The New York Times May 13, 2001
MOVIE PRESS JUNKETS: WHERE A NOSE FOR NEWS MAY BE OUT OFJOINT
By Dana Kennedy
NEW YORK – By the standards of movie press junkets, my five-minute interview for MSNBC with the actor Paul Hogan, star of ''Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles,'' was going splendidly. I was in a room with the amiable Mr. Hogan at an elegant hotel in Midtown Manhattan last month, just before his movie was to open, and I had plenty of company.
Besides Mr. Hogan, who sat facing me, there were two television camera operators, a publicist, and a woman with a stopwatch just out of camera range who signaled me at one-minute intervals to indicate how much time I had left. Nearby, several tape editors watched on closed-circuit television.
After three minutes of questions about why Mr. Hogan had brought back the Dundee franchise after a 13-year hiatus, I moved in for the kill -- or what passes for a kill on a junket. I asked him about the Australian man on whom the character Crocodile Dundee was said to be based.
A chill came over the room. ''What man?'' asked Mr. Hogan, 61, who was no longer smiling. ''Rod Ansell,'' I said, without mentioning a recent article in GQ about Ansell, who became a folk hero in Australia in 1977 after surviving two months stranded in the Outback. The article, and others, claim that Mr. Hogan based Crocodile Dundee on Ansell, but the actor has repeatedly denied it. Ansell died in a gun battle with the police in 1999 after a downward spiral that began, according to news accounts, with his bitterness over not profiting from the movies that he and others believe he inspired.
Mr. Hogan acted as if he had never heard of Ansell. He looked irritated and said that he had based his character on a typical Australian bushman. I moved on to another question, and the interview ended smoothly.
When I went back into the hotel corridor, where several other entertainment reporters were waiting ''on deck,'' as they call it, to interview Mr. Hogan, one asked if I had brought up the Ansell issue. When I said yes, she looked up in awe. ''You're so brave!''
Bravery, if it can be called that, is just one of the attributes essential to journalists, especially the few schooled in hard news, who attend the weekend press junkets that occur throughout the year, mostly in New York and Los Angeles. Dozens of entertainment reporters take part in these carefully choreographed events in which they interview the stars, and often the directors, of anywhere from one to three forthcoming films from different movie studios.
The studios share the cost of flying in reporters whose employers will allow them to go on the studio dime. Most print reporters' employers pay their own way. And most of the major networks also pay the cost of their reporters' trips to the junkets -- if they take part at all: Usually celebrities promoting a movie appear on the networks' morning and late-night shows. But the majority of television reporters from local stations around the United States and Canada are given airline tickets, hotel rooms and up to $200 a day by the studios.
The junket circuit, which provides the backdrop for the romantic comedy ''America's Sweethearts,'' opening on July 20, with Julia Roberts and Catherine Zeta-Jones, is ripe for both parody and ridicule. At its worst, a junket, typically held at the Regency Hotel on Park Avenue in Manhattan or the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, resembles an odd cross between a rich child's birthday party and a visit from a head of state.
Entertainment reporters are ushered into a ''hospitality suite'' with buffet tables of food, drinks and fancy desserts and given goodie bags of promotional paraphernalia like baseball caps and T-shirts. At the same time, studio publicists using walkie-talkies and headsets patrol the halls speaking in hushed voices, lining up reporters outside each star's suite and admonishing them when their voices get too loud.
Lois Smith, the New York-based managing director of the public relations powerhouse PMK, has represented stars like Marilyn Monroe and Michelle Pfeiffer since 1950. ''Stars used to do a 10-city tour,'' she said. ''Who has the time anymore? The best part of junkets is that you reach an incredible amount of press. The bad part is that by reporter No. 52 you're going to get a tired star giving the same answers. It's no fun for stars or the press.''
Terry Press, who is in charge of marketing for DreamWorks, said: ''Nine out of 10 things in the movie business are necessary evils, and junkets are one of them. But it really annoys me when the national media turns up their noses at junkets. It's often the only chunk of time the stars will give, and a lot of magazine photo shoots and other business takes place within the parameter of a junket that wouldn't be as easy to schedule without it.''
Veterans of the circuit are often disdained by the major-market newspaper and magazine movie writers, who as a rule don't accept free travel (those from The New York Times among them).
Certainly, many of the questions asked by junketeers are sycophantic -- and so similar in tone that television camera crew members say they know by heart every answer the star will give by the end of the day. One enterprising reporter tapes his name to the bottom of his shoe to encourage his famous subjects to refer to him by name, hoping for what would seem to be an exclusive, and chummy, interview.
Print reporters from smaller publications and online reporters are confined to round tables of eight or more. ''When the talent comes in, it's like throwing meat to an animal,'' said David Poland, former editor-in-chief of Roughcut.com. ''It's horrifying, like a carnival.''
But the regulars, not surprisingly, defend junkets. ''It's not as if we're covering civic affairs or foreign policy -- it's movie stars,'' said Joey Berlin, president of the Broadcast Film Critics Association, who has gone on junkets for 15 years for several broadcast and print outlets. ''The vast majority of junketeers are not paying off the studios in their coverage. It's mutually beneficial.''
John Corcoran, who attended junkets for five years in the 1990's as the film critic for KCAL-TV in Los Angeles, is even more defiant. ''So you're on their dime?'' Mr. Corcoran said. ''What can you do?"
