Movie Blogs and Journalism in the Internet Age

[Photo by Flickr user just.LUC ]

[I'm sure I don't need to say it, but just in case: This article represents my personal viewpoints alone, not the viewpoints of Peter Sciretta, slashfilm.com, or anything/one related to it]

Yesterday /Film published an article written by me about the works of Sam Mendes. It wasn't my best article but in it, I shared some of my honest thoughts on Mendes' career. At the beginning of the post was the following bit of text: “This post is sponsored by Focus Features - See Sam Mendes’ new movie Away We Go in Theaters Now!”

This prompted dramatic accusations that we at /Film had compromised our journalistic integrity, that we were sellouts and on the take. All over Twitter and in the comments section of slashfilm.com, people dragged our name through the mud, many of them without knowing the circumstances behind the creation of that post. The article prompted this post (again by me) in which we issued clarifications about our editorial guidelines for the site. Still, this was insufficient for many, as film journalists/bloggers continued to call for our blood, and many commenters said they would stop reading us altogether.

This incident disturbed me deeply for a number of reasons. Before I get to that though, let's start with some basic principles and facts. I understand the necessity for there to be a clear dividing line between editorial and advertising. If people don't know the difference between an opinion that is genuine and an opinion that is paid for, then there is no way for people to trust the site.

The specifics of what the post was have already been covered: It was not an article in exchange for money, but a "value add" as part of an advertising campaign/package that our ad network, Gorilla Nation, shopped to Focus Features (who were not made aware of the final form the article could take). The only reason we agreed to do the article is because we would retain full editorial control and because it's an article we would have run anyway (it's similar to other pieces I've written for the site in the past, done of my own free will and without any prompting). I would, of course, be free to express my feelings on Sam Mendes, a director on whose films I am decidely mixed on. For those reasons, we did not feel it would compromise our editorial integrity. As a matter of fact, such "value add" articles are commonplace in our industry and have run on many sites you probably read (some of whom were among our accusers), including slashfilm.com, before without much of a fuss (although these articles usually do not disclose the fact they were sponsored).

For some reason, yesterday was the day that people decided to take a stand on the issue.

A lot of our readers might not realize when they're reading through pages and pages of completely free and amusing content that /Film is a blog but it's also a business. The economic implications of the situation are simple: /Film is able to function, pay for servers, pay for writers etc. because of advertising on the site. And sites like ours are hurting all over the internet. Ad dollars are drying up everywhere due to the economic recession, but for an industry like ours, which provides an "elastic" product (i.e. movie reviews and opinions, which you can literally find millions all over the internet) the situation is far worse. Many of your favorite film sites (i.e. independent ones that aren't venture funded, or that aren't subsidiaries of a large corporation) are struggling to stay alive and are having an increasingly difficult time paying writers at all, not to mention paying them a living wage. Obviously, our need for money doesn't obviate the need for ethics, but it's important for readers to understand that many independent film sites only have one source of revenue.

During this period, many parties involved (e.g. movie studios, web site publishers and ad networks) have tried to find creative ways to promote films while still allowing web sites to retain their editorial voices. One of the ways that has become commonly accepted is the studio set visit. Studios will spend thousands of dollars flying out journalists to a film set, with the tacit agreement that the journalist will document the visit, with the article to be published at a specific time. All travel expenses are typically paid for (hotel, airfare, food) and a highly controlled viewing of the film is offered to the journalists. All of it is designed to positively impact one's viewing of the film, but it's still a win-win: Publishers and readers get cool exclusive content, studios get out word of the movie very early, etc. So common is this practice that you never see disclosures such as "This set visit article was sponsored by Paramount Pictures" before a set visit piece.

Another one of the ways they've come up with is articles such as the one I wrote, where the article adds value to the site, while allowing the writer to say whatever the hell they want as long as it's on a topic relating to an upcoming film. In most cases like this, the topic is something that the site would have written on anyway (e.g. Peter nor I would have agreed to write an article about "The Works of Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer") and again, editorial control is completely retained. In my mind, this is a win-win-win: The studio gets the coverage they want (which they probably would have gotten anyway organically). The site gets to keep operating. The readers get the unique perspective of the webmaster/blogger, whose attitude towards a film/director is uninfluenced by the advertiser.

**

The dividing lines between advertising and editorial are those forged by newspapers and similar publications since time immemorial. So my question to everyone trumpeting them is: How well is that working out for them? Newspapers, even ones in major cities, are closing rapidly all over America (Side note: Guess who are the first staff members they fire, on the long, brutal road towards insolvency? Film critics). A combination of sharply declining ad sales, not to mention the rise of the internet (Craigslist is rapidly supplanting classifieds, once a huge source of newspaper income), has presented a double whammy and shut down once-venerable institutions, while causing others to dangle on the precipice.

To be fair, we'd probably recoil at the site of a "sponsored post" in the New York Times. But we also have to face the reality that the current business model for newspapers (where advertising and content are kept entirely separated, and one dare not intrude upon the other) isn't functioning. How can we reconcile these two competing thoughts?

Just yesterday, Peter Kafka from the Wall Street Journal wrote a depressing piece about how newspapers that hope to survive will need to trim down staff and content dramatically. With few exceptions, as a business model, the modern American newspaper just isn't functional. Newspapers like the New York Times operate at a loss of millions of dollars; a bunch of bi-weekly auto ads simply can't fund a team of reporters to visit Iran for very much longer.

But even newspapers have more options than film websites, for at least 2 reasons: 1) Newspapers provide what is perceived to be a public good or service, in the sense that the reporting they do is seen by many to be good for society and Democracy, and 2) Partially as a result of #1, they have monetization options we can't even dream of (e.g. subscription models, micro-transactions, etc. Also, they have a physical product they can sell). Try charging content for money on a film blog and see how many seconds it takes before people move on to another site that is completely free of charge.

So, if the journalistic paradigms which everyone would like to adhere to in an ideal world simply aren't realistic (in light of the requirements of running a film site as a business), we have two options: 1) die, or 2) try to adapt. I'm not saying we should accept every offer of money that comes our way. We should never allow our views to be altered by advertiser or studio money. But isn't it incumbent upon us, for the sake of our survival, to explore ways we can monetize our content without compromising our integrity? Isn't it incumbent upon us to at least have an in-depth discussion about it before deciding what's right and what's wrong?

The past 10 years have shown, dramatically, that those who survive are the ones who are able to find ways to adapt to the changing times without compromising their editorial integrity. Those who survive are the ones that are able to find new ways to monetize while still retaining their readers' trust. I agree with the gist of what people are saying: You don't survive by selling your soul. But you also don't survive by remaining rigidly unadaptable to the realities of the economy. Surely a balance must be struck?

So I ask a simple question then: Is doing one "sponsored post" every few months really a stunning indictment of our journalistic integrity? Apparently, it's pretty easy for most people to answer that question by saying "yes." But consider the following: /Film produces somewhere on the range of 6,000-7,000 features/news/reviews/column posts per year. As a reader and a fan of /Film, let's say you could choose between the following two scenarios:

1) /Film produces 6,000-7,000 articles and 4 sponsored posts per year ("Sponsored" in the way I describe above, where the topic is something we normally cover, complete editorial control is retained, etc.).

2) /Film produces 6,000-7,000 articles and 0 sponsored posts per year. But as a result, we need to lay off 3 writers. Or shut down the /Filmcast. Or cut that down to 4,000 articles per year. Or otherwise dramatically compromise the quantity/quality of the content we put out.

What would our readers really choose? I honestly want to know. Ultimately, this is a discussion we'll eventually need to have with /Film's readers (maybe sooner rather than later), as we care more about their thoughts on the matter than what competing blogs, who don't have to deal with /Film as a business, have to say. It's a discussion worth having, and it deserves more than a /Film Disqus comment, or a 140-character Twitter message.

[It was suggested to me by a film webmaster who was highly critical of us yesterday that one of the things we did wrong was that we did not have some sort of weekly established column [e.g. "The Works of (Director),]" and that had we done this, we could have just had that column be "sponsored" one week and avoided the appearance of impropriety. I did not understand this argument at all, as it's basically exactly what we did, only /Film is not so organized as to have a plethora of weekly columns (though we do write features/columns on topics that interest us).

But the idea that one of those is okay (weekly column idea) and one is not (what we did)...ethically, the dividing line between those two is so spurious as to be non-existent in my opinion. I bring up this example not to call out said colleague, but because I think that the line between what's right and what's not in the film blogging/journalism/website world is pretty hazy at best, which makes me further question the voracity of the response to our article.]

**

The most disappointing thing about yesterday was not people responding negatively to our post. It was the complete and utter lack of ability to have a reasoned, informed discussion about the economic realities of the situation. I blame part of this on Twitter, which distills remarks down to soundbytes, where the priority is not on coming up with the most informed remarks, but on the most witty and memorable. And when people think a news site is on the take, people can be very witty and memorable indeed.

There was no "Hey, what happened here?" Instead, people got out the torches and pitchforks and shouted "KILL, KILL, KILL."

