USC Annenberg Online Journalism ReviewUSC





Lights, Camera, Modem: How the Web Covers Hollywood

Sidebars: ? Owners of Entertainment Sites Are Web sites that cover Tinseltown in danger of becoming as bland as the studio films they write about -- especially as more of the heavily trafficked Web sites are owned by the very media empires they report on?   'It is being co-opted,' laments Chris Gore, founder, publisher, and editor of Film Threat, a zine that started its life on the printed page and now lives on the Internet. Gore posits that all the mainstream sites carry the same entertainment news coverage, so if you're looking for news you've got two choices: either 'the nice layout [with cookie-cutter information], or the raw kid who's getting his information from the intern on the set.'   Gore's site is one of those renowned for pulling few punches; he still remains banned from the Warner Bros. press list for a piece he ran on 'Batman Returns,' in which a lawyer listed every crime the Caped Crusader commits on film, from assault to breaking and entering. Warner Bros. was not amused.   Lucy Mohl, editorial director of Seattle-based Film.com, which bills itself as 'the independent voice of film criticism on the Internet,' calls the issue of critical distance 'the question that led me to launch in the first place... Even when I was working for NBC, there was a not-so-subtle tug to be a friend to the studios. There's not even an element of wink-wink in some of these relationships; it's the way the game is played.'   But Andy Jones, editor in chief of Atlanta-based Roughcut.com, a more commercial site, is having a hard time getting his winks responded to.   Started by Turner Broadcasting, Roughcut now finds itself -- as does the whole Turner empire -- part of Time Warner's corporate galaxy. (Perhaps indicative of the ever-evaporating line between the 'covered' and the 'coverers,' it's also a site this reporter contributes to periodically.)   'We can barely get invited to Warner Bros. junkets and we're a sister company,' Jones says. 'When Roughcut started, the rep for WB in Atlanta wouldn't return my calls... Few media companies have recognized the value of the Web. [They still think,] 'A Web site can promote my movie? Better than TV?''   Erik Flannigan, who edits the Mr. Showbiz site for Disney/ABC, thinks that covering films on the Web is generally preferable to covering them on television: 'We have absolutely more freedom than the TV part [of our company],' he insists. '[In] our movie reviews -- we've trashed every live action Disney film in the last few years!'   Flannigan says that because today's media conglomerates are so large, strict top-down management is impossible.   'We've been left to use our own judgment,' he says.   The Web's main virtue, says Gore, is that 'it's a level playing field. Someone can just as easily go to Mr. Showbiz as they can to Zentertainment,' one of the Internet's ostensibly independent media loci.   But Gore also maintains that overall, 'the studios still haven't figured it out. ' Online media, he says, 'is not being paid attention to -- I think that's good.'   Zentertainment's founder, Sean Jordan, agrees. 'It's my experience that most publicists will not service just any online outlet, [since just about] anyone can set up their own Web site and request material.'   Yet some of these fan-founded sites have become key players, such as Harry Knowles' Ain't-It-Cool-News, which snuck someone into a 'Titanic' preview and spread the news online that the film might be watchable, after all.   Conversely, according to Anthony C. Ferrante, editor in chief of Eon Magazine, 'When Ain't-It-Cool started to say 'Batman and Robin' stank, that movie tanked.'   Still, Ferrante notes, 'Disney [recently] showed Knowles reels of their upcoming movies,' knowing the rumor mill could 'make or break' those films.   Indeed, as this article was going on the Web, Knowles published a sneak preview report trashing Columbia Pictures' 'Cruel Intentions.' The question is, will Knowles, and others like him, remain objective about films released by studios who wine and dine them?   Or was objectivity ever the point in the hurly-burly of the Web?   It certainly is for Ferrante. His Eon is a version of the old print magazine Sci Fi Universe. When Sci Fi Universe folded, fan Dean Devlin -- who, with creative partner Roland Emmerich, produced the big-budget sci-fi movies 'Independence Day' and 'Godzilla' -- invited Ferrante to turn it into a Web-based publication, run through Devlin and Emmerich's Web-savvy production company, Centropolis.   Devlin and Emmerich already owed the Internet a debt of thanks; when their earlier effort, 'Stargate,' was about to be released by MGM, the studio was prepared to write the film off as something that would only be a moderate success, at best. But they worked the Web to create a buzz among sci-fi fans, and the film did much better -- among a much wider demographic -- than studio brass expected.

But was there any conflict when the company-sponsored online magazine was deciding how to cover Centropolis' biggest release to date -- last summer's 'Godzilla?'   Ferrante prides himself on eschewing rumor-mongering to 'follow the guidelines of journalism,' and describes the editorial meeting this way: 'If we were a regular magazine, how would we cover it?' Noting that 'Godzilla' was the biggest genre release of the season, they decided, 'If we had access, we'd cover it.'   And so they did, even panning the film's soundtrack release. When the movie began to head south both critically and at the box office, they were able to do a pretty frank Q & A with Devlin, after 'he'd stopped talking to other press.' Ferrante is quick to point out that 'we came to him' -- no one on the Centropolis side suggested the interview.   Q & A's also provided a turning point in terms of credibility for E! Online. 'A lot of Web sites would go to junkets and publish the Q & A's as being their own,' says Editor in Chief Lew Harris. 'We wouldn't publish [interviews] unless they were our own.'   He credits such moves, as well as inaugurating a series of live Webcast premieres, and his own background in print media, with attracting other 'real' journalists to the site.   But to what degree is 'real' journalism actually needed?   'There's not that much going on in entertainment you need to know right away,' says Erika Milvy, a journalist who covers online entertainment for the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times and others. While downplaying the need for -- or illusion of -- 'breaking' showbiz news, she says the Web's main advantage is ready access to different viewpoints on potentially controversial films, mentioning the Movie Review Query Engine as one of her favorite online clearinghouses for film information.   For Film.com's Mohl, the Internet 'has fostered a whole new group of independently minded critics, and I'd say their 'outside' perspective is quite strong.'   As for other 'outside' perspectives, Milvy also mentions indieWIRE, a site dedicated to independent filmmaking, as 'a great resource.'   But when a site like indieWIRE sets up shop at Sundance, where they help anchor the festival's new media proceedings, can they keep a critical distance on an event they're so much a part of, one whose imprimatur is so important to the films they promote?   'indieWIRE is able to maintain a critical distance,' says Editor in Chief Eugene Hernandez. 'Most of us have been going to Sundance for seven years and have formed opinions on its development in the past few years. The festival has certainly changed, and we've been able to chart it. A key point is that we remain a publication closely aligned with filmmakers.'   Hernandez adds that he doesn't 'necessarily believe online film coverage is any more or less intelligent, but I do think [it has] been able to cultivate a community... Independent filmmakers rely on such 'community models' -- whether at festivals, film schools, or online -- for growth and development.'   Web gadfly and Suck.com co-founder Carl Steadman has another view about Internet growth and development vis-à-vis Tinseltown: 'It's been my plan for some time now,' he says, ' to date a Hollywood starlet to lend legitimacy to the Internet space.   'But that,' he adds, 'is a long, tall ladder to climb.'