''My answer is -- fix your news first and then talk about integrity. There's a difference between news that involves the public's right to know and access to celebrities.''
Letting studios pay is still a conflict for some junketeers, but not enough for them, or their employers, to ban the practice. Joe Leydon, who now writes about film for Variety and The San Francisco Examiner, was the film critic at KPRC, the NBC affiliate in Houston, for four years and has been going on junkets since 1979. ''KPRC had a policy that their full-time employees couldn't accept junkets, but I wasn't full time,'' Mr. Leydon said. ''So it was like don't ask, don't tell. They didn't want to know where I was getting these interviews with Robert De Niro and Clint Eastwood. I guess they thought I was just walking down the street and bumped into them.''
But other journalists maintain that junket reporters cannot remain objective. Even those who pay their own way are often intimidated by a system in which, for the television press at least, the studios control the whole process. They hire their own camera operators to shoot the interviews and therefore control the raw tapes. They've been known to withhold them if they deem an interviewer's questions inappropriate. And all reporters must be invited to the junkets and can be ''punished,'' a studio term, by being refused admission if they have displeased the studio in any way.
''They can't help but be somewhat biased, it's inevitable,'' said the MSNBC gossip columnist Jeannette Walls, who tries to avoid junkets when she can. ''It's not really an interview. The most you can hope for is a decent sound bite. It's all a bit of a sham. The media becomes part of the studio publicity machine.''
Some stars are better at working the machine than others. The best, according to many in the junket press, is Arnold Schwarzenegger, who cheerfully answers the same mind-numbing questions for hours. The worst is said to be Tommy Lee Jones, who is known to be surly and difficult. Surprisingly, Tom Cruise and America's Sweetheart herself, Julia Roberts, get the most mixed reviews. ''I've seen Tom Cruise go in and do his whole charm routine and then you see a totally different person in the hallway later,'' Mr. Corcoran said. ''And a lot of people are nice on the way up and then get cold. Julia Roberts is a good example. When she did 'Mystic Pizza,' she couldn't have been nicer, but that all changed.''
One television camera operator who has worked junkets for years said Sir Anthony Hopkins made a point of introducing himself to the cameramen and remembered their names. Matt Dillon, he said, is one of the most demanding stars, once yelling, ''Get me tea now!'' to one of his assistants during a break in an interview.
There are few mavericks among the junket press, but a few stand out by spoofing the process. On the junket for ''Almost Famous'' last year, Mark Ramsey, of the Web site MovieJuice.com, lifted a line from ''Jerry Maguire'' by telling Kate Hudson, ''You complete me.'' Mr. Ramsey recalled: ''She laughed hysterically, but the rest of the reporters went after me like I crossed some serious news line. You'd think you were in a room with Morley Safer and Mike Wallace.''
Steve Doocy of the Fox News Channel, who has a quicker wit than many celebrities, has been known to begin an interview with the star of a cartoonish blockbuster like ''Me, Myself and Irene'' (the junket for which included decorative piles of plastic cow manure and a live cow stationed outside the hotel for ''photo ops'') by asking earnestly, ''Is this based on a true story?''
Studios typically spend about $200,000 for a weekend junket, but that cost may be dwarfed by the four-day extravaganza that Disney is planning this week for ''Pearl Harbor,'' aboard an aircraft carrier in Honolulu, at an estimated cost of $1 million. ''To spend that kind of money flying press in to interview Ben Affleck?'' a rival studio executive said. ''That's obscene.''
Obscene, maybe. But not unprecedented in its ambition. Bob Thomas, 79, who has covered entertainment for The Associated Press since 1944, has been on countless junkets over the years. (The AP has a policy of paying its own way.) The splashiest, so to speak, was an RKO junket held at a lake in Silver Spring, Fla., for the forgettable 1955 film ''Underwater!'' starring Jane Russell. Mr. Thomas was one of about 100 reporters flown in on T.W.A.
Twenty of the more game among them were given quick scuba lessons, outfitted in scuba gear and sent 20 feet below the surface to watch the movie, which was shown underwater with the help of a watertight projection contraption and screens placed on stands in the sand. How did it go? ''Pretty badly,'' said Mr. Thomas, who says reporters kicked up so much sand underwater they couldn't see much of the movie. One reporter, he recalled, panicked and was on the verge of drowning when he was rescued by underwater ''ushers.''
Mr. Thomas credits his father, George Thomas, the publicity director at Warner Bros. in the early 1930's, with dreaming up the first movie junket, an eight-car passenger train covered in silver tinsel that took the stars of the 1933 film ''42nd Street,'' like Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell, on a cross-country trip, along with big studio names like Bette Davis, to meet local reporters.
The whistle-stop tour became a Warner Bros. staple in the 1930's and early 1940's, and studios also took to holding junkets in the cities where the movies took place. Ronald Reagan went to South Bend, Ind., for ''Knute Rockne, All American,'' and the stars of ''Gone With the Wind'' descended on Atlanta in 1939 to meet the press.
''They had a great time on the trains, drinking, telling stories, stars like Jimmy Cagney would sing and tap dance,'' Mr. Thomas recalled. But the egos were just as big as they are now.
''Gable came to Atlanta with Carole Lombard for 'Gone With the Wind' separate from the rest of the cast,'' Mr. Thomas said. ''He was mad at David Selznick. He thought Selznick was giving all the p.r. to Vivien Leigh. Not a lot has changed."