Perhaps most hurtful: People who I thought I respected, people who I thought were my colleagues, when presented with a partial construction of the facts, chose not to speak with us in private and talk with us about their concerns (as I would have done for them), but to assume the worst about us and to publicly denounce us.

In a world where sites left and right are struggling to stay alive, the idea that we (all of whom do the same thing for a living) can't even sit down at the table and have a civil talk about how we're going to keep doing what we love and get paid for it...that's incredibly disturbing.

When me and my colleagues started the podcast in January 2008, I proceeded from a very simple premise: Anyone can talk passionately about movies. I don't think any other film podcasts has had as many guests as we've had in the year and half we've been in existence. And I always wanted our podcast to show that despite what squabbles people might have about how to run their sites, in the end, it's all about loving movies, and the bond and camaraderie that can extend from that.

But the one thing that yesterday taught me is not how to better operate a film site. It's that in the film blogger/journalism world, there is no friendship. There is no loyalty. There's no civility. There's just a wave of unstoppable, unreasonable animosity.

If there's one thing I'm grateful for, it's people willing to have a conversation about the matter instead of jumping at our throat. It's the people that actually sent me a message or an e-mail or gave me a phone call and said "Hey Dave, what's up with this?" allowing us to have a civil discussion BEFORE ripping my head off. And of course, the people that understand that in order to keep contributing to filmic discourse, in order to keep having a microphone, you need to find a way to pay the bills without selling your soul.

We thought we were able to successfully do this with the Sam Mendes article. Obviously, a lot of people disagreed.

**

So after all this, what is ethical to do on a film site? Is a set visit ethical? Junket coverage? A sponsored post? More importantly, once we've established what's ethical or not, can we literally afford to continue functioning while following those guidelines? And if not, what can we do?

I wrote this blog because I hope to start a discussion (not a shouting match) about how blogs can stay alive, about what constitutes acceptable behavior in the blogosphere, and why exactly the rules are the way they are. More importantly: Is it realistic to be able to continue running these sites as businesses, given these journalistic rules that people have coalesced around? I'm sure people reading this have criticisms AND agreements with what I wrote. Can we have a public conversation about it? Your (civil) comments are welcome below and I look forward to joining you. I'm also happy to link to any blog responses to this post. No links to Twitter responses though...

54 comments :: Movie Blogs and Journalism in the Internet Age

  1. David, there are a lot of troubling sentences here, but the one that sort of shows that you're missing the larger point is this:

    It was not an article in exchange for money, but a "value add" as part of an advertising campaign/package that our ad network, Gorilla Nation, shopped to Focus Features

    That is exactly an article in exchange for money. You sold an ad package and PART of the package you SOLD was the article. You one hundred percent did sell the article for money.

    Nobody knows the realities of blog economics like me. Some months I wonder if the rent gets made. But I know that what makes me valuable to readers is my opinion, and once my opinion becomes part of a paid-for ad campaign, it becomes utterly suspect. Yeah, it's a tough time for web sites. Yeah, money's tight. Yeah, it's scary. But the answer isn't 'make money any way you can.' The answer is 'make money ethically.' And if you can't figure out how to do that you have to decide what your ethics and what your readers' trust is worth to you and at least sell out for that much.

  2. Also, Dave, you know I like you and I like the Slahfilmcast, but come on. This 'we should have been told in private' thing is silly. You guys did a public post. Your public post was responded to publically.

    You guys aren't the new kids on the block anymore. The 'We didn't know that was wrong' defense quit flying when Slashfilm stepped into the role of one of the biggest film sites out there. This isn't an unexplored territory, either - the internet movie site world has existed for a decade, and journalism as we know it for a century before that. You're walking a well-trod path, and the signposts are there for you to read.

  3. Nicely written and very valid points Dave. I can understand the necessity for advertising even when its a fine line, its the only thing that keeps things moving. Perhaps people are just wary of such a direct connection to a promotion, especially if theres been no precedent.
    I stopped reading slashfilm because Peter edits comments that are critical of articles or even ones that point out factual errors (Its happened to me) but I keep listening to you, Devindra and Adam on the podcast as you guys still retain a lot of enthusiasm for filmaking in general unlike a lot some where mean spiritedness seems to be the order of the day.

  4. Hey, Dave. I've been having conversations about this kind of thing with a friend of mine who just took the buy out from the Washington Post, and this is a really tough issue for everyone. No one knows what to do with the press anymore. I hope smart people can come up with a creative solution. His thought is that the Post is going to have to charge people something for online content, and that maybe the government is going to have to lift the Robinson-Patman act so all newspapers can simultaneously charge some similar price. I wonder if some of the big blogs are going to have to come up with something similar, though I doubt that would work, given, as you said, there are millions of them. I don't think I know enough about this situation to comment on its ethics, because I'm not in journalism at all, but I like you a lot and I trust you as a writer, and I know you don't do things without thinking about them. In general, you have my support as a friend. I'll be following this conversation so I can learn more about it, but what you've written here makes excellent points that I am glad I had a chance to read. Thanks for posting it.

    - Jess (aka J Claw)

  5. Dave,

    This whole thing seems ridiculous to me. As a reader and listener, I can't comprehend how this changes anything. As was pointed out above, it's your opinion that matters. And as far as I can tell, this "value add" idea simply dictates the subject of the article, not the viewpoint. And, as you pointed out, writing an article about the past works of a director on a website dedicated to film editorials isn't something you had to be coerced into doing. I understand the idea that a production company paying you to write an article may be seen as an outside pressure for you to show them in a positive light, but I don't see how this is any worse than a news program agreeing not to ask certain questions in order to conduct an interview with someone who will draw in ratings, or a newspaper deciding to run an article on something that will sell instead of something that is intrinsically more important. Most news entities are businesses as well, and can't be blamed for trying to stay afloat.
    As I see it, the line that needs to be drawn is one that divides sponsors dictating subject as opposed to sponsors dictating content. And you have obviously landed on the correct side of that line. And there shouldn't be any doubt since you confidently prefaced your article with the declaration of the sponsorship.
    As for the attacks from the other sites and writers, I would have to say that there is no journalistic integrity evident in shouting ignorant accusations. And it sounds like most of the attacks were just that. I think the old school journalists out there who are calling for blood are simply desperate old dogs who are trying to find a leg up and a way to boost their own self worth amidst a sea of younger writers working in a rapidly changing industry.
    As a fan, I hope you guys keep doing things the same way. I would rather see more articles and less out-of-work writers as long as your opinions are, in fact, your opinions.
    Slashfilm and the Slashfilmcast continue to be a main source of entertainment news for me because I trust the opinions that are presented. At lease for me, that hasn't changed a bit.

    Keep up the good work, sir.

  6. I would respectfully disagree with Devin's comments. The core issue is that you're being accused of being biased for money. However, I don't believe running an editorial that you would have run anyway justifies such a charge.

    The path is NOT well worn and established, actually, the path has been contentious since journalism was established and it continues to be a vigorous debate on both sides. The simple reality is that this is a business. It's not a federal subsidy, and readers pay you nothing. Is this a dangerous way to do business? Absolutely. The ramifications of an ad-based business are rife with dilemmas. But so is the entire business. There is nothing that entitles anyone to work in this industry, and in fact in some cases we're rewarding people who absolutely make a mockery of creativity and honesty. The best way to have a site is to get DIGG and the best way to get DUGG is to be purposefully inflammatory. The internet is where nuance is going to die, and the Twitter revolution of mob mentality 140 character takedowns is yet another example of us acting like children. The people in this business don't seem to treat it with any respect. It's F-bomb this, and "I'll fight you" that. And that's frustrating and sad for a person that's grown up reading a lot of you guys.

    Three months ago everyone rushed to coronate Wathcmen. Devin, how many times have you personally met Snyder? Does that influence you at all? Or is the answer, no, zero percent, not even subconsciously?

    I believe everyone is biased on some level. Everyone imbibes entertainment with their own experiences in mind. You absolutely can't remove bias. All you can do is be as HONEST as possible. Which /Film was. And is.

    What concerns me more than anything is just how "right" you feel your opposing view is. That's the way of stubborn bullys. You don't know that what /film did was wrong, you simply THINK it was. You don't have any idea how the conversation with Focus went, or what David had in his mind when he penned the article. All you have is your suppositions and your moral highground. You don't think there is any gray area here? If I lock my editorial schedule a week in advance and then the ad team sells ads around it is that also an ethical transgression? Is wearing a Serenity T-Shirt a party foul? Where do you draw the line? You routinely lob bombs at internet folk but you seem to have very little compassion or empathy for other people's situations. I can think of "ethical transgressions" for everyone I've ever met, including myself. But the level of judgment you load your words with is a scary thing.

    If /Film can't pay its writers then the industry is that much worse off. The audience determines the value of the product. When they don't trust /Film they'll leave. I just don't think this is a reason to do so.

  7. I could see the point of the detractors if Dave's post was gushing or blindly positive, but it wasn't. It was fair, measured, and sounded genuine. So much so, that I didn't even notice the post was sponsored at first.

    Just because we can do something doesn't necessarily mean we should. Yes, the post was public and as such, the discussion of said post was in the public domain. But especially for fellow bloggers, I believe a certain respect and courtesy should have been shown. Ignorant, exaggerated attacks are not professional or ethical.

