Duh Press

Shouldn't have said yes, couldn't say no. The deal was simple, and those who chose to accept it had made their own private pact with the showbiz-journalism devil. "You will spend an hour with Tom Cruise and an hour with Steven Spielberg," said the publicist, a lovely woman from 20th Century Fox whose tone of voice nonetheless suggested bad news. "But"--a-ha, here it comes...wait for it--"they will not be doing one-on-ones. They'll only be doing roundtables." A roundtable means the two will be ushered into a hotel room one at a time, plopped down in front of half a dozen tape recorders and offer canned responses to what barely pass as questions: "Tom, you and Steven are two of the most powerful men in Hollywood. Is that the case, or is that overstating the fact?" Oh, no, Mr. Woodward. Not at all. Good one.

A day later, the publicist called back to inform of the scheduling change: "Tom and Steven can only do half-hour interviews." Yes, excellent. That's plenty of time to ask these men thoughtful questions that will elicit insightful responses. But calling most who peddle publicity as reportage "journalists" is like calling the guy who makes fries at Burger King "a chef." In some city, usually New York or Los Angeles but occasionally in Dallas or other remote outposts in the flyover, The Famous and The Fatuous gather every weekend to trade pride for press. It's a public-relations gang-bang, a never-ending circle jerk. Check your humility with the concierge, then head to the hospitality suite for their free cups of coffee and bottles of Evian and mouthfuls of cold-plate meats.

From all over the South they came to Dallas two weeks ago for the Minority Report junket--from Tennessee and Arkansas, from Florida and Louisiana. They were TV talking heads and writers of free ad copy, some of whom accepted tickets from the studio, some of whom paid their own way. They carried their clothes and supplies in studio-provided luggage; one writer hauled around his Spider-Man bag, emblazoned with the web-slinger. They wore gimme caps and freebie T-shirts plugging forthcoming releases. They collected toys doled out by publicists eager to please and placate. (This time, they handed out gigantic models of the futuristic Lexus Tom Cruise drives in Minority Report, and they'll wind up either on trophy shelves or eBay, where they're going for about $40.) They say flattering things and couch their questions in compliments. They lick the hand that feeds them.

"Well, it's another great science-fiction film," says the man sitting nearest Spielberg, who strolls into the interview room wearing a light-brown leather jacket despite Dallas' early-summer heat and humidity--a combination that makes mere mortals leak sweat. "Man, it is unbelievable," gushes this guy, whose size suggests much time spent in the hospitality suites. "I was transfixed watching the movie. I mean, you have made two of the best science-fiction films ever." The man, wearing a ball cap, then pushes up his shirtsleeve to reveal his A.I. watch, which he picked up the last time Spielberg was on the PR circuit. The director laughs loudly, beams proudly--he's complicit in this arrangement, and if he's grossed out, he doesn't let on. He knows he's in for good press, so he's willing to play along. In return, he spins a few good stories, bad-mouths his own movies (just one, actually, 1941) to prove he's a regular guy.

These people who live on the junket circuit all look vaguely the same--soft, round and pale, no matter age or gender. Many have gray hair, gray face, gray teeth, gray clothes. They spend too much time in the dark, too much time in planes breathing recycled air, too much time chasing the famous from coast to coast. They're the very reason the Chicago Tribune recently issued the decree that it will no longer allow its film writers to conduct interviews with celebrities in hotel rooms, where publicists linger just outside the door with stopwatches to make sure no one goes over his or her allotted 15 minutes in the company of fame.

They and people like them--say, Ain't It Cool News' Harry Knowles, who accepts studio-funded trips to movie sets and is still taken seriously by movie execs as a film critic, despite being quasi-literate--are why the studios can trim the "interview" time from 60 minutes to half an hour. They know they'll get good pub regardless of the setup--an hour in a restaurant, a handshake in a hotel room, a howdy on a movie set. Those bearing cameras and recorders are just happy to breathe the rarefied air of celebrities, collect their goodie bags full of logo-covered crap and share the same prepackaged quotes that spread like Colorado wildfire the days before and after a movie's release.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky