NOTW Investigative Journalism

The Hollywood Reporter has this bemused account of a US journalist’s experiences as celebrity-bait for the News of the World:

Early on, the job entailed transcribing audiotapes that sleazy women made of footballers with whom they had sex. The girls would set up famous players, then sell them out to the paper in order to get some cash and fame. The recordings usually consisted of extended, loud orgasms; I would swear they were faking it as I transcribed the grunts and groans for my editors.

I was soon switched over to harder reporting, and my next assignment took me to Brighton, where I was instructed very specifically to catch Mike Tyson in a cocaine orgy. Editors sent me to a grungy video shop above a pub in East London, where I collected a tiny “pen cam,” signing it out on an account the paper maintained there. Back at the NOTW offices, staffers stitched it onto the lining of a hideous pine-green windbreaker four sizes too big for me. They aimed the camera out of a front button.

Sick over the task but afraid I’d be shipped home if I didn’t come through, I managed to locate Tyson at a hotel, befriend him and his posse and take some photos of him with strippers with the pen cam. I passed the info on to a fellow reporter and cried when it hit the paper the next day. The editors’ embellishments detailed three-way sex and other activities I had not witnessed. They made it look as if Tyson was in the midst of an orgy in the lobby.

Confessions of a News of the World reporter– The Hollywood Reporter

Journalism & Ethics

As controversy rages over News International’s investigative reporting techniques, the accountability of journalists and editors is being scrutinised across the board. A self-righteous moral panic is in full swing, with calls for a new Press Complaints Commission, and tighter controls for journalists – it’s ironic that many of these calls are coming from journalists themselves.

Whilst the corporate culture at News International appears to have condoned some very shady practices, investigative journalism by nature is not about playing by a rule book. Journalists on the trail of a story need to get information that others do not want them to get. If your interviewee answers questions with a polite “No Comment”, what are you going to do? Go on to the next story, or keep probing, using any means at your disposal? Most journalists are committed to the latter course of action, which begs the question, where do you draw the line?

It seems the British public draw the line somewhere between hacking Royal phones and deleting the voicemails of a murdered teenage girl. But why is the former any less reprehensible than the latter? In The Independent, Dominic Lawson outlines some previous responses to phone hacking stories:

Thus when the Sunday People bugged the flat in which the Tory Cabinet Minister David Mellor was conducting an affair with Antonia de Sancha, nobody would have listened if Mellor had complained about being bugged, because we were all too busy enjoying his humiliation. The Royal Family, even more than libidinous politicians, were the principal targets of the red-top phone-tappers. Thus in 1992 the public were regaled with the so-called Squidgygate tapes, Diana Princess of Wales’s recorded conversations with her friend James Gilbey – apparently the result of the tapping of Diana’s landline. Within weeks the same public feasted avidly on the bugged night-time telephone conversation between the Prince of Wales and his mistress Camilla Parker-Bowles; millions rang a telephone line set up by the Sun, to hear the tape played on a continual loop.

Lawson argues that if there were no public appetite for “kiss-and-tell” stories, newspapers wouldn’t print them, and journalists wouldn’t be under such pressure to obtain salacious details by fair means or foul. However, social comparison is an intrinsic part of our psyche: it’s easy to see the appeal of downward comparison (gaining satisfaction from learning about those whose problems are worse than our own), but upward comparison (reading about the lives of the rich, famous and beautiful) can be a bitter pill to swallow. This is where newspaper exclusives come in. Upward comparison becomes downward comparison at the first whiff of scandal (“she may be rich, beautiful and famous but her husband’s been boffing the nanny”), which makes people more content with their place in the social order. The masses are less likely to protest at the unequal distribution of wealth, inequitable tax laws, and the hegemonic dominance of certain body types, if they are led to believe that wealth and status always has its dark side (hence those “secret misery of Angelina/Jennifer/Kim/Oprah” stories that grace magazine covers every week). Social comparison, as curated by scandal sheets like the News of The World, helps reinforce social structures. This is why politicians cosy up to journalists and newspaper proprietors; they all want the same thing thing, which is to reinforce the status quo.

