Martini Shot

I enjoyed writer/producer Rob Long’s “Martini Shot,” a new weekly radio commentary on the Industry that airs on KCRW. One of his comments really struck home…

people in this business love their souped-up vocabulary: we “green-light” things, and dump things in “turnaround” and “negative pick-up” and “pitch” and make “pre-emptive strikes.” And we love our creative talk too. We like lots of “character journeys” and “story integrity” and “deeply humanistic values.” Our slang is so vivid and energetic that’s it’s hard to remember that these phrases are used mostly when people are alone in their cars. Although it comes up a lot in meetings, too. I remember a network executive telling me once that while she liked our script, she wanted to see if we could “platform our heroes sooner in the piece, so the audience could begin to celebrate with them earlier in their journey.” Okay. Sure. Not a problem. Just platform the…thing….with the….journey and the…stuff.

Recently, we got a note asking us to have a detective “unpack the clues more extensively.” Within days, we found ourselves also being alerted that “there were more emotions to unpack in this scene, now it is Bob’s to command rather than his to assist and we think that could be amped.”

The “Journalistic Integrity” of VARIETY, Part III

It just keeps getting better…

A week after Peter Bart wrote about how he would have protected Michael Ovitz from ruining himself if the ex-agent had given his interview to VARIETY instead of VANITY FAIR….the VARIETY editor writes today that:

After 15 years of editing Daily Variety, I will regrettably admit the following: I do not believe every word that’s published in my own newspaper.

Join the club, Pete.

He blames the problem, like Brian Lowry did few days ago, on people lying to his reporters. He forgets to mention his own questionable journalistic ethics, which he presumably imposes on his staff. Here’s a gem from the controversial Los Angeles Magazine story on him a while back..

BART HATES TO TAKE NOTES. “I don’t like to,” he says. “I just find when you take out a notebook, it just changes the atmosphere.” Nevertheless, in his column he frequently quotes conversations he has had with Hollywood figures. The quotes, which he also inserts in reporters’ stories, are nearly always unattributed. He often dictates them off the top of his head, which may explain why some of Variety’s anonymous sources sound a lot like Inventive Peter.

He may hate it when people lie to his reporters, but apparently he doesn’t mind lying to reporters himself, like this whopper he told the LA Magazine writer….

Consider what happened when we discussed the infamous Patriot Games incident of 1992, when Variety film critic Joe McBride wrote a blistering review of Paramount Pictures’ Tom Clancy adaptation. The studio, apoplectic over the review’s potential dampening of interest among overseas exhibitors, pulled its advertising from Variety. Bart got mad, but not at the studio. He decreed that McBride would no longer review Paramount films.
The New York Times wrote a story about the McBride dustup that said Variety staffers were aghast that their boss would curry favor with Paramount. The article quoted from a private apology that Bart had sent to Martin S. Davis, the studio’s then chairman and CEO. “Marty Davis and I have known each other for 25 years,” Bart told the Times. “I simply dropped him a friendly note.”

Nine years later, however, when I first ask Bart about the note, he insists it never existed. “I never wrote any,” he says, adding that he disliked Davis intensely, so “the idea that I would contact these people was bizarre.” How to explain the Times story, written by veteran reporter Bernard Weinraub? “It was a reminder to me about the nastiness of journalists toward each other,” Bart says, shaking his head.

A few weeks later I obtained a copy of the letter. Bart’s lie didn’t make sense. Had he forgotten that it was typed by his own secretary on Variety stationery?

Perhaps its embarrassing revelations like this that has inspired his policy of letting some interviewees change their quotes before publication (as he offered to do for Ovitz, as he admits in last weeks column)…

People who have worked with Bart say he would call his favorite sources–Guber, Ovitz, Weinstein, Evans, producer Arnon Milchan–and vet stories that mentioned them, letting them make adjustments. When confronted by the reporters whose bylines topped the altered stories, Bart would say he got better information after deadline. “This is my paper,” one remembers him saying. “I’ll do as I please.”

No wonder Peter Bart doesn’t believe what he reads in his own “newspaper.”

