The chairman of the Walt Disney Motion Pictures Group was aghast. "That certainly does cross the line," he said. "We would never, never, never, ever do that." His rather overly emphatic comment was my favourite of all the public reactions to the startling news that one of Disney's competitors, Sony Pictures, had invented an imaginary movie reviewer, invented his opinions ("Another winner!" "The year's hottest new star!"), and inserted the opinions in Sony movie ads. The Disney executive's nervous response, with its three nevers plus the added ever, made him sound guilty, too, though there seems to be no other reason to think that Disney has ever, ever done such a horrid thing.
And it was indeed horrid, by official agreement. This bizarre fraud was one of those odd little infractions of the rules that most people enjoy, many secretly admire, and everyone feels called upon to condemn. After John Horn of Newsweek uncovered Sony's little trick, shocked and appalled Hollywood journalists went off in pursuit of the sordid details. They identified the malefactors: Josh Goldstine, "senior vice-president of creative advertising," and Matthew Cramer, "director of creative advertising." In this case the word "creative," much loved by advertising people, held special meaning. Creatively, the two of them imagined a reviewer, David Manning (named for a college classmate of Cramer's) and gave him an imaginary job on the Ridgefield Press, an actual weekly paper in Connecticut. Then, presumably when they felt particularly creative, they dreamt up phrases that David might have written about their movies.
When they were caught, Sony punished them with a rebuke and 30-day unpaid suspensions. But that was far from the end of it. Quickly, the narrative arc, as movie people say, swung from indignation to litigation. On Thursday, two Los Angeles moviegoers, Omar Rezec and Ann Belknap, came forward with the claim that quotes from David Manning had fooled them into seeing A Knight's Tale. They accused Sony of deliberately deceiving them, in violation of the California Business and Profession Code. Omar and Ann apparently assume that movie ads are normally honest.
They brought a class action in Los Angeles Superior Court, on behalf of everyone tricked into seeing A Knight's Tale or any of the three other films advertised with Manning's opinions -- Hollow Man, Vertical Limit and The Animal. They have not specified damages, but each of the many thousands of potential plaintiffs will presumably be entitled to compensation for not only the ticket price, transportation and babysitters but also pain and suffering.
That last figure will be limited only by the imagination of the lawyers (they, too, are creative) and the sympathy of the jury. It's possible that a sensible judge will throw the case out before it starts, but no one experienced in American justice will count on that.
Meanwhile, over in Connecticut, David Manning's putative home, the publisher of the Ridgefield Press said he found it all amusing and harmless. But The Associated Press reported that the Connecticut attorney-general's office is "launching a probe" (let us pause briefly to salute that wonderful phrase, journalese at its purest) after receiving "complaints from the public."
What convoluted motives got poor Goldstine and Cramer mired in this scandal? Obviously, the need for quotes had nothing to do with it. Every movie, no matter how bad, attracts some praise, and advertising copywriters need only troll through 50 or 60 reviews to extract the admiring quotes they need. A recent ad in The New York Times for Moulin Rouge quoted two dozen critics, but used only one word from each, conveying no notion of how the word ("Outrageous," for instance, or "Amazing") was used. On the same day, an ad for Swordfish quoted three admiring critics -- one from WBAI, one from Dish Network, and one from SSG Syndicate. In the search for useful quotes, no outlet is too obscure (Dish Network is as useful as NBC or Time magazine) and no review is too negative to be mined for praise.
My guess is that Goldstine and Cramer were staging, in their obscure way, a protest against movie critics, movie advertising and the movie business. Like everyone who works for the studios, they know that critics don't matter to big-budget Hollywood movies. If they did, as a writer in The New York Times said the other day, then Pearl Harbor would have closed before it opened. Yes, and Chevy Chase would never have made a second picture and no one but their friends and families would recognize Sylvester Stallone or Arnold Schwarzenegger on the street.
So why are critics quoted in all the ads? The style of movie advertising was invented decades ago, when critical opinion could affect the future of a big movie. That was before the advent, in the 1970s, of multi-million-dollar ad budgets, which have buried or marginalized the views of critics. Today, critics matter mainly to small-scale independent and foreign films grasping for a corner of the market. But no one has got around to reinventing big-movie ads to reflect current realities. They remain laden with quotations from writers of whom the audience has never heard and for whom the moviemakers have nothing but contempt. The studios would probably do better to drop the quotes entirely. Rather than manipulating fragments of opinion to make a false impression, they could create a more effective language for their ads.
But of course, movie ads that set out to deceive are only typical products of Hollywood. For as long as anyone can remember, movie studios have operated on the principle that lying is normal. Every Monday, newspapers report the weekend grosses, a practice that has now become a central part of discussion about movies. How true are those numbers? Last February, David Shaw of the Los Angeles Times, in a four-part series on how the media cover Hollywood, wrote: "Virtually everyone in Hollywood agrees that most of the numbers the studios report to the media are inaccurate, if not downright dishonest."
In Hollywood, mendacity is a way of life. In that context, the invention of David Manning was a minor piece of chicanery, refreshing and in its way perhaps even illuminating.