Tabloid newspapers have traditionally represented themselves as ‘the voice of the people’. In The Guardian, George Monbiot points out that this is simply not the case:

The papers cannot announce that their purpose is to ventriloquise the concerns of multimillionaires; they must present themselves as the voice of the people. The Sun, the Mail and the Express claim to represent the interests of the working man and woman. These interests turn out to be identical to those of the men who own the papers.

So the rightwing papers run endless exposures of benefit cheats, yet say scarcely a word about the corporate tax cheats. They savage the trade unions and excoriate the BBC. They lambast the regulations that restrain corporate power. They school us in the extrinsic values – the worship of power, money, image and fame – which advertisers love but which make this a shallower, more selfish country. Most of them deceive their readers about the causes of climate change. These are not the obsessions of working people. They are the obsessions thrust upon them by the multimillionaires who own these papers.

Monbiot calls for a code of ethics that would make journalists more conscious that they have a role to play outside the circles of power, a kind of Hippocratic oath:

Our primary task is to hold power to account. We will prioritise those stories and issues which expose the interests of power. We will be wary of the relationships we form with the rich and powerful, and ensure that we don’t become embedded in their society. We will not curry favour with politicians, businesses or other dominant groups by withholding scrutiny of their affairs, or twisting a story to suit their interests.

“We will stand up to the interests of the businesses we work for, and the advertisers which fund them. We will never take money for promulgating a particular opinion, and we will resist attempts to oblige us to adopt one.

“We will recognise and understand the power we wield and how it originates. We will challenge ourselves and our perception of the world as much as we challenge other people. When we turn out to be wrong, we will say so.”

While these are noble sentiments, it remains to be seen whether they can fly in an increasingly fragmented electronic media, driven by a 24/7 need to get hits from readers, rather than selling copies to a loyal readership at the newsstand. Nonetheless, this past week has proved above all else that newspapers still have an important function to fulfill in our society, especially when they move beyond simply reporting stories about the elite, and move towards commenting on and condemning them. Thomas Jefferson famously said “No government ought to be without censors & where the press is free, no one ever will”. The New York Times suggests that the News Of The World’s demise may have a ripple effect on the rather moribund version of democracy currently active in the UK.

In truth, a kind of British Spring is under way, now that the News Corporation’s tidy system of punishment and reward has crumbled. Members of Parliament, no longer fearful of retribution in Mr. Murdoch’s tabloids, are speaking their minds and giving voice to the anger of their constituents. Meanwhile, social media has roamed wild and free across the story, punching a hole in the tiny clubhouse that had been running the country. Democracy, aided by sunlight, has broken out in Britain.

We Got The Phone Hacking We Wanted – The Independent
This media is corrupt – we need a Hippocratic oath for journalists – The Guardian
A Tabloid Shame, Exposed By Earnest Rivals – New York Times

A Product Placement Guru speaks

Ready for the release of Morgan Spurlock’s Pom Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold tomorrow, Norm Marshall gets a profile in the Los Angeles Times today. He’s the marketing man responsible for pushing as much product placement as possible into Hollywood movies. He makes his job seem straightforward:

Marshall’s biggest business is cars. He keeps a fleet of vehicles from General Motors, a longtime client, on a lot across the street from his office near Burbank’s Bob Hope Airport — they’re cars in working shape that have been deemed unfit for one reason or another for consumer sale. (He has a separate lot outside New York City.) Marshall’s pitch to the transportation managers on a set is simple:

“Someone will come to me and say they need a car for an action scene. I’ll say, ‘I have an Escalade you can blow up. It’ll be a lot cheaper than if you tried to do it with a car from Avis or Hertz.’ ” All he asks in return is that the car is shown prominently, and that the scene doesn’t impugn the car’s safety record.

It’s a scenario in which everybody — at least everybody involved in the transaction — wins. The car is given to the transportation manager, who’s happy he can check an item off his list at no cost. Marshall has satisfied GM and justified his retainer. GM, meanwhile, has gotten a free ad for little more than a car it wasn’t going to sell anyway.

While a seamless blend of selling and storytelling might be every manufacturer’s dream, audiences are still a bit wary of being sold stuff when they’re not officially aware they’re the target of a hard sell. Like it or not, however, advertising has always part-funded mass entertainment, and it looks like product placement is a viable way, at the very least, of keeping production costs down.

