Hollywood Blogger Wars Part 2: Crackpot Ratings – Nikki Finke, Sharon Waxman, David Poland, Jeffrey Wells…
By Robert W. Welkos
The life of a Hollywood blogger can be exciting.
There are red-carpet premieres to attend. Oscar races to handicap. Film festivals in far-off locales to visit. Movie stars and cutting-edge directors to interview. And throughout the day, you have the freedom to voice your opinion on the Internet and people actually seem to care about what you think.
But being a Hollywood blogger also takes a personal toll.
“I consider it a 24-hour job,” said Sasha Stone of Awards Daily.
“Some day they’ll find me lying on the floor or dying at my desk. I believe in dying at my desk,” said Jeffrey Wells of Hollywood Elsewhere.
“It’s almost like vaudeville. For very little pay, you have to go out and give four or five performances a day and deal with the peanut gallery, the comments section, people barking back at you,” said Tom O’Neil of Gold Derby.
In fact, the only people who work longer hours and get less respect are Broadway dancers and the White House Press Corps, and we already know they’re CRACKPOTS!
In fact, if they had a Crackpot Scale of 1 to 5 (with 5 being biggest Crackpot), I’d give myself a 5 for believing Sam Zell would rescue the L.A. Times and 3-D was a vestige of the Beaver Cleaver ‘50s never to return.
As for the Hollywood blogosphere, the sad truth is that no matter how many cutting edge directors Anne Thompson of IndieWire fawns over at Cannes, or Kristopher Tapley of In Contention handicaps the Oscar race (Up in the Air breaks out of the gate and into the lead. Precious is charging hard along the rail at the quarter-mile pole. On the backstretch, it’s Inglourious Basterds weaving through traffic. Into the far turn, it’s Avatar pulling away by 24 lengths…and it’s The Hurt Locker winning by a nose!…), they will never get the eyeballs that Perez Hilton, who draws horns on Kate Gosselin and writes headlines like “Chelsea Handler Makes Us Pee Pee!”
Still, you can’t ignore these bloggers. They’re growing more influential by the day, while setting Old Media back on its heels.
Here are a few showbiz bloggers along with their HollywoodNews’ Crackpot Ratings: 5=Extreme Blogaholic; 4=Media Blogaholic; 3=So-So Blogaholic; 2=Reel Blogaholic; 1=Empress Blogaholic:
DAVID POLAND – MOVIE CITY NEWS
CRACKPOT RATING: 5 – Extreme Blogaholic
On file at the Internal Revenue Service is a 2006 tax document submitted by the Broadcast Film Critics Association, a non-profit group that each year hosts the Critics Choice Awards on TV. Many of the country’s leading TV and radio critics are members.
In the IRS file, the BFCA lists a $27,600 interest-free loan to David Poland’s Movie City News. The date of the note is Jan. 21, 2005. [Click here to view the IRS documents]
Poland said MCN never received a loan from the broadcast critics. Joey Berlin, who heads the organization, said Poland paid back the money in full with two checks. There is no record in the subsequent year’s tax files that shows any money being repaid by Movie City News.
What’s going on?
Berlin said the “loan” may have been inaccurately reported on the IRS Form 990, which all nonprofits are required to submit each year. “What happened was, about five years ago we did the ‘Ten Best Fest,’” Berlin said. “We thought it would be a great idea to screen all the Critics Choice nominees for best picture 10 days leading up to the show. It worked out well, but we got a sense from the studios that they didn’t really love doing it.”
Berlin said the screenings were held at the Pacific Design Center. “In renting the theater, we had made arrangements with the PDC to do it again the next year,” he explained. Since Poland had his own screening series, Berlin said, the critics group decided to let him take over the theater for his own screenings the second year.
“We really didn’t give him any money,” Berlin said. “We let him assume the asset we had, the rent of the theater. We didn’t cut a check to him. He paid it back in two checks. I remember that was something we carried over (as a projected uncollected debt). I had it in the budget for 2006. It doesn’t appear after that. It took David a while to pay us back.”
HollywoodNews could find no specific reference in the 2007 IRS Form 990 showing that Movie City News repaid the nonprofit group. “David is David,” Berlin said, “but as far as I’m concerned he remains an honorable and trustworthy man.”
