Man in black: Tommy Lee Jones, lost in the premiere bedlam.
Man in black: Tommy Lee Jones, lost in the premiere bedlam.
Deron Neblett

Weary of the Wows

The sad part -- the really sad part -- is that the same tired line no doubt occurred to dozens of the lap-of-luxury traveling Hollywood press Saturday night.

"Houston, we have a problem," they all likely said in similar moments of semi-inspiration as the room-service machinery at the Hilton hotel near the Johnson Space Center began to crater.

One lonely kitchen person, manning the front lines around 11 p.m. Saturday, soon proved to be overwhelmed by the incoming tsunami of late-night dining orders.

For the members of the multimedia juggernaut that had been flown to Houston to be wined, dined and briefed on the overpowering majesty that is the Clint Eastwood action flick Space Cowboys, such so-called room service was beyond the pale.

Needless to say, it was the scandale du jour the next day.

On the shuttle buses taking scribes to VIP tours of NASA, incredulity reigned.

"Do you believe that no one at Warner Bros. told them that we all come back from the movie at the same time and want room service?" one of the writers asked.

They then began to compare notes on what apparently is their main activity on a junket -- watching movies in their rooms.

Journalists who don't cover movies tend to -- not to put too fine a point on it -- not think much of the journalists who do.

The non-Hollywood reporters grumble about The Junket: the all-expenses-paid, goody-laden, breezy trip to L.A. or New York where entertainment types are spoon-fed a few information-free quotes from bored stars, quotes that are then spun into mind-numbingly similar pre-opening features about the film of the month.

That studio-produced beast -- The Junket -- came to Houston July 21.

Houston, seemingly, has survived.

Space Cowboys spurred the visit, it being a movie to which NASA provided a lot of assistance in terms of technical help and shooting locations.

The film opens August 4, and anyone who's been to the theater lately has seen the trailer. Four elderly guys -- Eastwood, Donald Sutherland, James Garner and relatively young pup Tommy Lee Jones playing old -- go into space to fix a failing Russian satellite that's outfitted with 1960s technology.

Premieres for the working Hollywood press are usually located in Los Angeles, but the NASA angle proved irresistible for Space Cowboys' promoters.

Most self-respecting papers profess that they pay for their reporters to attend such events, although to what degree the trips are discounted is impossible to determine. Papers with less delusional views of themselves -- not to mention television stations, syndicated radio shows and obscure on-line ventures that can guarantee publicists a rave-review blurb -- happily accept the freebies.

A slew of people out there are known affectionately as "quote whores," folks who work for publications or media outlets you never heard of, folks who are willing to call a movie "the thrill ride of the summer!!" in exchange for a free flight, a weekend in a nice hotel and a bunch of logo-engraved toys, knapsacks and coffee mugs.

There's also the legitimate working movie-business press, the people who work in Vancouver or Denver or Hong Kong who review movies and try to write insightful features about the folks starring in those movies. They bitch mightily about how studios spend two days bending over backward to provide any TV outlet with a Minicam a series of 15-minute suck-up one-on-ones with a movie's stars, while forcing print reporters to eat the scraps of a rushed group interview.

Unfortunately for a Houston reporter who had dreams of Christmas in July, the junketeering was a decidedly pedestrian event. If you have the bad luck to find yourself classified in a) the extreme ghetto of print and b) the sub-ghetto of


print, then the highly regimented weekend's form is set. The

Space Cowboys

' backpacks and gimme caps are definitely not coming your way, so all you can do is slog on through the proceedings.

On Friday, there's the Grand Premiere, the "star-studded" event at the AMC Gulf Pointe 30, a giant theater complex at the intersection of I-45 and Beltway 8 that is not exactly blasé about world premieres.

As word spreads that night outside the theater, everyone with a cell phone starts dialing -- whether they're teens taking time out from buying tickets for Scary Movie or suburban moms accompanying their kids to Pokémon 2000 -- anxious to inform their friends what's about to happen at the sun-blasted megaplex in the middle of nowhere.

