Eric D. Snider

I Was a Junket Whore

Snide Remarks #507

"I Was a Junket Whore"

by Eric D. Snider

Published on July 24, 2006

The call came on a Tuesday afternoon. It was the film critic at a weekly newspaper to which I am a regular contributor. The critic asked me: "Do you want to be a whore?"

OK, not in so many words. He asked if I wanted to attend Paramount's press junket in Seattle for the movie "World Trade Center," where I'd have the opportunity to interview director Oliver Stone and actress Maggie Gyllenhaal. Paramount would fly me to Seattle and put me up in a hotel for the night. In exchange, I would write a fluffy interview piece about the celebrities and their movie, and sell it to whoever, possibly the paper my friend worked for.

My friend couldn't go on the junket himself because his newspaper, like almost all reputable news outlets, has rules against such things. It's not kosher to accept free travel and other perks in exchange for writing a story. For him to go, the paper would have to cover his expenses, or he'd have to cover them himself, to avoid the appearance of "Paramount spent all this money on me and lavished me with gifts, so I wrote a story about how awesome their movie is."

I, on the other hand, don't work for the paper and wouldn't be representing them specifically on the junket. I'd be a freelancer, representing only myself. So the only thing stopping me from going was whether I, personally, had any ethical qualms about it. I do have such qualms, but I also have a curious nature and enjoy doing things that I have never done before. That's why I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die, and that's why I said yes to Paramount.

This is the story of how I spent 24 hours as a junket whore.

* * * *

First, an explanation of the term "junket whore." I assume the "whore" part doesn't need explaining, though I should note that it is being used here in its euphemistic, non-sexual sense. The studios are nice to you and everything, but not THAT nice.

The "junket" part occurs for just about every major film released in the United States. The one in Seattle was to be a scaled-down version (they called it a "press tour," not a "press junket"), but when it's the whole deal, it means flying members of the "press" (more on them later) to New York or L.A. -- or someplace else, if it will cutely match the content of the movie better, like the "Cars" junket coinciding with a NASCAR race -- put them in fancy hotels, give them food and drink, hand out gift bags of movie-related merchandise and other swag, show them the film, and let them interview the stars.

Most movie critics who work for newspapers don't go on these junkets, for the above-cited ethical reasons, as well as for logistical ones. When you're reviewing four or five movies a week, it doesn't make sense to kill two days for each one.

So who goes on the junkets? TV movie critics and entertainment writers. The former review movies on your local TV station; the latter write superficial stories about how Jamie Foxx just looooooved his co-stars and how Nicole Kidman was just a JOY to work with and how the movie is really fun/important/groundbreaking/scary/whatever. You read these stories in the entertainment pages of your local paper or, increasingly, online.

The people who attend junkets regularly are often known as junket whores. They love the free stuff, they love the royal treatment, they write stories of little consequence and little entertainment value. They are basically being bought by the studio: We'll show you a good time, and then you be our monkey-boys and write lots of nice stories about us!

The critics who go to these things are looked down upon even more. It doesn't matter what the entertainment writers think of the movie itself; their stories are all about the celebrities. The critics, on the other hand, are supposed to discuss the film's merits, and are supposed to do so objectively, without being influenced by the lavish attention paid to them by the studio. If you go on a junket and then -- what a crazy coincidence! -- LOVE the movie, people are going to think you're a whore, even if you DID love the movie and it really WAS a coincidence. Prostitutes sometimes like the guys they sleep with, too, but they're still whores.

(Side note: Are junket whores the same people as quote whores [i.e., the critics who will claim to love anything as long as it gets them quoted in the ads]? Often, yes, but not always. There are plenty of quote whores who don't go on junkets, but there are few junket-whore critics who are not also quote whores. If a critic regularly attended junkets but dissed the movies, the studio would stop inviting him.)