Product Placement Guru Explains How It’s Done – LA Times

A Songwriter Speaks

Britney Spears Femme FataleBritney Spears’ seventh album, Femme Fatale, debuted at No. 1 on the charts this week. Viewed as more of a successor to the 2007 stomper, Blackout, that the rather insipid Circus, Femme Fatale has garnered some pretty good reviews. Britney and her people make cheesy pop records, for people to sing and dance along to, and utilize as part of their 2011 soundtrack when driving/partying/studying/jogging or whatever else they do to music. Britney has worked hard as a performer since her Mickey Mouse Club days, and absolutely nails the whole song-and-dance routine. She knows what her job is, and she’s good at it. She’s not pretending to be a great musical diva – unlike some of her peers, who have pretensions to the title “artiste” – and has never ever claimed to be a songwriter. So it comes as a surprise to see some reviewers sniping about the fact that Britney doesn’t “even” have any co-writing credits on Femme Fatale. Why should she?

Heather Bright, who did write one of the songs on the album, explains all in a recent blog post.

here’s my thing… and I feel VERY passionate about this issue. Britney could have come to me, like all these other A-list artists, and said…

“Hey, you wanna be on my album? I’m gonna need writing credit for that song AND part of your publishing even though I didn’t write anything! And then I’m gonna go on tour and gross $150 million in ticket sales and not give you any of that, even though I’m performing your song!”

I could rattle off a laundry list of artists who I’ve had that conversation with! And I’m on the other end like… “Oh okay… so you wanna rape me, but just with the tip?!” *Prince side eye* Britney’s one of the few artists I’ve worked with who didn’t try to take something that wasn’t hers. In my experience, from a business standpoint, her entire team is nothing less than a bonafide class act! If I ever have another song that she wants and another artist happens to want the same song… Britney will get it EVERYTIME! Why? Because she’s honest! And she treats her writers and producers with respect and dignity. An artist is nothing without a hit song… and a hit song is nothing without the right artist. It looks like the question I posed earlier just found its answer… maybe this is why 12 years later she’s STILL at the top!

Despite Heather setting the record straight, could carping about Britney’s lack of credits be part of a trend, along with the Natalie Portman/Sarah Lane palaver? It seems, thanks to the reduced royalties and different consumption models for entertainment, that we are looking at a future where even top entertainers will only earn a comfortable, rather than superstar-grade, income. With less money coming in, such entertainers will be asked to do more for themselves (write material as well as perform and publicize it), instead of relying on teams of songwriters, dance-doubles, script doctors, editors and publicists in order to project a composite star persona. Will performers like Britney, able to call on the extensive talents of others, soon become a rarity on the pop culture landscape? Will this even be a bad thing?

Oh Britney Britney – Heather Bright’s blog

American Remakes of British TV

Maria Bello was announced this week as the star who will fill Helen Mirren’s shoes in the U.S. remake of Prime Suspect. Given that American TV drama seems to be full of fresh ideas and talent right now, it seems odd that NBC would even consider rebooting a UK show that is almost twenty years old. However, Prime Suspect has long been seen as the gold standard for both female leads and gritty police procedurals, and will garner eager viewers on the name alone. The Closer has often claimed to be the US version of Prime Suspect, but the only similarity really is the female lead. examines the structural and commercial reasons why a remake of Prime Suspect is unlikely to capture even the faintest of flavours of the original: The British have a completely different approach to making TV Drama to the Americans.

American television, in contrast, has more of a factory mentality. They’re making product to sell into syndication, where the magic number is 100 episodes — enough to fill a daily Monday-to-Friday schedule for 20-plus weeks. Speed and efficiency are of the essence because the networks want to squeeze out 100 episodes and hit that syndication jackpot as soon as possible. All the products have to be made in-house using existing tools and processes, stamped out and rolled onto the showroom floor at the same time each year — otherwise sponsors get restless, and Americans bred to expect instant gratifaction grow surly and betrayed. (It’s September. Where’s my show? I want it NOW!)

