Being Paid to Watch Movies: The Dream Job?

Seth Rogen and James Franco in The Interview

Anyone who knows me or has read my blog will know that I am a devout cinephile. I adore films and all the creativity and magic that goes into making them. So while I worked as the Entertainment Deputy Managing Editor I was, essentially, paid to watch new movies and then to write what I thought of them. The dream job?

Pretty damn close…

Except…

There were a huge amount of “non press only” screenings where the critics and reviewers had to share the cinema with the “general” public.

Except…

General public was not really the correct term for the “people” who attended these early screenings. Speaking to the studio reps who ran these events, along with the local radio “personalities” and online film clubs, et al, there was a core group of folks who attended as many of these “free” shows as humanly possible.

This was a problem. You would think that getting to see films for free, some of which were not due for release for weeks, would be a great deal all on its own.

Wrong!

There were little groups, or subsets of cinema goers who felt “entitled.” Let me explain.

In the screenings, the studio reps and the folks who helped to set up the non press only screenings, certain rows of seats were cordoned off for the press and VIPs. Generally anywhere from one to four rows would be reserved. When I first arrived in Vegas, it had become standard practice for any press or VIP seats still vacant before the feature started to get filled by the general public.

This became a real problem where certain members of the public would hover around the empty seats and if one were, for example, being saved for a press member who had gone to the toilet (yes we do use the restroom) there could be scuffles. In one instance a journalist was punched by a member of the public.

That particular incident resulted in the rules changing. There were still people who, despite getting a film for free mind you, felt entitled to sit in the “good seats.” Their perception was that these seats must be better as they were reserved. Not so. They were just a few rows set aside without consideration as to viewing or position. Full stop.

It seems that Vegas was the exception and not the rule. Studio reps from Phoenix were amazed that the cinemas in Nevada had this problem. But then, Arizona reps had never opened up the press seats to the general public. Their viewpoint was that Mr and Mrs Public with their kids and neighbors were already getting a free film so “Shut up and sit down.”

The other “problem” in Las Vegas was that the huge amount of disabled viewers who got their free films, would argue over where they were going to sit. Despite the fact that there were places set up specially for them, they would complain and get quite angry if they had to sit in their motorized carts. Rather than take it up with the cinema owners, who are responsible for the amount of disabled seats, they would rip into the reps.

I learned quickly to despise the screenings that were not just for the press. In the beginning I did not mind the presence of “civilians” with attitude. Then they became intrusive, annoying, loud, talkative and were not even watching the film. At one point in a rather serious film, the fat couple behind me and another reviewer would not stop talking, loudly, throughout the entire film.

Finally I could take it no longer and turned around. “Do you mind?” “No,” the fat man retorted. I looked him in the eye. “Oh really?” He looked away and thankfully he and his wife shut the hell up. Afterward the studio rep told me off and said you should have told me, they would have been removed. I thanked her and said the next time I would.

What is amazing about the whole thing is that with cinema prices that go through the roof why not enjoy your free film? Why go there to talk to your wife, husband, girlfriend, boyfriend, neighbor, et al. You are there to watch a MOVIE.

Even worse was that these “entitled” idiots would fight to sit with the press, and once they got their way, they would would invariably make so much noise that you could not hear the film. Or constantly text their mates or keep getting up and down to look for folks they knew so they could brag about their great seat.

I remember explaining to one mentally challenged individual, he must have been as no one can be that stupid…can they? That most of us were paid to be there, it was our job. He sneered, “It must pay good.” One local critic sniffed and replied, “If you call $10 per article good, then yes!”

The whole thing had a Catch-22 feel to it. On the one hand, having a “real” audience in the cinema was, in a lot of ways, preferred. You could gage how well the film went over with the masses. This was especially important at “kids” films. It was easy to see which studios got it right. There were no, “Mummy I need to wee, I’m hungry, I’m thirsty.” You were also hard pressed to hear parents saying, “Sit down, five more minutes, let’s go out for a minute.”

Other times, the audience were an intrusion full stop. At one film, which was supposed to be a drama, a man and his family sat and laughed uproariously throughout. In that particular instance, I did complain to the rep and was told, “Sorry, he’s a regular and somewhat special.”

The one drawback to “press only” viewings was that your colleagues in the cinema, which was deserted except for the few of us who could make it, were mostly a jaded bunch. If the film was comedic in nature it was rare to hear anyone laugh. I suppose I broke all the rules and would, if it warranted it, really react to the film.

