Sunday, March 06, 2005

Laura M. Holson's tries to nail down Disney and Miramax but can't

On the front page of this morning's New York Times, you find Laura M. Holson's "How the Tulmultuous Marriage of Miramax and Disney Failed."

The Times does a lousy job of covering Hollywood/entertainment (and on Miramax, don't get me started). But, for those not aware, the Times has decided to move in on the L.A. Times' stomping ground and increase their "arts" coverage. (That's meant to slam the paper's coverage, not art coming out of Hollywood.) They're increasing their staff and all set to be the "last word" on the industry.

Maybe they want more money from studios for advertising or they just want to try to hobble the L.A. Times, who knows?

But this has been a huge topic. Will the Times ("the Times" refers to New York Times unless otherwise noted) be able to survive Hollywood?

As one friend at Paramount said, "Oh honey, [F. Scott] Fitzgerald couldn't leave with his repuation intact, the Times doesn't stand a chance."

And it doesn't. For a number of reasons. But chief among them is what does the paper wants to do?

Does it want to inform? If so, lots of luck covering Hollywood. No one informs until they do a burn-the-bridges book (or article if they don't have a book in them). Now when this conversation began (with friends) awhile back, I was still (stupidly) holding to the impression that the Times broke news. That it actually bothered to inform the readers and cared about journalistic principles. I've been awakened (to say the least).

So I've stopped defending and just listen. (And my apologies to friends quoted in this who will all say I've ruined their best wise cracks and one liners -- but I wasn't taking notes. I hadn't planned to write on this until the Times did such a poor job this morning in print and, as a result, ruined my plans for a relaxing morning.)

Here's the way it's seen, the Times is hiring outsiders. "Pushy New Yokers," says one less than geographically generous friend, "and local losers who've been on the outs for years. They're not going to get anything."

That's "anything" doesn't refer to an explosive story. (Obviously, if the Times had one, it wouldn't run it . . . until the day someone else was going to run it.) "Anything" refers to access.
And we all know the Times covets access.

What's it going to take for access?

The paper should be concerned because insiders are already making up lists of conditions.

Will the Times cave to them? When's the last time the paper stood strong? (Seriously, if you know of one recent occassion, e-mail me at because I can't think of a time.)

The Times art coverage is incredibly poor. They've never done a great jobs. There have been islands of creativity at various points in their history, but you're looking at one or two persons.
Ellen Willis didn't cover music for the Times (The New Yorker was her publication). Ann Powers didn't (which may be why Tori Amos' book was trashed so severely in the single paragraph review that Kat noted last week).

When Stephen Holden (whose reviews I like) tires of the hustle-bustle at Rolling Stone, he can move over to the Times. They're running him, what, fifteen, twenty years after he was a leading music critic? More often than not, they get the refugees who burned out before they left their initial publications. (My opinion, I don't think Holden's burned out.)

You've got inferior writers trying to pass themselves off experts (which leads to so many howlers -- one that still gets noted, especially this morning, was how the Times didn't know Harvey Weinstein's filmography but wrote like they did). (The Times had to run a correction.)

The arts section isn't taken seriously by people in the arts because it's "written by assholes whose thoughts run about as deep as my nail polish." That's not a reference to a critical comment, that's a reference to the paper's inability to ever get the basic facts right. Whether it's a film title or who participated in the film, whether it's what made how much money officially, whether it's anything to do with what they are presenting themselves as experts on.

"Mary Hart's more informed on air than anything that makes it into print [in the Times]," is a comment made this morning.

That's right, even Entertainment Tonight is seen as more prestigious than the Times' art section. It's read, if at all, for laughs. It's an embarrassment. I'm talking about articles right now. The people writing have no knowledge of the way the industry works and repeat anything they're told. And the editors apparently lack knowledge as well so they end up doing the same. (One semi-insider is spared strong criticism but even he hasn't escaped clucks and chuckles.) (The semi-insider has left the paper.)

