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Cellphones at sixty paces: Can anyone stop the publicist plague?

By Jack Marx, with intro by Oz
Posted 12/04/02 09:44:17

A few months back, Jack Marx was asked by an Australian film magazine for an article on the topic of film publicists. Why Jack? Because he's a fine writer and had just had a monumental run-in with a publicist or four, over his hatred for the Australian feature film, The Nugget. Seems the marketing shills were outraged that Jack turned up a few minutes late to the press screening of the film and when he actually walked out early because the thing was beyond awful, his editor received an email from a publicist complaining of Jack's 'bad form'. Amazingly, despite their complaints, the publicists decreed he could still interview the star and director of the film as long as he promised not to tell them that he hadn't seen the entire thing and that he hated it. This is odd, since no matter how many times we offer blow-jobs, cocaine, chocolate and money, we don't get ANY interviews whatsoever. Best guess is that Jack was seen as more worthy than our writers because he was writing for a big film magazine, although in return for the immense privilege of interviewing the star and director of a terrible film, he was expected to play nice. Suffice to say he told them where to shove their interview. The subsequent article about his dealings with the gatekeepers of the film world and the weakness of journalists and editors in combatting them was, perhaps unsurprisingly, considered too hot to print by the magazines Jack was writing for, and the article was duly shelved. Well, we've never been accused of treading lightly, especially when toes are involved, so it’s with great pleasure that we bring this fine piece of criticism to the world - payback be damned.

Imagine you’re having a garage sale. Your old belongings mean a lot to you and you care that they all go to people who’ll appreciate them, but the fact is you need to sell this stuff and so you must tell as many people as possible. A friend offers to save you time by distributing posters in various prominent locations and you accept her offer gratefully. On the eve of the sale, however, you take a stroll around the neighbourhood and notice there are very few posters to be seen. You ask your friend why this is so and she explains the various reasons. The community notice board, while being very popular, services a type of person she believes you would not wish to have at your sale. The corner store is run by a woman who was rude to her once, so no poster for her. The man in the popular café was very enthusiastic, but wanted to design his own poster to suit the style of his establishment, so she told him to stick it up his arse. The same for the man who wanted to speak to you personally about items in your sale, the woman who expressed interest in garage sales generally, not just yours, and the schoolchildren who were overheard speaking about the garage sale “in the wrong way”.

You’d probably terminate the friendship. You might even give your ex-friend a slapping, depending on your financial situation and general temperament. At very least, you would never allow this dickhead to represent you in public again.

But such monsters remain employed by the cinema industry and you’ll find them in the department called “publicity”, a division charged with the task of selling films to the press and thus the public. Traditionally, publicists are helpful, affable and approachable – they have to be, or the press wouldn’t bother speaking to them – and it’s only fair to say that the majority of publicists, particularly in the independent sphere, are genuinely enthusiastic about their burden. But the cult of celebrity has given birth to a cancerous cell in the bowels of publicity – a noisy and growing minority who believe themselves not to be in the service of publicity, but at war with it. They see themselves as the gatekeepers of a fortress to which the media is laying siege. They must control the unholy rabble from the parapets. And if anyone is allowed in, they’d better be fucking grateful.

Every journalist knows the type and has a sackful of tales of publicist outrage, usually involving some ill-tempered horse mistaking herself for God’s girlfriend and instructing the world accordingly. She “grants” interviews to the press, rather than “procuring” them in the service of the film. She dictates the terms of the interview to the journalist; the time, the place, the duration, what should be asked, what topics are not to be discussed (instructions often unknown by her client) and, occasionally, how the journalist is to behave (I once had a publicist try to tell me not to drink during an interview, which took place in a hotel bar – I got smashed with the interviewee).

She often demands to see an article before it is printed, acting as editor-by-proxy of the journal for which the reporter works. She forbids journalists from speaking to anyone or anything in her care without due permission (I once received a call from a publicist who was furious that I had bumped into one of “her” actors at a function and shared a beer with him - I should have cleared it with her first, apparently). And I can’t count the number of times I have received a “no” from a publicist, only to find that the subjects themselves would have been delighted to do an interview, had they ever been informed of my request.

