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“Second Union, the Death of Entertainment Journalism, and the Birth of Industry-Friendly Publishing” or “Diogenes at the Castle Walls*”

I write reviews all the time. I enjoy the analysis of pop culture in addition to observing the “industry.” “Industry” is shorthand for those who have connections attempting to reinforce the castle walls against the people who don’t have connections. At least that’s how I romanticize the relationship. It’s strange that the people with the least amount of talent always get the most work, and I’m not just talking about Hollywood. In all walks of life, the hustlers and hacks (in short, the bullshit artists) get the jobs. It’s second nature for them. They’re quick to race to the doors and glad-hand anybody who will give them five minutes of their time.

Okay, that’s fine, except that I hear plenty of stories about the people with connections either stealing ideas from truly talented individuals and wasting other people’s time and hard work just so they can feel better about themselves and their precipitous stations in life. These are the risks of entertainment journalism as well as trying to get your foot in the door so you can dazzle the big wigs with your creativity. I’ve written for several publications, and I’ve seen it all go to hell in the last few years. I figured there was something wrong when I noticed popular publications were being inexplicably bought up by conglomerates.

Case in point: the purchase of Television Without Pity back in 2007 by NBCUniversal Media. Before the purchase, Television Without Pity offered biting, scathing analysis, both brutally sarcastic and hilarious. After the purchase, the site died out and by 2014 was scrapped. This is a bit like a film studio buying a film review website so that … well, you see where I’m going with this. I’ve always thought there was something wrong with payola, but it’s become standard practice. I worked at a video store way back in the ’90s, and my manager told me in no uncertain terms the store was paid by distributors to prominently place their candy and soda. Distributors who didn’t pay saw lackluster exposure and, more often than not, their unsold items would be returned. You gotta pay if you wanna play!

Is it possible that routine objective journalism has gone the way of 8-track, pet rocks, and disco? With the rise of the internet in those halcyon ’90s, the surface level antipathy that filmmakers had for their critics began to bubble up more intensely and, as everyone with a computer saw themselves as armchair movie and television analysts, the value of the professional film critic declined. Websites like Ain’t It Cool News and Film Threat became kingmakers for modern independent and mainstream cinema, but the writing was already on the wall when it was revealed that Harry Knowles, the stalwart webmaster for Cool was receiving financial kickbacks from studios looking to market their movies to Cool’s youthful demographic.

In 1991, Chris Gore sold Film Threat to Larry Flynt Publications; a relationship that would last five years until Gore bought back the rights and successfully converted Film Threat into an online resource. For the record, I wrote for Film Threat and a movie of mine was distributed by Film Threat DVD. Today, Ain’t It Cool News and Film Threat operate inside a deteriorating revenue stream, charging filmmakers to review their films in exchange for “exposure,” due to a decreasing demand for true entertainment journalism. It should be noted they don’t charge for big-tent mainstream releases.

There could be any number of contributing factors to this obvious exploitation, but I think what it really comes down to is a lack of quality product in both independent and mainstream circles. The fact that so many of the movies made in recent years are distributed by major studios which are, in turn, tentacles of an even larger corporate octopus (with some of those other arms belonging to print and online media companies) virtually guarantees unlimited exposure, unjustified hype, and suspiciously positive reviews. Reputable film review sources can’t hope to compete with that level of advertising and, as we know, true success is based on good advertising.

Add to this the phenomenon of social media, wherein if I want to know whether or not a movie or television show is worth my time, I simply check my tweets or hit up the various groups to which I belong. There is also review aggregation. Sites such as the Internet Movie Database and Rotten Tomatoes provide ratings and averages based on any number of reviews written. This is demographics and research, not film journalism and comment. In short, nobody wants to hear your opinions anymore. They want a spreadsheet and star ratings in order to figure out how best to throw their money into a waste basket.

I followed The A.V. Club for a long time, catching up on reviews of my favorite television shows. In 2019, The A.V. Club (and several other popular websites such as Jezebel and The Root) was purchased by an outfit ominously known to its diminishing writing staff as G/O Media (or “Go Media,” I guess?), an offshoot of Gizmodo and previously, Gawker. In his final Walking Dead review, Alex McLevy bade farewell to his readers explaining that G/O Media was in the process of relocating A.V. Club offices to Los Angeles in an effort to be more “industry-friendly,” thus laying off all of their original Chicago staff. We’re seeing this unfold in real time right now. Massive layoffs of newspaper staff, and this week, the collapse of Vice Media.