The “Journalistic Integrity” of VARIETY, Part II

On Tuesday, Variety editor/publisher Peter Bart wrote that Michael Ovitz made a fool of himself in his controversial interview with Vanity Fair… if Ovitz had talked to Variety instead, Bart would have made sure that Ovitz came off well. Bart’s column article explicitly stated what everyone already knows about Variety: that it won’t publish anything that might upset anyone with power in the Industry.

The very next day, in the same space that Bart revealed that the magazine had no journalistic integrity whatsoever, Brian Lowry had the gall to whine about how wrong it is for publicists and execs to lie to Variety reporters.

Leading the pack were the folks at Comcast and E!, who not only insisted for weeks that network prexyprexy Mindy Herman wasn’t going anywhere but were positively indignant that anyone would suggest otherwise — right until they announced her departure.

In similar fashion, Viacom president Mel Karmazin stated as recently as five weeks ago that he had no plans to leave the company — after endless gossip about his fractious relationship with chairman Sumner Redstone — before the rumor finally became reality Tuesday.

This casual relationship with truth — down to the Clinton-esque parsing of words like “is” — might sound like no big deal, especially when it comes to fending off pesky reporters. Yet I’d argue there is a potential price to be paid.

Why should anyone at Variety care? (For one thing, they never reported… as the LA Times did… about Mindy Herman’s questionable behavior at E!) Had Ovitz talked to Variety, would we have read a true account of what he said? No, because unlike Vanity Fair, Peter Bart would have sanitized what he said…for Ovitz’s own good. Did Bart care about the truth? Of course not. He cared about preserving his relationship with a powerful industry player. Why? Because the over-riding journalistic mission of Variety is to make sure the studios keep buying self-congratulatory ads in their publication.

That’s why you’ll never read anything even remotely approaching actual, roll-up-your-sleeves-and-dig-deep reporting in the pages of Variety.

More significantly, this comes when trust in the media and particularly the press has been rightfully shaken. Part of that stems from transgressions by reporters — the New York Times’ Jayson Blair, the New Republic’s Stephen Glass, USA Today’s Jack Kelly

Where’s Brian’s out-rage about Peter Bart’s admission that he would have protected Ovitz? About Bart offering Ovitz the opportunity to vet his quotes before publication?

Bart’s column certainly shook my trust in Variety, not that I had much to begin with.

Early in my reporting career, I remember asking a source about a rather unpleasant rumor that was making the rounds. “See, I’m never sure when I should lie to you,” he said, to which I responded: “That’s easy: Never — at least, if you want me to believe you ever again.”

All this brings to mind a favorite scene in “Excalibur,” where Merlin tells nasty King Uther why the world has caved in around him. “You betrayed the Duke, stole his wife and took his castle,” the wizard hisses. “Now no one trusts you.”

The same could be said about Variety.

Brian Lowry should read Peter Bart’s column … and then he might realize why its laughable for anybody at Variety to whine about not being told the truth.

Hens Are Supposed to Lay Eggs

From the San Diego Union Tribune

Zambian man commits suicide after sex with hen

7:52 a.m. May 28, 2004

LUSAKA – A 50-year-old Zambian man has hanged himself after his wife found him having sex with a hen, police said Friday.

The woman caught him in the act when she rushed into their house to investigate a noise.

“He attempted to kill her but she managed to escape,” a police spokesman said.

The man from the town of Chongwe, about 30 miles east of Lusaka, killed himself after being admonished by other villagers. The hen was butchered after the incident.

The “Journalistic Integrity” of VARIETY

In Daily Variety, editor Peter Bart talks about the disappearance of Michael Ovitz… as if anyone misses him. But the most interesting thing about the article is what it reveals about Variety’s editorial policy.

I argued that Variety would lend him the audience that he most wanted to reach, including, no doubt, some of the people he perceived as having brought down his company. Our paper would certainly not endorse Ovitz’s charges, but we could offer him a chance to vent. The decline and fall of Michael Ovitz, after all, was a damn good news story.

Understandably, he responded that Vanity Fair offered him a vastly wider audience. Over lunch at Ago one day, I decided to try one last tactic. “Look, Mike,” I said, “you’re out of control. You’re saying some wild things.”

