The newspaper office was located in a distant hallway of an
almost-abandoned and aging strip mall. The rent hovered around one
hundred dollars a month, which wasn't that bad considering the space
was not really an office but more of an unused space brought about by
poor planning and a complete lack of both contractor and owner
involvement. This worked well because the reality that the newspaper
wasn't much of a newspaper but Sean Agater, the sole member of the
newspaper staff, was dutifully cutting and pasting city council minutes
into the upcoming edition to add a needed, and final, eighth page.
Officially newsstand-priced at fifty cents per copy, the rag was given
away free to all county residents, whether they wanted to wrap fish or
The Condura County Leader was a flimsy tabloid shopper which
was stuffed to the gills with local merchant coupons and a few column
inches of hopefully insightful but rarely read, newscopy. Sean felt
that it was his journalistic responsibility to rail against the local
establishment when he felt wrongs needed righting, especially if he
needed to fill the non-coupon portions of an edition with
loosely-defined insights. In addition to his obligatory editorial, he
dutifully reported on local events with an emphasis on local sports and
movie reviews. The sports concentration helped increase his circulation
as frantic soccer parents were always looking for pictures and related
quotes attributed about their children but the movie reviews were even
less honorable as he chose that forum just to get into movies for free.
Billy Hatcher, the theatre owner, was reluctant to provide the free
passes but Sean's ability to convince him of the necessity of local
input eventually won the day but first-run movies at premuium showtimes
were always out of the question.
Finally satisfied that he had filled as much white space as
possible, Sean set an electronic copy of the galley to the printer. The
cost of the paper and printing was embarrassingly cheap but each time
he sent something electronic to be converted into actual hard copies, a
small cash-register ringing sound went off in his head. Technology had
done wonders for little newspapers; allowing a single person the
ability to quickly layout page panels, quickly edit and reformat sizing
issues and manipulate whole editions without caring about old-fashioned
typesetting and production run schedules but it all still had to be
placed on paper for the masses.
With the week's paper put to bed, Sean took a moment to survey
the rest of the day's activities. He knew he needed to go out and
canvass his group of customers and push them into larger expenditures
and longer term commitments regarding their classified advertisements.
He knew down deep that his paper rarely provided any local merchant any
tangible good but at worst, it was harmless and at best, a possible
slight uptick to their business. There was also a new movie opening up
at the local theatre, a big budget remake packed with a stable of
highly bankable stars. The production company was marketing the hell
out of it and Sean was going to use his official press pass to catch
the opening night for free. Billy allowed him one pass per movie but
balked at Sean's suggestion for free refreshments or an occasional
second pass for a potential date. As a member of the fourth estate,
Sean was forced to choose his payola carefully but he still felt that
he was a few bucks ahead no matter what it may have caused somewhere
out there in the worlds of hard-hitting journalistic excellence.
"Just the usual conflict of interest," thought Sean when he
entered the theater. It was the only theater within twenty miles and as
a result of its location, it rarely hosted a first-run movie but
this movie was scheduled with a hyper-aggressive release due to the
pressure from Hollywood to make as much money as possible in the
shortest amount of time possible. Most of the community relied on a
variety of newer technologies to get the new releases but going to the
movies still was a worthwhile night on the town. He waved at the
proprietor and went to his usual seat in the last row. From that
vantage point, he could watch the picture and still assess the crowd's
reaction (or lack of reaction) to the movie. He might have used the
power of his position to wrangle free admission but he still wanted to
do a good job as a point of pride. News was news so Sean had to treat
it all the same and hope for the best, no matter what his internal
dialogue was expousing at that moment.
The movie began and during the first ten minutes, Sean knew
this was going to be an unmitigated bomb of almost ecumenical
proportions. The ubiquitous previews had been playing for the last
month and while Sean had expected to see something special, he knew
immediately he was going to be sorely disappointed. For decades, the
movie industry knew the importance of professional previews by expertly
cutting up their new releases to give the impression of a modern-day
epic or a "thrill ride packed with both laughs and adventure."
