Sunday, July 1, 2007

House of Mouse acknowledges members of press with overt display of suspicion

The fumes from the remnants of Jack Valenti remain a stirring force in the Hollywood of new, at least if the actions on part of Walt Disney Studios are anything to go by. Three weeks before their “Ratatouille” founds its way onto movie screens, members of the press here in the Pacific Northwest were treated to dangling carrots when the studio invited them to a super-early private screening of the CGI-animated project, perhaps because early reactions might be seen as useful at a time when so much uncertainty rests on the creative heels of their takeover of Pixar Animation (and because this is the first release under that new ownership, the stakes are particularly high as of the present). Would their direct input change the course of the medium’s future? Would the movie meet, or perhaps even exceed, the expectations of a group of people that is not exactly unfamiliar with the tug-of-war that has gone on between both the Mouse House and the CGI connoisseurs for the past several years?

Any and all concerns over quality were quickly sidelined on many of our parts at the particular screening I attended, solely because of a studio tactic that, from every angle, represents the most tactless and backhanded approach to media promotion I have ever experienced as a member of the press. The dozen or so journalists who took time out of a busy Tuesday afternoon to attend this particular showing were involuntarily forced to leave behind not just signatures and proof of press affiliation with the studio representative, but also Driver’s License numbers. Those who avoid confrontation, such as myself, held the mighty tongue on the incident and simply complied, while others more brazen, such as Shawn Levy of the Oregonian, scrawled random numbers in the allotted space as an act of protest against a studio still adhering to the tired rhetoric of a dead business man who was convinced that mere movie critics were responsible for the bulk of the piracy at the movies.

Suffice it to say, the only pirates here are the ones being shown on a digital projector down the hall.

The philosophy of old is one for the cinema hall of shame; for years as both the head of the Motion Picture Association of America and as an outspoken advocate of maintaining traditional Hollywood standard, Jack Valenti spearheaded a movement that demoralized the very experience of going to the movies. Hiding behind patterns of double-speak and narrow idealism made it possible for him to not just make broad accusations, but also point fingers. To him, the moviegoer always had the ulterior motive of someone with an agenda; to those who knelt themselves at his knees, everyone was suspect, everyone was criminal, everyone was untrustworthy, no exceptions. But he and his cronies rejected entirely a more logical and fact-based approach to combating an ever-growing piracy issue: the notion that at least 90 percent of all pirated versions of theatrical releases are and were leaked by those working on the cutting room floor during the actual editing process, not by those who spent money to go see them after the fact.

Why all the suspicion, then, on the guys and gals that revolve an entire side of life to critiquing and exploring the current state of the cinema and its various products? Perhaps Valenti assumed that his inane declarations of pirates living among us might have seen less of an opposition if his targets were more specific than just the general audiences who pay to see movies. Too bad for him – in the fall of 2003, after forcing major studios to set in place an outright ban of screening copies of big awards contenders for various press groups and critics, his mission was met with a powerful opposition. Press groups cancelled their entire awards ceremonies. Others participated in conference calls meant to get reaction from the decision, resulting in feedback that is the professional equivalent of ripping someone a second rectum. In the end, certain studio bans were lifted, but significant damage had been dealt to those on both sides of the issue. Movies that were not playing for those who lived in isolated areas were never seen in time for awards voting, and independent filmmakers lost out in the chance to get their obscure, sometimes brilliant, endeavors seen by a larger group of movie lovers.

In a room crowded with people anxious to absorb images and ideas, we are among friends, among colleagues, among those who are there to escape and be one with what a moviemaker wants us to see. Few, if any, of us, are there just because we have the ulterior motive of taking someone’s art and exploiting it on the cinematic black market. We know that, you know that, the MPAA knows that… and most importantly, Jack Valenti knew that. The dilemma of the present is that Hollywood has accepted his sensationalized assertions as absolute fact, with no room for challenge or debate. As such, moviegoers will continue to be subject to random searches and warnings about “recording devices” in a movie theater, and those of us in the press are going to be continually distrusted by studios that are in utter hysterics over the prospect of someone being able to download their movie off of a web site during its theatrical run.

The movie “Ratatouille,” which is playing in theaters as this is being written, is a charming and colorful little film about a rat that makes a bold attempt to do something significant and enriching with his life, to be looked at as more than just a disease-ridden rodent on the streets of a busy city. His quandary is not that dissimilar from ours, it turns out. In both cases, the attempt to survive and enjoy life would be so much easier if the big guys didn’t always just assume we were out to pilfer away their property.

Written by DAVID KEYES

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