To my fellow, web based, film critics and bloggers,
I’ve kept widely silent on the ethical issue of set visits, swag, and the potential effects they have on our online community for roughly a year. Those following my Twitter feed (@damorton16) and noticing that I regularly write for Pajiba can probably infer what side of the line I’m on but, before I get to that, a brief context could serve useful.
I come out of journalism. I began as a film critic for my high school newspaper, The Pirate, before becoming an intern and freelance writer for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in 2001 during my senior year. I was shown the ropes of arts and entertainment coverage by some of the best writers the state of Wisconsin had to offer, many of whom have moved on to bigger and better things at the Chicago Tribune and the Miami Herald. My writing was critiqued, I was given tips on how to “get” the story and, most significant to this discussion, I was instilled with an ethical code that many of those writers and critics followed. Most notably, do not get involved with the Hollywood studios.
That latter lesson came out of a soul crushing turn that a story I was being led to departed on. Universal Pictures had been keen on the coverage that my section, the teen-centered “Jump” page, was offering. My editor came up to me and said that the studio wanted to fly me out to Hawaii not to review the upcoming Kate Bosworth and Michelle Rodriguez surfer film Blue Crush (2002) but to cover the press junket. My ears perked up; I could take a trip to Hawaii as an eighteen year old high school student! Yet, before my hopes could balloon, before I could pack my bags, my editor said something to the effect of “Sorry, can’t let you do it.” I felt like a kid getting kicked out of a candy store for a moment before he sat me down and said, “It’s not ethical. The editors feel if they send you on this trip, you and the paper will be indebted to Universal and will ultimately write a positive review of the film. We need to keep you objective.”
I may have been temporarily bitter about this turn of events, but I slowly began to see the truth in it. As my freelance career took off and I was sent DVD screeners to review, I was occasionally pressured to write positive reviews at a risk of losing the ability to get free screeners. Later, when I wrote a negative review for an album at my college newspaper, the UWM Post, I was approached by a colleague who berated me. It turned out the album involved the talent of a family member and the colleague felt that I had done his kin a disservice with the review and wanted me to retract it. My editor got wind of the exchange and called out my colleague, once again on ethical grounds. Hopefully, you will have noticed a continuity here: the ethics of journalism demand that you do not give up your position as an objective observer by letting swag or personal relationships get in the way of your evaluation.
After moving on from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and my four year tenure at the UWM Post, I took some time off from the journalism racket. My graduate course work in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles did not leave me with a lot of free time. I was taking the relatively popular path from going from film criticism to film theory and history (see Jean-Luc Godard, Peter Bogdanovich, et al.). After finishing my master’s degree and beginning my Ph.D. course work, I decided to get back to journalism. Cinema studies has many benefits, teaching America’s youth about film and walking them through old favorites and getting to think critically about the art around them being paramount, but I missed writing for a wider audience and sharing my cinephilia with others. So, thanks to Brian Prisco, a friend of a friend at the time, I was encouraged over a birthday celebration of Korean BBQ to send Dustin Rowles an e-mail.
Dustin told me of the guiding philosophy for Pajiba right off the bat: I was not to accept free screeners, I was not, despite my Los Angeles base of operations, to partake in the fruit of set visits and swag. I was fine with this. My career path had shown me what those rewards could lead to and, guided by an ethical code I had assembled out of journalism, academia, and documentary filmmaking (self-conscious objectivity, as you see here), I didn’t really give a damn. Writing criticism was my hobby, another way to feel fulfilled by a subject area I deeply admired. So I started writing up old movies I appreciated and watching ones I was unfamiliar with, getting the occasional assignment but, for the most part, left to my own devices.
A year after writing for Pajiba, I found myself neck deep in dissertation research, focusing on comic book films. Attending 2010 San Diego Comic-Con, I was approached by another blog, The Playlist, to write coverage based on round-table interviews, many of which focused on some of the same films I was writing about. In order to flesh out my dissertation, I accepted the gig and told Dustin that I would not be contributing to Pajiba for a brief period of time, as the content was not of the species he desired. I worked in dissertation related questions with those prepared by my editors at The Playlist and I got some great research done, especially when it came to Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010), research I later presented at the 2011 annual conference of the Society of Cinema and Media Studies. Yet, what troubled me was how close some of the other writers were to the talent and the projects to the point that I felt like I had betrayed my profession by attending a round-table on the Universal lot (how’s that for dramatic symmetry!).