Hollywood had gotten so good at this packaging, previews were becoming
notoriously inaccurate as all movies came across as winners. Although
audiences knew the drill and still enjoyed the sneak peaks; they always
hoped for the best as collective cynicism was never too far away.ccccc
While the movie had been hyped mercilessly for the last couple
of months with an outstanding preview package of selected scenes, Sean
began to worry when all the previewed scenes were used up in the first
few minutes. This phenomenon was a good indication the remaining
ninety-nine percent of the movie would be brutal... and it was. The
bankable yet uninspired movie stars moved awkwardly from scene to scene
while their insipid dialogue and ham-handed direction combined to
create an expensive and embarrassing waste of time for all concerned.
The pre-show buzz was tightly controlled, with no usual opportunities
for the major newspaper and television reviewers to screen the movie
prior to its formal release data. It was obvious any word of mouth was
going to sink this movie within the first ten days with no hope of
salvaging any money through DVD or foreign releases so the studio's
plan of a hit and run release strategy was obviously being employed.
This was a large, stinky bomb with no redeeming features and Sean knew
it was time for him to stick the Condura Country ink-filled dagger into
its lardy and marbled heart. The movie was named "Great Plains" but Sean mused to himself on his way home that "it should
have been called 'Great Heaving Pains of Nausea-Induced Cloying Excrement.'"
He went home and uncharacteristically began to think about work. This
movie was not only an insult to all sober people, intelligent or not,
it represented all things evil when it came to Hollywood's lack of
interest in producing anything worthwhile. Sean began to build a litany
of the movie's shortcomings but then realized that it really didn't
matter whether or not he skewered it or not; he was small time and
people were going to see it no matter what he wrote so he decided to
take the high road and attempt to say only nice things about it. People
never had listened to him in the past when he told the truth so
flipping the transitive logic on its head; he decided that it was time
to reverse the polarity of his opinions. Initially, his approach of
accuracy above truth was enough to get him started but it slowed down
his train of thought. He finally abandoned that exercise and punched
out this review:
"Great Plains ... Just Great"
I just left the theater after experiencing a thrill ride packed
inside a saddle bag. The movie "Great Plains" has been all the buzz in
Hollywood this season as mega-movie stars and two award-winning
directors collaborated on an extravagant re-telling of the rich,
storied Wild West.
Starring current "sexiest man" Del Monroe, the lovely Pindi Hanscomb
and a strong cast of supporting stars in roles that compliment both
story and picture, Great Plains begins with a cinematic tour de force
and doesn't let up until the final credits roll. The story is a
straightforward telling of good against evil with insightful writing
and direction; the audience gets pulled into a world of drama and depth
not often seen in cinema. Similar to a western version of Citizen Kane
that meets Oklahoma!, Great Plains delivers a story that educates and
entertains. In fact, it is edutainment™!
I say to "run, don't walk" to Great Plains. Not only is it a
classic retelling of the western, it is a unique and moving tribute to
the excellence of talented stars which come together to have a movie
which shines brighter than the brightest stars in the Western skies.
Sean looked at his written words and needed to take a shower after this
review but he justified his fiction because there was no reason to
attack a piece of art; even one as lumpy and derived as this piece of
celluloid crapola. He quickly filed the piece on his next edition and
soon forgot about his foray into entertainment journalism and went back
to selling ads to the local merchants. No one asked him about the
review, no one chided him about his review and the days again began to
melt from one dull one to another dull one again as usual.
A few weeks later, a package arrived at the office. Neatly packed
in an overnight delivery envelope was a portable DVD player with the
logo of a well known movie studio. A note attached to the gift said,
"Thanks for the great work." Sean was stunned; it was his first piece
of official swag and it was definitely a step up from the usual key
chain, mouse pad or lanyard that occasionally showed up due to his
membership in a wide variety of pseudo-industry associations. Little
did he know was that his positive review of the recent movie was the
only piece of positive press the bloated movie received worldwide.
