23 avril 2008

Critical Fallacy 9 : Conflict of Interest

Critical Fallacy 9 : CONFLICT OF INTEREST

Unlike the interpersonal conflict between the critic and the film being judged, that was developed in the previous Critical Fallacy (Prejudice), this one is a prejudice at the macro level. But it's a moral constraint due to the underlying pressure imposed by the industry to voluntarily influence and limit the freedom of expression of the press and the total liberty of opinion of critics.

I heard "conflict of interest" is not as much an issue frowned upon in the USA as it is in France or in Europe. And this mentality reflects the practice of journalism too. What kind of independence can we expect from critics who are hired by a journal owned by a media-conglomerate including Movie Studios interests?
These media superstructures control the life of a movie from beginning to end, from production to distribution to advertising outlets and even its criticism. The audience might have the illusion to pick from a wide range of choice, to listen to the advice from diverse sides. But in the end the reason we hear and see the promotion for a movie everywhere is rather because of the favouritism of a single head than because it has been endorsed by several independent minds. We live in a media landscape segmented by the exclusive catalogue of a handful of tycoons. A film is nursed, shaped up, funded, bind by contract, cast, produced, edited, advertised, criticised, screened, then re-broadcast on TV, re-sold on DVD, appreciated in a book... by a single commercial interest, the media conglomerate seeking to make money out of it. It's reasonable to mistrust the amount of artistic input in this heavy industrial machine.

Examples of media conglomerates :
  • Rupert Murdoch (Press, Cinema, TV, telecommunication) : The Sun, The Times, [EDIT]The New York Times, 20th Century Fox, Fox TV...
  • Time Warner (Internet, Press, Cinema, TV, telecommunication) : Warner Bros., AOL, New Line Cinema, Time, HBO, Turner Classic Movies, CNN...
  • Disney (Cinema, TV, telecommunication, Radio) : Walt Disney Studios, Touchstone Pictures, Miramax, Pixar, ABC, Disney Channel...
  • Sony (TV, Cinema, Telecommunication, Music) : Sony Pictures, Columbia, TriStar Pictures, MGM, United Artists, Sony TV, Sony Music...
  • Vivendi Universal (Cinema studio, Multiplex, Music, Press) : Universal Studios, MSNBC, Canal+, Universal Music, NBC, Pathé, Gaumont...
  • Le Monde (Press, Book Publication, DVD) : Le Monde, Le Monde diplomatique, Courriers International, Les Cahiers du cinéma, Télérama, Editions de l'Etoile... (about to split under the current financial crisis!)
Where is the independent journalism? Which cinema publication or broadcasting program isn't in bed with Studio or TV interests?
Klaus Eder (April 2006, FIPRESCI roundtable at Undercurrent) :
"I'm always in favor of film magazines because I don't think that daily criticism can contribute a lot to real film criticism. It's too close to all the pressure of the editors, of the film industry, and you know that kind of tendency in film criticism in the mass media to give a service, to give it points, to say "yes, see it" or "no, don't see it." That's not film criticism."
Another side effect of this monopoly of the media industry is how movies are sold as packages to the theatres (i.e. "if you want to screen this blockbuster, you have to also play my other cheap movies"), and the exclusive contracts signed by stars with a certain studio (which explains why some actors are not allowed to play in a movie because it is produced by another conglomerate). Negociations can also become tricky when curating a retrospective, or compiling a DVD collection, or broadcasting a series on TV, as movies may belong to different companies who might veto their participation to annoy competitors.
AO Scott (NYT, July 18, 2006) : Avast, Me Critics! Ye Kill the Fun: Critics and the Masses Disagree About Film Choices :
"So why review them? Why not let the market do its work, let the audience have its fun and occupy ourselves with the arcana — the art — we critics ostensibly prefer? The obvious answer is that art, or at least the kind of pleasure, wonder and surprise we associate with art, often pops out of commerce, and we want to be around to celebrate when it does and to complain when it doesn’t. But the deeper answer is that our love of movies is sometimes expressed as a mistrust of the people who make and sell them, and even of the people who see them. We take entertainment very seriously, which is to say that we don’t go to the movies for fun. Or for money. We do it for you."
However the salary received from a Media conglomerate isn't the only pressure a critic can be subjected to. There is also the psychological pressure, the "off the record" confidences, the risk to jeopardize a long friendship, a mutual respect, a moral debt, loyalty to peers, editors, directors, stars, cover deals, junket favours, private screening access :
Adrian Martin : "To start compromising yourself in terms of the industry, to start worrying about that letter you're going to get from the filmmaker or from the distributors; that's the beginning of the end."