Poland told HollywoodNews neither he nor MCN received a loan from the broadcast film critics. “It never happened,” Poland said. “Movie City News never got anything from the Broadcast Film Critics. They did a film festival I was party to,” he recalled. “I helped the BFCA put together (the festival) at the Pacific Design Center. They secured space and then decided they didn’t want to proceed. I did want to proceed.” He added, “The entire thing was repaid.”
There are few more controversial figures in the Hollywood blogosphere than David Poland. He seems to relish conflict and has an opinion about everything. He gets a Crackpot Rating of 5 because, well, because he’s David Poland. “He’s just not a nice guy,” one showbiz blogger told HollywoodNews. “He’s a very arrogant, egotistical guy” If you look at The Hot Blog, he repeatedly focuses on the business side of the industry. I don’t know what his qualifications are. I think he just pretends he knows everyone. It’s a house built on cards. He survives based on the impression he’s created.”
“I don’t always agree with David,” said a Hollywood publicist. “Sometimes I’m ready to kill him because David is David, but this is a business. None of them are pretending to any objectivity.”
Poland said he was writing “2,000 words a day before blogs existed.” This was 14 years ago, he said, when he worked 18-hour days, six days a week. “Basically, I was writing an enormous amount, part of that being I was young and stupid,” he recalled. “I was making good money but working twice as hard as everybody else and paid less.” A one-time festival manager, Poland has built Movie City News into a must-read website in the industry he writes about. He is a businessman who employs a full-time staff of “five or six,” he said, with another “half-dozen” on a part-time basis along with a dozen contributors.
He said MCN has a “base readership” of about 89,000, which goes up and down depending on the day. He said MCN has about 5 million page views a month during awards season, about half of that the rest of the year. The Hot Blog’s readership, he said, is smaller, “but bigger multiples.”
Poland said the website’s readers primarily work in the industry. “That’s what drives our business and keeps us in business,” he said. “We don’t sell ads off-season. We aren’t seen as a consumer buy.” In years past, the website has concentrated on box office and the awards seasons. But that may be changing. Poland has plans to update the website later this year. Still, he said, he doesn’t want the changes to sacrifice substance for style.
HARRY KNOWLES – AINT IT COOL NEWS.
CRACKPOT RATING: 4 – Media Blogaholic
Some may argue that the Austin, Texas-based Knowles deserves a full-blown Crackpot Rating of 5, but then you’d have to say every kid in the world who’s glued to their video games, who stuffs their mouths with Cheetos, and dreams of having the powers of Iron Man is a 5 crackpot. They’re not 5 crackpots. They’re America’s Future.
“He sort of caters to the fan boy,” one rival blogger said of Harry. “The kind of movies he gets thrilled about are event movies, tent-pole movies. He’ll say, ‘Great! They’re making another Spider-Man and this is the guy who will get to direct it? He looks like a flying tomato.’” There’s a legitimate question about Harry. What qualifies this guy to be on a pedestal? Of course, that question can be asked of any blogger?
The website Vulture once wrote of Harry: “How does a studio get Ain’t It Cool News’ Harry Knowles, the Internet’s easiest critic, to tell his readers not to see their movie? It is, technically, possible?” The website then quoted him: “I officially recommend skipping X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Fox refused to invite one (of) the AICN editors to an advance screening.” But Knowles told HollywoodNews he is “uncompromising” when it comes to movie reviews. “If I don’t like something,” he said, “it doesn’t matter if I am friends of a person or not. I got a long record.”
Knowles is not easy to miss. He once tipped the scales at more than 400 pounds. Now, he’s lost weight. “I got a Lap-Band procedure, and now I’m around 335 or so,” Knowles said. “I’ve got to lose about another 100 or 150 pounds.” Knowles used to be confined to a wheelchair. Now, he manages to hobble around on crutches. “I got hit by a dolly loaded with 1,500 pounds of movie memorabilia at a show I was setting up,” he recalled. Career-wise, fortune has smiled on Knowles. He got into blogging back in the mid-‘90s when there were few websites devoted to movies.
