A Conversation with Michael Stephenson, the Director of Best Worst Movie

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Me and the director of Best Worst Movie

Yesterday, I had the privilege to speak with Michael Stephenson, who's on the tail end of a whirlwind tour of film festivals all around the world. Stephenson was the child star of Troll 2, which is regarded by many as one of the worst films ever made (literally). Here's a montage of some of the film's best moments:



Decades later, Stephenson returned to the role that made him infamous and made a heartfelt documentary about the Troll 2 cult phenomenon. You can read my review of Best Worst Movie and you can check out the trailer for the film below:



I recorded a couple of audio blogs while we had coffee and tea at Algiers in Harvard Square. What began as some pretty banally worded questions actually ended up producing, in my opinion, some pretty profound responses.

Listen!

Listen!

Learn more about Best Worst Movie by visiting their website.

I Presented Batman: Arkham Asylum To My Harvard Media Class

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Today in my Harvard class on Media, I presented a talk on Batman: Arkham Asylum, the excellent videogame by Rocksteady Studios. I talked about the context for the game's creation, demonstrated some gameplay, and then discussed the implications that violent videogames have for teachers and students. A couple of notes:
  • My presentation was given a hard limit of 20 minutes. The laughter at the beginning of the audio is the class's reaction to me syncing up my iPhone stopwatch with the Teaching Fellow's stopwatch. Apparently no one else was neurotic enough to do this.
  • About halfway through the presentation, I knocked the iPhone (which I used to record the presentation) off the table. You will hear this on the recording.
  • Part of the purpose of the presentation was to relate the game to readings and teachings from class. The readings referenced at the end of the presentation are taken from the course syllabus.
You can download the file or listen to it here in your browser:



And here's the Powerpoint presentation I gave, so you can follow along:

Batman

The Deafening Silence of the Online Film Critic Community in Response to CHUD'S Advertorial

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Yesterday was a disappointing day for me.

You see, yesterday, CHUD.com ran an advertorial about the SAW franchise (pictured above). But that's not what bothers me. As I've mentioned before, I'm not inherently opposed to the idea of advertorials; in essence, I think any form of experimentation with monetization is not only healthy for our industry, but necessary given the economic climate we live in, although the execution of paid elements like advertorials is key.

[In this case, CHUD clearly marked that it was an advertorial in the title. When /Film ran an advertorial, we clearly marked that it was an advertorial at the beginning of the article, although not in the title. It appears that film critic and CHUD editor-in-chief Devin thinks the distinction of having an advertorial marked in the headline makes a difference between ethical and unethical behavior. To those that agree with him, I urge you to ask everyday readers if they see it the same way. I would bet all the money in my pockets that they do not.]

I will say I was mildly surprised by the apparent hypocrisy in Devin Faraci railing repeatedly against such forms of advertising when we at /Film did something almost identical a few months back, only to find himself part of a site that does the same thing. Devin has said that he was not responsible for the advertorial, and basically offered a lot of explanations/excuses that he would have found unacceptable if they were coming out of my mouth.

That doesn't really bother me too much either, though, because I know that even though Devin is the editor-in-chief of CHUD and probably produces about 60-80% of their content, he doesn't own the site. For him to rail publicly against his employer would be unprofessional and very much biting the hand that feeds him. It does raise the question, however, of whether he should try to enforce his opinion via public fiat on how online film journalism should be done, when his own house isn't in the condition he would like it to be in.

[I contacted Devin for comment about this whole matter, and his response was as follows: "A well marked advertorial is no different than the 'special advertising supplements' in magazines or newspapers that reproduce the style of the publication." I leave it to you to determine whether or not there is a difference, and whether or not it matters.]

But no, what was really disappointing was the complete and utter silence on the part of online film critics about this matter. Specifically, Scott Weinberg and Drew McWeeny, who said some pretty ugly things about us back when /Film ran an advertorial, were completely silent about this issue on Twitter (which is the primary instrument they used to bludgeon us into figurative submission back then). Drew even implicitly defended Devin and joked with him about the people who were getting pissed off about the whole thing.

[Update (10/22/09, 2:00 AM): It has been brought to my attention that my characterization of Drew/Scott's words as "pretty ugly" may not be fair or precise. Unfortunately, I no longer have access to the exact tweets from that day (Twitter no longer caches their Tweets as they did in the past), so I can't substantiate any specifics. I can say that the following is true: Neither Drew nor Scott, nor most people in the online film community, called us names, nor did they behave in any particularly unprofessional way. But they definitely did make accusations that advertorials had compromised our journalistic integrity and/or that we at /Film had significantly hurt the credibility of the online film journalism community as a whole. That much is irrefutable.

Also, Drew has responded in the comments below.]

There are a number of reasons that I can think of why people wouldn't care about CHUD's advertorial, yet would flay /Film for its practices. But the fact remains: either a principle (e.g. "Don't run advertorials, it perverts the editorial process.") is good for all movie websites, or it's good for none of them. Either websites engaging in this practice hurt the industry or they don't. Either they are worthy of our scorn, or not.

As I recently pointed out on Twitter, major tech blogs such as Mashable and Daring Fireball have frequently done sponsored advertorials, and have been doing so for quite some time. And while their readers occasionally bristle, I think they prefer that the tech blogs stay functional. It's also interesting to note that if you combined the audience for /Film, Aint It Cool News, CHUD, and Cinematical, only then would you begin to equal the audience for Mashable (i.e. they are dealing with far larger numbers than us, and their industry seem to have gotten over the backlash to this type of thing awhile ago).