As I said, the Seattle junket was going to be much smaller than those big Hollywood affairs. For this film, they were doing a tour, spending a couple days in each major city with the press from that region showing up to salivate and ask lame questions. The guys from "Entertainment Tonight" and "Access Hollywood" weren't going to be there, but their counterparts from KQQQ-TV in Seattle and KYYY-TV in Vancouver would be.

* * * *

The junket was set for a Friday morning, with a screening of the film to take place the night before. I saw it at a screening in Portland (where I live) a week earlier, though, so I'd be free Thursday night to enjoy Seattle. (The interviews were going to be too early Friday morning for me to just come up then. Besides, a hotel room was part of the deal, and I wanted the whole junket whore experience.)

On Monday, however, I got word from Ginger, the indefatigable Seattle publicist coordinating the whole thing, that the junket was being moved up a day. The screening would now be WEDNESDAY night and the interviews the next morning. Fortunately, I had canceled all my plans for the entire month in anticipation of the junket, so the change was no problem.

Ginger had previously asked me to e-mail her my preferred approximate flight times out of Portland and back again from Seattle. Then on Tuesday she told me to call the woman who handles travel for Paramount Pictures and have HER arrange my flights. I called the Paramount woman, she told me to e-mail her my info, and I did. This all happened Tuesday afternoon, and I was supposed to be flying the next day.

Have you ever bought a plane ticket with only a day's advance notice? It costs about three times what it does if you book in advance. (This is because it is harder for airplanes to carry people who are procrastinators. They're heavier or something.) Now, I understand that money is no object for a huge corporation like Paramount, but come on. Why waste money when you don't have to?

Wednesday morning, the Paramount lady bought my tickets. According to Alaska Airlines' Web site, the cost of a one-way ticket from Portland to Seattle purchased the same day as travel is $174.30, for a round-trip total of $348.60 plus tax. Driving from Portland to Seattle, on the other hand, a distance of 150 miles, would cost me about $15 in gasoline, or $30 round-trip. But anyway.

My flight was at 4 p.m. on a little 36-seat plane. The flight takes only 50 minutes, which is good, since the airplane was the size of a normal airplane's bathroom. (The small airplane's bathroom was the size of a normal airplane's overhead luggage bin.) I had asked Ginger how I would get from the airport to the hotel and she'd told me to take a cab and save the receipt; Paramount would reimburse me. But as it happens, my friend Alice from Tacoma was going to Seattle for a meeting and could pick me up, thus saving Paramount $30 or so. (You're welcome, Paramount!)

Alice dropped me off at the hotel, a brand-new ultra-stylish high-rise on First Avenue called Hotel 1000. I knew it was stylish because the woman at the front desk called me "Mr. Snider," which no one ever does. In fact, I never hear anyone call anyone by their last name, except in TV shows and movies. And now at Hotel 1000. "Welcome to Hotel 1000, Mr. Snider," the bright young woman at the desk said. Awesome.

She also reminded me of a fact I'd previously learned: Along with the room, Paramount had included a stipend of $125 to be used at the hotel restaurant. After all, they couldn't very well fly me up there and give me a hotel room and then let me fend for myself when it came dinnertime! I mean, we're not savages here. The cost of the room itself was $279 per night, and I believe I had one of the low-end rooms for this particular hotel.

Hotel 1000 isn't kidding around about being luxurious and expensive. My room had a breathtaking view of Puget Sound, a vast bed covered in pillows, a flat-screen TV mounted on the wall, a couch, an easy chair, a desk and office chair, and two soft and silky bathrobes hanging in the closet. It was handsomely decorated with tasteful art, most of which centered around tasteful sketches of tastefully naked people.

Then there was the bathroom, which was actually larger than the bedroom in my apartment. The bathroom had a freestanding bathtub, a shower with ultra-modern massaging showerhead, and what I assume is a state-of-the-art toilet. A plentiful supply of huge, fluffy towels. Big bottles of fancy soaps, shampoos and conditioners, not those tiny "hotel" sizes you usually see. Most of one wall of the bathroom was occupied by a window, which could be covered by pushing a button on the opposite wall, which caused a shade to scroll down. Why lower a shade manually when you can push a button and do it magically?