“I was first in a lot of ways,” he told HollywoodNews, recalling that the only other movie blog was Coming Attractions and it provided only “basic information.” “(Harry’s) first story was written a few days before the release of Independence Day,” said Roland Di Noie, AICN’s publisher, who said he provided Knowles with his $20-a-month dial-up Internet account to get started.
Today, AICN has 1.6 million unique visitors a month, Noie said, and 500,000 to 600,000 page views a day. One interesting thing about AICN’s web traffic, Noie noted, is that it receives its biggest spike at lunch time. “Between 11 a.m. (Austin time) and about 2:30 p.m., we experience an enormous peak – 20 to 30 pages a second. It’s 50% of our daily traffic. It’s a consistent hump.” Also, he pointed out, 50% of the traffic is centered in L.A. and New York.
While they haven’t done a demographic survey in about five years, Noie said, the last time they looked, 70% of the people coming to the site were male and 70% were between 18 and 35 years old, just the kind of demographic that Hollywood studios swoon over.
TOM O”NEIL – GOLD DERBY
CRACKPOT RATING: 4-Media Blogaholic
“Tom has told me that each year he likes to provoke controversy and say something controversial just so what happens is good for business,” said one competitor. “He’ll say, ‘Look at all the people picking on me!’ He likes having all these people linking to him.”
“This business is all about conflict,” O’Neil told HollywoodNews, adding “we all miss those days, when newspaper columnists Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons reigned supreme in Hollywood. I like drama and conflict,” he explained. “I think entertainment journalism should be entertaining. Part of our job is to put on a show.”
“Every year, he makes ridiculous claims,” said the competitor. “He said Moulin Rouge would win best picture or Dreamgirls or Inglourious Basterds. Usually, he’ll back off, knowing it would make him look like a moron. At the end of this year’s Oscar race, O’Neil realized The Hurt Locker would be tough to beat, but he stuck with Inglourious Basterds.”
“I felt at that point I had whipped up such a frenzy about it that like the good captain, I had to go down with his ship,” he said. “I couldn’t back off at that point.”
A constant presence in the media, O’Neil gets a Crackpot Rating of 4. O’Neil, whose Gold Derby blogs appear in the L.A. Times’ The Envelope, is critical of showbiz bloggers who rush to be first with an item without checking out the facts. “For the most part, people often just push stuff through,” he complained. “It’s so overly competitive out there that people will leap over journalistic protocol just to be first and live to regret it.”
Like a Broadway dancer, being part of the show is in his blood. “It’s certainly one of the toughest and most glamorous jobs in the whole world,” he said of blogging. “You’re putting on a show every day that has to wow people.”
Despite having achieved “senior statesman” status among his colleagues in the blogosphere, O’Neil can’t rest on his laurels. “I still have to be competitive and vital and bang out a lot of blog material all year long.” Yet, he still gets a kick out of blogging. “You get to ramp up the drama and take it to operatic lengths.”
A long-time entertainment journalist, film and TV critic, his obsession with show biz awards goes back to when he was editor-in-chief of magazine development for the Hearst Corp. He is the author of “Movie Awards,” “The Emmys” and “The Grammys.” In 1999, deciding that the Internet was killing books like his, he decided to launch a website and recruited about 40 journalists to contribute their ideas on who was going to win. He appears regularly on TV opining about all these entertainment.
SHARON WAXMAN – THE WRAP
CRACKPOT RATING: 4 – Media Blogaholic
A former reporter for the New York Times, Waxman now runs The Wrap. Some say she wants to be the next Arianna Huffington, a claim she doesn’t deny. We were thinking of giving Waxman a Crackpot Rating of 5, but that was before she landed another $2 million from investors, including Maveron, a venture capital outfit co-founded by Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz. She also recently announced that The Wrap will be an ongoing contributor to Howard Kurtz’s weekly Reliable Sources cable show on CNN and its coverage will also be part of Patt Morrison’s show on public radio station KPCC.
That isn’t enough to still the savage criticism by Nikki Finke of Deadline.com, who calls Waxman’s operation a “sinking ship” and adds: “The Wrap (aka The Crap), is having terrible money problems, and wholesale staff turnovers, and persistent inaccuracy woes, not to mention only miniscule web traffic.”
