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Friday, March 05, 2010

BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.

BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield.



ACTOR: My sister, my brother, everybody in the family, they just murdered them?

ACTOR: Who murdered them?

ACTOR: That son of a b**** on the stairway.


BOB GARFIELD: That’s from a film called Iron Cross, which was released this week to very little fanfare. It actually had a limited run in L.A. late last year to generate critical buzz, but most critics were - unenthusiastic. Variety, Hollywood’s trade magazine, on the other hand, was quite impressed. Editor Tim Grey wrote a piece last summer in which he listed Iron Cross, among about 50 other films, as a potential Oscar nominee. Gawker’s investigation editor John Cook says that Grey’s article was the first step in a dust-up that raises questions about the relationship between Tinseltown and the press that covers it. The saga starts on the day Grey’s column ran.

JOHN COOK: And on that very day, a salesperson for Variety called up Joshua Newton, the director of Iron Cross and said, “Hey, did you see that you’re on our list of Oscar contenders?” and sold him on a 400,000-dollar Oscar campaign.

BOB GARFIELD: Now, I should say, in fairness, that it would be one thing for the sales department to do that on its own initiative and another thing altogether for the column to have been written in order to give the sales department ad-selling opportunities. Do you have any insight on this?

JOHN COOK: Well, I certainly don't have any insight into what Timothy Grey was thinking when he wrote that column, I haven't heard back from him, but, you know, I do know that Oscar campaigns, for-your-consideration advertising, make up a huge amount of the ad budget of Variety. I think in 2004 it was something like 80 percent of their advertising was purchased during the three months that precede the balloting for nominees and then the three months that precede the actual balloting for the winners.

BOB GARFIELD: Well, let's just assume for the moment that the column was not intended to prime the pump for the sales department. Nonetheless, Joshua Newton, having been contacted and having seen his film floated as an Oscar contender, said, yeah, you know, I think I do need a for-your-consideration [LAUGHS] campaign, and proceeded to spend 400,000 dollars in Variety, correct?

JOHN COOK: Correct. Ads for the film ran every day in Daily Variety for, I think, the entire month of November, leading up to the balloting for the nominees. And then on top of that, they were also placed in Variety’s screening series. Variety hosts screenings in New York, San Francisco and L.A. that are usually designed for Academy members to be able to come in and see some of these films on the big screen. And a lot of people that I talked to in Hollywood sort of, it was a question of, like, what’s this little film doing, you know, next to all of these [BOB LAUGHS] bigger films? Why is this here?

BOB GARFIELD: All right, so the nomination period begins, and next thing you know, in Variety is a review of Iron Cross, and it’s terrible. It’s a pan. And the director flips out. Why?

JOHN COOK: The way he put it to me is these were our promotional partners, and, you know, we engaged in a joint venture with Variety to promote this movie, to convince the Academy that it worthy of an Oscar, and here you have Variety publishing a review that was very critical of this film.

BOB GARFIELD: He admitted to you that he was expecting favorable treatment from the editorial side?

JOHN COOK: Well, he said that editorial considerations never came up in the negotiation, but he did make clear that he felt that he had been mistreated by Variety. He said it was not the decent thing to do, and that this joint venture that they'd engaged upon together meant something to him.

BOB GARFIELD: You know, [LAUGHING] what’s particularly funny to me about this is that publishers are all the time talking about their customers as their partners.


BOB GARFIELD: They're not partners. They're customers.


BOB GARFIELD: But I guess some “customers” take this partnership talk a little too seriously.


BOB GARFIELD: The man is actually threatening to sue.

JOHN COOK: Yes, he said they're considering their options and that there are very valid issues at stake. It’d be very interesting to know what kind of claims were made to him during the discussions over this 400,000-dollar campaign.

BOB GARFIELD: It would indeed. And I should say that Variety, offered the opportunity to discuss this with us, declined. But what we do know is that Variety took down the review, that had been written by a freelancer, off of its site, and although they never spoke to the press about it, there was some email traffic that explained that the review did not meet its editorial standards and that’s why it was pulled. You buy that?

JOHN COOK: Not for a minute. No, I mean, I think the reason they pulled it is because they were facing a very angry partner and/or customer. I half suspect what happened was the film actually showed for a week at a theater in L.A. at weird times, just a qualifying run - it wasn't advertised - and one of the things that Joshua Newton was puzzled by is how Robert Koehler even knew to go see this film.

BOB GARFIELD: Robert Koehler, the reviewer.

JOHN COOK: Yeah. And my hope is that the editors and the writers at Variety realized what was going on here, that there was this promotional push and that it was being included in this film series, and decided to assert their editorial independence and review the film on their own.

BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] You mean to intentionally stick it to the man. Do you have any evidence for that hope?

JOHN COOK: Newton himself suspects that. And the way he put to me is he thinks that Koehler must have known about all this, about this joint venture, and that he must have gone and found the film intentionally and reviewed it intentionally. I haven't spoken to Koehler. Neither he nor anyone at Variety has gotten back to me. But that would be my hope.

BOB GARFIELD: Well, if he’s right, and there was a quid pro quo, a pox on both their houses, no?

JOHN COOK: Well, I'm kind of sympathetic, almost, to someone who spends that kind of money under circumstances where they think they're entitled to something. And it certainly seems that what’s going on here is that Variety is out there trolling for people that they can sell Oscar campaigns to. And if they're dropping names and their sales staff is calling ‘em up, it’s hard to blame someone for getting duped.

BOB GARFIELD: So if the cops stake out a street corner and arrest both the streetwalker and the john, your sympathy is with the john?

JOHN COOK: [LAUGHS] That’s a, that’s a fair point. That’s a fair point.

BOB GARFIELD: Thanks for joining us.

JOHN COOK: Thanks, Bob. It’s good to be here.

BOB GARFIELD: John Cook is the investigations editor for the website Gawker.