    And when did Slashfilm ever put up the "we didn't know that was wrong" defense? In all of this commotion, I don't think they ever played the innocence card. They were immediately up front and truthful with the explanation behind their decision.

    This to me at least, seems like much ado about nothing. A piece of sensationalism that really has no merits. In the sponsored post, Dave's opinion did not seem compromised and it seemed the contents of the post were relevant (Away We Go is in theaters after all).

  8. Laremy, try this on for size: would you take money to give a positive review of a movie you were going to review favorably anyway? Would that be in any way ethically wrong? I mean, you legitimately liked the film, and the money won't change your opinion. In fact, you don't even have to give it a perfect score; a B will do. Is it okay to take that money?

    Taking money for content is payola. There's a reason it's illegal in the radio industry; even if you're taking money to play a record that's so good you would have played it anyway, it's wrong. And it leaves us wondering about the next record you play/editorial you run.

    As for Zack Snyder - it's an interesting point. But there's a difference between a personal bias and an economic one. Let's say you love Michael Mann movies; even if you never met the guy, you would be inclined to give PUBLIC ENEMIES a better review simply because you appreciate the work he does. You'd probably cover the film more as well, because it's something that interests you. That's inevitable when you're dealing with opinion based writing, and it's kind of the point of opinion based writing.

    Now, has my interactions with Snyder changed my thoughts on his movies? Maybe, but what I think it's done is made me understand what he's trying to do more. It's not that different from reading a book about the life of Ernst Lubitsch before watching his films; you're coming from a more informed context.

    But again, Zack Snyder has never given me a thing for my coverage. I didn't even get one of those ART OF WATCHMEN books out of Warner Bros, and if CHUD gets a Blu-Ray copy of WATCHMEN it goes to our DVD review staff, not to me.

    In the end, honest bias is fine as long as it's stated. But selling your content is never okay. Ever.

  9. OK, thought about it, and here's the line Laremy asked for:

    Never take money from studios in exchange for content.

    That's it. That simple. We can argue about t-shirts all day long, but the difference between a t-shirt and a check are huge and obvious.

  10. I apologize about posting again and again, but this is a subject that deeply interests me.

    As Laremy points out, our advertising may very well be running in tandem with our editorial content. But that's because we're writing about movies that are coming up soon. We exist on a razor's edge where we're independent bodies but we are, in no small way, promoting a studio product. And make no mistake, even though you're catering to your audience with the posters and the trailers and the picture galleries, etc, you ARE doing work for the studio.

    But once you take money from the studio for your content you are really, seriously and truly working for the studio. That line is crossed. Does anyone think that Focus would have been happy if Dave had written an editorial about Sam Mendes called 'Sam Mendes: A Hack Who Keeps Chasing the Oscar'? Don't kid yourself.

    The other day Billington tweeted that people who didn't like TRANSFORMERS shouldn't be allowed to interview Orci and Kurtzman. That is obviously wrong, right? But his thinking is on the exact same side of the ethical fence as advertorials, in my opinion.

  11. All of my comments are coming from the perspective of a fan of both the site and podcast.

    I think most readers acted negatively because: A) It was just sort of thrown in our faces and B) They didn't know the full story. The writers for /Film are smart people, but didn't they think at least some readers would react negatively? Even though I wasn't one who reacted in that manner, I still understand where they're coming from. If I didn't visit the site often or listen to the podcast, I would've easily just jumped to the conclusion that you were selling out.

    As far as what the site can do to continue operating while remaining ethical, I look to the /Filmcast. It never bothered me when you guys mentioned that there was a way for us to donate directly to you. In that instance, you actually explained why it was there and such. You pour so much time and energy into something that I love listening to every week. The news post in question didn't bother me either, but I'd rather donate money that way. And I realize I'm probably in the minority in saying that, which is a shame.

    Hopefully some sort of agreement can be made between the readers and writers, though. I've been encouraged to check out films and shows I wouldn't have otherwise, all because of everyone that contributes to the /Filmcast.

  12. I am not in the online writing business but I was shocked when I saw that article because even though Dave expressed that he didn't love all of Sam's films but maybe he HATED some of them instead of not caring for some, but since the article was sponsored, I have no way of knowing if your opinion was skewed due to the money. True, I would never imagine Dave's view would be skewed, if it was someone else I would not be so sure, but that is the fine line you have to walk when money is given for articles.

    Also, the outrage may have been becuase I think /film has so many adds and they seems very intrusive. Ads in the middle of articles and sometimes adds with audio. Of all the movie sites out there I think I see the most adds on /film. The other I visit all the time has way less adds and also has a good sized international staff, some how they get by with less ads.

    Looking to save money by removing writers, remove Hunter from the staff, he always has such off-topic articles where all he seems to care about is squeezing in all the hipster references he possibly can. Many times his articles do not relate to movies (i.e. was there a need for some many words on Andrew WK).

    Oh well, I will let the other online journalists have discussions with you because they know more than me and can easily add more value to the discussion. Keep up the great work on the /filmcast, it is my favorite part of the site and love hearing you guys talk (and am glad Adam has refrained from so many spoilers in his reviews).

  13. This is a fascinating topic definitely and I am literally two days in to posting actual posts on a website as opposed to comments and it's a big scary world that has a steep learning curve. Yes I do it for free and also work stacking shelves at a supermarket and also study Psychology full time.

    This puts me at a point where I write because I want to and I see this as an internship. So while Filmschoolrejects gets free content from me I get a place to hone my writing skills and get tips from those that have done this for a long time. For that I will be eternally thankful. So who of these websites doesn't write for the love of it? Is there seriously anyone that does it for the money?

    I have followed the debate over the past few days but stayed silent until now because I thought why speak in a plethora of mudslinging where I won't be heard.

    I'm also glad to see Devin post so much as it shows that even after being in the business so long he still cares enough to comment in the face of no replies. I hope I care as much after so long. Hell, I hope that I'm here long enough to find out

    So even with my horrible job would I accept money from a studio to write content? No I wouldn't.

  14. Devin: I'm headed out to Public Enemies, but I'm considering your argument and hope to have something suitable this evening. I think your "Never Take Money for Content" is both logically correct... and realistically problematic. But I'll get into it tonight, thanks for the reply.

  15. Laremy, sticking to ethics wouldn't be a big deal if they weren't sometimes realistically problematic. It's why we respect people who do it.

  16. I'd like to hear Devin's response to how his ethics play into the "set visit" scenario....?

  17. I'm kind of torn on this one, Dave. I 100% believe that you would've written such an article for free and posted it anyways but once you admit that you were paid for such an article it rubs me the wrong way a bit. I think when you're podcast is about reviewing

    Ebert wrote an article on the ethics of film journalism and one of his commandments was this:


    No commercial endorsements. This used to be a given in journalism ethics. A critic must be especially vigilant. If you express approval of a product, you must sincerely believe what you are saying. How will we know you're sincere? Because you have (1) accepted no money,


    It's a tough dilemma but I'd say don't take ANY money for ANY reviews. That's just me.

  18. http://blogs.suntimes.com/ebert/2008/10/eberts_little_rule_book.html

    That's the full article in case anyone wanted to check it out. Really interesting stuff.

  19. "Never take money from studios in exchange for content.

    That's it. That simple. We can argue about t-shirts all day long, but the difference between a t-shirt and a check are huge and obvious."

    No, Devin, it's not that simple. The difference between a t-shirt and a check may be huge and obvious, but the distinction becomes much less clear when we're talking about getting flown halfway across the planet, being put up in a 5-star hotel, and being granted exclusive access to a film's set.

    All of that is bought and paid for by the studio in exchange for content. And not only that, but that content is in many ways controlled by them, since they determine what you see and who you get to talk to.

    Just because they didn't explicitly give you a check for the content you wrote, an exchange of goods/services still took place.

    If you really want to argue the moral high ground here, there should be no exchanges with studios PERIOD. No exclusives, no studio-enabled interviews, no set visits, no giveaways, NONE OF IT.

  20. Good lord, this is a huge storm over absolutely nothing.

    I've been listening to /filmcast for about 3 months and it's become my primary news source for all things filmic. I like and trust all the hosts and by extension the guests.

    The article in question is innocuous and inoffensive and would clearly have been written had Focus not sponsored the post.

    A big factor that everyone seems to be glossing over is Dave says he hasn't yet seen the film in question. Surely if this was 'payola' he would have given the film a glowing review.

    I honestly don't see any difference between this kind of sponsored post and the set visit/press junket model that David describes.

    Devin is getting excessively angry over this and my estimation of him has plummeted.

  21. Hey Devin and everyone else,

    Sorry it's taken so long to respond. Was at a screening of Public Enemies tonight.

    As usual, Devin, you bring up a lot of good points (and of course you don't need to apologize for posting too much. I'm honored to have a lively back and forth in this manner). Let me see if I can respond in a way that's intelligent:

    1) Let me start by conceding that it is reasonable to interpret our actions as accepting money/advertising in exchange for writing a piece of content covering a specific topic (albeit for a topic/director we knew we liked and in a fashion completely under our editorial control). While we weren't paid directly for the production of the article, it's semantics for me to say so, so I'll acknowledge that up front.

    2) You wrote this:

    "This isn't an unexplored territory, either - the internet movie site world has existed for a decade, and journalism as we know it for a century before that. You're walking a well-trod path, and the signposts are there for you to read."

    The whole point of me writing this lengthy post is to say: Yes, the sign posts have been there for me to read, and they are ugly, dirty signposts that are not clear whatsoever. We write in (film blogging) universe where people attend junkets in exchange for coverage, where columns/features are frequently sponsored (publicly or privately), where lavish set visits are paid for. In the world of movie websites, the distinction between "journalism" and "studio-supported content" isn't just fuzzy, it's rapidly coming apart at the seams.

    3) As for you saying "This 'we should have been told in private' thing is silly. You guys did a public post. Your public post was responded to publically," all I'll say is that this is article personal blog post and I'm responding honestly with my feelings on the matter. You are definitely free to react however you want to our actions, publicly or privately, but where I come from, if my friend f*cks up, I don't call him out on it in front of everyone.

    I thought of people at fellow film sites as friends, not just "Dudes who do the same thing as me." This perspective has definitely been corrected in the past few days.

    4) I'm curious about your opinion on things like set visits, which I know you've participated in before. In my opinion, those could be interpreted in a far worse light than the "sponsored post" that we did, for the following reasons:

    a) Set visits are impossible without studio consent, unlike an editorial article, which I can and do write of my own free will,
    b) Money given for a set visit far exceeds something we would get for a single article (pro-rated), and
    c) No disclosure of "This set visit article was sponsored/facilited/paid for by Paramount Pictures" is given

  22. Had to break this up into 2 posts because the blog has a word count limit---

    David, thanks for posting a longer explanation about your reasoning behind the Mendes article.

    For the record, I feel that it's necessary to mention that while I was one of the many that used Twitter to ask questions about the /film article, I don't think that once I stepped over the line and acted like I was part of a mob. I think that's important to mention because if you're going to speak in generalities about the people that took part in yesterday's discussion, I do feel the need to stand up and state that I feel the way I acted was responsible and well within the bounds of being reasonable.

    I've been writing online film news than nearly longer than anyone else. Corona's Coming Attractions went online in April 1995 and I was front and center during the first and biggest public discussion about online ethics and whether what these sites and their owners were taking part in journalism, and if so, whether there should be some rules of conduct. That enables me to have an insider's opinion of what it's like trying to break scoops, maintain a readership, employ writers and put food on the table for yourself and your family.

    In 2003 when the internet was still feeling the pinch of the dot-bomb fallout I decided to take a deal offered to me by Cinescape, get paid monthly for doing what I love to do and not have to worry anymore about the overhead. Two years later I had the same opportunity to do it for UGO and create their movie blog from scratch. I sweated through 2000-2002 just like every other site owner. In 2001 I had to make a hard choice and two of my writers walked. What I'm getting at is that I know what it's like living behind that screen and having to make business decisions that affect your site, the lives of your writers and yourself.

    I also remember dealing with Gorilla Nation and, before that, IGN as part of their affiliate network. I remember being asked to provide "extra value" for advertising deals and very similar sounding articles like one one Slashfilm published so it's not a new thing. Thankfully I always told the advertiser that it wasn't CA's style to do articles as the site existed mainly of scoops and small snippets of news on film database pages. Nevertheless, I remember the awkwardness and some pressure at turning down those opportunities. I didn't miss it when I served at Cinescape and UGO who both never allowed advertising policy to get in the way of my editorial policy.

    One of the questions that stood out for me yesterday was the coincidence of Slashfilm's Mendes article and its similarity to one published at Film School Rejects a few days before. Both broke down Mendes' past films in a similar fashion. I wondered if it was coincidence or not, and that doesn't necessarily mean that David intentionally committed plagiarism. Consider this: what if a studio sees an article that they like on Site A and then asks their ad broker to offer an incentive to the sites that they rep to produce a similar article? Does Slashfilm have the responsibility or the time to monitor what every other movie website is doing out there? Of course they (and we) don't. But that's the danger, isn't it? If a studio were to be devious then by asking the ad broker to offer value articles, these websites are opening themselves up to not just possibly compromising their ethics but also committing unintentional copying of another site's idea. As far as I'm concerned this is a disturbing aspect to the "value offer" because no one knows what's the intent behind the studio exec that asked for it, do they, or if that idea was originally thought up within the studio walls. It's conceivable that someone involved with the advertising chain saw FSR's article and wanted to mirror it elsewhere.

  23. 5) Overall, my big issue is not with your advocacy of journalistic ethics, but your seeming lack of acknowledgment that a) these things take place all the time at film sites all across the internet, and b) that there is far more complexity in this issue than the terms "right" and "wrong" allow for.

    6) Separately I think we need to be really precise when we say "taking money for content." What constitutes content? We are not talking about reviews or news (which I consider completely off limits), but features. I should add, I'm not even going to the point of saying "For features, it should be okay to take money for content," but I AM saying that's where I'm trying to focus this discussion. This may seem like a small distinction but I think it's an important one to make, given that I am trying for as much nuance as possible here.

    7) You closed your first comment with: "The answer is 'make money ethically.' And if you can't figure out how to do that you have to decide what your ethics and what your readers' trust is worth to you and at least sell out for that much." I tried to spend most of my blog post explaining that even the smartest journalists in the country can't figure out how to do this, at least given the current ethical guidelines that they adhere to. Do you think that means that ethics make running a business impossible? Or perhaps that the "ethics" paradigm needs redefining (or at least CLARIFICATION) given the changing times? In my opinion, it's a little bit of both.

  24. Second part...

    While we're on the subject of online ethics there was another question on my mind. I've seen Slashfilm post news stories about other sites' exclusives where practically all of the exclusive content appears in the body of the Slashfilm post, like this past week's ALICE IN WONDERLAND post. To be fair I've seen this same kind of reporting done at other sites while I've also seen other places only post a snippet of the original site's exclusive. There's been Twitter debates about this method of reporting ever since I relaunched CA last December. The reason I mention this when the discussion is about the ethics of value posting is that this is really part of a wider discussion about what is netiquette amongst the sites. Does anything go? Should there even be a worry about poaching someone else's traffic if sites have to worry about keeping their heads above insolvency? Should we be tweeting each and every one of our sites' stories as Digg URLs even if the source of that story's info came from a third party site? Readers don't care about these kinds of questions, do they?

    Back in 1999 there was a movement started to grow an organization for news websites similar to the Online Critics Association. Obviously it didn't come together. Maybe the time is right again for a discussion to happen about resurrecting that idea and seeing if the owners of enough movie websites would agree to adopting a code of policy for the way they report the news. Maybe the response will be the answer to my questions.

  25. Patrick,

    For the record, the similarities between my article and FSR's article are completely coincidental (I submitted my article in almost final form to Peter half a week before FSR's article was published). This is not the first time that two sites have had the idea for the same article at roughly the same time, especially with the recent release of a specific film. Additionally, according to FSR, their article was created completely of their own free will, and not at all under any sort of advertising arrangement similar to what we had with GNation.

  26. Also to Patrick: Yes, i agree that these "sponsored posts" can open film sites up to even worse things, like charges of plagiarism.

    In response to your second post, we can't even agree on the ethical rightness and wrongness of the "sponsored post" (which I again point out that many sites, including those that gave us crap yesterday, do all the time). Getting a bunch of strong-headed webmasters together in a room to bang out an online news code seems like it wouldn't be a very efficient process.

  27. To me this is no different then an article written in Entertainment Weekly or Premiere Magazine. It wasn't a review of Sam Mendes latest movie sponsered by Focus, it was a spotlight on his career. I would absolutely expect to see the same type of article in an entertainment magazine in which advertisements are payed for by movie studios.

    I find it more ethically challenging when Sciretta writes articles bashing films that haven't even greenlit or labeling a dreamworks picture (that hasn't even started development!) a clone of a pixar movie from 10 years ago and then brags about visiting the set of a zombie movie that sounds very similar to the Simon Pegg favorite, and basically promotes the film without ever having seen it.

    Which is worse?

  28. Hey David

    Excellent article. What struck me whilst reading it, and the following comments, is just how gray this area really is. I really respect the work you guys are doing on independent film blogs. And yes, I also highly respect Roger Ebert's guide to being a film reviewer.

    But as a longtime listener of your podcast, I did not see ONE changed statement of opinion in your Mendes article. You spoke truthfully of each of the films (or at least consistently with prior statements). In fact, if y'all hadn't stated at the top of the article, I don't think anyone would have even noticed it was even advertorial related.

    I don't want to go into too great detail, because I think the above comments are all really concise and intelligent. What bothered me most during this whole maelstrom has been Devin's reaction. While I don't know either of you personally, or know your relationship, I think he was completely out of line.

    There's nothing wrong with colleagues and friends having differences in opinion/discussions of ethics. But Devin's reaction was completely uncalled for. Where are the ethics in calling for a friend's blood?