Klaus Eder : "I think this personality of the producer coming and saying, "you know I put my last money in this film and if you don't support it I'm going bankrupt," we know about it. We have it every day. We have also the opposite. We have some distributors coming to some critics and asking, "What do you think of that film?", and if the critic says "nothing particular," that film will not be distributed in that country. This happens as well, and I think this is extending the influence of the critic."
at the Undercurrent FIPRESCI roundtable (April 2006)
"Nonetheless, one must strive for an ethical standard in on-line publishing, and not let the moral slippery slide begin. That slippery slide is usually inaugurated, in the film magazine business, by one thing: money. And most particularly: advertising. The moment you allow advertising onto a site, you have bought into compromise. Can you be truly critical, any longer, of those distributors, exhibitors or publishers who are helping to subsidise your site? It is better – and certainly ethically easier – to ‘fudge’ one’s critical opinions, to keep powerful friends, to hold open the sources of precious revenue. Institutional support – such as might come from a government arts body, a university, a council, a cine-club association or a special public fund – can sometimes come with ‘necessary conditions’ (to promote a national or local cinema, for instance) which can be debated, deflected or subverted; advertising money, however, comes with the pulverising force of capital and its sole aim, which is to sell, to expand itself, and to win passive social consent. This is one of the most socially and politically responsible things that a publication can do: resist complicity with the system, the industry, the establishment. It is easy to be idealistic about this, but idealism often corrodes quickly in a difficult material world. There is so much pressure, one way or another, to conform to the film industry: to cover only those latest films which the commercial industry wants you to see; to engage only in the kind of discourse (pro or con) that ‘greases the wheels’ of the mass movie-going system; to overlook what the cinema of the past has been, or what truly ‘alternative’ cinema is today."

Adrian Martin interview on the "Responsibilities of Film Criticism" at cinemascope.it (PDF, issue #7, Jan-Apr 2007)

Related :

15 commentaires:

Filipe Furtado a dit…

I don't know if you are planing to do a extra entry on this, but there's also the conflict of interest on a more micro-level which is not that usual in US, but happens a lot in France and other countries were film culture is smaller and criticism and filmmaking are far closer to each other.

HarryTuttle a dit…

Yes, the micro-scale conflict of interest was mentioned in my previous post, along with other "prejudices".
But you're right I could have cited the example of Cahiers du cinéma in France, where the ex-critics-turned-filmmakers always gets good reviews in their family magazine.

Dan Sallitt a dit…

I think critics' desire to do good - to help a film, to help a theater, to help readers find the right films - is the source of more compromise and corruption than advertising money or the desire to hang with the industry.

HarryTuttle a dit…

I agree it's not necessarily intentional, and most of the time it's well intended (for that one film defended). Like Kevin Lee argues about activism and advocacy.
And it's not a conspiracy either (though maybe it is with Studio executives who control the entire chain of a non-free market).

Critics are only doing their job amidst a system that provokes these conflicts of interest that might be unethical from certain point of view (if we care about credible critical judgement... which doesn't bother the vast majority of the press).

But it does tip the balance (for other films, for cinema criticism in general). One cannot be juror and advocate at the same time, it discredits both roles.

Being an advocate is a different job. It's unfortunate that only film critics are able to fill this spot, thanks to their tribune, their expertise and their love of cinema. But somebody else should do it. Like cinephiles, curators, theatre owners, actors, filmmakers, scholars, film students, independent societies... who don't have this conflict of interest, since they are not asked to judge films...