"Clint-Fucking-Eastwood is going to be here -- no shit," one moviegoer (a teen, not a mom) informs a friend.

It seems improbable, at this desolate theater across the road from a Home Depot. But there's a red carpet, there are intense-looking interns barking into walkie-talkies, there's a mom holding up a sweat-encased baby wearing nothing but a diaper and socks, telling the child that Clint Eastwood is about to appear.

Finally, the stars arrive. Well, first the astronauts arrive -- PR people preceding them down the runway, enthusiastically shouting to reporters that "I've got Charlie Precourt here, he's an astronaut!"

The astronauts and other NASA personnel are legitimately taken aback by the whole event, most of them escorting their wives or husbands with a bemused air. Then the bus stops and deposits the members of the Television Press.

The protocol immediately changes. The attitude now is I Am Cool, Surrounded Though I Am By Rubes.

These TV folks -- mostly from syndicated shows you wouldn't spend a microsecond with as you clicked through the channels -- are important, dammit. And they have a very practiced air of walking down the red carpet between the gawking hordes, that air that White House journalists have mastered whereby they pity the poor folks who turn out for the spectacle that they, as reporters, have seen so many times and are decidedly -- and ostensibly -- unimpressed by.

Finally come The Stars. James Garner is an old pro basking comfortably in the attention. Tommy Lee Jones is a local favorite, but he's determined to be an ornery fucker who can't be bothered to detract from his Art by answering movie-star questions.

Donald Sutherland, on the other hand, is cool with a capital "C." He's got a shockingly white mane of shoulder-length hair, he's got the voice from Ordinary People, he's actually got some wit about him -- he's the guy you'd want to go have a beer with after the show.

Eastwood follows. Amazingly enough, he looks younger offscreen than he does in the movies. He's smooth as can be, not really answering any rope-line questions, but giving a sound bite to everyone and avoiding follow-ups.

(Channel 13's Cynthia Hunt seems Navy SEAL-determined to ask every star, "What did the astronauts tell you about space that surprised you?" No real answer -- besides "Umm… nothing" -- ever came, but she gets points for trying.)

The next night they show the movie,


stars, for the print media. With no celebrities present, it symbolizes the low spot on the totem pole accorded to the ink-stained wretches.

It's those wretches, of course, who board buses back to the hotel after the movie and start dialing up room service. (It's always a race to order room service in such situations, veterans say.)

The dichotomy continues the next day, Sunday. Sure, the print slaves get a tour of the Johnson Space Center that features face time with extremely high-up NASA execs and virtual-reality gimmicks that the hoi polloi never see. On the other hand, they're shushed from asking questions because the tours happen to be near curtained-off "rooms" where permanently unknown TV interviewers are asking the stars -- for perhaps the 40th time that weekend -- just what was the hardest part about making this movie.

Finally the print grunts get their piece of the stars. Unlike most junkets, the time doesn't come in the form of "roundtables," wherein the stars rotate among reporters, spending 20 minutes with five or six inquisitors.

Instead, it's all four stars on stage for 45 minutes. There are some good questions about the making of the movie; there are some awful questions about whether any of the stars ever dreamed about being astronauts or whether Clint knows how much he was loved in Japan. There is -- there's no other way to put this -- a reporter apparently representing Russia who's eating her boogers as she waits for the press conference to start.

The legitimate reporters would like their questions to the entire panel answered by each member, but if one star's quip gets a laugh, that's enough to move it on to the next questioner.

Clint doles out the anecdotes as required; Tommy Lee quivers in his seat like a third-grader in the principal's office; James Garner offers up some sly observations, and Donald Sutherland throws in something funny whenever he decides to pay attention. All are Movie Stars, intent on charming the press.

In a flash, the news conference is over. Instantly the line of questioning turns from How Did You Prepare for the Role to Which Van Takes Me to Intercontinental?

The Junket is over.


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