    Best of luck with all future articles and keeping Slashfilm going (the same goes to Peter, Adam, Devindra, Russ, Hunter and Brendon). I will continue to listen to the podcast for intelligent film dissection, and not wild, opinionated, aggressive pandering featured on other blogs.

  29. Understood David and I didn't ever think that you or /film were plundering FSR's idea. For the record, I've counted 3 other sites this week that also did a retrospective on the 1989 release of BATMAN and I don't think they took the idea from my site. The zeitgeist is simply there.

    But my original point still stands: if studios can ask for a certain kind of article to appear on a website, who's to say where that idea came from for the look of the article? Suppose they like the layout or presentation of Article X on Site Y and want it replicated on Site Z, A, B, C and so on? I'm stating that this can potentially be a dangerous door as it allows strangers to enter the editorial process and no one knows what their true motivations are. You can't go back and ask Gorilla Nation to ask the studio which suit came up with the idea for this value article, right? It's an awkward question to ask at the very least.

    You're likely right that all the webmasters probably have different views on what constitutes reporting and what is poaching hits or even if there's reason for a discussion about the subject at all. Still, it doesn't negate the fact that the Mendes article is just a small part of the bigger debate. I've seen these subjects get talked about numerous times on twitter amongst the webmasters crowd and I don't think that they're going away anytime soon.

  30. Dave,

    I'm a huge fan of the site and the podcast as you know. I remember yesterday seeing the post about Sam Mendes, which is a good article btw, and seeing the "sponsored by" at the top and wondering WTF!!! I mean I understand it is no different than any radio/TV station selling ad space during their shows or a newspaper. Where they will have an ad for Armor All beside an article for how to take care of your leather seating in your car. However, the only problem that it raises is the honesty issue. Are you being genuine in what you say in your article? And that is one of the most attractive parts of the blogosphere, people being genuine no matter who it pisses off or contradicts.

    Now from what I can gather based on your previous writings and your podcast, I know you are being genuine, or you've been keeping up quite some con for a long while. But for anyone knew to the site and your writings it will seem that you're writing it for the cash more than to discuss your thoughts on Mr. Mendes.

    Now, I'm new to the world of the blogospehere and I find myself wondering where the line is and how and when will I ever cross it of being a guy who loves talking about movies to someone who does this for a living, and how would I make that living. I understand that the internet is having a bad time with cashflow and profits due to the freshness of the media, the doubts that advertisers have of the media and the current economic position that the world is in. But does that warrant that kind of advertising that was displayed in that post? Maybe. Was it the right move? I don't think so. Would I do the same thing had I been in the position of /Film? Maybe.

    I believe you 100% when you say that the article came first and the sponsor came second and the sponsorship had no effect what so ever on the article. But what do you think that any new reader to /Film would think reading the article?

    One thing I must say I am surprised is your surprise at the internet's response to this. I would assume by now, 18 months after starting your podcasting career, that you still think that most of the internet's most cared for writers are any better than the average commenter on the /Film boards. Everyone is out there to make a quick 140 character stab at anything that is said, whether seriously or in jest, and it's going to come no matter what you do. And I actually think it is a good thing because it means they are listening/paying attention. So it worries me when they stop replying, because then the fight is lost and it means it's time to go back to a real 9-5 job where you have to where suit and tie to work and shave every morning.

    That's my piece and all I have to say.

  31. I think there's a point wherein this discussion needs to move beyond the individual incident (which was not actually compromised, and anyone who argues differently isn't paying attention) to the broader precedent, which is a concern but not one to be debated as one giant slippery slope, as serious an issue as it is moving forward.

    I don't have a lot to add, per se (Laremy's kind of covering my issues with the Black and White of Devin's comments), but I will make this observation: do any of you think that these questions become more problematic when speaking of bloggers vs. critics?

    To be clear, I don't think drawing that binary is valid or justified, but it's one that I've seen people remarking on. Tim Goodman, TV critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, has a big piece where he lumps all bloggers together as brainless tools who shill whatever comes their way, as opposed to critics who have organizations to bind them together, etc.

    Link: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/blogs/sfgate/detail?blogid=24&entry_id=41689.

    Again, I don't agree with his thesis (not all bloggers are like that, and not all critics adhere to those organizations as well as they should), but it raises the question that we're discussing here: at what point is the changing face of internet journalism going to further blur these lines?

    As Devin is saying, the practice of sponsored posts is problematic because it paints a picture of bloggers as WILLING to do things like this, sending us down a slippery slope into a situation where bloggers aren't viewed as unbiased and objective when it comes to film material.

    On the other hand, as Laremy points out, bloggers are undoubtedly being treated differently (the common set visits, in particular) than other journalists. And considering this, is there more wiggle room for pieces of this nature, so long as there isn't an outright corruption of journalistic standards?

    Personally, I think there are far greater problems in internet journalism that an occasional sponsored post, but at the same time that perceived divide between bloggers and critics isn't going to become less prevalent if questions like this aren't treated with legitimate discussions like this one.

    So yay to debate.

  32. People responded negatively first and foremost because, that's what internet commenters do. They feign outrage, they whine, they pile on. Anyone who writes on the internet knows this.

    People speak too philosophical about this subject. The debate shouldn't be about whether it's ever ok to take money for a certain post or whatever. We can use our brains and our intellect and decide what is and what is not "biased" for ourselves.

    If someone thinks that Sam Mendez post was a puff piece that doesn't reflect the true feelings of the author and was done simply for money... then say that. Otherwise, just shut up. If you think the post was informative and worthwhile, then tell Dave thanks and applaud slashfilm for making some money for writing on the internet, which is REALLY hard to do.

    Even better, congratulate them for making money though compelling content that used their own talent to create. For me, that is a far more effective and welcome "ad" than some stupid pop up or banner ad. A company sponsoring a good writer to write something compelling and creative is not only ethical, it's smart. Frankly, I would mind seeing more of it. This is the kind of sponsorship I welcome. As long as we know what is sponsored, I'm fine with using my brain and deciding what is BS and what isn't.

  33. Okay, I'm back.

    Here is the problem as I see it, the elephant in the room, the thing that will most likely kill the thing we all love doing - writing about film. You ready for it?

    We all get paid by advertisers, and we've devalued content completely. What is measured on a website? Pageviews. And how do you get those? Megan Fox, DIGG, and "I'll Murder you EDWARD PATTINSON!" articles. The entire system is based on flawed logic. We're given money by a third party to get clicks. That's the mandate. Then, somehow, we're supposed to balance our obligation to the audience.

    Throw in a raft of PR people and Studio reps and you've got a recipe for disaster. I truly don't think ad supported web is going to make it. At least not in its current form.

    Also, consider for a moment the motivations of everyone involved. If you're BIG STUDIO A would you rather have a website thrive that was 50/50 on your product? Or would you instead parse out success to people you knew were receptive? We've seen this with horror, and to some degree stuff like TWILIGHT, but studios can choose who gets the exclusives, posters, and trailers. And they sure as hell aren't choosing sites that might one day criticize them. In fact the studios have a far different goal than us, and yet they are one of our main sources of income. This can't work, it's not logical, it's built on unstable ground.

    So then, the studios want schills (best case scenario) the advertisers want massive clicks, and the audience wants to be entertained. Guess what happens to the guy who takes a moral or ethical stand? A real one I'm saying, no set visits, no t-shirts, runs no exclusives, doesn't pander, doesn't make friends and influence people? That guy goes out of business. Everytime and twice on Sunday.

    That's the sad fact of the matter, the people who make it compromise on something. It's just choosing what. Do you give a studio some placement in return for an interview later in the game? Do you lock your editorial in a way you know will load up on Transformers II coverage, even if you know you should be talking about the racist twins? Do you take that set visit you know will get you 200k clicks in a few months on the studio dime, all the while shaking hands and kissing babies?

    And that's my main point. Pointing the finger a /film is/was pointless because everyone is guilty of something. It's like Paul Newman says, we're all sinners and none of us will ever see heaven.

    The only sites that will survive the current adsales plummet are 1) corp supported sites who can lose money for a few years OR 2) sites who have such low overhead they aren't really affected.

    But what a tragedy that is. Is no one else allowed in the biz? Are we locking the door behind us? New ways to monetize must be considered. Falling on your sword and saying "Fuck you Focus!" as one august blog did is the height of tilting at windmills. You can't have ethics if there is no business.

    There was no harm and no victim for the remedy you're suggesting. But in five years, if only guys who look good on camera and studio pals remain it's the consumer who is completely screwed. And that's my larger point, and why Devin might be in the right ethically (I truly could argue either way) but in the wrong logically.

  34. Without being antagonistic, I have an honest question. Is this that different than all the product placements that are so prevalent in movies these days? To be able to make the movie they want the producers/directors agree to only use Motorola cell phones in the film and Motorola agrees to cover some production cost. Motorola gets some advertising and the film folk get to make the movie they want.

    Okay, now I'm not saying that sometimes when a movie goes product placement crazy (looking at you Transformers) it doesn't frustrate me. But, in most cases, if it happens that all the characters in the movie love Pepsi products and this means that the movie can be made as planned, I'll get over it. Would people consider boycotting such films because they sold parts of the movie as add space? While watching Dark Knight I didn't question Nolan's integrity just because Nokia gave him some money to make sure that Wayne used one of their cell phones.