A few days later, a series of tear sheets arrived from major market
dailies with his actual review prominently displayed on the movie's ad.
They had edited creatively but the words were his so there no quibble,
other than his original intent based on his integrity, was forthcoming
from the newly referenced critic.
"Great Plains Just Great"
"Great Plains is a thrill ride packed inside a saddle bag."
- Sean Agater, Condura County Leader
In just a few weeks, Sean had quickly gone from a one-person
newspaper operation to a full fledged media whore. The pangs of bruised
integrity were quickly justified as a way to assist the local theatre
to continue to survive in the face of DVD rentals and movies on demand.
He felt that Billy couldn't take two weeks of an empty theatre and that
his opinion was just that; one person's take on the movie. The pain
went away quickly when friends and customers commented on seeing his
name in national papers and on television commercials and strangely
enough, no one ever told him that the movie was crap. Sean didn't know,
but had suspected, that the reason his name was proclaiming the overall
wonderfulness of the movie had something to do with the brutal truth
that out of three thousand potential reviews, his stood alone as the
sole positive one.
Great Plains quickly and mercifully suffered an ignominious death
and quietly lay dormant until the year-end review of the best and worst
movies of the year. A likely Razzberry award winner, even the studio
disavowed any formal connection with it by forcing the ownership to a
small, independent studio. A few phone calls and some quiet funding,
allowed the studio to extricate its name from the mess and just as
quickly as the problem arose, it faded.
Sean enjoyed his new-found fame but it was not just nods of
appreciation of the local folks; his name started to land on key
contact lists of all the studios with invitations to upcoming premiers
and junkets. No one ever wanted to know about the Condura County Leader
but everyone in the business wanted his attention. Just like an umpire
with a forgiving strike zone, Sean was quickly identified as a friend
of the incompetent and lazy filmmaker so his circle of friends grew
exponentially with each passing gushing review. He was fine with any
minor issues of guilt because it really didn't matter what he
momentarily thought during the movie: no one died or no one would feel
his opinion was unjust to their movie-going plans. Hey, it was his
opinion against everyone else.
As Sean finally made peace with his sellout; more and more packages
were arriving every day with advanced DVD's of yet-to-be-released
movies, apparel of all types proclaiming both movie titles and studio
affiliation, gift baskets chocked full of entertainment tschoskie and
the periodic phone calls from top-tier stars which occasionally smelled
of growing desperation. As these events transpired, Sean did his share
by dutifully going to each movie and no matter of trite or insulting
the movie, he could find enough to justify his small town thumbs up.
This span of control also grew as his invites evolved quickly from
local, to statewide, to regional and finally to national sources.
As the fame grew, it would have been easy for Sean to completely
lose himself in the charade but he remained calculating with his
praise. He could not be a complete shill for all new movies; even he
had his limits but he knew enough to bury a bankable sentence within a
tepid review as accuracy became synonymous with truth. No one ever read
the whole review as studios just needed a few words to proclaim over
the front of the movie's newspaper ads. He was surprised that his
circulation had grown significantly with all the studios now
subscribing to his paper and paying both full newsstand price and
postage as they were in need of tear sheets to prove his opinion did
It was easy to allow his newfound celebrity to gain momentum but
since it was based on a sham, Sean quietly and continually fought the
momentum. If his stuff was too blatant, he would either cause other
journalistic bottom feeders to follow suit and oversaturated the market
or bring official journalistic attention to his strategy and run the
risk of being ostracized even further from the mainstream trough. As he
sat in the basically abandoned mall, he couldn't image what rung he
could still fall down but he was confident that it existed.