P.S. about the conflict of interest at Cahiers, here is a post I wrote some times ago to shine a light on the richness of writers who were also filmmakers. But we could also look at the flip side of the coin and see this as a unhealthy complicity between filmmaking and criticism that threatens the independence of the latter.

HarryTuttle a dit…

In Armond White's infamous and mostly ludicrous article "What we don't talk about when we talk about movies" at the New York Press, we can find some criticism of the conflict of interest that characterizes film culture :

"The latter ethic was overwhelmingly embraced by media outlets during the Reagan era, exemplified by the sly shift from reporting on movies to featuring inside-industry coverage. Focusing on weekend box-office totals—now a post-Sabbath religious habit—first legitimized movie-talk for that era enthralled with tax shelters, bond-trading and pro-trust legislation (peaking with Reagan’s regressive repel of the landmark 1949 Paramount Decree, giving back monopolies to the studios). This sea change in media attitude was typified by the American launch of Premiere magazine (finally trimmed away two years ago), which perverted movie journalism from criticism to production news. It familiarized the production of movies, not like the trade publications Variety and Hollywood Report do for industry participants, but by simply jettisoning exegesis and replacing interest in content with production stills, personality profiles and a humor column that witheringly trivialized the critic’s pursuit.
Critics customarily show their allegiance to Hollywood blockbusters, granting them inordinate attention in the entertainment pages, but that’s not the way to build an enlightened public or a healthy culture.
Time marvels that Ebert “typically would give thumbs up to two or three” of the “four or five films up for review on his weekly TV show” without asking if it’s credible or disingenuous. (It will take a separate article to expose the absurdity of a TV show bearing Ebert’s name without his presence, whose interchangeable roster of ineffectual reviewers loyally prevaricate in Ebert’s manner—a “criticism” show owned and sponsored by the Disney conglomerate!)
Most publishers and editors are only interested in supporting hits in order to reach Hollywood’s deep-pocket advertisers. This is what makes traditional criticism seem indefinable and obsolete, leaving web criticism as a ready (but dubious) alternative.
These desperate stakes became even more alarming with the recent announcement of the Museum of the Moving Image’s Second Annual Institute on Criticism and Feature Writing—a project seemingly designed to further confuse the profession. Offering a session on marketing and publicity, the MMI’s Institute implies that flackery is part of critical journalism, and that’s really the root of the problem—sanctioning the way in which critical journalism has blurred its mandate into promoting the industry, not the art form. It overlooks any chance for criticism to unite while enlightening the audience, keeping it divided. There is no “conversation” when what we say when we talk about movies is driven by elitism or commerce, both now horribly combined in Queens. Hollywood’s emphasis on impersonal product then holds sway over art. Ideas get smothered in formula, and hype becomes the language of so-called discourse."

HarryTuttle a dit…

In Jonathan Rosenbaum's Chicago Reader article (Nov 2000), "Junket Bonds" :

"Nowadays the line between journalism and publicity is often blurred, and one common, systematic method of blurring it is the movie junket. (...)

The journalists are expected to go home and write puff pieces about the movies that run in newspapers and magazines as either reportage or as a form of film “criticism.” If the journalists don’t oblige–and sometimes obliging entails not only favorable coverage but articles that emphasize what publicists want emphasized and suppress what they want suppressed–then the studios won’t invite them on future junkets. (...)

The stories that result are meant to be read as news rather than as promotion, and most newspaper editors seem to have few qualms about fostering this impression. In fact, publicists often work directly with editors and get particular journalists assigned to write particular pieces–in effect, the articles are commissioned by the studios or distributors.(...)

The reality is that movies can get away with being terrible these days without causing any crisis in the film industry because no matter how much the capacity to make movies that matter has been impaired, the capacity to advertise, market, and disseminate them has only improved. (...)

