Audiences, Not Reporters, Are Real Players in Hollywood Game

John Morgan Wilson is the author of "The Complete Guide to Magazine Article Writing" (Writer's Digest Books). His novel, "Simple Justice" (Doubleday), has been nominated for an Edgar award by the Mystery Writers of America as best first novel of 1996

Reporters who cover the entertainment industry certainly deserve scrutiny and many warrant their share of criticism. I know this because I worked among them and was one for nearly two decades.

Still, it must be pointed out that Jonathan Palmer's broadside against film industry reporters and the publications that employ them as "entertainment-obsessed" and "intent on giving actors the bare-bulb treatment" was off the mark ("So What If Jim Carrey Wants to Switch Gears," Counterpunch, April 14).

Palmer contends that reporters who cover the movies and their stars--particularly in stories with negative slants published before a picture's release--can make or break its chances of success. He cites "Last Action Hero," one of Arnold Schwarzenegger's rare flops, as evidence, insisting it "was doomed by poor word of mouth generated primarily by the theater owners who looked to profit from its success, and the reporters who rushed to get that story out." I suppose Palmer might have cited other films, from "Heaven's Gate" to "Waterworld," as further proof of the unfair power of the press to "doom" certain movies to box-office failure.

The problems with Palmer's argument are several:

* The millions of pre-pubescent and teenage boys to whom pictures like "Last Action Hero" are targeted do not sit around studying production stories and film reviews before deciding whether to go see an action picture on its opening weekend.

* If reporters really had such clout, what explains the successful openings of countless turkeys that were bad-mouthed either before or upon release, from "Cocktail" to "Problem Child" to "Congo"? (On the other hand, the media--reporters and critics alike--have helped herald and bring to the public's attention many fine but less publicized films, such as "Shine," "Fargo" and "Sling Blade.")

*

The movie studios make an enormous effort encouraging journalists to report on their productions. The problem is, many publicists only want the positive spin. When something untoward turns up--such as exhibitor nervousness over Carrey's next movie, "The Truman Show"--the spin masters suddenly cry foul. Sorry, you can't have your hype and eat it too.

The studios (not to mention personal press agents) spend literally tens of millions of dollars each year relentlessly promoting and marketing their product, often outlandishly and sometimes dishonestly (in the case of critics' comments lifted out of context, for instance, or trailers deliberately cut to suggest a more compelling movie than actually exists, or press releases that are less than truthful). Should there not be some check and balance to this enormous and powerful marketing machine?

On balance, if one were able to objectively analyze all the film and star press coverage in a given year, the great majority of it would be found to be innocuous puffery, the media giving flacks what they themselves refer to as "free publicity."

As much as some entertainment reporters might wish they wielded the kind of power Palmer accords them, they are but small and rather inconsequential players in the Hollywood game.

Ultimately, a film's success depends on the word of mouth generated not by journalists but by those who purchase tickets on opening weekend, and come out of the theaters with their thumbs up or their thumbs down.

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