Friday, May 4, 2007

Should Papers Whore for Hollywood?

by Michael Mechanic
Fri, May 4, 2007 at 4:54 PM

I know and respect many local MediaNews reporters, but I would hope that a few of them were cringing this past week. "Whoa!" I said aloud while looking through Thursday's Oakland Tribune over coffee (I actually said something slightly less family-friendly). I was reacting the front page of the Trib's Bay Area Living section, which had been transformed into a full-color Spider-Man 3 infographic, complete with the film's flashy fonts, art, and logos. Apart from the obvious question -- what does Tobey Maguire in a spider suit have to do with living in the Bay Area? -- it was, er, well, maybe just a tad promotional. I held up the page so that my wife, who used to cover City Hall for the Trib, could see. "Is it an ad?" she asked. Now, this isn't intended to dis' the creator, graphic artist Josh Rudnick of the Contra Costa Times -- the same page ran as the front page of Wednesday's Time Out section. It's actually really slick: The page includes a box called "The Story So Far," which recaps the first two films. There's also a breakdown of "Spidey's Powers," a primer on the Black Costume, and a description of each character with pictures of the actor across from the corresponding comic book version. The problem is that it amounts to no less than a free, noncritical promotion for a film that has gotten tepid reviews across the board.

The actual review, penned by Mercury News ... er, make that MediaNews film critic Bruce Newman, appeared on page 6 of the section (Newman gave it 2 1/2 out of four stars). He did not give a direct answer when asked via e-mail whether the promotional page bothered him. It is worth pointing out, however, that newspapers often overhype exactly the sort of blockbuster movie sequels that critics decry, and that all the free hype is a large part of what makes these franchises so profitable in the first place.

The San Francisco Chronicle was more circumspect in its handling of Spider-Man 3. Its review ran on the front page of Thursday's Datebook section -- the little-man icon the Chron uses to rate films was asleep in his chair -- accompanied by a prominent image of Spidey, but none of the promotional stuff. The headline, "Skin Deep," immediately suggested that the coverage would be critical.

Neither CoCo Times features editor Lisa Wrenn nor ANG features editor Kari Hulac were in the office Friday, but I did reach Ron Kitagawa, features editor for the Mercury News, which ran the same graphic as a two-page spread inside its weekly A&E tabloid. I asked whether he thought the treatment was appropriate.

Kitagawa has been occupied with redesigning his paper's business section and wasn't involved in this particular discussion, but he said he generally doesn't have a problem with such things. He noted that the Merc did something similar with the recent film 300, and plans to give the new Harry Potter film the royal treatment. "We're trying to give people information," he said, adding the caveat that these sorts of borderline promotions seldom cross into the news section. "There's always the argument of it being promotional."

But does it really serve readers to promote a bad film sequel? "These things are planned before we know if it's a good or bad movie," Kitagawa said. The decisions about which films to feature, he noted, take news value into consideration: "The thinking goes, it's of such buzz to the everyday person -- we do more on the ones with the big buzz."

Yet the editor went on to ponder aloud the chicken-egg irony: By hyping the films that editors expect to create a big buzz, media outlets are in fact creating that very buzz.

And Hollywood's marketing execs are smiling all the way to the bank.

... Monday postscript: "All the way to the bank" was right! The opening weekend of Spider-man 3 grossed a record $148 million.

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