Trying to wrap their resources around a business trying to wrap itself around an artform leads to daily howlers (not a reference to Bob Somerby, but note to self, I need to read Friday's Howler). They don't get it. And they don't get the "players."

Let's take the attack on Madonna last year. The Times loves their "official sources." So they were more than happy to run with a smear job via Warner Bros. (then in a legal dispute with Madonna). It was completely unbalanced (and illogical). More importantly, the Times doesn't get that even if the figures they reported as true for Madonna's latest CD sales were true (they weren't), Madonna's not out. No one's ever completely out (unless they burn bridges). And with someone like Madonna who's been counted out so many times already, "You never rush to lower the boom because she thrives on the payback principle."

They're thinking it's Wall Street (the paper's thinking that) and that all they need to do is reflect the opinions of the people in power (as they do elsewhere in the paper). They fail to realize that who they see as in power (a studio head, for instance) can fall out of power very quickly.

Or as one caller noted this morning, "It's not a suits driven business. Just ask Frank Price!"

Names like those echo from the dinasour grave yard. And those are the sort of the names the Times would place premium on and then stand dazed and confused as suddenly "hot" (always an illusion) Frank Price was suddenly on the outs again.

That's not to say Variety doesn't kiss ass. Of course they do. But they're smart enough to be equitable in their ass smooching. They'll kiss a suit, an agent, a director, a performer . . .
(Writers are rarely kissed, they're just screwed.)

"There are rules to what you can and cannot do, Rona Barrett is the perfect example."

Which can be translated as, "Keep it light and fluffy even when knocking and you're fine. Go after a true industry story, and you're dead." (As Barrett found out when she attempted to break the news of a network utilizing a psychic to determine programming choices.)

"Covering Hollywood is like eenie-meanie-minie moe, you're always trying to figure out which truth you can tell today and still survive."

And that's pretty much reality. Let's say you go after Julia Roberts. Fine. You get all nasty with Julia. But you damn sure better kiss up to someone else. And you better know that Julia is now you're enemy (which means her "people") and that you've just lost access to a good portion of Hollywood. Now if you decide to go after someone similar in power to Julia next, you've just destroyed yourself. You need benefactors to survive. You need someone who'll vouch for you, "Yeah, s/he trashed Julia, but they really like [David] Geffen."

The Times has courted official sources and spun in the wind as each administration has changed while rushing to push whatever policy (think foreing countries) the new State Dept. wants pushed. So you might think they'd be able to navigate. But they won't be able to.

Generic Reporter has a scoop from some new It Boy or It Girl. The editor won't realize that. The editor probably won't have heard of the person. (There's a reason Vanity Fair often trumpets a new face on the cover just before a movie opens -- they're in touch in Hollywood and don't depend on other publications to "crown" talent.) So the editor says, "I don't really see a story in that." Nothing smarts like an It Boy/Girl ignored. The Times just made an enemey. Even if the It phase is brief, you're talking about two years of influence minimum (barring a public scandal or rude manners aimed at someone established in the industry).

The Times, regardless of who it hires, will always be an outsider. As such, there won't be a lot of people rushing to defend it. It will become easy currency (and it's already fashionable) to trash their reporting. (And if "Hollywood liberals" are less apt to believe the official line imposed by the Times in the main section, it may be due to the fact that they are aware of how wrong the paper is in the arts section.)

The town doesn't want the Times. The Times is not a young Robert Redford that's a future investment so everyone's rushing to "buy stock." It's a paper from another city. It's seen as "provencial" (ironic since the same charge is probably made by people at the Times re: Los Angeles, Burbank, Culver City, et al that make up "Hollywood").

With their boardroom mentality, the Times can never hope to grasp exactly who a player is or how some unknown (to them) has "currency." Reporters on the ground may grasp it, but they'll never be able to convince their editors of it. They wouldn't believe it, it's not in their make up.

So we'll get stories like this morning's by Laura M. Holson. Not a good opening if you're expecting Hollywood to open up to you.

