The Entertainment Journalist Paradox
Here is the fundamental conflict in being an entertainment journalist:
You can have honesty.
You can have access.
But you can’t have both.
Or, rather, you can try, but it’s a constant battle of picking your spots to speak out vs. kiss ass. It’s a constant, adversarial, passive-aggressive relationship you’re in with your subjects (and their publicists), and frankly it’s exhausting. And there’s no way to escape it without compromising your integrity.
I started the magazine that became Film Score Monthly when I was 16. This is before the Internet was anything like we know it. (All our print backissues are online, for free.)
In the 1980s, everything I learned about moviemaking came from Starlog, Cinefantastique, and some making-of books. They were rare, hard to find, and thus treasured far more than any young person today can appreciate. (Here is an online archive of Starlog issues.)
When Starlog started in the late 1970s, it wasn’t exactly tough, but it was certainly tougher than it became. By the late 1980s, it had degraded into mostly puff pieces—warmed-over press releases—about whatever the studios were releasing. When Star Trek V is heralded as the latest super-awesome blockbuster, you know something’s fishy. The lead times of the magazines meant that we’d be getting “Star Trek V is great” articles well past the point where we all had the misfortune of watching it.
Cinefantastique (archive here), on the other hand, was notorious for the founder, Fred Clarke, being a rogue outsider who would publish scathing reviews and reveal movie secrets with no regard for his studio relationships. So it was much cooler, but the fact that Fred had peculiar axes to grind made it a little untrustworthy.
A few years ago, I went to a panel discussion at Taylor White’s old Creature Features store where some of Fred’s writers reminisced about their time working for CFQ. There was a lot of joy, at first, in celebrating the rebellious spirit of Fred and his magazine—but by the end I remember everybody just feeling sad and worn out, and lamenting Fred’s eccentric, confrontational ways. (Fred suffered from depression and tragically killed himself in 2000.)
I wrote music articles for Cinefantastique’s annual Star Trek: The Next Generation wrap-ups by Mark Altman—my first professional writing work—which is a story I’ll tell some other time. It was a great thrill! I used to buy CFQ at the old Bunch of Grapes in Vineyard Haven—their magazine room was to the right of the stairs, in back. (I have so many fond memories of that store, I feel like I can still close my eyes and smell the paper. One time I was blocked from the sci-fi novel aisle because Carly Simon and Jackie O. were autographing their children’s book—argh! The original store was badly damaged by a fire in 2008; they reopened but have twice moved and downsized in this Amazon era.) Finding a new issue of CFQ on the shelf was like YESSSS! It was a gateway into a fabulous universe of imagination and creativity. And then, to open the new issue and see my own name in print on my little Star Trek music sidebars was like—WHOAAAAAA!!!
Film Score Monthly started modestly around that time, with no real plan except to try to give soundtrack collectors the kind of information I wanted myself—and to do it on a more frequent basis than the quarterly journals being published out of Europe.
At first, publishing FSM was like being a tiny peon in the middle of nowhere, commenting upon the works and movements of the Greek Gods. The last thing that would have ever occurred to me would be that the Gods themselves would take notice of our silly little opinions.
Eventually, they did take notice—I was introduced to various people (composers, record producers, music engineers) who were mostly charmed by this kid who had taken his devotion to this level. At first, the idea of gaining access to the Gods themselves was like the most exciting thing ever. (Fortunately, being a teenager let me survive being preposterously entitled and immature. Truly, my apologies to many folks, still around, who encountered me at my worst. I will be forever embarrassed!)
All I ever wanted to do—and this is still the case, actually—was talk about things I loved with people who shared the same passion.
And, more than that, figure out why things were good. Which meant also, for the sake of comparison, discussing why some things were bad.
To suddenly get access to the actual creators of those works—to talk to them directly and get to ask why they made things the way they did—holy crap! Like visiting Mount Olympus!
What could go wrong?
First, it became immediately clear—as in, it was patiently explained by insiders to us dumb yokels—that our interests and artistic priorities as fans were not shared by the composers who were dealing with all kinds of mass-market and business pressures.
At first, this was fascinating. We got massive, rapid education in what we really wanted to know: Why were things made the way they were made?
As long as our opinions were in alignment with our interview subjects in bitch sessions about their “adversaries” (temp tracks, pop songs, dumb directors, studios), everything was fine. Some of the old guard we worshipped, like Elmer Bernstein, could do a half-hour set on these grievances at the drop of a hat.
But problems emerged...and it became clear, to me anyway, that these problems would only get worse.
