Look, I get it. Nothing has lousier optics to most people than a bunch of fancypants film critics having a hissy fit.
Yet the Boston Globe’s stated decision — meaning my own and my editors’ — to denounce the Walt Disney Company’s misdirected punishment of Los Angeles Times journalists felt necessary on a deep and meaningful level. So did the threat to take Disney movies off the table for year-end awards consideration on the parts of four major critics’ groups, two of which (the Boston Society of Film Critics and the National Society of Film Critics) count me as a member.
By mid-afternoon Tuesday — six hours after the groups (Los Angeles and New York included) published their joint statement — Disney had reversed its ban of the LA Times. Solidarity won the day, at least on this day. More likely, the optics of a huge corporation bullying a newspaper were even worse.
This was never about who gets to have a look at Disney movies before they open. That would have been merely petty. At issue was the principle of a free press, and the proper ways to interact with it.
Disney didn’t like what the Times wrote in late September about the company’s intricate financial relationship with the city of Anaheim, the long-time home of Disneyland and a place where the Mouse House gets sweetheart deals while the local government has to cut back on city pensions. Studio spokespersons got to have their say in the article but the company still felt unfairly attacked, and they said so. If there were factual errors, Disney’s many lawyers could have pursued a printed correction; they didn’t. Instead, the studio put its boot down on a completely different section of the newspaper, banning the Times’s entertainment reporters and critics from all studio access to Disney product and personnel. (The company also cut off screening links for TV shows to the Times’s television reviewers.)
Now that’s petty.
Disney’s actions came at a time when news organizations are being assailed by those who don’t like what they hear or read and who feel they have the power — and, in the Trump Era, the cultural OK from on high — to push back. And it’s notable that Disney decided to take out its wrath on the part of the news business with whom it has always had a complicated and not entirely stink-free relationship: the arts and entertainment section.
It’s a symbiotic relationship, and has been since the studios were founded and newspapers and fan magazines started covering them in the early years of the 20th century. The studios make movies and need people to see them. The news organizations need copy that readers want. So a company like Disney works with news organizations to provide publicity materials and make filmmakers and talent available for interviews.
Studios don’t get a say in what gets written or get a look at an article before it runs, and reputable journalists don’t accept free travel, lodging, or other perks. But the studios get publicity. They get the word out. And the news organizations get eyeballs to features and special Sunday supplements like the holiday movie previews coming out around now — supplements that ideally also run lucrative studio ads for upcoming movies.
A movie critic’s part in this is narrower. My only interaction with the studio before writing a review is watching the movie at a press screening anywhere from two weeks to the day before the movie opens. It’s a courtesy the film companies have extended to the press for decades, one that many studio executives tolerate at best, since a bad review is useless from a marketing point of view (which, for them, is the only point of view).
I’ve been called out by one independent studio head for not giving out enough four-star ratings, because that’s the only bar that matters for a poster or an ad campaign. (When I gave one film I liked three and a half stars, he wrote to sarcastically ask me if I “couldn’t squeeze one more half-star out of my pen.”)
So, yes, reviewers are a barely necessary evil in the eyes of much of the film industry, which is why Disney probably felt a thrill of satisfaction when it switched its anger from the Times’s Metro section to the Arts pages. Keeping journalists out of advance screenings for “Thor: Ragnarok” — boy, that must have felt good.
For critics, steering clear of such screenings is a pain, but hardly a death knell. They only mean we get to run a review the day the movie opens in theaters; catching it on opening day in a theater means a delay of a day or two in print and not even that online. Am I saying we could do without early screenings? Not really, because they ultimately benefit readers by giving them information in the most useful and timely fashion. But if some of my industry colleagues are getting shut out just because, I have no desire to be among the reviewers going in.
It’s true that screening bans by movie studios are hardly new, as Jason Bailey has noted in a Village Voice article providing a larger historical context to the Disney/LA Times story. But earlier incidents involved studios in snits with individual reviewers over individual reviews, and while they weren’t good situations, they usually got resolved over time.
This was something different, something uglier, with much larger stakes. This was a valued, long-standing news organization being punished in the marketplace for exercising one of the signal freedoms on which this society is founded. What Disney chose to do was chilling, and it was meant to chill. A lot of good and talented people in my corner of the world decided not to stand for it and banded together to get the situation changed, and, somewhat surprisingly, we did.
I’d like to hope there’s a lesson there for all of us.
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