February 8th, 2006
Writers, filmmakers, actors, and others in the media and entertainment industry, at some point in their careers will have to defend their art. But when the artist bows to public pressure and apologizes, or takes the opposite route and attempts to defend the indefensible, the public will exercise its right to turn their back on the artist which often leads to a career on a downward spiral. How an artist chooses to defend his or her work can make or break a career.
James Frey, author of 2005’s best-selling memoir “A Million Little Pieces” came under fire when thesmokinggun.com exposed events published in Frey’s tale of addiction and redemption as grossly exaggerated and in some cases, outright fictitious. The media firestorm that followed was a public relations nightmare for media mogul Oprah Winfrey, who endorsed Frey’s book on her show. Oprah called in to Larry King Live during Frey’s appearance to state that the message of his book is what’s important. When asked by Larry King whether she stood by Frey, Oprah didn’t answer. The talk queen’s daytime show was later inundated with letters from angry fans who questioned Oprah’s interest in the truth. Oprah later invited Frey back to her show and reamed him for deceiving her and the readers who purchased his book. Oprah then apologized to her audience and said she felt betrayed.
Oprah’s handling of the Frey scandal was perfect. In fact, Oprah is perfect and I don’t see how anyone could question someone who’s put as much effort into helping others as Oprah has. Frey on the other hand, hasn’t fared so well (other than sales skyrocketing since the scandal). Frey’s manager has severed ties with the author, Oprah has revoked her “Book club” seal of approval, and his publishing company is in the process of listing his book as “fiction” or branding it with the warning label “based on a true story”. Readers in one state are considering a class action lawsuit.
James Frey is not the first author to embellish facts, create dialogue, or change the names of characters in a memoir. But mishandling of the scandal and lying on national TV only made matters worse. James Frey defended what the media and his readers considered indefensible. Meanwhile, Oprah was lauded by reporters and pundits for apologizing to her fans. Embellishing facts in his book didn’t sink James Frey’s career…lying about it and going on record stating that he stood by the “facts” in his book did, especially when he returned to The Oprah Winfrey show and admitted he lied after adamantly sticking to his story on Larry King.
Hollywood wasn’t short on its own scandals last year when Michael Bay turned on the Ewan Mcgregor and Scarlett Johansson, who starred in Bay’s sci-fi action movie, “The Island”.
The movie was a first time flop for the “Bad Boys” director whose movies have often grossed over 100 million. Michael Bay publicly humiliated the actors, claiming Ewan Mcgregor wasn’t “A-list” and that he and Johansson were to blame for the movie‘s dismal box office and critical lampooning. According to an August 12th, 2005 report on imdb.com, Island producer Laurie McDougal said of Johansson, “even lesser television actresses would have more connection to that audience than Johansson did in The Island.” McDougal also said the two actors were not stars of today, but stars of the future. The actors were naturally upset. Johansson replied, “This is a clear-cut example of the producers passing the buck and not taking responsibility for their part in making calculated mistakes throughout the film’s marketing. (I am) proud of (my) performance and the film.”
And right she is indeed. Were the actors to blame for the movie’s failure? Were they right in defending themselves from the movie’s own director and producers? Absolutely. The marketing for the Island was abysmal. In fact, if Bay wants to blame the star of the movie he should blame himself since the The Island was advertised as a “Michael Bay” film. The movie’s success or failure rested solely on his name. Commercials for The Island lacked intrigue and featured not much more than Bay’s coveted action sequences. The plot was given away in ads, interviews, and commercials, leaving little to curiosity. Audiences are interested in more than explosions and car chases, which is the only thing promos for The Island promised. Steven Segal and Wesley Snipes are still making movies, but they’re going straight to video – which is exactly what happened to The Island after a short run in theaters as a result of bad marketing and bad press generated by the movie‘s own director. If the director isn‘t willing to stand by his art, then why should I waste money going to to see it? Scapegoating others for your mistake is the last thing you want to do when it comes to defending your art.
I eventually saw the movie after it was released on DVD and enjoyed it. Immensly. Even with forehand knowledge of all the plot secrets there was still intrigue, surprise, and humor. The movie did go on a tad too long and Bay raised a lot of questions he couldn’t [ or didn’t care to] answer simply because he wanted a cheap explanation as to why Lincoln Six Echo could fly, drive, or ride motorcycles. But it was still a terrific action movie, with great performances by two good actors. Ewan Mcgregor can’t be blamed for the Island’s failure. Mcgregor was the lead in Tim Burton’s “Big Fish” – a critical and box office success, which proves Mcgregor can work with a big director [like Burton] with good results. Internationally, The Island grossed roughly 160,000,000, compared to 35,000,000 domestically. Could the small domestic intake have more to do with the negative news coverage in the U.S., compared to what someone overseas might [not] have read? Rates from audiences have been favorable.
Michael Bay’s biggest mistake was refusing to stand by the actors, his movie, and not defending his ART! The Island was one of the better movies released in 2005. Imagine if the suits at Dreamworks went The Matrix route with the promo line, “What is the Island?” and built intrigue around that one premise. When Steve Buscemi’s character “McCord” gives his “You’re not real people” speech, imagine the mushroom cloud. But alas, it would never be. Bay thought he could make a movie on his name alone and out of place action sequences. The DVD is a snooze, as Scarlett and Ewan didn’t do commentary. I guess that’s what happens when you screw over your own actors, and I doubt Bay will be able to get an a-list actor to do one of his films after this fiasco. Who could trust him? Star Wars director, George Lucas took a critical beating after the release of his prequels. Hayden Christensen, who played Anakin Skywalker was also blasted and called a bad actor. But George Lucas stood by his decision to cast Christensen and defended all three prequels which went on to make over four hundred million each. In defending his movies, he gave fans a reason to see the next one. That said, Johansson and Mcgregor showed class and [pardon the cliche] “grace under fire” in their defense of the work they did on The Island, while Bay managed to make himself look like an ego-maniac and a jerk.
Sometimes saying nothing at all is the best way to deal with scandal. Tom Cruise, star of last summer’s War of The Worlds became the target of a media lynch mob when he jumped on Oprah’s couch and later criticized Brooke Sheilds on the Today Show in an interview with Matt Lauer. Insiders thought bad press would hurt ticket sales for his new movie with director Steven Spielberg. While the scandal had little to do with his art, it did make for a publicity nightmare that might have done considerable damage to War of The World’s box office. What did Cruise do? Nothing. He refused to comment or fuel the media firestorm. War of The Worlds earned over 200 million domestically.
If you’re ever in the unpleasant position of having to defend yourself or your art, rule of thumb is don’t turn on those around you… you might need them. And if you’re ever in the wrong (or appear to be), go the Oprah route and apologize…and if the scandal is speculation, follow in Tom Cruise’s steps and say nothing at all!
– Erica Hughes
Defending Your Art
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