All of this bosh is conducted under an organised capsizing of logic: that it is not films or any of the people involved with them that need publicity, but the press who should be grateful for the right to provide it. And it’s this ludicrous notion that gives license to the worst aspect of this already unpalatable scenario: the increasing right of the publicist to be a vile, cantankerous arsehole whose behaviour resembles that of an evil genius caught in a swarm of blowflies. The most notorious of publicists – that is to say, those who have managed to generate an admirable amount of publicity for themselves – seem to take pride in reputations for being abrasive governesses with scalding tempers and a bizarre assortment of offensive responses ready for any journalist with the temerity to “request” an interview rather than be “approached”. And periodic explosions of paranoid hysteria have become standard hallmarks of an “efficient” publicist.

These people have no right to behave like the chancellors of film, for they are arguably the beggars of the industry - the tolerated stage-door Johnnys of the arts. They perform no function that can’t be pulled off by 10-year-old with a telephone book. They obviously aren’t imaginative types, or they wouldn’t have chosen phone-fondling jobs in the most creative industry in history. They are experts on nothing – if publicity were any sort of exact science then nine-out-of-ten films wouldn’t bomb at the box office. They are irrelevant in an era when any decent journalist can find a direct line to anyone in the world within a day or two. They are charged with the simple task of passing information between two enthusiastic parties, and they can’t even get that right. Like paedophiles in the clergy, publicists have forgotten about the word they were asked to preach, choosing instead to drop as many of us to our knees as they get themselves off.

Apart from being loose nuts in the press machine, not to mention stains on their own otherwise dignified profession, such goons are ruining the entertainment industry and nobody seems to realise it.

In the 80s, when British rock and roll was in the bland doldrums (Spandau Ballet and Sade had two of the biggest-selling British albums of that decade), it was kept breathing by feisty, reckless journalism from the pages of NME and Melody Maker. They ridiculed, castigated and libelled, and a few careers were destroyed along the way. But the long-range effect was that, despite the lousy content, the English music scene had the appearance of being alive with activity and passion – the kind of scene where one might want to invest one’s money, or creativity. The new breed of Australian publicist would never have allowed that to happen.

Whether the Australian film industry is healthy today is a matter of opinion – and whether you're counting in terms of money or cerebral packets of inspiration – but it’s not going to get any more effervescent while neurotic publicists are holding the joystick. In their hands, the film press, both barometer and catalyst of public enthusiasm, will read like an endless infomercial.

For written in the lexicon of this new style of publicity is the belief that one must avoid, at all costs, the “wrong publicity”. Aside from “bad reviews”, nobody can really lay a definition on this phrase, so many a publicist makes that decision herself on the spot. She who is hardly Shakespearean when it comes to knowing what makes a good story will decide that “the wrong publicity” is simply that which has not been generated, or at least sanctioned, by her good office. As far as she is concerned, a successful piece of literature is a stage-managed interview that doesn’t deviate from the pivotal topic: what’s for sale.

A good journalist - or, in fact, anyone with an imagination - won’t tolerate a situation where his or her voice has been commandeered by a salesperson. In the mainstream press, the really engaging writers are deserting the entertainment arena in droves, and, increasingly, those left behind among the press releases are gormless hacks with no particular care for either their own craft or the one they report upon, who are happy to file fan-club copy in exchange for free screenings, the occasional chat with a star and an annual junket to Cannes.

A mediocre press encourages a mediocre industry, an artform unchallenged by critical perspective. What we can look forward to from that is fewer Lantanas and more films by Yahoo Serious. And the only quarter that will benefit under that regime is the department of publicity. With so much crap incapable of being sold on its own merits, there’ll be plenty of work to do.

Of course, a lot of the fault for the current situation lies with the editors of the magazines, who bend like rent boys to the preposterous terms dictated by over-zealous publicists. It’s weak, but it’s a situation that has become difficult to combat. Magazines are regularly threatened with blanket bans by a publicist should they not play by her rules. When I was editor at Australian Style, a publicist told me that if I ran a certain story, organised outside her sphere, I would never gain access to any artist or event under her umbrella again. I asked her what her other artists might think of that policy, and she replied, “They don’t run this business, I do” – a comment betraying her belief that it was not only the journalist and the story that were in her service, but the subject of the story – the very reason she existed - as well. All of us, it seemed, were mere nymphs around her maypole.