    I guess I see this as kind of the same thing. Yes, an outside source is providing conditional financial support. But as long as that support doesn't change the content or intent of the material, and those articles are identified as being sponsored, then I see it as a lesser evil. I understand with all the ambient talk lately about the distinctions between "journalism" and "blogging" people who write online content may be a bit jumpy about being seen as less credible. And I understand how without clarification this may seem sketchy. But in the end, as long as content is not being changed to appease the sponsor, then it is just Motorolas and Nokias.

  35. btw... one thing most people don't realise. Movie BLOGS ARE ALL GLORIFIED ADVERTISEMENTS!!! Blogs are all about opinions, but more important is what you are commenting on. And whatever you're commenting on is giving it traffic on the internet. Whether it be a rant on how Pattison sucked in Twilight or how amazing Downey Jr is as Tony Stark. Bloggers are glorified adverts for movies and the people who are part of film.

  36. Couple of quick things (I have an early flight for... a studio sponsored set visit!):

    1) I never called for David's blood. As far as who I follow on Twitter, anyone who did was manifestly joking.

    2) Studio paid set visits and junkets have been happening for decades. And they used to be much more opulent and luxurious. Don't think this is some new development. If anything, set visits are now grungier and cheaper than ever.

    I think set visits are important. I think every film reviewer should spend time on a set. I think every film journalist should spend time on a set. I think visiting a set and seeing a movie in production gives a writer a chance to create interesting, valuable, contextualized content for their readers.

    I've turned down set visits where editorial controls (beyond an embargo, which I think is a polite, respectful aspect of the business) were demanded by the studio.

    Honestly, the idea that being on a set would sway my review is exactly the kind of thing that people who have never been on set visits would think. I don't mean that as a putdown, but simply that while they are gratifying professionally and as a film nerd, they're usually boring, slow and exhausting. Sitting on a soundstage for six hours while the crew sets up and you wait to get an interview isn't the glamorous life. I get excited every time I walk on a film set, whether it be across LA or across the world, but a set visit isn't like some kind of Hollywood wonderland. It's work.

  37. Example: I was flown to Ireland for THE DARK IS RISING. I'm half Irish and visiting Ireland was a dream. Best trip of any sort I have ever been on. Period. A memory I will take to my grave.

    Here's my review of the movie:

    http://chud.com/articles/articles/12064/1/REVIEW-SEEKER-THE---THE-DARK-IS-RISING/Page1.html

    Laremy, some studios do treat you differently based on how nice you are to them. But most treat you based on how FAIR you are, and there's a huge difference. I have shit all over many a WB, Universal and Paramount film and those people still treat me well. Because they know I'm fair, and I'm honest. And I'm a nice person to work with.

    Your other set of questions is, honestly, sort of naive. It's a game of give and take, obviously. You want something from the studios - access - and they want something from you - coverage. They want to be able to check a spreadsheet that movie A got an article on website X. You play that game of back and forth. And if you're doing this job right, you're making relationships with publicists. I genuinely like the publicists with whom I work, and I want to make their life easier, just as I hope they want to make mine easier. We're not enemies. They want to place some dumb trailer, and I want to interview a cool director. We both have needs that the other can fulfill, so we work together.

    To say that set visits or junkets corrupt is, to me, like saying early free screenings corrupt. It's obviously not true.

    These things all seem obvious to me, I guess. You do favors. It's how it works for the press in all areas. How do you think people cultivate sources, be it in financial reporting or political reporting or entertainment reporting? You work with other people. But you don't take money for your content.

  38. David, I'd like to address all your points but I really do need to get to bed, so just 5 and 6 for now:

    5) CHUD's never done that. Can't speak for other sites, but we have never done that. In prehistory we hosted message boards for particular movies, and I think that was probably weird and problematic, but that was a real estate buy, not a content buy.

    6)I think selling an advertorial as a real estate buy is fine. The studio supplies the content, you give it a spot on your page with a prominent ADVERTORIAL marking (like ADVERTORIAL: THE FILMS OF SAM MENDES) and that's that. It's no different from the 'Special Advertising Sections' in magazines. But Time Magazine doesn't have their writers writing that section.

    7) If the business model can't be sustained it's a bad model. Maybe there's no money to be made in film blogging. There's no money to be made in a lot of pastimes. Maybe there is money to be made in film blogging but the overhead must remain incredibly low. Or maybe there's money to be made but at the expense of being a trusted provider of independent content and opinion. It's tough out there for independent book stores, too.

    You seem to be coming from the position of 'We deserve to be making a bunch of money and hiring a bunch of people.' Outside of corporate sites who get funding from bigger moneymaking entities, I have not yet seen that work on the web. Even AICN pays very few people.

  39. Why am I not going to bed!

    Laremy - I welcome a blog purge. There are way too many far too shitty blogs out there regurgitating the same stories from Variety. Maybe there are nice guys behind them but the ability to secure a URL should not guarantee you some sort of living as a movie blogger.

    And you know what? CHUD will never compete with IGN or UGO. It's a reality. And who cares? We've found our niche, we provide a specific thing that's our own, and that's what we do. We'll never have a huge staff - hell, we're about at a skeleton crew right now. Not everybody should just show up and become rich at this.

  40. Seriously last one:

    What seems to be different between the guys I came up with and the new guys is that we didn't do it for the money. In the beginning I doubt many (or any) of us saw this as a 'career.' When we came in we didn't have ANY access. I couldn't get into press screenings in 2000/2001. We did it because we loved it, and we took ads to pay for bandwidth.

    So Laremy, the door's not closed behind us. The one I walked through - doing it for love, for free (for YEARS for free) - is wide open.

  41. Devin, you seem to be under the impression that any of us here are actually condemning set visits. I don't want to speak for anyone else, but as for me, I fully support them, much like I support Dave's Sam Mendes article.

    The point of that comparison was to examine the blatant hypocrisy of the attacks toward David and /Film. A studio-paid set visit is not at all different from a studio-sponsored article. You can argue semantics all you want, but the same issue applies: it's an exchange made by the studio in return for content/advertising.

    This is the issue that's being addressed, yet you failed to delineate the difference between the two in your response.

    "Honestly, the idea that being on a set would sway my review is exactly the kind of thing that people who have never been on set visits would think."

    This is entirely missing the point. This was never a question of YOUR objectivity, and even if it was, your review of the film at hand has no relation to the exchange in question. The studio doesn't pay all that money for a set visit in exchange for a review, they do it for a set visit write-up. So if any article is being linked, it should be that one.

    I don't even know why I'm arguing this though, since you're inadvertently proving our point. Just as you claim that the set visit, which is bought and paid for by the studio, does not compromise your objectivity, it should stand to reason that the same logic can be applied to any other studio-sponsored article (which is basically what a set visit write-up is to begin with).

    Dave was both critical and honest in his Sam Mendes post, and the article was clearly written with the intent of providing something of value to the readers. So why is it that the involvement of a studio exchange suddenly negates its value, while set visits remain completely free of scorn?

    And once again, it's not just set visits. It's anything that's provided by the studio: exclusives, interviews, giveaways, screenings, etc. All of these things are offered by the studio in exchange for content/advertising.

    I would really like it if you could explain to me what it is that makes this situation any different.

  42. Dave, great post, this is an extremely well reasoned argument defending your decision. Personally, I don't care that the article was sponsored by Focus Features. Why? Because I like reading someone's opinion on the works of Sam Mendes. For me, writing an thoughtful, opinionated article about a director as a result of some 'package deal' is preferable to a film blog being plastered with advertisements for, say, The Love Guru or any other trashy film.

  43. "To say that set visits or junkets corrupt is, to me, like saying early free screenings corrupt. It's obviously not true."

    Devin, as Adam said above this is not AT ALL what we are saying.

    We're not saying 'corruption' when it comes to set visits/junkets, we are saying 'what's the difference?'.

    I think it's worth mentioning that I'm a podcaster myself. (Music not Film but the point stands). I am a member of the Association of Music Podcasting and part of the benefit to this is I get free hosting for my files. Recently the company who provides the hosting has said that if I want to keep it I have to accept both pre and post-roll advertising.

    Other members have baulked at this and have threatened to pull out immediately, but I don't have that option. I CAN NOT afford to keep my two podcasts going if I have to pay for enough hosting. It's a simple equation. I accept advertising from a 3rd party that I don't neccesarily support or my shows go dark.

    My point is that ANYTHING that keeps /film and the /filmcast going is fine by me.

  44. Devin:

    I would do the job for free. I have, for many years of my life. But I'm not sure why I have would have to forever. Are we the only writers in the world, that because we've separated from the tactile, don't get to earn a living wage? My point is that the internet has devalued content to the point where it's no longer feasible.

    I've been on set visits. They definitely are worthwhile as a learning tool to show how it works, and where things can go wrong. But you're not supposed to make friends with the people running this industry (studios) and that's what you seem to be missing. You absolutely should have an antagonistic attitude towards them, because if left to their own devices they will kill everything that's good and right about the movies. We'll be left exclusively with "popcorn" films and everyone will be dumber for it. Critics are natural balance against commerce. But according to your reasoning we also can't ever have a 401k, kids, or dental. While the studios spend $200m on a project, WE take the flack for taking it all too seriously.

