A Hollywood print journalist despairs because newspapers are dying and bloggers are thriving. 4,219 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
I met Billy McNulty in the Avis parking lot at the airport in Salt Lake City. He had walked past me on the plane from Los Angeles, a vaguely familiar face whom I had seen at one or two press screenings at Paramount or Fox. Outside, the predicted blizzard had tapered off and a sprinkle of snow was flying in the wind. The street was covered with ice that was being sanded as I arrived.
It was crowded, actually mobbed and chaotic, at the airport, one day before the start of the Sundance Film Festival, and the flight from L.A. had disgorged hundreds of people carrying luggage, cameras and boxes. Ten minutes later, a flight from JFK arrived. The same scene. Everyone looked very young and bedraggled — certainly younger but just as bedraggled as I did. It was January 1996.
I was standing in line when, just outside, there was a commotion. At the door of a minivan with the sign "SUNDANCE – PRESS" posted, a crowd had gathered. A burly fellow was pushing a smaller guy out of the bus onto the street and screaming, "Get the fuck away. Asshole. Prick."
The victim was McNulty, who fell to the ground. The bus door closed. Someone came over and helped McNulty get up. The crowd dispersed. Just another mini-drama among quasi-talented filmmakers at Salt Lake City airport.
The grim woman behind the Avis counter gave me the keys to a Ford Explorer — you need a four-wheel drive for the icy roads — and a printed card with directions how to reach Park City. Before I could say a word, she shouted, “Next.” It was freezing when I left the terminal. Even bundled up in a down jacket, woolen hat and gloves, I was shivering. Without snow boots, which I had stupidly packed in my luggage, my toes turned icy. I scurried to the parking lot, my laptop over my shoulder, rolling my big valise filled with sweaters, woolen socks, thermal underwear and thick ski pants. As I waited at the light to cross the street, Bill McNulty stood next to me.
"Hey," he said.
"Hi." I tried to smile. I was waiting for the traffic to pass or the light to turn green. I was in no mood for conversation.
"You going to Park City?"
He said, "Where are you staying? The Stein-Eriksen?”
He was standing too close. He made me uncomfortable. When is the fucking light going to turn green?
"Hardly," I said. "That’s too rich for our blood."
"Bullshit. You guys can afford it."
He knew where I worked, which made me even more wary. Finally, the light turned. I walked across the road. He walked beside me. I admit the hotel situation was a sore point. The paper’s esteemed film critic, who had barely acknowledged my presence the previous year, was allowed to stay at the Stein-Eriksen where Harvey Weinstein and the Sundance elite endured the festival. No peasants at the Stein-Eriksen.
Not that the Yarrow was a slum — far from it. It was in town, near a supermarket where I could get The New York Times and Los Angeles Times each morning, and an easy walk to some of the theaters where Sundance films were shown. It was filled with studio publicity people and several journalists. You met filmmakers for interviews in the coffee shop. It was fine. Except you didn’t see Johnny Depp in the bar up the mountain, where our critic — whose condescension toward studio films was her trademark — could mingle with the moguls and movie stars. I was the poor boy in the village, and she was the princess aloft in the castle. Fuck her!
"Hey, do you mind giving me a lift to Park City?"
I had expected this as soon as McNulty had crossed the street with me. It began snowing hard. As if he’d read my mind, he said, "I’ll drive if you want."
Suddenly, I liked this weirdo. I hadn’t driven until I was 18 because I’m from New York City. The idea of driving up the Wasatch Mountains, I confess, alarmed me. At that moment, I didn’t care who he was. I was relieved and handed him the car keys. "Thanks," I said.
“Have you been to Sundance before?" he asked in a condescending way that irritated me. I nodded.
"And what about you?" I asked.
He said he hated it except for the publicity gals from the independent film companies who, once drunk, were amenable to anything. He was in his mid-thirties, tall, chunky, bespectacled with a smile that was actually a smirk. His eyes darted all the time. He had dark curly hair and, for a moment, I could see where the publicity gals would think, well, why not?.
