Bill Doskoch: Media, BPS*, Film, Minutiae

Curated knowledge, trenchant insights & witty bon mots

Leaving the movie beat: A curious memoir

After reading this, I thought to myself: 'This Weinraub fellow is quite the naive guy in some ways. And he's covering Hollywood?!?!' :)

Read the excerpt from this NYT story and see what I mean:

I CAME to Hollywood in 1991 thinking I knew quite a lot about the world and its ways. As a young reporter, I had been to Vietnam. Later, I covered Northern Ireland, several political campaigns and the White House under President Ronald Reagan and the elder President George Bush. On arriving, I was fresh from a sudden assignment in India after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. But only in my 14 years here – most of it spent covering the movie industry, the rest covering television and music – did I come face to face with some of the more startling, and not always pleasant, truths about human behavior, my own included.

On retiring (officially, this is my final week at The Times), it seems best to sort through this Hollywood tour. It began in a string of modest, even shabby, apartments – one of them, on Martel Avenue in West Hollywood, best remembered for the cluster of police cars, drug dealers and prostitutes on the corner. Along the way I married a studio chief, Amy Pascal, now chairwoman of Sony Pictures. For both of us, the liaison opened a rare two-way window on the inner workings of two worlds, moviedom and the press, that have long been locked in a messy but symbiotic struggle. But our marriage also changed the game. I won't speak for my wife and her own way of coping with career complications born of an alliance with a reporter, but I can say that our wedding, in August 1997, brought to the fore some of my own shortcomings. Clearly, I stayed too long on my beat, clinging to a notion that I could sidestep conflicts of interest by avoiding direct coverage of Sony, and learning too late why wiser heads counsel against even the appearance of conflict. But my marriage, and some of the events that tumbled out of it, also taught me something about the ferocity of a culture in which the players can be best friends one day and savage you the next.

When I finally asked to be taken off the movie beat in 2000, I laughed and said I felt like the Duke of Windsor. But I quickly caught a lesson in how chilly life as a former movie correspondent could be. In the past, I'd written about Jeffrey Katzenberg, then president of the Walt Disney Company. He returned every call quickly and often phoned me; he dished over pasta at Locanda Veneta about all the studios in town and became such a pal that I once showed him off-the-record comments made about him by Michael Eisner. That was wrong and foolish, and years later I still regret it. As soon as I stopped covering movies, Mr. Katzenberg stopped responding to phone calls. I was surprised but shouldn't have been.

Damned right you shouldn't have been.

It would appear to me that at a certain level in society, some valued social mores like honesty and decency become distinct liabilities.

As the NYT's movie industry reporter, it was in Katzenberg's interests to appear pal-like to him. When Weinraub was no longer in a position to mould public perceptions of Katzenberger, why keep up the pretense. There's a new film reporter to schmooze!

I found this to be an interesting anecdote about the phenomenon:

Mr. (Michael) Ovitz went a step or two further. Shortly after I arrived in Hollywood and met him, when he was at his zenith as chairman of the Creative Artists Agency, he offered to help if my children needed to attend private school or if I needed to find a hospital. I never took him up on the offers. 

This was another telling one:

MY first day here, as I recall it, was in early September 1991. Having just come back from India, I was struck almost immediately by the prevalence of money, and the crazy economic gap between journalists and the people they covered. It was like dropping into Marie Antoinette's France. In Washington, reporters often lived next door to the people they covered. Whatever the income gap between a reporter and a lawyer or lobbyist – and it's considerable – your lives intersected. In the neighborhood. On the subway. At private schools. At parties.

Journalists in Washington do not feel diminished by their lower salaries. In Hollywood, many do. I did. Waiting for a valet at the Bel-Air Hotel to bring my company-leased Ford, I once stood beside a journalist turned producer who said, “I used to drive a car like that.” Though I'm ashamed to say it, I was soon hunting for parking spots near Orso or the Peninsula Hotel to avoid the discomfort of having a valet drive up my leased two-year-old Buick in front of some luncheon companion with a Mercedes.

For many of us on the press side, the money gap leads to resentment and envy, compounded by a conviction that studio executives and producers are no better or smarter than the journalists who cover them.

He talked about the problems his marriage created for his work; namely that any hard-hitting story on any rival exec would send said exec snivelling to the paper's editors talking about conflict of interest.

His encounters with Julia Phillips — one-time producer and author of You'll Never Eat Lunch In This Town Again, a book that made her a pariah — closes out the piece:

“Understand, I wasn't a pariah because I was a drug-addicted, alcoholic, rotten person and not a good mother,” she said. “I was a pariah because I lit them with a harsh fluorescent light and rendered them as contemptible as they really are.”

Ms. Phillips died of cancer in the early days of 2002. I went to her funeral service on the rooftop of her apartment building and thought of what she said while dying. Was it an overstatement? I wonder. I'm part of the Hollywood world now. I can't deny it. I drive a Range Rover. I live in Brentwood. Not everyone is contemptible. Perhaps Julia Phillips was wrong. I hope she is.

Office politics are something I find both revulsive in one sense yet fascinating at the same time.

Discussing the topic once over lunch with a buddy, he offered the opinion that one should play the game — merely for survival's sake; and keep in mind we're talking about the game at a much, much lower level than Hollywood — while maintaining a psychological separation from it.

My response was: What if you play it so well that at some point, you metamorphose into something you once loathed?

He had no answer.

As I write this tonight, my answer is: Shrug and enjoy the Range Rover! :)

Mon, January 31 2005 » Main Page