    It's one very warped system right now, and the corps are winning. Real & Courageous writing has almost completely lost a foothold. You're a person I read, and you're a person who doesn't pull your punches, and I respect you for that. But the fact that you never expect to be reasonably compensated for the millions of reads you've contributed to is astonishing. In traditional media you'd be a director of something by now, and you'd have a team to further your editorial goals. But in the outlaw wild wild west of internets you're evidently only as good as your next PR contact. And that's no bueno. That's what I'm decrying. More later... off to work... at 6am... on a Friday.

    Again, I would/have/will do this job for free because I love it. But it seems we're the only group outside of mimes asked to do so.

  45. One last thing:

    Your claim is that set visits = okay, exclusive posters = okay, a sponsored post = bad. But you're stripping away the motivations involved and instead focusing in on how you accept the payment.

    The motivations of PR and Studio folk are 100% clear. Sell you a product. In your case they have a better chance if they put Zack Snyder in front of you and have him explain his process. I would argue that this is disingenuous because Bob in Topeka will never intake film in that manner, but that's beside the point. For certain websites it's a poster, a trailer, a phoner, whatever. But they (PR) are always clear, they want you to like/love their product and pontificate to the masses. You are saying "Hey man, it doesn't work that way, I'm not for sale." To which I agree. You're not. And either is David. Even if he's getting paid for his work, or a particular post is sponsored, he's still going to bring it each and every time. You act as though money is the evil, but in fact I'd say relationships are. "Hey man, can you hold off running that Hurt Locker review a day?" is a far more powerful evil than $100 for a post that's cited up front.

    I get the naive tag put on me (though I'd rather "idealist") but I think your romantic views of what a writer is are a bit off. I think our goals are to promote the work we love, and possibly save a guy ten bucks and two hours of his life (if we can build that kind of trust). But if the only people who are allowed to compete in the industry have to do it while working 40 hrs a week at another job that's not a fair fight. The money isn't the end goal, the stability is. If you know /Film isn't going to go out of business you can be bold with your work. The slippery slope isn't the notion of paid content, it's the idea that the playing field might not have anyone left in five years.

    Yes, CHUD will be around. You guys have been there, done that. But your influence can't grow without studio support (set visits, interviews, blah blah) and advert cash (to hire talent, try new features, blah blah). In five years you can be in the same place. Or you can accept the fact that this is an extremely fluid industry and the people and writers that thrive will be doing so with a huge level of compromise somewhere. The only question is the method, not the movement itself.

    I'd like to see a world where the /FilmCast was something the guys could do for a living. I don't think that makes me less than ethical. I also think sponsored posts are a forgone conclusion. When the choice is give an inch or lose the war most people will give an inch. That's not naive, that's just the reality of the situation.

    Lastly, very few people in the world get to do what we do for a check. With that comes a responsibility to our audience, to fight the good fight, to bring the honesty, to tell them when we think something is BS. But if there is no system for a writer to think about a career in this business then we're going to lose a ton of bright people. My guess is they'll go into PR.

    Plenty of safe money in that, eh?

  46. Adam, Devin, Everyone, etc,

    The difference between set visits and sponsored articles (in general) is the point at which the exchange takes place. Yes, both are accepting gifts/money/access from the studio in return for coverage, but they are both fundamentally different as to where that give and take exists.

    As an observer, I can tell that studios pay the money up front for the set visits, and take a gamble on the coverage. Devin or Frosty or Peter or Laremy could all go to the set visit, all paid for by, say, Warner Brothers. They all take the visit, and WB takes the gamble. Out of that comes two fact-based write ups from Frosty and Peter, Laremy may write a glowing, very positive article, and Devin may write a scathing review. Not bad for WB, but that was a gamble they took. They got only one good review, two progress updates (which are really nothing at all) and one condemning review.

    In short, they weren't paying for a guaranteed outcome. They were paying for your stay, in the hopes to cultivate a relationship. They took the gamble BEFORE the product.

    (The same applies for free screenings. They pay for your ticket, but they don't pay for your good review. A gamble, again.)

    Sponsored posts are completely different. The studio would in no way give money to have a writer write a column that criticizes their movie. That simply shooting themselves in the foot. The studios will only sponsor an article that casts them in some form of good light. Therefore, the exchange of favors/money/whathaveyou comes AFTER, with approval. Even if the money is paid upfront, there is an understanding that a good article will be written, so in basis they're purchasing that guarantee, whatever the words in the article actually turn out to be. It's not a gamble at all.

    Now, that's not to condemn Dave's article. The way that it's been explained seems that this was a shady area, but they still somehow circumvented that guarantee. They remained critical, and there was a third party, etc, etc. The /Film article isn't a great example of the argument, but it seems that everyone has gotten over this one instance and is talking about the practice in a generalized, worst case sort of way. Except while bandying about examples, but ignoring the fundamental differences in their own arguments.

    It's akin to taking a girl to a movie in the hopes she'll like it, versus facebook stalking her, finding her favorite movie, and renting it to guarantee you'll get laid. Outlandish? A bit-- but illustrative.

    Do I have a problem with Dave's article now that the process has been explained? Not really. Do I have a problem with studios paying for guaranteed articles? Yeah. I agree the money sucks, but if you're going to make money doing what you love doing, don't change what you love doing to make money.

    But then again, I'm just an outside observer.

  47. Laremy - I just wanted to tell you I've enjoyed reading your posts. They've been rational and even-handed and I like that. This has been an interesting debate to follow in general, partly because it lets me better understand how the people whose movie websites I read think.

    I don't really have anything else to say, but there's going to have to be a new model of funding writing. There just is. There aren't going to be any more Hunter Thompsons, or, probably, Roger Eberts, a decade from now. The market isn't there. I don't know what the answer is, but I do know that treating each other civilly and not piling on these stupid firestorms is going to be essential to the process of finding that answer. That doesn't mean I'm saying strong disagreements are bad - they're good - but it's always disheartening to see someone flamed over something like this.

    Also, jpsotis - Your example was funny, in part because there's no chance in hell any girl I know would sleep with a guy because he rented her favorite movie. Hence, your point might be doubly proven, in that such a scenario could backfire on everyone!

  48. Mmm. Didn't really have anything to say about this before, but this struck me as odd:

    Dave was both critical and honest in his Sam Mendes post, and the article was clearly written with the intent of providing something of value to the readers. So why is it that the involvement of a studio exchange suddenly negates its value, while set visits remain completely free of scorn?

    And once again, it's not just set visits. It's anything that's provided by the studio: exclusives, interviews, giveaways, screenings, etc. All of these things are offered by the studio in exchange for content/advertising.

    I would really like it if you could explain to me what it is that makes this situation any different.


    Adam, I would think that the difference should be obvious.

    The things you mention (set visits, interviews, etc) facilitate content. A writer participates in all this, on the studio's dime, and then he/she write it up. The opinion could be swayed, I don't know, that's up to the writer's integrity, but the purposeful intent of participating in the junket is to have material for write-ups. In this case, the so-called reward is also the provider of content. It's completely necessary for this "reward" to be given to writers in order for the writer to do the job, is it not?

    In the case of a sponsored post, Dave himself admitted that he would have written it regardless of being sponsored or not, did he not? So the article, a retrospective of past films easily available to anyone, could have been achieved without studio help? Therefore, the fact that /Film accepted money (whatever form that may be, ad package or otherwise) for it means that it was a case of /Film wanting some money for helping out Focus call attention to their new film. Am I wrong?

    No judgment from me on how you conduct your business. You guys are successful and I'm happy for it, but let's be honest here. To make the case that they're the same thing is disingenuous. One is a legitimate source, the other is money for money's sake. Don't muddle the line.

  49. "They all take the visit, and WB takes the gamble. Out of that comes two fact-based write ups from Frosty and Peter, Laremy may write a glowing, very positive article, and Devin may write a scathing review.

    In short, they weren't paying for a guaranteed outcome. They were paying for your stay, in the hopes to cultivate a relationship. They took the gamble BEFORE the product."

    Jpsotis, this is completely inaccurate. You will NEVER read a set visit report that condemns the film or the people involved in making it. Want to know why? Studio relationships. If you wrote a scathing article, you would never be invited on another set visit again. Why would they want to spend all that money on somebody whose article might just be them bashing the film for paragraph after paragraph? If it was really that much of a gamble for them, THEY WOULDN'T DO IT.

    If anything, you've just proven why set visits are WORSE than studio-sponsored articles. At least in the latter case, you can turn down an offer to write a dishonest editorial if you have nothing positive to say about the topic at hand. But after you've accepted the set visit trip, that exchange has already been made, and it's your responsibility to report it. And even if the trip was awful and the movie looks like shit, there's no way that set visit write-up is going to communicate that to the readers.