The small talk began as soon as we got into the vehicle. He said he’d begun blogging about the movie business after getting fired from a job in Paramount’s PR for reasons that I didn’t want to ask about. I wanted him to shut up. And just drive.
He told me that he wanted to start a website to compete with Harry Knowles’ Ain’t It Cool News. That was a popular site for and by film geeks with an emphasis on sci-fi, horror, fantasy and action genres. Harry, based in Austin, Texas, had a cadre of fellow geeks who slipped into early screenings around the country and would review the still unfinished films. Studios were horrified — unless Harry gave the film a good review. But either way the comments on the site had an impact not only on Harry’s growing audience, but on the studios themselves. Execs scrambled to re-edit films and create new marketing if the movie, God forbid, was trashed.
Everyone read Harry. It took about five minutes before Newsweek and People and I wrote stories about him. And it took about six minutes before McNulty and other struggling bloggers began to imitate him.
McNulty was babbling as he drove. He had started a website called Hollywood Hills. He was planning to go one step further than Harry by getting Quentin Tarantino and Tim Burton and David Cronenberg on the phone to talk about movies. And by doing "investigative news." He was trashing the proliferating numbers of rival bloggers by name — those who traded favors with studios and independents for free airline tickets and hotel rooms at Sundance and Toronto and Telluride. That was the reason for the bus incident: several bloggers tossed him out because McNulty had called them freeloaders on his website.
But his targets weren’t limited to bloggers. He said he also loathed the newspaper and magazine reporters from the mainstream press because of how the studios groveled before them. Early screenings. Easy interviews. Leaked news about a new X-Men or Star Wars sequel or prequel. He said he was going to show them up as hacks who were in the pockets of Hollywood. Were they corrupt like the bloggers? No. he said. Just lazy and stupid.
He yelled as he spoke. He was possessed by an anger that made me uneasy because he sounded a little deranged. And in the back of my mind I began to sense — a dreaded sense — what would happen next.
I asked him where he was staying in Park City.
“Friends,” he shrugged. But as we pulled into the Yarrow, he asked, “Do you mind if I camp out with you for the night?"
Oh God! "Where were you supposed to stay?" I asked.
"Some junior agents at UTA. Buddies. They have a house."
"Somewhere on the edge of town. But they’re not coming in until midnight. And I need a car to get there.”
What the hell could I do? "OK" I said, furious with myself. Later I thought, why didn’t I tell him to get lost? Because the last thing I wanted was to have him stay with me.
“Thanks, friend,” he said.
Was the tone of his voice sarcastic? I’m not your fucking friend. "I’ve got to rush to a dinner date.”
I just stared at him. "Friends." That silenced him. Standing in the lobby, before checking in, I finally said, "We’ll get you a cot if the room doesn’t have a sofa."
"All I asked was who you were having dinner with."
"I told you. Friends. "
"I bet I know them." He was angling to join me.
At this point, I lost my temper. "I don’t care if you know them. I don’t care if you don’t know them. Spend the night here and say goodbye in the morning." And get the hell out of my life!
We walked to the room without speaking. I unloaded my bag, put the shirts and underwear and gloves and hats away. I didn’t say a word. I walked into the bathroom and took a shower. I was trapped by this leech. I had a busy schedule. That evening, I was to meet the Fine Line people at Sonora Grill. By the time I opened the bathroom door and looked out, McNulty was gone.
But his bag was still there.
When I awoke the next morning, the bag was still there but he wasn’t. I called my office and told them I was going to interview a couple of gay filmmakers. It was the year that there were four gay films at Sundance which made it a story. Next year there would be four women’s films. Another story. Then black films. Then Latino films. Trends? It was all bullshit. But we needed a theme, a point of view, a peg for the festival. So I wrote it. And so did the L.A. Times and Variety. And it was picked up by CNN and Entertainment Tonight. None dared to call it journalism.