Effectively, it was the end of an era that saw scant press from the so-called “journalists” out there supposedly looking for interesting stories. The A.V. Club turned online entertainment journalism into an industry, and its demise is being ignored by that same industry? The term, “industry-friendly” is equally troubling to me. Is it an omen of things to come? As a result of the layoffs, fewer reviews are published, and The A.V. Club became nothing more than a glorified news wire service as well as an unpaid promotional outlet for mainstream movies and television shows. The same has now happened to Second Union, a site I wrote for until recently.

“Creative differences” is a phrase we hear all too often when colleagues part ways. It may be unsatisfying a reason, but however frustrating, it is true. When I started writing for Second Union, there were very few editorial policies in place. The webmaster asked me to refrain from using obscenity, which I did with aplomb, but there was never an outright ban on social and political observations; some of which I sprinkle into my work. My articles ranged from Star Trek reviews to reviews of classic movies and recent television shows. Occasionally, I would bring in copious essays laced with nostalgia.

My work would even get the attention of the creative people working on series I reviewed. This thrilled me to no end. The webmaster, praising my work, floated the idea of my becoming a full-time editor. The idea was later dropped for unknown (or at least, unstated) reasons**. A year into my association, I noticed several writers weren’t working for Second Union anymore. This became shockingly clear when I opened the home page on several occasions to see nothing but my work being posted. Updates were sporadic. The editor would let dust gather on the home page for as long as a month. It was as if he couldn’t be bothered.

Push came to shove finally when a timely review I had ready for the Strange New Worlds premiere went unpublished for three weeks. The editor informed me he neglected to publish it because he didn’t agree with my review. The fact that he didn’t tell me this for three weeks was what led to my decision to leave Second Union. He then unfriended and blocked me on Facebook, which I thought was a strange, childish, and inappropriately hostile response to my departure. Looking at Second Union’s home page as of this writing, there are no reviews. There is nothing but links to movie and television show trailers and promotional pieces hyping exhibitions and conventions.

In short, there’s nothing here that makes Second Union unique or special. All of this stuff can be found in many other places. The sad part is that nobody is being paid by the studios to do this. What’s the point? The point is in the phrase, “industry friendly.” If you’ve shown your weapon-less hand to the Industry, you’ve proven you can be an advocate. The Industry (as a magical, elemental force to be feared) will look kindly on the servant and perhaps lend the servant favors. None of this approaches journalism, but it is the logical conclusion to the story of media exploitation and the proliferation of lies within the Industry. This is how success is manufactured. By buying votes, Spartacus!

Somewhat poetically, the last bastion of truth appears to be in social media from the fans, from the people who spend their money watching content. They do it because it’s their passion, and passion is something a twisted, schizophrenic Industry that is already too high on its own supply will never understand. The Industry sees the true fans as “rubes,” losers and sycophants (“fan” derives from fanatic which derives from sycophant). If you find some out-of-the-way channel from somebody you’ve never heard of, who doesn’t have an enthusiastic attitude (or more importantly, a suspicious payroll outlay) toward the bigger budget mainstream content, you just might have found an honest person. We shouldn’t all have to be some grand and mighty incarnation of Diogenes in the pop culture sewer, but with so much money changing hands as well as the promise of fame around every corner, it’s become harder and harder to find an honest person in Media.

*With apologies to Esquire.

**Sometimes my work would touch a third rail, incorporating hot-button issues and politics. For example, I wrote a review of Cuties, which was rejected by Second Union for fear of fomenting controversy. I wrote an essay comparing the Woody Allen movie, Shadows & Fog, to the culture of fear surrounding COVID-19, which was also rejected. I thought as writers, it was our duty to stir up controversy and get people thinking. This has also died in the era of “industry-friendly” publishing.

Originally published October 28, 2022.


David Lawler has written for Film Threat, VHS Rewind, Second Union, and his own blog, Misadventures in BlissVille. Lawler has produced several podcasts including That Twilighty Show About That Zone, Two Davids Walk Into A Bar (with co-host David Anderson), EQ Lawler/Saltz (with Alex Saltz), and Upstairs at Froelich's (with co-host John Froelich).

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