The office was filling up nicely with studio giveaways and he had
gone as far as framing some of the more impressive correspondence on
the wall. A framed Great Plains movie poster was the back wall's
centerpiece, complete with gushing personal thanks from each of the
movie stars involved with the debacle. That original sin was now safely
behind him; the movie fell so fast off the charts that no one ever
thought twice why he was the only person that liked it. He was finally
making some money; ads were consistently being renewed and the newly
paid subscribers were turning a nice profit by themselves. And thanks
to a recent epiphany he had regarding the anguish that came with
actually managing a subscription list, other opportunities seemed to
pop up like little prostituting mushrooms.
As his usefulness grew within the studio hierarchy, he was addressing
and bulk mailing several hundred copies of the Leader to the Hollywood
studios and production offices in Vancouver, Mumbai and New York. Many
of the larger studios requested additional dozens of copies to land on
secondary executives' desks as the amount of mail was one of the
barometers to a mogul's standing within the community. Piles of trade
papers, major dailies and one-offs like the Leader would be stacked
conspicuously on a side table of each executive every morning on the
off chance they would take the time to review them but they never did.
Originally clipping services were used to crop any appropriate story
but a small pile of clippings was far less impressive than an uncracked
stack of periodicals and tabloids. One could copy web pages, if
available, until they were blue in the face because nothing said
success than a mountain of uncracked mail.
Each morning, well before the senior executive arrived at their
office, a hard-working production assistant would take the entire pile
from yesterday and throw them away and replace it with the new day's
harvest. This would be re-created in hundreds of production offices
throughout the industry. If there was anything that needed to be
referenced (which was very rare at best, if fact, never), the research
folks could pull it up off the web and messenger it over (senior
executives were too busy to read electronic mail) within fifteen
minutes of the small-minded request but nothing was ever said by
Sean learned about this practice at an industry function and saw an
opportunity for himself to actually reduce his official workload. He
began to send a bulk packages of each edition to the general mail stop
of the studio with instructions to make available to all subscribing
executives on demand and no one cared. The mailroom would stack each
edition and save time distributing, the executive had one less thing to
think about reviewing, the research folks would clip a single edition
and archive it digitally and Sean saved twenty hours a week by shipping
cartons instead of individual copies but still charged the studios the
same amount for postage because changing anything in Hollywood was far
more difficult than leaving things the same. Finally, the
administrative staffs and mailroom were happier because they could
throw away a large box of Condura County Leaders much faster than
throwing away individual eighty copies.
Sean walked into his office one morning and found three identical
packages from a major studio, the distributor and the production
company. Each one was filled with new promotional material for an
upcoming blockbuster. All three companies, in typical Hollywood form,
had no idea about coordinating marketing initiatives, had sent him the
same gift: the latest portable DVD player, two tickets to the premiere,
dozens of gift certificates from national retailers, two open-ended
plane tickets, a hotel suite reservation, a limousine hotline number
and an invitation to the exclusive post-premiere party. The total
retail value of each gift had to exceed seventy-five hundred dollars
and he was sitting on three of them.
Although the attractive merchandise was a victimless crime (at
worst), he decided to return two of the packages with personal notes
that stated two outright lies: the first was that "none of his staff
were not going to be able to attend" and the second one called to their
collective attention that three packages were sent and he encouraged
them, in an extremely nice manner, to "better coordinate their
campaigns with his other offices." He debated whether or not to add the
suggestion but he couldn't ignore the last vestiges of integrity which
still rattled around inside him. He hoped they would view the two lies
in combination so they would view him as a larger entity than
originally hoped while at the same time realize that he was honest man
in a dishonest world.
