Quentin Tarantino’s outburst last week should have come as no surprise to anyone involved in the juggernaut of movie promotion. If anything, it is surprising that it hadn’t come sooner. It is all too easy when watching a five minute long video clip from such an interview to forget the hours and hours – if not years and years – of tedious interviews and identikit questions that would have preceded it.
The media junket is a Prohibition era relic from the glories of the Hollywood Studio system that is arguably no longer fit for purpose: it was born into tyranny, and tyrannical it continues to be. I examined the development of the phenomenon and its decline in The Fame Formula.
The Hollywood press machine of late 1920s America would set aside vast sums of money to keep journalists happy. It sent them on cross-country, booze-fuelled journeys, managing to avoid having to bribe the police by constantly crossing state lines.
Journalists were now in the keeping of the studios, paid well and given exclusives to prevent the leaking of any damaging story that could get in the way. If the publicists of this era possessed any one great skill, it was making journalists think that they had the power that they were starting to crave, when in fact they were just desperate for the access they were being granted.
The Hollywood gravy train has become more of a cattle market in recent years however, sharing neither the chutzpah nor the grit of days gone by: it has become an industrialised process driven to the point of tedium. The modern formula is abundant in neither pleasure nor goodwill.
The disconnect of trust between the publicist and the media is at an all time low.
This is a complicated age where having total control of the image is an impossibility. Liberated by instant communications, the crowd can take its ravages wherever it may roam, and roam it does, at all hours of the day.
The desire to control the process of media relations has undone the original design of the media junket. What was once a mutually beneficial relationship has over time become mutually dangerous.
Offering limited time, space or freedom to ask questions, the modern promotional tour is to the media what battery hens are to farming: it provides bland insights, inflicts suffering and provides little satisfaction to anyone involved.
Over the course of a typical media junket – and I’ve been involved in a few – thousands of journalists are policed within an inch of their lives and are then left to compete ravenously over doldrums.
During the last few decades, a culture of self-serving amongst journalists who undermined the original model of the promotional tour has given rise to paranoia amongst publicists. This has led to over-cautiousness and protectionism and the slow rendering of the promotional tour into something anodyne and lifeless.
What the Tarantino outburst exposed was the pernicious fault line that lies between the publicist and the press. Tarantino himself summarised it quite succinctly: “This is a commercial for the movie, make no mistake. I don’t want to talk about what you want to talk about.” There is no give in the relationship: the journalist wants a good story, the director wants to promote his film and neither want to please the other.
Although Krishnan Guru-Murthy may have got a rise out of Tarantino, there was no real winner in this equation: it’s going to make it more difficult for UK-based publicists to convince the big dogs over the pond to let Channel 4 News in, and Tarantino’s frustrated sales pitch – though understandable – showed a quick transformation from crocodile smile to petulant protest. The safest way to resolve this for both the US and the UK will be for the clipboard Nazis – who are terrified of incidents such as these – to blacklist Guru-Murthy.
It seems that in the new millenium, the relationship between press and publicists has come full circle. The media are now acutely aware of nature of their relationship with the celebrities they report on and the publicists who manage them, who have a measure of control unprecedented by any of their forerunners.
The complexities of these relationships has created exactly the kind of stress and strain witnessed during the Tarantino interview, and is precisely why many journalists and would-be journalists are rushing to the other side of the fence.
The reason why the Tarantino interview took off was because it was sticky and off-script. It’s not enough to just appear anymore – information about who’s doing what is ubiquitous. PR in this space needs to evolve if it is going to survive, as current methods are rendering talent tired and audiences bored. Publicists have lost the art of building symbolic products of global fabulousness. They need to rethink their methods before all is lost.