What's the price tag for 15 or 20 minutes of Brad Pitt's precious time? The answer, apparently, is about 2,500 euros (about $3,200) – not bad for, say, a win-a-date charity auction, though it seems an exorbitant price for a journalist to pay for a few minutes of idol banter.
Last week, Alliance Films provided Canadian journalists with just such a rate as part of a larger price list for interviews with actors in two movies at next week's Cannes International Film Festival in France. (Alliance is the Canadian distributor of the films, On the Road and Killing Them Softly.)
On the menu: 1,500 to 3,000 euros for TV packages, 750 to 2,000 euros for group chats (called round tables) and that precious one-on-one time with the big names at 1,000 to 2,500 euros. Well, technically, not quite one-on-ones; time with Pitt comes with a side order of some other less marketable talent.
The price list took Toronto critics by surprise. Chequebook journalism is anathema to respectable publications and broadcast outlets. Although publicists for local film distributors have made noises about having to pay interview fees for selected journalists in recent years, the cost has never before been charged to the media outlets.
But perhaps we shouldn't have been quite so shocked. The pay-for-it model, though relatively new, is the reverse of the more widely accepted practice of Hollywood film junkets, which more upscale newspapers, including The Globe and Mail, do not accept.
With junkets, studios pay the cost of some journalists' travel and accommodation. In exchange, their publicists can establish interview conditions, including requiring the writers to speak to everyone in a film whether they want to or not and to agree to restrictions on certain questions.
Economically, it's easy to see how junkets make sense: Let's say 50 journalists from around North America are given airfare and a weekend hotel in Los Angeles, which, since these things tend to be first-class all around, could cost $2,000 each. That would be $100,000 of studio money in exchange for 50 positive pieces of promotional editorial – cheaper and more efficient than buying a lot of advertising space.
As of last week, critics for The Globe, the Toronto Star, the National Post and Maclean's have all indicated that they do not intend to pay to play with Cannes celebrities, and Alliance itself appears to want to shut the subject down, ignoring phone calls and e-mail requests for clarification.
When Maclean's film critic Brian D. Johnson published the interview-fee menu on his online blog last week, Alliance contacted him and insisted that he remove it as a breach of confidentiality. Maclean's legal advisers disagreed, noting that Alliance's vice-president of publicity and promotions publicist, Carmite Cohen, had spoken on the record, saying, "I've never seen such high costs. Wow – 3,000 euros for an interview is high."
Cohen insisted that Alliance was not selling interviews, but simply passing on an opportunity to get them at Cannes. She said the company prefers to spend its money bringing the talent to Canada at a later date.
A possible complicating factor in Alliance's declining to commit thousands in promotional costs for future film releases is that the company is on the auction block. Last week, chief executive officer Victor Loewy confirmed to Screen International that a decision on the sale of the company is expected within the next two to four weeks, possibly during Cannes. Three companies are competing to acquire Alliance from its co-owners, Goldman Sachs Capital Partners and Investissement Québec.
Alliance is not offering a price list to Canadian journalists for its two Canadian films – Xavier Dolan's Laurence Anyways and Brandon Cronenberg's Antiviral – both of which are part of the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes festival.
Johnson, who is also president of the Toronto Film Critics' Association, a group of more than 40 print and broadcast film journalists, said in an interview that, while journalists cannot deny that they are regarded as part of the film-publicity machine, the decision to have them bear the cost of movie publicity goes too far. He also described this encouragement of chequebook journalism as "downright weird" when so many celebrities decry the effects of cash-for-trash stories about their personal lives.
Publicists and trade journalists say the "participation fee" has quietly existed for several years, and is a growing phenomenon in the cash-strapped independent film business.
Traditionally, sales agents and distributors agree to share the costs of doing press at a film fest, to cover the costs of transporting, boarding and grooming the "talent." The money does not go directly to the talent, who, in many cases, do not even appear to know about the fees.
In 2009, at a Venice Film Festival Q&A session, Michael Moore was startled when a Norwegian journalist, Nils Gjerstad, revealed that he had been charged $3,000 (U.S.) for a one-on-one interview with the filmmaker. "If I find out a distributor of my film is asking for money from journalists, they'll never distribute any of my films again," an angry Moore said.
According to a Variety, in smaller film markets in Eastern Europe and Scandinavia, it is not uncommon to pass the costs directly to the journalists, though, as Variety reporter Ali Jaafar noted, the practice "opens up a whole range of ethical dilemmas."
For example, the process has encouraged journalists and TV crews to find their own sponsors to cover the costs and fees, in exchange for directly advertising the sponsors in their reports. The influence of "sponsored blogs," familiar from Internet technology companies, has moved aggressively into the entertainment field.
At last year's Cannes festival, Chivas Regal had a site called a "global media support tool" providing "chivalrous" acts carried out at the festival. Grey Goose hired Joe Utichi, the guy behind Rotten Tomatoes, to blog from the festival and had a pavilion where celebrity interviews were held and then distributed to bloggers across the Internet.
So what exactly is the downside of missing a few predictable quotes from a popular celebrity? Not much, in itself. Since I attended a Brad Pitt "intimate press conference" at last year's Cannes festival (my chair was apparently paid for by Canadian distributor Entertainment One Films), let me give you a sneak preview of what Pitt will undoubtedly say, for about a 100 euros a minute: That he wants to make films that last. That Angelina Jolie is a great mother and the kids are fine. That he and his production company want to support smaller, artistically driven films, such as Killing Them Softly, that can't compete with studio blockbusters' marketing dollars.
Honest, it's only a slight indignity to learn that Canadian critics are being relegated to the status of poorer European reporters, expected to pay for a seat at the table. We do, after all, have our own big festival later in the year, when many of the same movies will show up, begging for attention. What's more disappointing is that these smaller, artistically driven films are so poorly regarded by their handlers that the first wave of press coverage is left not to the most influential or worthwhile publications and other media outlets, but to those willing to make the most compromises.