This movie was rumored to be an even bigger bomb than Great Plains and
the promotions department was taking no chances on their end. Directed
and produced by the same infamous Great Plains team, the lessons
learned the first time around apparently had not hit home. Another
stable of legitimate A-list celebrities were thrown together with a
script which was suffering from its fifth writing team with absolutely
no hope of salvation. The original rights were purchased from an
obscure author for a purported seven-figure price tag during the heyday
of desperate studios starving for new ideas. The book was a critical
sensation but the intricateness of the plot line was deemed too
delicate to throw out on the large screen. In typical contrarian
fashion, when faced with the need to a subtle touch, the studio decided
to go the opposite direction ... badly. Rumors of the movie quickly
adding disjointed car chases and ejaculations of pyrotechnics were
appearing via the rumor mill, which further sent the stench of failure
out into the movie community.
The movie had suffered from several missed deadlines including two
holiday windows. Hemorrhaging money, the movie lay wounded in
post-production with mountains of unedited scenes, yielding no
salvation or hope for the studio. The studio executives, many named
Alan Smithee, were holding closely guarded meetings all focused on one
brutal truth: they again had a crap picture and had to recover as much
money as possible before the inevitable word of mouth rightfully and
mercifully killed it. The most optimistic estimates had a three week
window of satisfactory receipts and if their luck held, they could
recover at least half of their budget before the jig was up. A moderate
number of hermits and head trauma sufferers would eventually rent the
DVD or watch it on a premium channel to grab another ten percent of the
budget with the rest coming in international release. Spending two and
a half years to break even was not ideal but at least everyone would
not lose money and in Hollywood, those brutal truths combined together
to be considered an official success.
Sean got a few phone calls from the marketing leads making sure
they could count on him for a timely review. That was a less than
subtle request for not only a quick turnaround, but for a much needed
glowing review including his now-trademark use of the one sentence
money shot. Over the last twenty movies, Sean had perfected the ability
to compose a single sentence which combined alliteration and enthusiasm
to drive a higher than average number of movie goers than any other
reviewer. Sean felt it was time to compose another pithy adulation but
instead of his usual new habit of writing his review before he saw the
movie (seeing the movie usually caused writer's block), Sean was going
to actually watch the movie and then punch out his review upon
returning to the paper.
The movie, "Juno's Fountain," was planning its world premiere about
three hours away from his office so Sean decided he would attend this
premiere. He had attended a few medium-level movies but this one was
going to be huge. Studios, when faced with a perfect storm of a
horrible, expensive movie will usually do the opposite of common sense
and throw even more money at the congealing mess. As he arrived, he
flashed his credentials (he had been sent four separate sets) and was
met by a beautiful production assistant and escorted to a VIP seating
area. A waitress immediately met him and took a drink order. In the
short duration of fifteen months from the beginning of his epiphany,
Sean was sitting in a Hollywood premiere, drinking champagne at
approximately ten dollars a sip, being chatted up by a stunning woman
and if popcorn was available, he would likely have it in a silver
bucket with each kernel pre-chewed and placed in his mouth by some
"Sean!" A dark-haired oily studio lieutenant slithered up to him and
shook his hand with a two-handed grip dripping with insincerity. He
would usually toss in some odd and well-rehearsed spontaneous lyric
like "I am knee deep in the hoopla" but luckily for Sean, he was
staying on point tonight.
"Good evening, Billy. Thanks for inviting me."
"It wouldn't be a party without you," lied Billy as he looked around for his other assigned targets.
The toadie had approximately ten folks to glad-hand that evening and
was using the same, lame line with each one of them. All of them,
except Sean, had fawned appropriately when hearing the lie. Sean just
smiled and sat down again and began to survey the situation: beautiful
people walking around with both eyes in the mirror and non-stop talking
on all things dealing with their career or the career of someone they
hated. Billy handed him a press kit within a new leather bag adorned
with the movie's title. In the old days, Sean would have immediately
looked in the bag to see his new treasures but he had recently hit the
saturation point with gifts. By his last count, he owned thirty DVD
players, ten complete studio libraries of movies, dozens of sweaters,
jackets, coats, vests, shirts and so much related merchandise he had to
rent additional storage space because he couldn't bring it home or give
it away to friends fast enough to stem the tide. He got the high sign
to leave the VIP area and wander down the red carpet into the movie
itself. As he walked, he remembered his first trip down the red carpet
and how alive he felt: people wanted to be him and everywhere he
looked, camera flashes followed. This time he felt like one of the
whores that were brought in for the Dirty Dozen: there for a specific
purpose for some folks who were not coming home alive after this
Sean got comfortable and began watching the movie. He always loved
movies and even today, tried to give himself up completely to the film.
