I’ve been afraid of jeopardizing my relationship with a publicist or a studio. I do do my best to maintain cordial relationships with publicists — as in always being polite in my dealings with them — and I do respect review embargoes… though as those embargoes get stricter, I have made it a point of letting you, my readers, know when I’ve seen a film but am gagged from saying anything at all about it.

But I have been told by a studio that a “tone” I took in writing about them was not appreciated — this would be the Disney situation two years ago — and it did result in me being banned from Disney screenings in the U.S. It wasn’t the worst thing in the world, and it was a price worth paying, because I sure as hell was not going to “tone down” my writing for anyone.

I don’t consider that I work for the studios. Studios need critics more than critics need studios. For all the debate lately over whether critics have any value any longer, it remains a fact that studios and publicists do court critics because they need us, not the other way around. If they didn’t need us, they wouldn’t hold press screenings at all.

It is true, however, that there are some writers — online and in print, working for big corporations or small companies or just for themselves — who willingly whore themselves out in exchange for their name on a poster under a quote, or a chance to hang out with celebrities, or for whatever godforsaken reason they come up with the justify their soul-crushing behavior. If I were going to take route, I would have done it long ago. That doesn’t interest me, and it never will.

And if I ever receive an email like the one TechCrunch’s Tsotsis got, I promise to post it so we can all point at it and laugh.

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