I kept looking at his piece of luggage in my room. I was irritated. I wanted him and his bag out.
That morning, I shaved and showered and began dressing like an Eskimo when the door opened and McNulty stepped in. Clearly, he’d obtained the room key from the front desk which made me distrust him even more. He was smiling..
"I scored last night," he said.
I said nothing.
"A Park City waitress. Very hot. She has a nice little place."
I didn’t believe him.
"Hey, can I just leave my bag here?” he asked. “I’ll shower after you go. Nine chances out of 10 you won’t see me tonight."
What choice did I have? And then came the clincher.
"Hey, friend, I left my bank card in L.A.. Can I borrow twenty bucks? My buddy at UTA is giving me more cash."
I looked at him. He smiled and turned away. But was it a sad smile? He was embarrassed. So was I. I gave him the $20.
"Thanks, partner," he said. And walked out.
At that time, before Sundance became a big celebrity and corporate carnival, the film companies and public relations people knew where everyone was staying. So my hotel mailbox would get crammed with invites. Working for a large newspaper, my name was always on every screening list and, if I wanted to go to some party at a restaurant on Main Street, I just called and was told, “Sure.” The screenings and the parties kept me busy picking up the gossip about what film were good (not too much) and pretentious (a lot). I had already filed my ridiculous story that This Was The Gay Year At Sundance.
That night, I walked back to the Yarrow after seeing a well-done documentary on the plight of wounded GIs from the Iraqi War, and an unfunny film about the college reunion of three women 20 years after graduation. I scheduled a breakfast with the war veterans who’d made the GI film. Then I was going to a party after the college reunion dud which had been inexplicably picked by Universal. I expected to see McNulty. He wasn’t there.
It was snowing again. I almost dreaded going to my room to see his bag. Dear God, make it disappear. I went to the front desk to retrieve my key and messages. But the message box was empty. I looked again to make sure it was the right room. It was. Many of the other boxes were filled with invitations and phone slips. I stared at the empty box until the kid behind the desk asked if he could help me. I shook my head, no. It was one of those moments where I wanted to believe the hotel had screwed up, and my mail would miraculously appear in my room. But I knew exactly what happened. I knew.
I went to my room. His bag was gone. That somehow made it worse. At least I could have confronted him. What happened to my invites? What happened to my messages?
I didn’t sleep well. I couldn’t call him. I didn’t know where he was staying. Was there really a house for UTA agents?
My office hired a photographer to take photos of the four vets — serious young fellows who had given their souls to make the film, a little awkward because of their inexperience but still very powerful. (It later won the Sundance award for Best Documentary and aired on pay TV.) Afterwards, I took the bus to see the noon showing of the Allison Anders film that had just opened. I saw my competitor from the L.A. Times at the theater.
“Hey. I missed you at the Soderbergh screening," he said.
"What Soderbergh screening?"
"The screening room in Ogden. Harvey wanted us to see it."
"Last night. Midnight."
Soderbergh was royalty at Sundance. A couple of years ago, his film Sex, Lies And Videotape had transformed Sundance into the most significant indie festival in the world. I was so agitated and sweaty and full of rage that I ran to a phone booth and called Harvey’s PR woman.
Before I said a word, she asked, “Where were you? We sent you the invite. You said you were coming. You never showed up. And you sent an assistant? Harvey was not happy!"
That afternoon, my "assistant" filed a review of the new Soderbergh film on his website. Harvey had warned everyone that the film was incomplete so no reviews were allowed. But McNulty posted his review and scooped everyone. ("I secretly slipped into a secret screening for the oh-so-elite press of the still unfinished Soderbergh film. Even with temp music, even with a few scenes that lagged, it was a smash. Harvey has another winner.")
Harvey was apoplectic and I didn’t blame him. So were the other reporters who didn’t write a word about the film. Harvey called me. I tried to explain that my invitation had been stolen. He paused. He clearly thought I had lost my mind.