I told a dear friend of mine, a former journalist turned public relations rep for medical giant, about my dilemma. He was, as always, pragmatic. He told me that in his experience, both the papers he had written for and the businesses he covered normally set a limit on the value of free swag that should be offered and that transparency was the best solution. “If you took a free CD, just say that at the bottom of the review. At least you’re being true to yourself and to your reader that way,” he said. So, whenever that situation took place again (which it rarely did, given my busy, Ph.D. student schedule), I did.
I continued on my dissertation research, occasionally interviewing filmmakers and personnel to flesh out the industrial context behind the trend of comic book adaptations. One such encounter was with a head of marketing for a major studio. We spoke about the comic book projects he had worked on and I asked him if he thought directors hiring comic book personnel (Dave Gibbons on Watchmen, Frank Miller on Sin City are examples) was a means of fan lip service or a genuine act of filmmaking collaboration. He insisted it was the latter and then dropped the bomb shell, “The best marketing decision our studio ever made was inviting bloggers to the set. They get the word out to the main demographic: the fans. We can cross a title over to a wider demographic from there.”
Boom went the dynamite. My academic career suddenly intersected with my hobby as a film critic and I was troubled by the Eisensteinian collision. Now, I understand that set visits can lead to context (they have in the case of my dissertation) but the most important thing we can do for our profession and our readers is to be transparent and to disclose the exclusive nature of these visits (swag is hard to defend in 99% of the cases, unless the swag is being reviewed, like a soundtrack or a DVD screener, but those even make me feel uncomfortable, as seen in the aforementioned cases). The biggest critique lobbed at the practice of online criticism and journalism is our lack of an ethical code, it gives print-based critics Armond White and Richard Schickel ammunition to pounce on our work as being unprofessional. As White once crowed, “All this distortion owes to what’s been called film culture’s “democratization,” a misleading term for how the expansion of film discussion beyond journalism’s art pages and all over the Internet has weakened our cultural foundation and decentered aesthetic and political authority. As uncredentialed experts multiply and flounder, we’re all victimized by hype. [...] Professional dignity is the last thing Internetters respect. Their loudmouth enmity and lack of knowledge are so overwhelming that it is imperative to put this crisis in perspective.”
As a writer at Film Rant later noted, while reflecting on White’s statements that, “as a paid professional writer producing online content for various websites on a daily basis, I’m in the lucky position of having a job that I love. While much of the work I do is based around marketing and PR, it is written to a very specific house style and is monitored closely for journalistic integrity. The only reason I mention this is that I think this gives me a slight advantage over some online writers in that I habitually adhere to codes of conduct that others do not. Now, don’t get me wrong, there is a wealth of great talent out there whose work I enjoy reading and interacting with via blog posts, podcasts and Twitter. The problem is that to some small degree, Mr. White has a point.”
I’m not ready to go on the record as agreeing with Armond White, as I do not think, despite my background in journalism and Cinema and Media Studies, that a film blogger or critic need have credentials. The professional practice of film criticism, in both print and online, is a relatively new career. Did Jean-Luc Godard go to school for journalism or criticism? Even one of Armond White’s heroes, Pauline Kael, never graduated from college. What we do need, however, is an ethical code that holds us together as a community. My proposed solution is a relatively hands off one: transparency and disclosure. It is not my place to judge you for taking an apple from the tree of knowledge. While I may feel uncomfortable with it, that is a choice that belongs to you and your editorial team. However, I implore you, for the sake of online criticism and the career we have all established, together, to disclose it for both our sake and the sake of the readers. Do not let movie studio marketing execs feel like the best decision they ever made was inviting us into their paradise.
Drew Morton is a Ph.D. candidate and teaching associate in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles. Aside from a handful of DVD screeners (2001-2006) and a”Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” soundtrack (2010, which he only accepted after reviewing the film as a utilized source in his dissertation), he no longer accepts swag. He has never participated in a set visit, although he has participated in round-table interviews specifically for The Playlist. Aside from the occasional guild member screening, he pays for all of his movie tickets, DVDs, and Blu-Rays.