Consider what might happen if Roger Ebert couldn’t find a single movie to recommend on one of his weekly shows, which has undoubtedly happened. How much freedom would he have to give a thumbs-down to everything, especially if he did it three or four weeks in a row? For all the unusual freedom I enjoy at the Reader, how long could I keep my job if I had nothing to recommend week after week? For just as communist film critics were “free” to write whatever they wanted as long as they supported the communist state, most capitalist film critics today are “free” to write anything they want as long as it promotes the products of multicorporations. The minute they decide to step beyond this agreed-upon agenda they’re likely to get into trouble with their editors and publishers. (...)

That Disney owns Miramax and produced the Siskel-Ebert show might prompt conspiracy theories, but none are necessary. Miramax has the clout to dictate which of its releases are important and which are not, and magazine and newspaper editors, TV producers, and reviewers don’t have the nerve, imagination, knowledge, intelligence, or wherewithal to buck the system–and none of them expect to be called on their decisions because those decisions are virtually invisible to the public. (...)

It’s clear that even alienated critics can provide a service to some people. But I object to their alienation being turned into a norm of criticism–which is what I see happening all around me–and to low estimations of audiences being used to rationalize low expectations of reviewers. When alienation of this kind enters reviewing, a whole set of agendas that aren’t concerned with the movies themselves wind up determining much of the shape of the critical discourse. (...)"

Excerpted from Jonathan Rosenbaum’s Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Conspire to Limit What Films We Can See

HarryTuttle a dit…

Ronald Bergan in The Guardian (July 3rd, 2008):

"It is true that most western critics have been bought by the Hollywood studios, whether they like it or not. This does not mean that they are compelled to give the latest blockbuster a good review, but they are forced to give it more space in line with the publicity the film receives elsewhere."

HarryTuttle a dit…

At Télérama, Jacques Morice talks about the first-class treatment of private critic's press screenings:

Club privé

"on s’assoit, que dis-je, on s’enfonce en douceur dans des fauteuils mœlleux en cuir. Ces fauteuils de nabab, invitation autant que piège (gaffe à l’assoupissement !), voilà l’un des privilèges de la projo. (...)
On est là entre nous, dans une bulle, entre « experts », coupé du public si l’on veut. Dans ces cercles d’habitués, la magie du ciné est à la fois faussée et décuplée. Ailleurs, dans les salles normales, on a l’étrange impression de s’encanailler."

HarryTuttle a dit…

Charles Tesson on the conflict of interest issue contained in the Cahiers buyout project of Emmanuel Burdeau (in Spectres du cinéma #1, Sep. 2008):

"Le projet de Burdeau et Lounas, le seul visible et lisible en ce moment est clairement politique et se veut ouvertement militant, y compris envers des films ne trouvant pas preneur auprès de distributeurs, ce qui est courageux mais pas nécessairement encourageant sur un plan économique, sauf à recevoir des subventions du CNC au titre de l'aide à la distribution et l'aide aux entreprises. Mais les Cahiers ne sont pas vraiment une entreprise subventionnée car elle vit surtout de ses recettes (ventes de le revue, des livres, et des recettes publicitaires). Il y a là un mélange des genres pour le moins curieux, sur un plan déontologique. Je le dis d'autant plus librement que j'ai été distributeur de films à la fin des années 80, quand il fallait que je gagne ma vie, l'activité critique ne suffisant pas. Déontologiquement parlant, je ne vois pas comment l'entreprise Cahiers peut acquérir les droits d'un film et le distribuer en salles et lui accorder toute la place rédactionnelle souhaitable dans la revue, sans que cela pose quelques soucis sur le fond et la méthode, sans parler de "conflits d'intérêt". L'engagement critique, dès lors, s'en trouve quelque peu faussé. Il y a un mélange des genres que je trouve curieux, même si je ne sais pas dans le détail comment ils comptent faire par rapport à cela."

