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Hollow Promise

One week before the opening of Sony Pictures’ Hollow Man, a couple of hundred entertainment reporters were given the chance to interview director Paul Verhoeven and star Kevin Bacon, live, from the comfort of the scribes‘ own living rooms, or offices, or wherever they happened to be at 11:20 a.m. Saturday morning, Pacific Standard Time. At the appointed hour -- with Verhoeven and Bacon seated before a camera in a room at the Four Seasons Hotel in L.A. -- all the press had to do was log on to iJunkets.com, download the necessary video-conferencing software and type in questions to get real-time responses. Reporters didn’t even have to take notes, as transcripts of the discussion and broadcast-quality footage of the complete roundtable interview were furnished free by iJunkets within the next 48 hours.

Billed as the ”first-ever, fully interactive online film press junket,“ the event represented only a small part of a more traditional press offensive organized by Sony Pictures, even as it pointed to a new advance in Hollywood‘s ever-expanding efforts to annex the Internet to its sales forces. Nonetheless, many of those invited from both online and traditional media outlets opted to pass on this groundbreaking event.

”Some people chose not to attend because they knew they could just download the material later and they didn’t want to work on a Saturday,“ says iJunkets founder Mark Weinstock, who estimates that some 85 reporters -- including someone from The Wall Street Journal -- did participate. ”We were like, ‘Come on, aren’t you supposed to be journalists?‘“

Coming from a seasoned pro such as Weinstock (before he brought the iJunkets concept to the Web-design a firm DNA Studio, which runs the site, he was the director of marketing for Fox Searchlight Pictures), the question seems, at best, naive -- or, at worst, calculated. After all, what’s journalism got to do with it? One of the most notorious aspects of entertainment reporting, film-press junkets are carefully orchestrated, PR-driven schmooze fests that can last anywhere from an afternoon to a whole weekend. During that time, a studio and its publicity arm often treat invited members of the press -- many of whom are flown to the event at the studio‘s expense -- to hotel rooms, buffets, advance screenings, ”exclusive“ access to stars in the form of brief one-on-one interviews or roundtable ”discussions,“ and bags and bags of promotional swag.

Reporters pretend that none of this affects the angle or tone of their reviews, but on a fundamental level, access is granted at the expense of a certain degree of journalistic control. If you want to come back to the trough -- and for a lot of regional media outlets, junkets are their only means of ”covering“ Hollywood -- you have to behave.

Of course, the rise of the Internet and its unruly movie-fan sites (with their insider moles and unauthorized copies of scripts and test-audience surveys) had given Hollywood’s more paranoid control freaks a new reason to sweat. That is, until they realized that all they had to do was invite the more influential of these upstart critics to the party. (Can you say, ”Ain‘t it cool?“)

But wining, dining and corralling hundreds of journalists on a regular basis doesn’t come cheap, and there will always be those toner-stained wretches who slip through the cracks. Which is where iJunkets comes in.

”Press junkets are really expensive to put on, and there‘s a tremendous amount of online press out there who are really difficult to reach,“ says Weinstock. ”I just thought, ’Wouldn‘t it be great to get these people original content’“ at a reduced cost. ”And the studios don‘t have to worry about anything. We run the site, we moderate the interviews, we do the taping, we release the material.“

And there’s the problem. For all Weinstock‘s talk about the ”liveness“ and ”interactivity“ provided by iJunkets’ CUSeeMe software, with its mere half-second feed delay, the Hollow Man junket was nothing if not canned.

Acting as moderator, Weinstock decided which questions would be posed to the talent, then handed the sanitized queries to a professional voice actor who read them off-camera. Weinstock admits there were questions that he refused to pass along during the roundtable because he felt they were too invasive or otherwise inappropriate. ”There were questions that used bad words, or wanted to know about Kevin‘s relationship with his wife or his full-frontal nudity in Wild Things,“ he says, adding that there wasn’t time to get even all the legitimate questions answered.

Of course, iJunkets‘ question-vetting was not too much of a departure from the traditional junket, where it’s not uncommon to be told by a flack that you can‘t ask a certain question. The real-life junket people also control the cameras and sometimes refuse to turn over tape to reporters who go off the reservation.

However, during the iJunkets conference, the major Web portals -- Yahoo, Lycos, MSN.com, Excite and About.com -- were immune to these kinds of vulgarities. Before the roundtable, each of the sites’ reporters had been granted a one-on-one, five-minute interview with exclusive-use rights. And they didn‘t have to go through a moderator at all. So while Weinstock likes to point out that iJunkets provides a greater number of media outlets with access to stars, the company clearly finds some outlets more worthy of access than others. (Again, this is no different than real-world junkets, which give the Katies and Matts of the world time and access that Beat Reporter Boy from the Podunk Press will never see.)

Unfortunately, this reporter was unable to get access at all during the online junket. Plagued with technical problems, I frantically tried to get in touch with someone at DNA or CUSeeMe, but no real-time tech support was available from either. I could only imagine what provocative, insightful insider banter I was missing. The following Monday, Weinstock apologized for the difficulties -- apparently only one other journalist had failed to get onto the site. Weinstock and his staff made certain that I could download the unedited footage of the roundtable later that afternoon. And, as it turned out, I hadn’t missed much: ”Kevin, what was it like working with such an opinionated director?“ and ”What distinguishes Hollow Man from previous [invisible-man films]?“ was the level of softball inanity that prevailed. At one point, Bacon appeared visibly upset that he had been asked, ”If you could turn invisible, what would be the first thing you‘d do?“ ”Not answer that question,“ he snipped back.

Bacon had no problem fielding the first question, which was about the nature of the interview itself. ”This kind of situation is exciting,“ he responded. ”I can see something like a junket ending up being mostly Internet-driven eventually.“

But given just how perk-addicted much of the mainstream entertainment press has become, there would probably be a wholesale, open revolt if the studios put an end to the traditional press-junket circuit. In the case of iJunkets, convenience and access are the perks used to entice lesser-known Web sites hoping to lure visitors with high-profile celebrity names. But caveat emptor: You pay for that access by accepting whatever prepackaged tripe the studios choose to shove down your bandwidth.