The Times may find themselves the last person standing when it comes to defending Michael Eisner. (Eisner needs to mend some fences quickly.) "This is the paper of record!" squealed one friend over the phone between howls of laughter.

[Note to Okrent, your claim that the Times never pushed that notion, "paper of record," is false.
Do some more homework on the issue. Hint, look towards public remarks by the editorial staff.]

"This is the same paper that still doesn't get out how a Sony head came undone!" laughed another. (And no, they still don't grasp the takedown of a former Sony head.)

People wondered whether the paper was aware of Harvey & Bob Weinsteins business practices.
(These aren't secrets, they've been published elsewhere and Harvey Weinstein has spoken of them on the record.) Laughter greeted Laura M. Holson's "wide and dewey eyed" reporting of the cordial final negotiations between Harvey Weinstein and Richard Cook. "Laura's going to lose that cherry real quick!" was one remark by a friend at an agency.

Here's another comment: "Oh my God! They're the godd*mn New York Times and they're saying that following a deal in 2000, the Harv[ey] and Bob created Talk! Who fed them that! It's priceless."

[Talk started up in 1998. It's first issue was published in 1999. Again, this is public record. But when you're fed information by "official sources" -- kind of doubting the Weinsteins were the source on that tidbit -- and you don't check it out, it's easy to disgrace yourself in print.]

[Here's the passage: "In 2000, the Weinsteins renegotiated their contract with Disney and were guaranteed a yearly budget of $700 million . . . . They quickly flexed thier newfound muscle, expanding into books, televesion and Talk magazine."]

The general consensus is that the official sources were on Eisner's side and that accounts for so many errors in the article.

They're also going to have a huge problem dealing with "hits" and "flops." (Hint for the Times, there's a whole category of films beyond "hits" and "flops." And Hollywood takes those categories seriously. Their egos, like your own, bruise easily.)

First off, Kate & Leopold isn't considered a bomb by most insiders. They realize that preview audiences were offended by the original version and that Disney was one of the more vocal voices insisting upon reshoots -- which added to the cost. They also realize that at $70 million domestically (that's an estimate of the reported box office gross), the film's more or less "a break even" even before ancillary profits are factored in and that the thanks for that go to Hugh Jackman's "heat" and Meg Ryan's "drawing power" in romantic comedies. (After the preview audiences reactions, before the reshoots -- which were band aids at best, the picture wasn't expected to top twenty million.)

But there's the Times labeling it a bomb. (And thereby offending many who worked on that film, from the ones responsible for shooting it, to the ones responsible for greenlighting and advertising and . . .) That's how you get onto an enemies list.

But even more appalling is that the wise Times doesn't grasp box office and probably never will.(Wall Street's never been able to follow Hollywood accounting either.) As one friend said, "They probably think Nora [Erphon] got rich off Sleepless in Seattle, meanwhile she's still waiting for her profit participation to kick in."

I won't waste their time (or yours) trying to explain it to the Times. But if they've thought they had to bend like a pretzel when covering "new math" for presidential budget plans (and again, this goes beyond the current administration), they're going to have to either toss in the towel from the start or become yoga masters because they're not aware of what they're in for apparently.

"She [Holson] talks about it being 'a morality play.' Her whole article is a morality play: Kids, here's what not to do!"

[No offense to my friend, but I believe that's my phrase in the last sentence and I'm sure it's appeared here at some point. There's actually a preface to the phrase I've been using since 1996. But I've been waiting on Elisabeth Bumiller to do something especially inane to pop off with the full quote which I'm known to use in conversations repeatedly.]

They want a morality play and they want to impose a narrative. It's the rush to provide a narrative (before knowing the facts) that will embarrass the Times repeatedly as they attempt to increase their industry coverage.

And various people are already seeing how the Times' move can benefit them. The Times, unlike most magazines, really hasn't had to meet a list of demands on a daily basis. They've never had to agree, for instance, to a Pat Kingsley list in full. They've been given breaks because they weren't covering Hollywood so coverage in the Times was something to be sought. "Now that the Times is moving next door, they better get ready to loan out more than a cup of sugar," says a friend who admittedly hasn't borrowed a cup of anything from a neighbor in years.