This approach does suit the production of law-and-order procedurals, and that means boom time for that special group of background artists (or extras) who play corpses. The Wall St Journal (behind a paywall) reports that seven out of ten of the top TV shows require a steady supply of ‘corpse actors’. It’s cheaper to make up a real human being than produce a corpse mannequin, and there’s always plenty of work. However, a certain skill set is required. “According to New York casting director Jonathan Strauss, however, not everyone can carry off the short breaths required on camera.”

The Problem with American remakes of British shows –
Corpse Duty: Keeping A Career on Life Support by Playing Dead – WSJ via Hollywood Wiretap

Hollywood’s SNAFU: Where are all the women?

For those of us working in the industry, the San Diego State University’s Center for the Study of Women’s numbers come as no surprise. Their annual Television and Film report states that, despite Kathryn Bigelow’s high profile Best Director win at the Oscars last year, the number of women in prominent filmmaking positions has stagnated since 1998. A paltry 16% of key jobs on the top 250 films of 2010 were held by women (no change from 2009, and equivalent to 1998 levels). Just 2% of the movies had a female cinematographer, 7% were directed by women: it seems the male gaze is the only way we get to view things.

As the list of this year’s Oscar nominees attests (as usual, women are nominated in barely anything but ‘actress’ categories), Hollywood is run by and for men. Women are actively discouraged from even pitching for big-budget projects, according to director Catherine Hardwicke in The Wrap, who thought she might have had a shot at directing The Fighter.

“”I couldn’t get an interview even though my last movie made $400 million…I was told it had to be directed by a man — am I crazy?…It’s about action, it’s about boxing, so a man has to direct it … But they’ll let a man direct Sex in the City or any girly movie you’ve ever heard of.”

This has huge implications – and not just on the aspirations of female creatives trying to break in. Says Martha Lauzen, executive director of the SDSU Center:

“I don’t think people know when they walk into a theater that nine out of 10 times they’ll see a film by a male director…It’s not just an employment issue for women, it’s a cultural one for all of us. Movies make a difference in how we see the world and how we see certain groups of people. These are the architects of our culture.”

Melissa Silverstein, co-founder of the Athena Film Festival adds:

“If this were a Fortune 500 company and they looked at these statistics, they would have a diversity committee working on this immediately… How could you have a company in the 21st century and less than 10% of its leaders are women?”

A diversity committee that could impose a quota system on Hollywood studios, not just to ensure fair representation of women (53% of the US population, never forget), but minorities across the board? Now there’s an appealing thought…

Center for the study of Women in Film and Television
Women still a rarity in top film jobs – LA Times
Despite Bigelow’s Oscar, Celluloid Ceiling Higher Than Ever for Women– The Wrap
Women In Film – let’s make that change

What does a movie producer actually do?

It’s awards season, which means that producer credits for the big movies of the year are coming under scrutiny.  These are always contentious, as the job title “producer” is a nebulous one.  An actor acts, a writer writes, a director directs – these are all active, specific verbs – but it’s often unclear what a producer does and how many are needed to get a film into theaters.  It can take twelve years (as with this season’s favourite, BLACK SWAN) to transform a movie from a script to a hit, and a lot of people need to take on producer duties en route, first developing the screenplay, putting together attachments, financing, and then overseeing physical production before finally shepherding the finished product in front of audiences.  The Producers Guild of America is very wary of studio bosses inserting their name into the credits (no one’s going to say no) at the last minute, and has strict criteria that must be met by those claiming the title producer.  They also only allow three people to share the honours, which, when it comes to giving out gold statuettes, often leaves some very disgruntled players sitting in the auditorium rather than bounding onstage, speech in hand.

The LA Times has the full story on this year’s diss: Ryan Kavanaugh.

LA Times

It’s Tough At The Bottom (of the Movie Industry)

In Hollywood, aspiring producers put in long months in the mail room, or fetching coffee, often for minimum or no wage, in order to get their foot on the bottom rung of a golden ladder reaching all the way to studio executive success. Now it seems that ladder has been pulled up, leaving all those eager college grads stuck in dead end, menial jobs. Read and reconsider moving to Tinseltown.

In Hollywood, a tougher climb to studio executive ranks – LA Times