HarryTuttle a dit…

Roger Ebert : "Be wary of freebies. The critic should ideally never accept round-trip first-class air transportation, a luxury hotel room, a limo to a screening and a buffet of chilled shrimp and cute little hamburgers in preparation for viewing a movie. If you go, your employer should pay for the trip. I understand some critics work for places that won't even pick up a taxi fare, and are so underpaid they have never tasted a chilled shrimp. Yet they are expected to produce a piece about Michael Cera's new film. I cut them some slack. Also, I admire Michael Cera. But if they work for a place that is filthy rich, they should turn down freebies.

I admit the Freebie Rule was a hard one for me to acknowledge. In the good old days, movie critics flew more than pilots. I flew first class to Sweden, Ireland, Hawaii, Bermuda, Iran, Colombia and Montreal. I was on the Los Angeles shuttle. I flew to England in November for the filming of "Battle of Britain," and was whisked at dawn to a rainy WWII air field near Newmarket where I was able to stand for hours and freeze my ass off while watching a scene involving a dog looking wistfully into the sky for his master's missing airplane. If someone had given me a chilled shrimp, I would have rubbed it between my hands to warm it.

Accept no favors. For example, if some "friends" throw you a birthday party at a classy Vegas joint they hope to fill with movie stars who are your "friends," say thanks, but no thanks. That crosses the line, even if the "Britney Spears of Korea" truly is your close personal friend. Your only real friends come to the party you throw for yourself in the activities room of your condo building, and they bring their own booze. [Note; If the Britney Spears of Korea is the real thing, Britney Spears should be known in Korea as the BoA Kwan of America.]"
Roger's little rule book (October 28, 2008)

HarryTuttle a dit…

Graham Greene (1936):
"The film companies, of course, are not bribing the critics. No one is going to be bribed with a glass of sherry and a cigarette. The motive is less obvious and more kindly. The daily press is to a great extent controlled by advertisers. The film critics are not free to damn a bad film. Almost the only approach possible… is the satirical… to make a flank attack upon the reader, to persuade him to laugh at personalities, stories, ideas, methods, he has previously taken for granted. We need to be rude, rude even to our fellow reviewers, but not in the plain downright way."

cited in Sight & Sound (Oct 2008)

and Nick James add in the same article:
"The world Greene describes is frighteningly similar to that of today's film reviewers. It's as if the egalitarianism of the 1960s never happened. [...]
To their credit, most British reviewers in the 'quality press' continue to consider many films as works of art. As a collective breed, however, they behave in lamblike fashion when faced by the Hollywood blockbuster. Sometimes their editors collude against them. When they give low-star ratings to high-profile films, they sometimes find them altered. When they want to ignore a below-par superhero production and boost a foreign-language film, they are sometimes overruled."

HarryTuttle a dit…

Read also my later post on "Burdeau : film saviour?"

HarryTuttle a dit…

EDIT : The New York Times is NOT part of Rupert Murdoch's empire.
Thanks to hmshore's comment in a later post. My apologizes to the party involved. It's never too late to correct oneself.

I will also note that Variety is an independent Press group.

HarryTuttle a dit…

"psychologist Dan Ariely tells two personal stories that explore scientific conflict of interest: How the pursuit of knowledge and insight can be affected, consciously or not, by shortsighted personal goals. When we're thinking about the big questions, he reminds us, let's be aware of our all-too-human brains."
Beware of conflicts of interest (Dan Ariely, TED talk; Mar 2011)

HarryTuttle a dit…

"We live in an era when online critics are often swayed in their opinions by swag, trips, and favors from studio representatives. Yet the goal of a true critic is to honestly examine a film, not attempt to curry favor with a corporation. This panel will examine what it takes to stay honest in a digital world, from disclosure of sponsorships to a constant effort to remain separate from studios."
You Are Not a Publicist: Criticism vs. Advertising (SXSW 2011 Film) panel 1h06' / video 9'03"
with : Neil Miller, Marjorie Baumgarten, Devin Faraci, Todd Gilchrist, Daniel Carlson

Apologetic reviewers who justify the flaws of studios corruption of the integrity of Film Criticism, to protect their perks and continue to live their movie fan dream of being treated like VIPs and meeting their favourite stars...