But the point is people expect concessions. Some people are already telling clients they can get concessions. And the Times thinks they can cover Hollywood?

Prepare for a lot of fluff and a lot of dumbing down. Prepare for a lot more complimentary copy.
And if the paper cowtows to Hollywood, expect the government and Wall Street to up their demands on the paper as well.

Why the Times felt the need to make this decision is a big question. (Some really think they want to "rub out" the L.A. Times.) (It won't happen.) (Although some will attempt to use the Times as leverage against the L.A. Times.)

What it will do, according to insiders, is either make the Times more laughable as they find that they can't get traction on the access route, or make them more laughable because they do get traction and in the process degrade the paper's image. (I said "image," not "reality.")

"They [the Times] have apparently never heard of the skirmishes Robin [Williams], Whoopi [Goldberg], Goldie [Hawn] and Bette [Midler] had while doing time at Disney," noted one friend who also added that the paper seems clueless as to why Miramax was important to Disney in the first place -- to put in periodical terms, Disney was seen as the National Enquirer, Miramax as the Washington Post. Miramax gave Disney a cachet that even the decision to include nudity hadn't. Disney was hopelessly out of step with formulaic movies and having struck out repeatedly with the Hollywood Pictures division (which was supposed to bring class and envy to the studio), they really needed something they could point to with pride. (Hint, Captain Ron brings no pride.)

"Class and ass, it's the old Tracy & Hepburn story," said one person puzzled by the Times inability to grasp the story.

Asked one friend, "Do they [the Times] really not get that the inflated budgets was the whole reason the Weinsteins went to Disney to begin with? That was the carrot Disney waived. They're acting like it's a surprise but Disney knew exactly what they were getting into. The whole thing reads like Mike [Eisner] was the sole sourcing for this article."

Another friend, who was outraged by the article, offered this opinion: "Does Holson even know the name Frank Wells? You want a narrative, here it is. Eisner can't get over the fact that he's not Frank Wells. He can't get over the fact that Disney falls apart when Frank dies. He ran off Jeff[rey Katzenberg] because this was going to be his big moment to prove he was in charge. His problems with Miramax have always been about his desire to prove he was better than Wells and his desire to erase the names of anyone who helped build Disney. That's your f**king narrative! Someone with a one day class with Sy [Field] could grasp that. Why can't Holson?"

I could go on and on and on. Which is why I saved this for the last one to comment on of the three stories in the Times we're highlighting today.

The Times, filing from Los Angeles, has made themselves the laugh of the town today. For those who feel the paper gets away with way too much, take comfort in the fact that whether they know it or not, they humiliated themselves in print. In an area they're trying to establish a strong hold in. And the paper needs to worry about exactly what their mission is in Hollywood because others are already determining it for them. It was a mistake and they won't be able to take down the L.A. Times -- if that was their intent. (Short of slashing their price in half, they won't even be able to match the L.A. Times in terms of circulation. And it's doubtful even that would work.)

That might not have been their intent but there was a sense (misguided) that the L.A. Times was on the ropes. A spat of cancellations this fall had less to do with long term attitude and more to do with an organized effort. One that the L.A. Times should have already noticed has begun to fade. The announcement that they were suspending their national edition (a plan which, as Katharine Seelye pointed out in the business section of the Times recently, they've had to move away from in D.C. and New York) further added to the idea that the L.A. Times was on the ropes. A homegrown paper might be able to do some damage. The Times (NYT) won't.

But the Times is risking damage to itself by attempting to become a "player" in Hollywood. (It will never happen.) (Even if the entire paper moved to Los Angeles.) What's going to happen is pedistrian reporting (nothing new there but some readers probably know more about charts, box office, et al than about what the government's up to so they'll be more likely to notice how pedistrian the paper can be) or the Times will find itself played.

As the laughs echo through various canyons, et al, one wonders whether the Times realizes what a joke they were today?