Update: On Tuesday afternoon, the New York Times reported that Disney has rescinded its ban on Los Angeles Times critics.
Last Friday, the Los Angeles Times published its annual holiday movie preview, covering the season’s big releases from a number of entertainment providers — save one. “This year,” explained a “note to readers,” “Walt Disney Co. studios declined to offer The Times advance screenings, citing what it called unfair coverage of its business ties with Anaheim. The Times will continue to review and cover Disney movies and programs when they are available to the public.” This ongoing feud between Disney and the press escalated even further on Tuesday morning, with four of the country’s key film critics’ organizations — the National Society of Film Critics, the New York Film Critics Circle, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, and the Boston Society of Film Critics — announcing in a joint statement that they will not consider Disney titles for their forthcoming year-end awards.
“It is admittedly extraordinary for a critics’ group, let alone four critics’ groups, to take any action that might penalize film artists for decisions beyond their control,” the statement reads. “But Disney brought forth this action when it chose to punish the Times’ journalists rather than express its disagreement with a business story via ongoing public discussion. Disney’s response should gravely concern all who believe in the importance of a free press, artists included.” At first glance, this kind of awards season drama might read like little more than an inside-baseball story of silver-screen publicity. But considering the cascade of similarly troubling mandates that have been levied by the current occupants of the White House — the 2016 campaign trail, just for starters, saw reporters from many mainstream outlets blacklisted in reaction to what the Trump team perceived as unfairly negative coverage — Disney’s move seems like neither an empty threat nor even an out-of-the-ordinary First Amendment attack.
According to a source familiar with the matter, the Times wasn’t given warning or notification of the blackout. (Glenn Whipp, one of the paper’s entertainment reporters, later told IndieWire that their television critics have also been locked out of the online screening platforms for Disney’s television entities, including ABC, ESPN, and A&E.) The staff was merely told that there was “a situation” that would preclude access to screenings and talent. The Times’ subsequent calls and emails to Disney requesting further information — specifically, whether the ban was temporary or permanent, and what steps the company would ask the paper to take to have that ban revoked — have not been returned. This blackout has been met with widespread condemnations from industry observers and solidarity boycotts from fellow journalists, culminating in this morning’s announcement from the critics’ organizations.
There is, to be clear, historical precedent aplenty for banning critics from press screenings. Scathing reviews reportedly got Pauline Kael and Judith Crist banned, for periods, by Warner Brothers; Siskel and Ebert’s pan of Nuns on the Run got the pair banned from Fox screenings for a time in the early Nineties. Jonathan Rosenbaum, Rod Lurie, David Edelstein, Armond White, and Judy Gerstel all have stories of pans that resulted in blacklists.
But this is something altogether different, and more chilling. “It’s punishing one part of the paper for the perceived sins of a different part of the paper,” says Ty Burr, film critic for the Boston Globe. “Which seems completely antithetical to a free press, but also just crazy and punitive. And if they’re going to take issue with the story, they should be pressing for a correction, which they haven’t. They made public statements, loudly stating their displeasure with the story and their belief that it is biased and wrong, but they haven’t asked for any corrections. And you know that’s where you take your displeasure and your concerns with a news story. You don’t take it out by banning another part of the newspaper from doing their job.” (Disney representatives did not respond to Voice requests for comment on what, exactly, the Times got wrong.)
Retaliation of this kind is all but unheard of: About the only close precedent in recent film history is Premiere magazine’s 1998 feature “Flirting With Disaster,” a (now-prescient) investigation of hard partying and sexual harassment at New Line Cinema, which resulted in an indefinite shutout of the publication from New Line events. “They would not interfere if an outside publicist wanted to invite us,” recalls Glenn Kenny, then an editor at Premiere and now a film critic for RogerEbert.com and the New York Times. “But we would never get invited to an actual New Line screening. And that continued until the magazine folded. In a perverse way, I kind of admired their whole vendetta-based way of doing things.” (Kenny writes more about that story, and its fallout, here.)
Taken on its own terms, the Times affair is a fascinating snapshot of the way the balance in the relationship between studios (and their publicists) and outlets (and their writers) is tipping. It’s always been an arrangement of mutual tolerance: early access for critics, allowing for the risk that those writers’ reviews could be negative or even scathing. But with the kind of “critic-proof” material that Disney produces — not only its signature family films but also the much-hyped products of their Marvel and Lucasfilm subsidiaries — one could argue that the multimedia behemoth now has the upper hand.