“They’re all off the record,” he protested. “You and I have known each other a long time. I can speak freely…”

“If you say these things to Vanity Fair, they’ll kill you. If you want to do an interview in Variety, I will see to it that your direct quotes will be read back to you so you can verify their accuracy. You can’t, of course, read the article ahead of time.”

In other words, if Ovitz talked to Variety, they’d protect him, they’d make sure he wouldn’t say anything he’d regret later (how reading his quotes back to him is any different than reading him the article ahead of time is beyond me). The Ovitz-vetted article they would have written wouldn’t have been the scathing expose Vanity Fair wrote, it wouldn’t have truly depicted the “damn good news story” of Ovitz’s rise and fall. Bart would have seen to that…

A few days later I got word that he’d decided to talk to Vanity Fair. Predictably, the story contained all of the Ovitz “crazy talk” — the paranoid diatribes about the “Gay Mafia,” plus accusations against Eisner and against his lethal enemies (and former proteges) at CAA. “They wanted to kill me. If they could have taken my wife and kids, they would have…,” he ranted.

The net effect of all this was inevitable: Ovitz had punched all the self-destruct buttons it was possible to punch. He had instantly isolated himself from his Hollywood power base. He’d totally blown it.

In seeking out his story, was I trying to protect Ovitz from himself? I suppose so, on one level.

Gee, I wonder if Pete would do the same for me… or anybody else in The Industry who doesn’t have $100 million in his checking account. The editorial policy at Variety is clearly to kiss up to execs and stars and not say or do anything that could possibly offend or embarrass anyone in a position of power. Remember, Bart used to run a studio himself…and no Variety reporter wants to damage their chances to become a screenwriter or studio exec.

This is why nobody takes Variety seriously…and why the only real reporting about the Industry is done in the LA Times business section. There was a time when Variety was more than just a collection of press releases… when they did real reporting. But that time, sadly, seems to be long gone…

(If you want a clear example, just compare the stories the LA Times and Variety ran about Mindy Herman, the ex-CEO of E!)

Van Helsing Slays Itself

Long before VAN HELSING was even released, Universal was already treating it as if it was a boxoffice phenomenon, planning movie sequels and even an NBC TV series called TRANSYLVANIA.

Then the movie was released.

Here’s the thing about exploiting a big hit movie… it needs to be a big hit movie first. It also helps if the movie is good.

Now Variety is reporting that the ambitious plans for the VAN HELSING-inspired TV series have been scrapped.

“Transylvania” may live– but don’t look for it at NBC.
Nine months ago, the Peacock pacted with Universal Network Television for “Transylvania,” a drama set in the universe of Universal Pictures’ “Van Helsing” and exec produced by Stephen Sommers. Hopes were high that a pilot would be in this month’s upfront lineup and that the nascent series could benefit from a summer’s worth of movie promos.

It turns out, however, that NBC quietly cooled on “Transylvania” just a few months after the project was announced

Network execs claim the decision has nothing to do with the fact VAN HELSING was a boxoffice dud and a critical bomb (because, as we know, networks clamor to do TV series based flop movies.. THE NEW ADVENTURES OF GIGLI is going to be big at ABC, don’t you think?)

“The box office has no bearing whatsoever on our plans to move forward or not,” says NBCU entertainment prexy Jeff Zucker. “It’s a creative decision based on content and concept. We just want to make sure it has the right network home.”

“Transylvania” may still walk among us: Other networks outside the NBC U universe are said to be interested in the show.

We’ll keep our eyes open for it on PAX.

I Should Have Gone in the Furniture Business

My late grandfather always thought I was foolish to be a writer. The job market was too uncertain. Furniture, he said, was a safer bet. “Everybody has to sit,” he liked to say. According to an article in Variety about the current TV season, I probably should have listened to his advice. The networks are programming fewer comedies and more reality show…and scrapping the practice of airing primetime repeats (goodbye fat residuals!) on anything that doesn’t have CSI or LAW AND ORDER in the title…

For one thing, replacing repeats with original fare is going to add tens of millions to the nets’ programming budgets. But webheads figure they have no choice: If they don’t do something to stop audience erosion, they’ll ultimately lose far more due to declining ad revenue.