I called UTA’s headquarters and spoke to a senior partner there. No, they hadn’t rented a house in Park City. I told my editors what happened. They said not to worry. Although they — like Harvey — clearly thought I must be on drugs.
And then the nightmare grew worse. Two days later the normally friendly woman who handled Robert Redford’s PR called me. Her voice was icy. "Two days ago, we sent you and a few other media people invitations to have lunch with Bob at Zoom. It was a private luncheon, correct?"
"I never got…"
"You sent this creepy guy who said he was your assistant which did not play well with Bob or any of us. Bob invited you, and you sent your assistant."
Her tone left me speechless.
"Well. have you seen what your assistant did? Have you gone online? Have you seen it? He took the entire luncheon, which was supposed to be off-the-record, and printed everything Bob said. Your assistant wrote that he would never be bound by Hollywood rules because he was a blogger and not a member of the elite press. Have you seen his fucking column?"
I had met her several times and she’d never struck me as a woman who cursed. I was too stunned to make apologies because she was so angry. And, God knows, she reflected what Bob thought. I wanted to flee Sundance. I wanted to return to L.A. that night and forget. I sent two emails and a long letter to Redford explaining what had happened. I told him about meeting McNulty at the airport and the two days of hell that followed. I didn’t quite grovel but, well, I groveled.
The story was so improbable that it was believable. Bob called me. But before I could continue groveling, he said, “Forget it. Let’s meet for lunch.” I thanked him — and knew that I would never, ever, write a harsh word about Robert Redford for the rest of my life.
The crisis passed. I had a good interview with Redford. I hoped my torment was over. I glanced at McNulty’s website. His comments about Sundance were snide. And what he wrote about rival bloggers –how pathetic and corrupt they were — consumed page after page.
After that, I caught glimpses of McNulty on Main Street, usually surrounded by a bunch of teens who’d discovered his site. Once I caught him looking at me. And I turned and walked away. But I realized that people were actually reading the creep’s site. It was ominous.
Soon after Sundance, my life changed. My newspaper began cutting back on editorial staff in the late 1990s. Management forced dozens of reporters and editors, many of them my friends, to take buyouts. They were replaced by kids in their twenties. With less people, the work load grew intense. It was journalism under pressure, day in, day out.
I was aware of the newspaper’s financial pressures but had never personally been affected. And then came a memo saying my expense accounts had been examined and I was way over budget. No more breakfasts at the Four Seasons on Doheny. Instead, I went to Hugo’s on Santa Monica Blvd where the ditsy waitresses never wrote down the order so that I once got tacos instead of scrambled eggs. And when I ordered scrambled eggs, they gave me oatmeal. (They had a scrambled eggs problem.)
I found out travel was slashed when I wanted to fly to Las Vegas to do a piece about a new Scorsese film, and my office said, “Hold off.” When my car was in its death throes. my office said, “Hold off.” When I got a memo saying my gasoline costs were too high, I knew it was over.
The fun of working for a big and important newspaper was gone. Print was in a brutal decline. It happened so quickly. The Internet destroyed classified advertising. One business manager after another was fired by the publisher. Online news sites which could report and write faster were launched. And snark became the rule rather than the exception. Traffic for sites like Gawker and Defamer and Jezebel and, yes, Hollywood Hills soared. McNulty had a perfect vehicle to write mean and furious pieces about other bloggers and to branch out into meaner gossip about actors. Whose film just failed and was headed into rehab? Which TV-turned-movie star had botched facial surgery and was getting fat and losing roles. The crueler the better.
Studios could only play along. In the 1990s, scoring the cover of Vanity Fair was the dream. No more. McNulty began interviewing actors and directors during junkets and then selling the silly 10-minute interviews to overseas outlets. Filmmakers, soon even famous ones, would do anything to help a movie open.
As Hollywood bowed to him, McNulty grew bolder with his demands. Lke free first-class tickets and hotel suites plus all meals to attend junkets or film festivals. Seats at the Golden Globes and Academy Awards.