“Honestly, Thor does not need any critic’s review — it doesn’t even need the L.A. Times review,” says Time film critic (and former Voice staffer) Stephanie Zacharek. “It’s just going to be what it’s going to be. The function of criticism today is not, and it never has been, to help studios promote their movies, even though they sometimes use it in that way.” And, increasingly, film journalists are willing to be used, particularly those at sites catering to rabid fan bases (like those of Marvel and Star Wars) that eagerly consume the latest casting announcements, posters, trailers, and interviews. The studios get free advertising and the outlets get clicks, and everybody wins — until, that is, a moment like this one. So while some sites and writers have chosen to black out Disney releases in solidarity with the Times (including the AV Club; Burr’s Boston Globe; Flavorwire, where I am the film editor; and Alyssa Rosenberg’s column at the Washington Post), others may well have grown too dependent on the content they provide to withstand the traffic hit.
“The thing is, studios have always been trying to control critics, and control what kinds of things are being said about their movies,” Zacharek notes. “This goes back to the days of the big movie star magazines from the Twenties and Thirties and image control in the studio system and all that. So it’s something that we’re used to, but I think this really is a kind of bullying: ‘We’re going to hold your access to our stuff. We’re going to hold that hostage unless you do exactly what we want.’ ”
And where does that leave the Times? “It’s kind of disturbing because I don’t see a really easy fix to what’s going on,” says Kenny. “I think Disney, having shown how it can untie the Gordian knot, they can just walk away and not look back, and never reinstate the privileges of the critics. They could just do that. They clearly feel emboldened.”
This much is true. But to most observers, Disney’s little stunt has backfired fairly spectacularly — and not just because the primary effect of the blackout, it seems, has been an uptick in traffic to the Anaheim stories. (Oh, you haven’t read them yet? Click here.) “I do think [this latest development] has an impact,” says Burr, a member of both the NSFC and the BSFC, regarding Tuesday’s joint statement from the critics’ organizations. “The critics’ awards come out earlier than the other more glitzy awards ceremonies and institutions, like the Golden Globes and the Oscars. [They help] set the conversation. So by saying, ‘OK, fine. You’re not going to play ball with us? We’re not going to play ball with you,’ it behooves some of the [Disney] creators to go to the studios and say, ‘I don’t think this is entirely fair, and my movie is being punished for it, I’m not happy about that.’ So that might be a point of pressure.” (Ava DuVernay, the director of Disney’s upcoming adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time, has already announced her support of the boycotting journalists.)
It seems safe to bet that this swirl of negativity was not the outcome the Mouse House had in mind. “It’s bizarre because it is so petty and so stupid, why would they even think of this as a tactic?” asks Zacharek. “For them to exercise this kind of control, it’s just…it’s mean, it’s ugly, it’s stupid. And worst of all, it just shows that they somehow believe in this idea that they can use their money and power to control the news.”
That may be what’s most striking about the entire controversy: the degree to which it falls into a troubling narrative of wealthy entities punching down at newsgathering organizations guilty not of malfeasance, but of less than acceptable reverence. Peter Thiel funded the Gawker case not to defend Hulk Hogan’s honor, but because he didn’t like the things that site said about him. When Sheldon Adelson bought the Las Vegas Review-Journal, he was able to bar its journalists from writing critically about him. And, of course, there is the press-hater-in-chief, who mounts near-daily attacks on the mainstream media and has threatened to sue newspapers for unflattering coverage and to “open up our libel laws” to allow sharper penalties against outlets that publish “hit pieces.” Like Disney, he cannot counter their reporting; all he can do is demonize them. (Taylor Swift got into this game on Monday, when an attorney for the pop star contacted a website to demand that an article critical of Swift be taken down.)
That kind of rhetoric, Burr notes, is affecting “how people talk about and think about news and information, and I think it has definitely emboldened people who are unhappy with news about them and information about them to push back in ways they would not have felt free to do five years ago, ten years ago.” And that response, he says, appears to “have legitimacy and room to maneuver in this particular cultural moment.”
Even the language of Disney’s statement is downright Trumpian. “Despite our sharing numerous indisputable facts with the reporter, several editors, and the publisher over many months, the Times moved forward with a biased and inaccurate series, wholly driven by a political agenda,” it reads in part. It may as well have a #FakeNews hashtag at the end. And without documenting the “numerous indisputable facts” they say the Times overlooked, or demanding a correction rather than petty payback, their claims have as little substance as Mr. Trump’s.
“This is the Walt Disney Company,” Kenny says, “which is supposed to stand for certain values, and they just don’t give a shit. They’re just coming out and saying, ‘Listen, we run you.’ They’re being completely unabashed about it. And I think it speaks to the time, and it’s a very Trump thing to do: It’s coarse, it’s vulgar, and they don’t care because, ‘Fuck you, you did something we don’t like, and we are retaliating.’ ”