All of this comes as more bad news for TV’s beleaguered scribe tribe, particularly those who toil on sitcoms.

It’s become a cliche to bemoan the fall of the funny, but the numbers tell the story: For the upcoming, the nets have scheduled just 36 sitcoms — down nearly one-third from 50 last fall.

“Comedy is in a challenged state,” admits NBC Entertainment topper Kevin Reilly. “The best way to get comedy on the schedule right now is to keep it off in the short term.”

Combine that with a rise in reality skeins — as well as several new primetime improv laffers — and it’s a safe bet that agents all over town this week will be scrambling to find work for a slew of scribes. By one estimate, there’ll be 100 fewer staff positions available for sitcom writers.

The picture is a little rosier for drama writers… but not by much. Staffs are smaller, and more and more primetime real estate is owned by the same folks… (have I mentioned CSI and LAW AN ORDER?) who hired from within their own camps. The trend in drama is also to recruit the screenwriter of last summers big tentpole movie or cheapo horror film hit and give them a series… and pair the TV newbie with a wizened old timer (someone say in their early 40s) to help them run the show… and deal with the devastating realization there are actually 21 more episodes to write after the pilot.

I’m hedging my bets by writing books as well as TV shows…but books dont pay nearly as well as TV, unless you’re in the Connelly-Grisham-Grafton-Evanovich ballpark.

Maybe I should invest in a furniture store after all….

Branding and Franchises

CBS announced today that it is scheduling CSI: NEW YORK up against NBC’s LAW AND ORDER. I guess it was inevitable, with so much of each network’s schedule given over to branded franchises, that a CSI would go up against a L&O… which is launching a fourth L&O spin-off in January

There’s a lot of talk today about the CSIing of CBS and the LAW AND ORDERing of NBC. But Dick Wolf and Jerry Bruckheimer aren’t the first to discover branding…nor is it the first time networks given huge chunks of their schedules to one franchise… though they weren’t called franchises back then, simply “spin-offs.”

During the 1976-77 season, CBS had MTM’s MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, PHYLLIS and RHODA….all spin-offs from one show… as well as Norman Lear’s ALL IN THE FAMILY, MAUDE, THE JEFFERSONS, and GOOD TIMES, all spin-offs from one show. (Beyond that, CBS had other shows from the same producers. ALLS FAIR and ONE DAY AT A TIME from Norman Lear, BOB NEWHART from MTM). Two seasons later, ABC had Garry Marshall’s HAPPY DAYS, LAVERNE AND SHIRLEY, MORK AND MINDY and JOANNIE LOVES CHACHI, all spun-off from one show…

The new wrinkle . and Dick Wolf’s brilliant innovation, is tagging on the name of the “birth show” to the spin-off (ie “ALL IN THE FAMILY: THE JEFFERSONS) and using reworkings of the same theme music and main title graphics on each show.

Then again, it’s not so new… Paramount was doing it in syndication with STAR TREK… and STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION, STAR TREK DEEP SPACE NINE, STAR TREK VOYAGER and now, STAR TREK ENTERPRISE.

Born Free

Tomorrow morning, I get the cast off my right arm…two weeks after the cast on my left came off. I’m looking forward to typing with both hands again…though I’m not so sure yet what else I will be able to do with my titanium-rebuilt right arm…and may not find out for some time. But I’m going to be a writing demon over the next few weeks no matter what…rushing to meet the July 1 deadline on DM #4 and the script deadlines on MISSING. And, of course, taking time off to rant and whine here!

Joys of Pitching III

I went into a meeting with a major TV producer with an over-all series deal at a big studio. He brought his nine-year-old daughter into the meeting. I was midway through the pitch when the producer got a phone call.

“I’m gonna take this outside,” he said, heading for the door, “but please keep going.”

And he left me alone with his daughter.”Go on,” she said, her pencil poised on a notepad, “I’m listening.”