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 The World of Film in Australia - on the Internet Updated Tuesday December 3, 2019 

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MOVIES AND MEDIA: WHO IS MANIPULATING WHOM?

BY ANDREW L. URBAN

The Hollywood hype machine has again broken the media's hymen (meant to protect it from bullshit) and thus conceived a marketing ploy that delivered a stillborn. That's the latest story in the explosive mix of a star-led media saga and an erotic adventure movie that Stanley Kubrick made before just he died. Eyes Wide Shut; yes but whose?

"hype machine managed to arouse the media... enough to allow penetration"

Last Thursday's (always excellent) weekly Media section of The Australian (14/10/99), republished an article from the (also excellent) internet magazine, Brill's Content, by Katherine Rosman, titled 'Media massage'. Rosman asserts that by judicious use of the high profile couple, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, and a tantalising veil of secrecy around the film itself prior to its release, Warner Bros' hype machine managed to arouse the media. Enough to allow penetration. Enough to hoodwink the cynical press. Enough to plant seeds of sexuality that would germinate as free publicity and a feverish anticipation for the film.

The media were largely denied access to the film until the very last moment, to protect it from adverse reaction: it wasn't so sexy after all, says Rosman, quoting the bad crits.

The film failed to deliver. Well, sexy is one thing, but eroticism happens "between the ears not between the legs," as our contributor, Brad Green put it in last week's piece on erotica in the cinema. And if eroticism is firmly in the mind of the beholder, who can say so surely as Rosman does that it wasn't erotic. Maybe she didn't find it sexy, but that's perhaps another matter.

Had it been marketed as the art film it is, she says, it may have found a natural audience and been perceived as an artistic success. But the hype raised expectations about the film's sex content and the public felt cheated.

"a low point in the morphing of journalism into marketing"

In all, she says, this was a low point in the morphing of journalism into marketing. Rosman, using quotes which agree with her point of view (including one from a "top public relations executive, Kenneth Lerer,") reveals near the end of her article how Warner's publicity consultant, 67 year old Pat Kingsley from the powerful PR form of PMK, implored her to drop this story in a phone call, when Kingsley suggests "there are far more important things for [you] to write about than the marketing campaign on Eyes Wide Shut."

Well, I'm not sure that's the right reason or even a valid reason to drop the story. Better advice would be to do the media/marketing story with all its complexities and hidden agendas properly bared and explored.

Having been writing almost exclusively on film for the past 14 years, most of it from inside the belly of the moviemaking beast, I have a rough idea of the complex problems that make up this fascinating subject. And one of those problems is perfectly nailed by none other than Pat Kingsley when she says about the media and the marketing machine: "They (media) are not there to service us. But we are there to use one another. They use us for what they need and we use them for what we need."

Rosman continues: "Apparently the media needed a whole lot of Cruise and Kidman." But she doesn't explore this issue, except for remarking that Time's edition with Tom and Nicole cuddling on the cover was one of Time's top 10 sellers for the year.

"the media gets as much out of the hype as does the studio"

As we all know, the media gets as much out of the hype as does the studio (or generically speaking, 'Hollywood'). The 'hype' - in this case referring to the high profile stars and the highly attractive notion of Tom and Nicole in an erotic movie - was as much manufactured by the media as by the studio. Rosman criticises both, but I think she fails to balance or complete the topic: eg - the professionalism, quality of thought and standards of performance on both sides.

Here are some other issues: Eyes Wide Shut acquired a media life of its very own before it was even finished. It was based on a European novel that had been described as erotic in parts, and took over a year to shoot, if you'll remember. The secrecy surrounding the set became the media's virgin-penetrating quest. The fact that this is far from unique (closed sets) didn't alter perceptions that this was something special. Because it was. An arthouse film with two of the biggest - married - stars around. How can we expect balance and rationality to enter the media room under these circumstances. In fact, Kubrick and the studio DID try to shield the film from the media in those stage, without much success. The strategy fuelled our imaginations - like erotica does.

No wonder, considering it was being made in the torrid tabloid domain of Britain. Then there was Kubrick's standing as a filmmaker. Clearly, the combination of all the elements are self combusting. And the reality is that when the pendulum swings from the media having the power (for providing visibility for something) to the publicist (for making available access to stars) the media hate it. I am not suggesting that Rosman is writing out of spite; I am suggesting that Kingsley's assessment of mutual need is accurate - if incomplete. The mutual need thing doesn't happen at the same time. So the 'power' shifts from one to the other. And back again.

"News is what somebody doesn't want you to publish. The rest is publicity."

I always think that the media and the movie marketing machine (MMM) have two separate agendas, but they meet at a single common point. The media seeks information for its readers (let's not get into the different types of 'information' here) - and the MMM wants to push information to those readers. The MMM wants to market its wares: the media wants to find news of interest. And remember the wise old newspaperman who once said "news is what somebody doesn't want you to publish. The rest is publicity." In other words, the media is a hybrid beast itself, with one hand in the muck and the other in the till. Oh all right, it also has a head and a heart, both of which can be made to work at the same time. No less than a film studio, a media enterprise embraces both venality and nobility - just like individual human beings.

Rosman is dead right being scared of the morphing of journalism and marketing. It's forever on my mind and I have to deal with it daily. But I would be loath to drag into this argument the actual merits of this or any other film - whether it is erotic enough to stand up to the hype, or whether it is a great film or a waste of time. That way lies madness - and badness in serious journalism, because it fudges and derails the basic debate; it does not enlighten it. Lynden Barber's short but effective breakout piece, under Rosman's feature, is highly recommended. He canvasses how the Australian marketing strategy differed and why it was more successful.

One of Rosman's sources says the marketing strategy backfired on Warner Bros; after word got around that the film wasn't what the media had said it would be - namely raunchy, which is not the same as erotic - the box office takings started to drop. This is another example of the confusion that seeps into this important debate.

"Marketers try to manipulate the media; the media responds predictably"

However, Rosman is dead right about the main thrust of her piece (pardon all this sexual imagery but it does seem appropriate); the marketers try to manipulate the media, and the media responds predictably. That the media collectively fell into line with the erotica story before seeing the movie is highlighted with several episodes, including one in which a reporter on the tv show 20/20, asks Tom Cruise, "Were you making love to your wife in front of Stanley Kubrick?" Says Rosman: "Cruise laughed dodging the question with a coy "You gotta see the movie." Pretty reasonable response, I'd say.

This little exchange, in a nutshell, reveals the meeting of agendas - and depresses us with the shallow-brain ineptitude of some in the mass media. Too ignorant or too lazy to find the real story, it lunges toward sleaze, mistaking broad sexual references for sex or eroticism. Nor do I subscribe to the view, for example, that stars (even married ones) have no right to sexual privacy. Would it have been scandalous for Tom Cruise to have turned the question back on the reporter to ask her if she'd ever had sex in front of her producer? The woman, a tv journalist, is, after all, 'famous' herself.

So it becomes clear that Rosman is largely concerned with the subjective assessment of some, that the movie isn't "sexy." That's one opinion - and the only one presented. I know a few people who find Eyes Wide Shut boring. And some who find it sexy, or erotic, or just an engaging film for its complexities - like I do. Some of us were always going to be interested in the film simply as one might be interested in the latest novel by Salman Rushdie. Even without the flesh and blood of two film stars.

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