Wednesday, February 19, 2003

Is this the Biggest Philistine in Hollywood?

If you are one of those sad people who watches the goings on of the Hollywood film industry, you inevitably find yourself reading the trade paper Variety fairly frequently. This gives you a good picture of what is going on in the film industry, or at least what the studios would like you to think is going on in the film industry. (In terms of what the studios don't want you to know, you can often do better on the web).

If you read the widely distributed weekly edition of Variety (there is also a daily edition for people in Los Angeles and New York) one thing that you see very quickly (because they are usually on the front page in large type) are the editorials of Editor in chief Peter Bart. Bart is a former studio executive, and former producer of very bad movies (He wasn't sophisticated enough to make Revenge of the Nerds, but he did make Revenge of the Nerds 2). His editorials have a certain pomposity about them which makes them enormously irritating. He discusses having lunch with various (usually unnamed) studio executives, agents, and producers, and discussed what they think (an more importantly he thinks) are wrong or right with the film industry. Once in a while he writes the editorial in the form of an "open letter" to some poor filmmaker or star whose career isn't going quite right, and explains what this person should do to fix it. The implied subtext of all this is that he walks amongst the heavy hitters and power people of Hollywood, absorbing their wisdom.

In any event, Bart has been having a slightly rough time of it over the last couple of years. He was profiled in Los Angeles Magazine a couple of years ago in an article entitled "Is this the Most Hated Man in Hollywood?". In this article it was revealed that he regularly used racist, sexist and homophobic language, that he changed the facts in other journalists' articles in order to give his friends favourable treatment, and that he had shopped a screenplay he had written around the Hollywood studios in contravention of Variety's conflict of interest rules. He was suspended from his job for three weeks, and was ultimately reinstated on the condition that he give money to causes promoting diversity and that he "undergo sensitivity training". (I bet he loved that).

In any event, Variety then went on as normal. A couple of months ago, Bart wrote an editorial in which he slammed movie critics for being elitists. It was apparently very wrong for critics to review and praise films that ordinary filmgoers weren't likely to have seen, and that critics should stick to studio blockbusters for their ten best films lists and the like. (In a way this was kind of curious, as one of the best reasons for reading Variety is the review section. Variety employs critics in most filmmaking countries in order to review films, plus it dispaches writers to a huge number of film festivals, so that Variety itself reviews more obscure films than any other publication).

This editorial through a few critics into a rage. Charles Taylor in Salon wrote this impassioned defence of his profession, and explains that Bart like attacks are in fact fairly common

Nowadays you'd be lucky to find an editor who knows who Louis Malle is. A critic is more likely to get called into his editor's office because he didn't like "Men in Black II," as happened to a critic I know. Or he's likely to be stopped by an editor who tells him that his 11-year-old daughter thinks "The Sixth Sense" is the best movie she's ever seen, as happened to another critic of my acquaintance.

Okay, so from all this we can reach the conclusion that Bart is a philistine, and not a particularly nice man. However, my jaw still dropped when reading his editorial this week. Basically, he is complaining about how much work it is to watch all those DVD's that he is being sent by the studios in order to make an informed choice when he votes for the Oscars. I will confess that I wasn't feeling much sympathy, but my jaw dropped when I got to this. Okay, he is watching the DVDs sent out by studios rather than attending cinema screenings of the nominated films. This is unfortunate, but this is what most oscar voters now do. To quote Bart

And then, of course, the screeners aren't full-fledged DVDs. The size of the picture is scrunched into the so-called letterbox format -- apparently it takes more time and money to create the real thing

Yes, that's right. He is complaining that he is unable to properly watch movies in order to vote for the Oscars because the studios send him letterboxed versions of films on DVD instead of "proper" pan and scan versions. Not only does he prefer to watch pan and scan versions of movies, but anyone who prefers to watch films in the original aspect ratios is clearly some kind of elitist who prefers something other than "real" DVDs and presumably also pays attention to critics' ten best lists.

He is quite right of course. How can you judge the quality of the cinematography if the edges of the picture aren't properly chopped off?

Seriously, and to repeat myself, what a philistine. What a fool. But he is a former studio executive, and he does edit that most important trade paper in Hollywood. We are faced with two possibilities here. Firstly, he is a phony and everybody knows this. Secondly, he is a phony and the executives who run the studios are also such enormous phonies that they don't realise it.

Okay, we always knew that making films in Hollywood is a creatively trying experience. But clearly it is much worse than even I imagined.

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