    Furthermore, Dave's article was both honest and critical of Sam Mendes. He said nothing in that article that he wouldn't have said on the /Filmcast or, for that matter, that very same article had it not been sponsored. So what the issue really comes to is each individual journalist's ability to remain objective in the face of a studio exchange. It's not a black-and-white, good-and-evil scenario we're talking about. No one choice is explicitly moral or immoral, because it's all about how you choose to let it affect you. And this is how it's been for a long time now; nothing has changed. The only difference is that David has begun to tread relatively new ground, and is always the case in society when that happens, people freaked the fuck out.

    But instead of just throwing out blanket statements about what's right and what's wrong, I completely support David in that we should be willing to explore other options; especially since, in this case, those options are really no different from what's already become openly accepted in the world of journalism (regardless of the hoops people jump though to convince themselves that isn't the case).

  50. Arya Ponto, your post negates the fact that the only reason you'd be posting that studio-facilitated content to begin with is to earn money. Regardless of whether or not a direct transaction of cash is being made, it's all being posted with the same goal in mind: to generate revenue.

    They're BOTH money for money's sake. I think it's you who's muddling the line.

    Furthermore, while you may be right that the only way that content for set visits and such could exist is with the studios facilitating it, the reason they do it is because it's free advertising for them. It's not as if there's some journalistic necessity to report on these things. They do it because it allows you to do their job for them, and we post the content because it means more revenue for us. That's why the exchange continues to be made: the studio gives us something, we give them something. And the readers get something too. It's a win-win-win. Dave's article was no different.

    As I've stated before, if anything, all of those studio offerings (set visits, interviews, etc.) should generally be considered worse than a studio-sponsored article, since the studio has almost complete control over what kind of content you're capable of offering. At least with the sponsored editorial, the journalist is the one who has control over deciding what limitations are set on the content. And if they have any integrity at all, they would only agree to participate in sponsored editorials that allowed them to be as open and honest as possible. This is what Dave did, and as such, there should be no issue over the exchange that took place. It's the same damn thing that's being done week after week... except more honest.

  51. Yeah, I was going to mention Eric D. Snider, who wrote a scathing junket article... and was then blacklisted from screenings for four years.

    This ban continues, for the record.

    You don't visits sets to cast a critical eye. It's pure quid pro quo, marketing in exchange for access.

    However, I didn't agree with Eric's article back then, as I think junkets and set visits CAN have some value to the consumer. But there's a line somewhere, and I don't think you know you've crossed until it's far too late in the game.

    As I mentioned at the outset, it's the certainty that troubled me. I don't know that set visits are ethically in the right either, I just know that it's up for debate. As is sponsored content, so long as you are keeping trust with your audience. I've yet to hear an argument as to how David broke that trust.

  52. I think the main problem with this is that probably 85% of people who write blog comments are just morons; anyone who reads them on any site knows this much. It's easy for many of them to rail against someone taking money for a service when they don't have rent/a mortgage or when they're not being offered money for a service, themselves. "Hey man, staaand for something!" is a phrase you don't hear too often after the commenter moves out of his or her parents' house.

    Sponsored posts, if written with an objective and original approach, are not a big deal (and Dave's clearly was not cranked out after a check showed up in a mailbox).

    A problem only arises when the writer's quest for sponsorship checks outweighs his or her passion for the craft or the material.

    Set visits/exclusive interviews are more suspect and even then, anyone who reads them (anyone with half a brain, that is) knows that what they're reading may not be 100% truthful as the writer clearly was done a favor in being allowed on the set. It's not a big deal though because, as I said, anyone with half a brain knows to tread lightly in those situations. They're like internet EPKs, for the most part, where things are usually merely presented (i.e., "look at this set picture!") and/or the writer only tends to focus on relaying comments from those on-set (i.e., "McG said Terminator fans have nothing to worry about"). It's not really lying or fabrication but it is purposely selective reporting -- and for a good reason (blacklists are not a good thing).

    If someone wants a movie blog that is completely untethered, unrelated and uninvolved with the movie business, you're going to have to settle for one with writers who are probably nowhere near as good as those on /Film or any comparable site. Why? Because a site doesn't get advertisements and its writers don't get paid (or offers of set visits and passes to free screenings) if they're terrible at writing about film and nobody goes to their site.

    So, suck it up, complainers. If you want sites like /Film or AICN or whatever else, you're occasionally going to get sponsored posts and one-sided set reports.

  53. Adam, I make no judgment on Dave's honesty or integrity in regard of his Sam Mendes post. I'm also fully aware of why set visits exist and why movie productions set aside budget to treat journalists that way.

    But that's beside the point I was making. You asked how they are different from a paid-for post. The difference is, like I said, the intent. For a sponsored post, the intent is "Hey, pay us and we'll write something related to your movie, raise its profile." For a set visit, the intent is to be on the set, to observe, to ask questions, to find something to write about. They're things that a journalist is supposed to do: take an experience, filter it through the journalist's opinion, write it down, write it well, hope it sells. Completely different from an advertiser, which is: take a product, make the public aware of its existence, collect paycheck from manufacturer.

    You're basically saying that since the end goal for both is money, it's all the same, money is money. But that's untrue. One is money you earn, by writing an article that hopefully earns you readers, and therefore revenue. The other is guaranteed money that comes straight from the source. You're cutting out the middle man, which is the audience. Do you honestly not see the distinction? I think that's more troublesome than all this talk of Dave's honesty in the article, which I don't even doubt. The problem is more in proper conduct than it is a simple "Well, if it's all still our opinion anyway, what's the difference?"

    Let's make the examples a bit closer. Say a studio wants to release a new poster for their new movie. Option A is they tell you, "Here, we'll let you have the exclusive first look. Go wild." It's a shitty poster, so you post it while making fun of it, BOOM, Digg picks it up, visits go through the roof, you get the mad ad money. Option B is they tell you, "Hey, please run this poster on your site and we'll pay you $$$ for it." You take their money but you still make fun of it. Is that still the same thing? You can say that it is, but I think that would be justifying the fact that you're substituting "Hey, let's help each other out and maybe we'll both make money" with "Hey, pay me for this service I'm doing for you."

    As soon as you receive money from them for a service, you become an employee. In that article, Dave wrote it while under the employ of Focus Features. There's no two ways about that.

    And again, I don't necessarily condemn it. You provide a service, you do it well, and you think you deserve to get paid for it. That's fair. It should be left to your readers to judge your integrity. If they happen to not trust you anymore, that's the risk that you take for branding your article with a sponsorship from the very subject of your article. I can't speak for Devin and others, but personally, I don't think it's a matter of corrupt opinions. It's when you start equating a paid service to be the definition of what movie reporters do that you start devaluing your own profession, and of course that's going to disappoint people.

  54. Arya Ponto, you make a number of great points, but I have to say, your perspective towards set visits and the like is pretty warped.

    Simply put: set visits are marketing. The studio arranges a very specific day for you to come on set, show you very specific things about the film, allow you to talk about very specific things with the cast/crew, and then you go home and write about it. You don't *find* things to write about. The studio essentially *tells* you what to write about.

    You say the difference is intent. Sure, I can see that. But your claim that the intent of a studio-sponsored article comes down to "pay us and we'll write something related to your movie & raise its profile" is only true if you allow it to be. The way I see it, studio-sponsored articles are a great way to write about something topical that interests you and readers alike while still earning a profit in the process. The intent COULD be what you said, or it could be a smart way to make money writing about what you wanted to write about anyway. It comes down to the intent of each individual person, not the concept as a whole.

    "You're cutting out the middle man, which is the audience. Do you honestly not see the distinction?"

    Just to be clear, I wasn't asking about the difference between the two on a technical level, I was asking about the difference from a moral/objective standpoint. I definitely do see the technical difference.

    I will say though, you are definitely NOT cutting out the middle man (ie the audience). You're simply rearranging the order in which their readership affects your revenue. In order for a studio to be willing to sponsor an article you write, you need to have an established audience who cares about what you have to say. The moment you no longer have that, you lose any chance of a studio-sponsored article.

    In the end, there's really no substantial difference. Yes, technically there is, but NOT morally/objectively.

    "It's a shitty poster, so you post it while making fun of it, BOOM, Digg picks it up, visits go through the roof, you get the mad ad money."

    This analogy doesn't work. No site would make fun of a studio-granted exclusive, because that would prevent them from being given an exclusive ever again.

    "Option B is they tell you, "Hey, please run this poster on your site and we'll pay you $$$ for it.""

    For the sake of settling one issue at a time, I think it's important that we focus on studio-sponsored editorials and not news posts. And again, this analogy doesn't really work, since a studio would never pay a site to run a poster. The only reason it might is if it was something that no website wanted to post (which would only be true if the readers had no interest in it), in which case the moral implications of getting paid by a studio to post something that readers don't remotely care about presents an entirely separate topic for debate.

    "As soon as you receive money from them for a service, you become an employee. In that article, Dave wrote it while under the employ of Focus Features. There's no two ways about that."

    This isn't technically true, but arguing that is beside the point. What matters is, this same logic can be applied to any other situation discussed: set visits, interviews, etc. The moment you accept what the studio has to offer, you are obligated to reciprocate with content. It's NOT "hey, let's help each other out and maybe we'll both make money". It's a business. The studio provides a service in exchange for a service. It's the same damn thing.

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