David Poland of Movie City News, meanwhile, rails at Waxman: “I just don’t get how someone can be as tone deaf as you in regards to the industry in which you do business. I am actually happy for the people who will work for you as you lose this next $2 million. People need jobs. You’ll be ghostwriting some retired exec’s memoir soon enough.”
In an interview with HollywoodNews, Poland said of Waxman: “She is one of these people you like when you first meet her, and then go, ‘What is her fucking problem?’” Waxman doesn’t consider herself so much a blogger as a businesswoman and editor. She wears many hats in her job. It’s harder, she noted, to read a spread sheet and convince people to fork over millions of dollars in investments than blogging. She said The Wrap employs 13 staffers and has plans to add three more reporters this year.
Waxman, a professional journalist with years of experience covering Hollywood, believes just because journalism is shifting to the Internet doesn’t mean reporters can leave their journalistic standards behind. “Check your facts,” she said. “Get the other side of the story. Give someone about who you have a piece of news a chance to respond before you publish. Correct your mistakes.”
It’s not just about breaking news, Waxman said. It’s about breaking news accurately. On the Internet, she noted, “There is so much pressure to get it out. People don’t have the training or they can’t overcome that impulse to push the button because it’s so easy.”
She recently called on Newser.com to cease and desist after she discovered the rival website was re-posting Wrap exclusives without giving credit. But Newser wouldn’t be cowed, and her critics have accused Waxman of hypocrisy saying her website does the same thing.
Waxman believes that by using three revenue streams, ad revenue, syndication and sponsoring special events, The Wrap will grow and prosper. It has 1 million unique visitors monthly and 2 million page views, she said. But oh that website! The front page looks as if it was designed by crickets.
JEFFREY WELLS – HOLLYWOOD ELSEWHERE
CRACKPOT RATING: 3 – So-So Blogaholic
Many would argue that Wells deserves a Crackpot Rating of at least 4, but we believe a middling 3 is accurate because of the originality of Jeff’s prose, the hard work he puts into his “daily stream-of-Hollywood-consciousness” column and the refreshing candor he brings to his reviews.
What other film critic would admit in writing that he ducked out of a screening to buy cough syrup and throat spray, walked into a bar where he avoided being seen by the film’s director, and then took up a conversation over drinks with a Swedish woman in a fur coat?
The film was Derek Magyar’s Flying Lessons. The occasion was The Santa Barbara Film Festival. “I don’t have to watch a film for a half hour or 15 minutes, even, to know it’s not working,” Wells later blogged. “I can tell within two or three minutes. I knew Flying Lessons was in trouble within seconds. It’s one of those ‘who am I really?,’ ‘I’ve made some mistakes,’ ‘maybe I should wake up?’ meditative dramas that makes you want to get a stiff drink — make that several drinks. Except I don’t like stiff drinks any more. A glass or two of wine is my limit.”
“But I needed to escape, so I did, and I went across the street to a first-class Argentinian restaurant. Beautifully designed place, old Spanish flavor, etc. And there, sitting at a small table with a friend, was Derek Magyar. And there I was (with) my press badge, so I didn’t say hello. Magyar is a youngish actor. Flying Lessons is his first stab at directing. The screenwriter is Thomas Kuehl. I know how difficult it can be to make a film even half-succeed, and I don’t want to be harsh or cruel. “So I kept my distance from Magyar and ordered my Pinot Grigio. I sat down at a table and struck up a conversation with a Swedish blonde who was wearing a long fur coat.”
Asked how he could review a film he didn’t fully watch, Wells candidly told HollywoodNews: “You would be fired if a critic at the L.A. Times or Arizona Republic or Sacramento Bee got up and left because he can’t stand a movie. But if a script isn’t working, you know it within 10 pages. It’s not like it’s going to get better.”
Wells loves to debate the merits of movies. “Every film is it’s own battle,” he said. “In arguing about it, you’re really arguing about cultural values, moral values, how we see each other, who we are.”