If it was funny I laughed. Sad, I cried (Yes, I cry at movies, silly old sop!) and if the film was really special and required a myriad of emotions, I provided all the reactions necessary. As I said, I love films. Even the “bad” ones.

Very few of my reviews were negative. I alway try to point out the positive things in movies although there are exceptions to this, I do try. My good friend Jacob Tiranno, and fellow member of the Nevada Film Critic’s Society, (and my “movie buddy”) liked the fact that I tried to see the best of the productions and would not slam a film that tried but did not deliver.

On the subject of Jacob, he does a podcast, on iTunes and on YouTube, head on over and give him a listen. I’ve done a few with him and he has a great show. Tell him I sent you. Also, stop by and check out the Nevada Film Critic’s Society a great site where a number of folks give their view of films on offer.

So in essence, being paid to watch movies was the dream job. Despite the intrusive audience. Although to be fair, there were a few folks who were great finds. A young and gorgeous civil rights lawyer was so nice I found myself wishing I were years younger…and taller. There were others, people who were cinephiles, or the next best thing to, and could intelligently talk about what they had just seen.

Like the interaction with the celebs I miss the free movies (Who would not?) and hopefully I’ll soon have a set of wheels that can get me to some Arizona cinemas as the reps still email me with offers of viewings. Until then I’ll watch my DVD collection and dream of that perfect job.
4 March 2015

J K Simmons Best Supporting Actor…Really?

J K Simmons publicity shot

It is trending right now on Facebook, “J K Simmons wins Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Whiplash.” Really? I watched that film, loved it, and when that time came around for all the critics to vote, I chose Simmons for the Best Actor award. A long discussion ensued where I explained my rationale for picking that category and initially the head of the Nevada Film Critic’s Society let me keep old J K there for the gong of BA instead of BSA.

My reasoning for popping his portrayal of Fletcher, the cruel, manipulative and driven music instructor for the top gong was simple. Without this manic and over-the-top sadist there would have been no film. In my mind, supporting actors are ones whose character’s may be quite important to the plot, but, if their roles end up on the cutting room floor, the film will still progress quite nicely, thank you very much.

With no Simmons, aka Fletcher, there was no film. Miles Teller as Andrew, may have been the studio’s choice to win Best Actor, but again, without Fletcher, the wanna-be drummer had no one to respond to.  It is obvious that the studio wanted both its actors to get a gong so Simmons was pushed into the lesser category. However, the instructor was the driving force here, not the socially inept boy who practices till his hands bleed.

I do believe that J K Simmons really deserves  the Best Actor gong for his performance in Whiplash. Best Supporting Actor does not really fit what he did with that role. Sitting in the cinema and watching the film, every single time the man showed up on screen my blood pressure rose and my heartbeat doubled.

His Fletcher was so overwhelming and brutal that he reached out into the audience and intimidated me. Even in the safety of my own seat, surrounded by other reviewers whom I count as friends, Simmons make me so uncomfortable that I was tempted to watch scenes with slightly averted eyes, through fingers.

In the film, both individuals are equally driven. Both want perfection and the two will do what ever it takes to achieve their goal. By the end of the film, I was exhausted and so tense that a cramp shot through my right leg. And as the final credits rolled, we all looked at one another in awe.

This film, with no real violence, no romance (to speak of) and no sex, had held us spellbound for the entire length of the movie. Despite the fact that neither of the two main protagonists were likable and hard to connect with, I cared what happened to both of them.

In the last scene of the film, and there is a twist oh yes, my mouth dropped open in amazement. I will not say why, but suffice to say, it was magic. Subtle and simple and marvelous. J K Simmons should have gotten the Best Actor for Whiplash and not Best Supporting Actor because in my mind he really sold the film and his character. I do know that I was not the only critic who believed that the man should have been placed in the higher category, but despite my disappointment at his “demotion” I will still say congratulations matey! You earned it.

22 February 2015

Sock Puppets…Trolls With a Hand Up Their Butt?

Photo courtesy of Read it again, Mom at blogspot.com

While I was writing my latest book review, Fair Game by Stephen Leather I was cruising the net for images to put on my article. I came across a picture of Stephen that stated that he liked sock puppets. I glanced at the image and chuckled. I then found an image I liked and moved on.

I then moved off the Google page of images and the engine coughed up an article about the practise of Sock Puppetry. I was curious about this “new” thing that was going on in the world of literature.