While most professionals thought our magazine was endearing and entertaining, a few didn’t care for it—most notably Jerry Goldsmith, who was like Zeus himself.
Unfortunately, in the 1990s, Goldsmith was also a Zeus who was writing scores that we thought were too simple and sweet, and we said as much. And he didn’t have the personality to say, “Who cares what a bunch of fans think” (which seemed to be, rightfully, the positions of most professionals)—but became actually upset by our fannish insistence that he really should have instead written Capricorn One again and again, instead of saccharine scores like Powder.
The conflict became acute when certain people would push back on us—both in private and sometimes in an interview (as Hans Zimmer did, nearly killing us with his second-hand cigarette smoke in the process—Hans has since quit!).
They had every right to do this, of course. How could we critique a score on a CD when it wasn’t written to be heard on a CD, but in context of the movie?
And how could we review things with the angle of “we liked how things sounded in 1978” when it was now 1998 and tastes were different, pop music was different, and the composer was trying to serve a movie and have an ongoing career, not flatter a bunch of film score nerds?
What started as an attempt to understand, enjoy and discuss something we loved became saddled by our own commercial pressures, to boot: We had to keep giving OUR audience things they wanted to read, and respect their opinions and tastes—they were paying our way.
On the other hand, we also had to acknowledge the composers’ feelings and perspectives, OR ELSE WE WOULD LOSE ACCESS TO THEM—and that, too, would hurt our bottom line. Not to mention our overinflated egos.
And there’s the conflict—what is more important? Being honest, or maintaining access? That the composers were also employing a handful of very tenacious boutique publicists was another complication. Ronni Chasen was tragically murdered in 2010, and she was a much beloved figure in this field—but being on the receiving end of her pitches aged me 20 years.
One thing that happened—which I always hated—was that composers got divided into “friends” and “targets.” It was groupthink, pure and simple: “This composer doesn’t talk to us, so we’ll make fun of him. But this other composer does talk to us, so everything he does is brilliant.”
For what it’s worth, I found it to be a subconscious bias more than an overt statement of editorial intent. But it was very real—and continues to be, truthfully. People naturally gravitate towards elevating underdogs, and enjoy taking “overdogs” down a peg.
I graduated college in May 1996 and moved to L.A. in October 1996 to publish Film Score Monthly as a full-time business. What initially seemed like Shangri-La quickly became just a place to live—and all of the scoring sessions, award shows and social occasions that I dreamed about regularly attending as some sort of honored nerd guest became, instead, tiresome, repetitive affairs that I preferred to avoid.
I hated sitting on a couch at Sony watching a scoring session to a movie I knew was a piece of garbage, while the director is there, who I thought was a hack, and the composer, who I also thought was a hack, and try to just pretend I loved everything. There were definitely a lot of interesting experiences, and I am grateful for the invitations—I will always treasure seeing John Barry conduct one of his last scores (he looked like Mr. Burns, seeing the outline of his skinny arms through his white sleeves)—I just became uncomfortable.
Every time a film came out, or a CD came in, I had to weigh two things: What did I really think of it? And if I say what I really think, what will the blowback be?
I don’t care to chronicle all the instances of blowback—there weren’t many, but a few did happen, and they sucked, like composers running away from me or scolding me at black-tie events. It made me think, I don’t need this.
At the same time, my actual opinion of most contemporary films and scores became more and more critical, which was not helped by some of the people with whom I was hanging out. One of them was the late Nick Redman—I am not writing this blog to get the last word on those who have passed, but I don’t think I’m speaking out of school to say that Nick had very strong opinions, likes and dislikes, and was very vocal about them. To him, Sam Peckinpah was a genius, while Tim Burton was a fraud.
It became quite overwhelming, and disenchanting. I had always been attracted to writing and journalism for the ideal of speaking the truth. But I became pretty quickly disillusioned that the truth was something that was only to be shared in private.
And, in due course, I found, thanks to groupthink, it was hard even to have honest conversations in private. (Trying to tell Nick Redman his opinion was, perhaps, not fully informed was not a pleasant experience!)
So what the heck was the point of publishing a magazine?
Ultimately, the “problem,” to the extent it was a problem, was solved by my starting the FSM CD line and throwing myself almost exclusively into those projects.
And I essentially resigned from the idea of being a journalist who could meaningfully speak truth to power. Which was, in film music—what exactly? Saying that the score to GoldenEye sucked? Is this really a priority in life?
Perhaps I’m writing about this today because it’s come back up in this blog, as I attempt to speak truthfully of my experiences while not offending people from my past…or, more importantly, my future.
More to come! But for now, this is where I’ll leave off.