It’s a scam as old as time.
But it keeps getting reinvented.
Recently, the New York Times published an article about how influencers are increasingly on the take in the role of pseudo-movie critics. Not that their opinion shouldn’t matter as much as (more than?) mine or the late Roger Ebert or even the Times’ own critic, Manohla Dargis.
Here’s the thing, though. Said influencers are not only always positive about whatever film they’re talking about, but they’re also basically in bed with the PR and marketing departments at the studios (or Netflix or Amazon or whatever you call distributors these days).
They get assorted graft, from t-shirts and ball caps to far more expensive stuff (I know; I used to be on that gravy train. Anyone want two 007 martini glasses?). And sometimes, they get paid. Not all that much on the scale of things. But still…. a line has been blurred. Or rather, crossed.
The crazy thing is, this is nothing new. ‘Way back in 2001, there was this guy named David Manning who wrote movie reviews for something called “The Ridgefield Press,” a family-owned weekly in a small Connecticut town. Manning was especially partial to movies released by Columbia Studios, spewing out endlessly effusive quotes featured in ads for Columbia products like “The Animal” (“another winner from Rob Schneider!” saith Manning).
Well, gosh, darn, gee. Turned out there was no such person as David Manning, writing movie reviews for “The Ridgefield Press.” He was…wait for it…totally made up by…really wait for it…Columbia. Outed by Newsweek, Sony Pictures, the studio’s parent company, admitted via a spokesperson that the Manning Manifestation was “an incredibly foolish decision.”
Decades earlier, Atlanta had its own version of Manning. Only, no studio made him up. He was a pretty nice guy named Jim Whaley. And I’ll give him this: he truly loved movies.
He was also incredibly prescient. Before Siskel and Ebert’s thumbs were a gleam in a TV producer’s eyes, Whaley had his own syndicated show. Called “Cinema Showcase,” it aired on WPBA from 1972-1992 (Whaley died tragically young, age 44, of a heart attack). The program was pretty bare bones: director chairs and posters. Think “Wayne’s World,” but in a suit and tie.
Still, Whaley got in there early and he got some big names. Like Warren Beatty and Robert Altman and Richard Harris and Brock Peters and Robert Mitchum. His fawning, laudatory interviews were hardly unique (you should see some of mine). But he was also an early pioneer of what the industry called blurbmeisters. Or quote whores. If a studio needed someone to say something positive about a picture, well, just ask Jim.
Granted, not exactly a crime against humanity, but there’s something not good about that sort of relationship. Something, well, dishonest. And I don’t think Whaley was a fundamentally dishonest person.
At any rate, most reviewers have huge egos (surprise!) and like to be quoted. I once got blurbed with “Sensational!” in the good-gawd-a’mighty New York Times (Thank you, Brown University and Westminster). Still, it wasn’t quite the ego-massage you’d expect. It was lifted from a mostly negative review that referred to the “sensational score.”
The point, I guess, is having someone pretend to be fair-minded and unbiased when they’re anything but, isn’t a good thing. Not even if you get some really cool martini glasses. Or maybe it’s just my own snobbism. Or deep-down love (still) for the movies. Selling a Gucci handbag is one thing. Selling Rob Schneider is quite another.