Ironically, it’s the cheap, celebrity magazine press that has been the first to find a way out of the publicist’s dungeon. Today, they shun the publicist altogether, recycling spurious interviews from overseas publications or inventing stories based on make-believe dialogues with bogus “insiders”, the whole thing encased in the cult of paparazzi. It’s the inevitable result of the publicist department’s closed-door policy and it’s not particularly noble or worthwhile. But it’s more entertaining than a sales pitch and the public knows it.

For the quality press – if we are to have such a thing – it’s time to call the publicist’s bluff. If more publications black-banned particular publicists for acts of interference, or for being anything but courteous and helpful, word would spread pretty quickly that such publicists had a limited reach. It would be a foolish actor or film-maker who placed his or her career in the hands of one whose impotence was well advertised.
And anyway, good stories don’t come from interviews. The best magazine or newspaper story you ever read did not pivot on an interview with someone who had something to sell. If it involved such a person at all, it was not the interview itself that made the story great, unless the subject revealed something shocking or was out of control in some way (a publicist’s nightmare).

Great journalism is made of many things - excellent research, clear observation, shrewd insight, ironclad opinion - but it is never, ever the product of publicity. Particularly not in the cinema press.

Somebody ought to tell that to the publicist. I’m sure she’ll pass the message on.

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SPECIAL BONUS!

Because we believe in showing our readers the dirty white underbelly of the film world, we've asked for, and received, permission from Jack to publish the correspondence betwen he and his editor that set off this storm - an e-mail 'accidentally' cc'd by Jack to the publicist in question and her entire department. Complete with excerpts from the publicist's original complaint, witness the reaction of a journalist scorned.
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Jack Marx wrote:
Sorry Chris. I've been out for most of the day and I just got your e-mail. It was understandable that you forwarded it to me as you must have been pretty upset. However, let's get a few of [the publicist]'s brainfarts straight:

> "We held a screening of The Nugget last night for Jack..."

...and a roomful of other journalists.

> "...he said he arrived just as [the characters in the film] discovered the nugget."

I said I arrived just before they discovered the nugget, as in between five to ten minutes before.

> "...he must have turned up about an hour later than the start time because this is about 20-30 mins into the film, and we started the film about 20 minutes late."

Falsehoods mixed with moronic arithmetic. By [the publicist]'s own calculations, the scene in question played between 6.10 and 6.20pm - an hour after 5.30? The girl needs a new watch and calculator, ideally one with an instruction book. In any case, the person behind me assured me that the film had been playing "five, perhaps ten minutes", and he had no reason to lie.

> "Organising a theatrette screening (at a time to suit him, by the way) costs money and time."

The screening was neither for me nor at a time to suit me - it was for the benefit of [Village] Roadshow and approximately 50 potential sources of publicity, none of whom should be held responsible for the cost of the screening. When asked by [another publicist] last Thursday if I had a preferred time of
the week, I answered that my preference, if I were to have one, would be during the day rather than the evening. The screening took place regardless at 5.30pm on August 20 - not, in fact, the most suitable time for me, being that August 20 was my birthday. Nevertheless, I gave it a shot.

> "Still extremely bad form. In this instance, we'll still set up the interview, but it's not ideal ..."

In this instance, if Roadshow want me to provide publicity for their film they can get Eric Bana to meet me at the Harp Hotel in Kew East, where I will be having a beer at my usual time of 8.30pm tomorrow night (he would be most welcome, as I hear he's a very decent fellow). If that's not "ideal", then they can take out some advertising somewhere - costs money, which may offend [the publicist]'s sensibilities, but it is a good sight more "ideal" as far as I'm concerned.

"..and Jack must ensure that he does not let on to Eric that he hasn't seen the whole film!!!"

I will provide no assurances but that, if I feel compelled to
do so, I will write an honest review of The Nugget and place it in any number of the journals for which I write. And unless the first couple of scenes consisted of all the most magnificent moments of cinema history distilled into 10-15 minutes, I believe I saw quite enough to be able to comment upon it with accuracy.

Just prior to reading your e-mail, I got a call from someone else at Roadshow suggesting I might like to help them out just that little bit further by interviewing [director] Bill Bennet. Needless to say, I'm not interested in any of this at all.

I'm sorry, Chris - you're a good guy and you don't deserve to be in the middle of this baloney - but if someone wants me to provide publicity for them they can pay me handsomely or drop to their knees and offer all sorts of favours. All I can see here is some twit pretending I'm in her service.

Jack

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