“Basically, people are afraid of not having him on their side, or having him say something bad about them,” one of his competitors said. “Partly it’s because he is like a ticking time bomb who doesn’t understand that there are probably things you might not be proud of.”
Wells, who has famously feuded with rival David Poland of Movie City News, took some mean-spirited ribbing when it was revealed that he once e-mailed 3:10 to Yuma director James Mangold requesting some on-set stills of the topless scene with actress Vinessa Shaw.
Wells points out that the request was part of a letter that “went on for sixteen graphs, covering this, that and the other thing, and that just one of those fucking graphs mentioned Shaw. And that a friend/ally of Lionsgate marketing hot-shot Tim Palen fed that letter to Nikki Finke because Palen had been pissed about my criticism of the “gay” Yuma poster campaign – it was a total dirty-pool scumbag payback move. And that Finke running it was a true expression of a back-alley mentality. The other fifteen graphs were about, you know, other things! The movie, the themes, the characters, my thoughts, etc.”
Wells, who has been running Hollywood Elsewhere on his own since 2004, has decades of experience in journalism and writing about film. His website notes that he began online writing with a twice-weekly online Hollywood column for Mr. Showbiz in October, 1998, and from 1999 to 2002 wrote the same column for Reel.com. He also has written for Entertainment Weekly, People, the L.A. Times Syndicate, the New York Daily News, Newsday, New York Times, Washington Post and other publications.
Wells, who now lives in New York City, said his typical day consists of rising at 6:30 a.m. and working on his website until 2:30 p.m. He then goes to the gym. After working out, he’ll spend a couple hours at Starbucks checking his website before before heading to an evening screening. Once back home, he’ll post more stories and photos on his blog.
“I have no life,” he said, “but I’m not mowing the lawn. What’s life? I think this is a great life. I don’t want to have peace and serenity when I’m older. I want to keel over on a Paris street corner coming back from a great meal.”
SCOTT FEINBERG – AND THE WINNER IS
CRACKPOT RATING: 2 – Reel Blogaholic
A graduate of Brandeis University with a minor in film, Feinberg, who also studied film at Yale, says his classroom studies don’t necessarily qualify him to write about the Oscar race every year, but his knowledge of film history does.
Feinberg gets a low Crackpot Rating because he sounds as if he knows what he’s talking about and knows more about movies than you’ll ever know.
As a 15-year-old, the Connecticut-based Feinberg watched all 100 movies on the American Film Institute’s all-time best movie list. When he finished with those, he watched hundreds of other films the AFI used in its selection process. “I wanted to watch all the Oscar winners.”
A certified “Oscarologist,” Feinberg believes one of the dangers of Oscar blogging is that it can become a “echo-chamber.” “At some point, you wonder if what everybody is writing about is what’s actually happening or just what everybody else is writing about” he said.
As a result, Feinberg goes the extra mile, chatting up Academy voters and interviewing Oscar contenders to see which way the wind is blowing. “I speak regularly by phone with sources onboth coasts, frequently meet up with those located on the East Coast, and try to get out to L.A. at least two or three times a year to check in with sources based there,” he said. “Numerous studio publicists invite you to come to their studio lot for lunch or come by and have coffee, because they understand we really do set the agenda at the start of the season.”
“At Toronto, there are some films that are killed on arrival by Oscar bloggers,” he said. “They have no chance of getting beyond Toronto. One of the films that the bloggers kept going a long time was Juno. I have to take some credit for that. I was there the first night it was ever shown in Toronto. It had a screening the week before at Telluride. Going into that (Toronto) screening, I had been in touch with friends of mine. Fox Searchlight was convinced they had an Oscar hopeful in The Savages. They were more interested that we got into The Savages than Juno. I was absolutely blown away by (Juno). It got a lengthy standing ovation and provoked a lot of emotion. I felt it and a lot of others felt it. (I thought) we got a real Oscar contender here. The studio planned to release it shortly after the festival, but then, largely because of the strong responsefrom Oscar bloggers at the festival, said, ‘Wait a minute, let’s hold it until later in the awards season.’”