In any case, yesterday was a disappointing day for me. I lost a lot of respect for those who I considered peers in the industry. At least back when they were publicly calling us out, I could see that they had principles (no matter how valid or how misguided) that they genuinely stood for. Through the war of words, I could see that there was some journalistic paradigm they were fighting on behalf of. Now, I don't even believe that anymore.

[As a side note: People who know my work know that I've been doing a movie podcast for about two years, and that I've been writing for /Film quasi-regularly for about a year or so. You can judge me by my work as to whether I'm a thoughtful person about this industry. But in the past year I've seen my respect for a myriad of online personalities virtually destroyed by witnessing their constant infighting over forums such as Twitter (something that doesn't plague other industries such as, for example, the gaming online journalism industry to nearly the same degree). As a general observation, it is not a welcoming community, and this recent inconsistent application of the rules serves to make it less welcoming for people like me. One thing I wonder is: Do people in the online film journalism community really want this industry to be inhospitable and alienating to newcomers such as myself? If so, mission accomplished.]

A Conversation on Blogging Ethics and Online Film Journalism with C. Robert Cargill, Devin Faraci, and Peter Sciretta

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Not too long ago, film journalist (and one of the people whom I respect the most in our industry) Anne Thompson wrote up a blog post entitled "Full Disclosure: Bloggers Break Rules." In the post, Thompson strongly criticizes many elements of online film journalism in its current incarnation. Here's an excerpt from the post:

Old media daily reporter: get wind of story, land assignment, report, confirm, write, file, put copy through system of copy editors and editors, close, ship, print. This process can take hours if not days.

New media daily reporter: get wind of story, post what you’ve heard, report and make calls, repost with tweaks and updates, repeat. No editor, no copy editor, no deadline. Early bird gets the traffic. No reward for waiting to make sure you have accurate information—except for maintaining integrity as a journalist.

Old media critic: Graduate from college a star writer. Work way up through papers as critic. Get paid by media outlet to attend screenings, write up reviews at length—thoughtful, long, serious reviews—file on deadline, put through system of copyeditors and editors, get paid. Some critics never went to junkets, never met the people they wrote about. Most outlets outside of L.A. and N.Y. did accept them in order to gain access to feature interviews with directors and stars. Object: build readers, sell papers.

New media critic: get paid small sums by the story—or live off share of ads on your blog or site. Report on set visits (paid by studio). Post early photos, poster art, clips and trailers (supplied by studio). Attend junkets for access to filmmakers and stars (paid by studio). Attend film festivals for access (sometimes paid by junketing studio or festival).

"You do the math," Thompson concludes. "Will the bigger sites adopt old journalism rules about conflict of interest and junkets? Not bloody likely."

I found the post unfair for a variety of reasons, but it was a comment by my colleague C. Robert Cargill from over at Aint It Cool News that I thought presented a rebuttal with wit and humor:

You forgot a few, Anne.

Old media critic: Respect embargo unless the studio has cleared your positive review, which they’ve of course approved. This usually is conjoined with studio provided interviews which, if the film is big enough, gets you a name in a photo on the cover of your magazine.

New media critic: Respect embargo if you have to. Ignore it if you don’t. Laugh when they try to embargo an un-embargoed film after reading your negative review. Note that no one ever complains when you break embargo with a positive review.

Old media critic: Write on a typewriter and know how to spell. Complain about kids these days.

New media critic: use one of them new-fangled contraptions with spell check that allows weak writers to look like good ones. Damned kids.

Old media critic: Occasionally have to sacrifice your opinion and values for the sake of the editorial slant of your Editor/readership/media conglomerate.

New media critic: Write what you think. Only sacrifice your values or credibility if you have little to begin with.

Old media critic: Comment repeatedly about how four years of college 20 years ago is more valuable than actual on-the-job experience.

New media critic: Get actual on-the-job experience. Don’t have to kiss ass, shake hands or stab backs to move up and get coveted reporter/reviewer/junket gigs. You only need to be talented, smart, media savvy or a little of all three.

Old media critic: become a new media critic when work dries up in the old outdated media.

New media critic: roll your eyes at all the old media critics jumping ship who then insult you and your friends in blogs. Pine for the golden days when the new media was new and wasn’t choked and overflowing with quick-to-snipe old media types.

Since I'd been planning on doing an impromptu podcast with Mr. Cargill for quite some time, I called him up on Skype last night to discuss this very issue. But I also wanted to invite Devin Faraci from CHUD to join in the fun as well, knowing that his opinions on this matter were strong. So, we got everyone on Skype, I broadcasted it over at my uStream page, and then recorded the entire exchange.

What was supposed to be a 20-minute discussion ballooned into a 2.5 hour long conversation. People from tons of online film websites joined in the chat room, including those from Cinematical, CHUD, Aint It Cool News, Geeks of Doom, Cinemablend, Film.com, and of course, /Film; hell, filmmaker Rian Johnson even tuned in. What they heard was a rambling, meandering discussion that ranged a wide variety of topics, including copyright law, the differences (if any) between old media vs. new media, the ethical issues of set visits & junkets, and whether or not it's reasonable to expect to make a living off of online film criticism.

You can download the entire audio of our conversation by clicking here (Right-click and save as) or you can listen in your browser below






A big thanks to everyone who joined in the conversation that evening. My hope is that something like this will at least be quasi-periodical. Although my colleagues here may be much more articulate than me, I think it's always good to have a civil, spirited debate about the business and ethical issues that are affecting us all.

As a listener, I'm sure you will agree or disagree with many of the things that are said. Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments/questions/frustrations in the comments below.