Essentially, sock puppets is another term for trolling. Okay, the article did not call it that, nor did the other multitude of  articles dealing with this practise. The explanation of sock puppetry is as follows:

” pseudonymous handles to post positive Amazon reviews of [sic] an author’s own books and one-star reviews of others.” *courtesy of the LA Times* Basically, “certain” authors are giving their published works 5 star reviews on Amazon (and presumably sites like Goodreads) and slating the competition.

It certainly sounds like trolling to me. Slating something someone else has done (usually on YouTube) and hiding behind a fake identity. The main difference of course is it that the sock puppet version of trolling is being done by someone with a vested interest is “cutting back” the competition.

Whether we like it or not, writing is a business. One that has become increasingly reliant on author participation directly related to sales. New authors (and even “established” ones) are having to resort to touting their wares beyond the “old-fashioned” route of book signings and interviews on  local and national media stations.

New authors are having to go the ‘self publishing’ route or are striving to make a name for themselves in the ever-increasing tide of eBooks that are the “bread and butter” of the kindle world. The old-fashioned publishing world exists, of course it does, with its huge slush pile of rejected manuscripts and agents on the look out for a “new” published author.

Cover of "Kindle Wireless Reading Device,...
Cover via Amazon

As the eBook industry  is gearing up, book reviews in newspapers and magazines are getting sparse. You can still find them of course, Reader’s Digest still has a monthly one, but, these are mostly for established writers well-known to the reading public. New authors do get a mention, sometimes.

So you are a writer and you’ve finished your book and , dammit, it’s good. You’ve got a ton of reject slips telling you so, it’s just that it’s not what the publisher needs right now. So you go the eBook route and self publish. It’s done more than you would think.

Now your book is published and out there for the world to read. It is unfortunately under-priced and the revenue coming in isn’t enough to buy a pint of bitter down the local pub. It needs some attention and a lot more positive notices so that readers want to try it out.

Now the under-pricing is impacting the sales of books in that they are driving the value of books down. As a consumer I applaud this, as a writer I am appalled. How can you make a living out of selling books that go for 99 pence a copy? I might have to work at MacDonald’s while I write in my spare time for the rest of my life.

But price matters aside (we won’t mention the “free” books) how do you drive readers to your works apart from relying on the medium that is selling your book?

Reviews.

Amazon has a section for reviews and has had for a long time. This system, set up for readers to say what they thought of their reading experience has always been open to “fake” reviews. It is part and parcel of a business that relies on “written word of mouth” to sell your stories.

The Pulitzer Prize gold medal award 한국어: 퓰리처상 ...
The Pulitzer Prize gold medal award 한국어: 퓰리처상 공공 보도 부문 상인 금메달 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Pulitzer Prize winner Edna Buchanan wrote in one of her autobiographical books that when she worked on a small newspaper in Florida she and a co-worker wrote “fake” inflammatory letters to the editor to get a reaction and drive their readership up. On a lesser note, editors use to also write to their own Playboy magazine with “sexual exploit” letters for a similar reason.

So  could we accuse the award-winning Ms Buchanan of early sock puppetry? I don’t think so. Because no matter how we go about it, business is business. Sure it’s not the same as the old saying, ” In love and war…” There are laws and apart from a lot of authors all squealing because they got a poor review on Amazon from a fictitious fan, trolling is not illegal.

Unethical? Probably. Maybe.

Either way, it is the way business is being done in an environment that requires so much more author input into the sales of their books.

On a final note, who really pays attention to book reviews? I read them (always have) but most are written by book critics who have their own agendas. Just like internet sites like IGN  and  G4 are thinly disguised marketing tools, so are book critics. I do pay a bit of attention to fan reviews but they are opinion based and not a hard and fast picture of how good a book really is.

I can sympathise with the aggrieved authors who feel (quite rightly, I suppose) that they are being unfairly picked on, but…

I know that at least one author who has clawed his way up through electronic publishing to become a successful “traditionally” published writer has bucket loads of talent and writes one helluva good book. I think that if you are on the other side of the fence and are trying to become successful in your field you will do whatever you have to.

Success isn’t just a state of mind, it’s having the dedication to take advantage of any legal doors open to you.  This war is going to go on for sometime to come. Just because a few authors have been caught with their fingers caught in the proverbial cookie jar doesn’t mean that the practise will stop.

Oops.