Feinberg notes that all showbiz bloggers are not alike. While websites like The Wrap and Deadline.com concentrate on covering entertainment news, Oscar blogs like his, Kristopher Tapley’s In Contention and Sasha Stone’s Awards Daily concentrate on the awards season, although even that is now changing as awards websites try to become year-round destinations. Feinberg believes that while most Academy voters don’t read Oscar blogs, the mainstream media do.
“Our impact works like this: we are often first ones to identify and point out to a sizeable audience a story line that we picked up on,” he said. “Then I think if it’s interesting enough or salacious enough, whatever, larger and more mainstream media organizations link to us and it becomes part of a larger discussion.”
Feinberg is quick to point out that he doesn’t consider himself a film critic, per se. “I have to constantly correct my dad. When friends ask him what I do, he often says, ‘Oh, he’s a film critic.’ I’m not afilm critic. Critics have to see every movie, including all of the junk. I’m spared having to see Norbit, All About Steve, and Cop Out. They’re off my radar.”
“I want to make this clear,” Feinberg said. “I don’t have a wife and kids, so at the moment my work with film is the central passion of my life. I really enjoy it, but I also take it very seriously.”
SASHA STONE – AWARDS DAILY
CRACKPOT RATING: 2 – Reel Blogaholic
Stone said she “easily works 12 hours a day, seven days a week.” She lives in a two-bedroom apartment in the Valley, has a daughter, Emma, who will soon be 12, and worries that she’s in a job where there is no pension.
She rises at 5 a.m., takes Emma to school, works all day on her website, eats, then works some more. She’s been doing this since Emma was a baby. “I do spend a lot of time with her while working,” Stone said. “She didn’t have to go to daycare.”
Motherhood or keyboard? Which child is most important? Stone deserves a low Crackpot Rating of 2.
She’s been predicting Oscars for more than a decade. In 1998, she created Oscarwatch.com, where her objective was to examine the Academy Awards race early, “follow it throughout the year and try to figure out why certain movies were considered ‘Oscar movies,’” she writes. It was about this same time that Tom O’Neil was launching Gold Derby, she noted. Both websites developed active message boards.
“My most proud moment as a predictor,” Stone writes, “was when Halle Berry and Denzel Washington won the same year. I predicted it (along with a few others, like Ebert) The only other surprise pick I got right out of those I just mentioned was Marion Cotillard. Every single other one I got wrong. I am not someone who brags about how right I am all the time.”
It seemed weird to Stone that some movies won best picture when there might be another film more deserving. “It might have been The Silence of the Lambs and Bugsy,” she told HollywoodNews. “Why didn’t Citizen Kane win best picture and How Green Was My Valley did?”
For many years, Stone said, “I didn’t make a dime” off the website. Only recently has that changed, saying she now earns what a studio publicist might make. Her website was originally called Oscarwatch, but the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences came down on her, claiming she was infringing on its trademark. She argued that the use of Oscarwatch to describe commentary about the Oscars was fair use. Stone subsequently changed the name to Awards Daily.
“I’m completely obsessed and consumed with being a film fan,” she said. She attended graduate school at Columbia University “thinking I was going to become a filmmaker,” but when she got there, she realized filmmaking wasn’t for her. “I didn’t have people skills. I wasn’t able to talk to people and ask them to do my lighting. It freaked me out. I wasn’t very good at it.”
But while she doesn’t consider herself a journalist, she adheres to journalistic principles like few others in her profession. Stone noted that carrots are always being dangled in front of Hollywood bloggers by studios wanting to curry favor, but she has resisted. Stone said she has never been on a paid junket or set visit. And although she was invited to the Broadcast Film Critics Association’s Critics Choice Awards, she never attended. “We have to police ourselves because we don’t have editors to do that for us,” she e-mailed HollywoodNews.
NIKKI FINKE – DEADLINE.COM
CRACKPOT RATING: 1 – Empress Blogaholic
Having been bought out by Jay Penske’s Mail.com Media Corporation to the tune of $3 million to $14 million, depending on who’s doing the calculating, Finke’s future seems secure.
Finke gets the lowest possible Crackpot Rating of 1 because people think she’s a crackpot, but she has everyone cowering while she’s laughing all the way to the bank.
Disclosure: Blogger Scott Feinberg is a contributor to HollywoodNews.com