The studios also paid for advertising on his site so he would write rave reviews. Studios who didn’t would see their movies trashed. It wasn’t honest. It wasn’t ethical. No one dared call it journalism.
And the reviews themselves became sources for amusement. Gone were the days of Pauline Kael and Vincent Canby. Now the quotes were from "critics" like McNulty without any film knowledge. "The Greatest War Movie Since Saving Private Ryan” … ”I Laughed Till My Stomach Hurt”… “A Better Film Than Star Wars”… And McNulty’s quotes were the most used.
The trades wrote articles about McNulty but never mentioned the pay-outs, the payola, the implicit bribes. No one did.
The years passed. I went to Sundance annually. I was making my usual plans for Park City and the Yarrow. I set up an interview with Redford and lined up meetings with directors and actors for films set to open with good buzz.
The day before I planned to arrive, my editor called. I knew as soon as he stuttered “Hi–i-i-i-" that it was something unpleasant he needed to say.
"Don’t be disappointed. Every department is cutting back," he explained. "We’ve decided to send only one person to Sundance."
And it wasn’t me.
I knew it was time to leave the paper. My son was entering college and his tuition was already saved. I could write a novel or play or, like everyone else, write a screenplay. I could try PR. Management had already offered me a buy-out.
But I wasn’t sure.
"The inmates have taken over the asylum." I said to my editor.
I didn’t say anything for at least a minute. "The bad guys have won," I said.
"We fired our film critic today," the editor replied. "We hired some kid to take her place from Slate or Salon. I forget which. He’s a child. Graduated Yale last year. He’ll go to Sundance. If it’s any consolation, he won’t be staying at the fancy hotel."
As much as I loathed our pretentious critic, she didn’t deserve what she got. None of us deserved what we got. I hung up the phone and wanted to smash my laptop and books and files against the office window 18 stories above Wilshire Blvd.
That night I went to a screening of a new Spielberg film. It was packed, of course. Everyone always wants to see the new Spielberg film. I tried to watch. I stared at the screen. But I saw nothing.
All I could think was how inevitable it was. Newspapers were dying and being replaced by the McNultys of the media world.
Afterwards, I began walking back to my car. I heard someone say, “Hey.” I knew who it was.
“Hi,” I said. I hadn’t actually spoken to McNulty in five years.
"Good film," he said.
"Spielberg is Spielberg," I replied.
We walked into the garage in silence and took the elevator to the third floor. He suddenly spoke, saying he was going to a party that night up in the Hills. Television people. Why don’t I join him?
Was he joking? I looked at him and shook my head, no.
So much had passed between us. The thefts. The lies. Why didn’t I just walk away? Instead, I stood there. He began smiling, then walked beside me to my Ford Escort. Just like that afternoon at the Salt Lake City airport.
"You going to Sundance?" he asked.
"No," I said. He waited. "Money problems at the paper. They’re cutting back." I looked at him. "I think the paper may die before I do."
He removed his wallet and handed me twenty bucks. "I owe you."
"You owe me nothing." I didn’t take the money.
Finally, he put the bill back in his pocket. "That’s my car over there. The new model." He pointed to a BMW a few feet away. He said, “Let bygones be bygones."
I couldn’t say a word. I hated this guy. But I stood there.
He mentioned a famous producer. "He’s offered me a development deal."
I nodded, though I’d never understood what a development deal was.
McNulty explained. "To work with him. To help him find young talent. That’s why we’re going to Sundance. He promised that I may even produce a movie of my own."
I had to ask, “And still write about the movie business?"
Bloggers. The new journalism. The old sleaze.
"It’s a three-day trip," McNulty grinned. "Join us."
He said they’d be staying in a suite at the Stein. That’s what he called it. The Stein. "I’ve got plenty of room. Come on. I’m sure he’d love to have a classy guy like you. From your newspaper. We’re seeing a few films, meeting directors, going to parties. This guy is 70. But he throws a party every night. You’ll have a great time."
I thought about it.