When the lights dimmed, he felt excited with noticeable increase in his
heart rate and sincerely hoped for the best. It was still magic time
and every once in awhile, he could actually lose himself in a movie and
be transported to the director's intended destination. However, "Juno's
Fountain" was not one of the movies; it was the antithesis of any
measurement of a good movie with the only positive note coming from the
fact that Sean did not burst into fire during its showing. He was
afraid of this and the movie, just like Great Plains,
was not allowed to be (re)viewed earlier by numerous critics that would
have trumpeted its failures to all corners of the literate world. He
was a pro with bad movies but once the depth of its awfulness was fully
understood, Sean didn't know what to do: there was nothing that could
be remotely considered a positive or entertaining attribute and he felt
he wanted his money and time back from the exercise and he hadn't even
paid for a ticket. The movie clocked in at a painful one hundred and
ten minutes of slow, moist torture and within the first fifteen minutes
Sean began to suffer an eye-crossing headache which he attributed to a
lack of testicular integrity combined with the slow, deliberate assault
on his senses. This one was far worse than Great Plains with no
redeeming value whatsoever combining with a total and obvious disregard
for the author's original intentions. The author was either
contemplating suicide or spinning frantically in the ground and while
he felt bad for the total destruction of the genesis of the initial
intent of creating art. The thought that continued to run through his
mind as the pictured labored in front of him was how these people could
have been given this amount of financial responsibility in light of no
existing talent combined with the brutal reality of the estimated
length of this evening.
After the movie, Sean got up from his seat and wandered to the
post-premiere party with no plan or hope for a clean getaway. He had
hit the wall with his remaining integrity and although he had to write
something non-horrible, he could not come up with one nice thing to
say. He was far past the little game of being accurate but not truthful
and usually, he could find some positive to accentuate, but this pile
of steaming crap had no redeeming social values whatsoever. He went
over to the bar and asked for a stiff drink, placed in a tall glass,
because this was going to be a bumpy ride.
"So, what did you think of it?" said Billy the handler. "I thought it was great."
Billy wasn't listening to Sean's expected response. He was too busy
looking around the room for other, more famous people to talk about
Sean took this as a sign from God. He quickly and calming said, "I think it was the worst piece of film since the dawn of time."
Luckily, Sean was right about his observation. Billy didn't hear a
word he said but he patted him on the shoulder and said, "That's super.
I will be right back, I want to say hello to an old friend."
That phrase was new Hollywood translated to mean, "I have no use
for you now. I am leaving you alone and find more interesting and
pretty people to stand within close enough proximity to get my face in
Billy wandered away while Sean assessed the vitriolic tone of his
statement. Usually he kept his real opinions deep inside his
subconscious because he never knew who may be listening. He could have
said some vague comment, dripping in sarcasm as Billy would not have
heard or understood it anyway but he decided to drop his truth pants
with both hands with the "I think it was the worst piece of film since
the dawn of time" comment. That was the truth and for the first time,
in a very long time, it felt good to let the steam out.
A mid-level studio executive spotted Sean and walked over to say hello. "What did you think?" asked the man.
"Ah, show business. I think it is time for another drink."
"I think I will join you," said the dark-suited executive. "It has been a long night already."
The man, obvious a studio executve, walked with Sean to the bar.
They clinked glasses and went their separate ways: it was time for
quiet reflection and a change in direction as they both felt the
presence of something else...and they both hoped it was the beginning
of the cleansing of their collective consciences but that line had been
uttered many times before.