Alt text
The magic waterfall bathtub

One curious thing about the bathtub: I located the handle to turn the water on, but I couldn't see where the water would actually come out. There didn't appear to be a tap or spigot. So I turned the handle and discovered, to my great astonishment, that the water comes out of the ceiling. Directly above the tub is a small opening from which the water cascades in a smooth, cylindrical freefall into the tub. How delightfully unnecessary! I made a mental note to take a bath later on, just to enjoy the crazy water that comes from the sky.

I killed the next few hours checking my e-mail (there is free wi-fi throughout the entire hotel) and calling friends to brag about the fancy room I was in, much the way a country bumpkin would do upon his first visit to a Motel 6. Except that I'm not a bumpkin and this room really WAS fantastic. I also walked up and down First Avenue a bit, browsed in some shops, and enjoyed the warm summer evening.

Upon returning to the hotel from my wanderings, I saw a black SUV parked curbside. A phalanx of dark-suited men emerged from it while hotel employees scampered about loading luggage onto carts and generally making a fuss in exactly the same manner as the animated waiter-penguins in "Mary Poppins." Soon Oliver Stone himself popped out of the car, closely accompanied by Ginger the publicist.

I also saw, coming out of the hotel, a specific junket whore who is much renowned for his junket whoriness. Somehow that clinched it for me. If HE'S here, I thought, then this is DEFINITELY a place where junket whores gather. It made me feel more conflicted about my activities than before.

Luckily, I had $125 in free money to help me overcome those feelings. At around 10, Alice and her boyfriend Jim finished with their meeting and joined me for dinner, which was to be paid for by Paramount. Had we arrived at the hotel restaurant earlier, we'd have used up that $125 very quickly, as nearly every entree on the dinner menu costs around $25. But after 10 you get the late-night menu, with appetizers and so forth at much lower prices. We all ate and drank heartily and spent $65, plus a $20 tip. I considered maxing out my $125 limit by leaving a $60 tip, but our waiter didn't really deserve that. Even $20 was pushing it.

Alt text
The multi-pillowed bed, with sketches of nude bodies standing watch.

Back in the room, I took the previously planned bath -- tip: If you're lying in a tub that is filling up with water that drops from the ceiling, be careful to position yourself so that the waterfall isn't aimed directly at any sensitive part of your body -- then sat around in one of the bathrobes for a while. I wanted to enjoy the amenities as much as I could. It occurred to me that the junket whores get this kind of treatment ALL THE TIME. Whereas I am delighted to have such a swanky room in a swell hotel, junket whores are accustomed to it. They might even feel entitled to it by now. Maybe they complain to the studio when their bathtub DOESN'T have a spigot in the ceiling. I went to sleep thinking I could really get used to this kind of treatment. Maybe being a permanent junket whore wouldn't be so bad....

* * * *

I probably would have come to my senses anyway, but the events of the next morning convinced me that I do NOT want to be a junket whore and that the whole system is hilariously screwed up.

The first interview was at 10 a.m., so at 9:30 all us whores were gathering in the publicist's headquarters, a suite on the sixth floor of Hotel 1000. There were breakfast items there, and Ginger had amassed an impressive squad of headset-wearing assistants to coordinate the day's activities.

I asked Ginger if, since the interviews would occupy the entire morning, I should check out of my hotel room now. She said there was no need, because all the rooms had been reserved for two nights. I was welcome to stay another day if I wanted to, even though I'd be done junketeering by 1 p.m. today.

The way it was scheduled was like this: At 10 a.m. about six of us junket whores would have a roundtable interview with actor Michael Peña and Will Jimeno, the real-life former New York police officer Peña plays in "World Trade Center." The interview would last 20 minutes. At 11:20 the same group of us, more or less, would have another 20 minutes with Oliver Stone. Finally, at 12:20, we'd interview Maggie Gyllenhaal and Allison Jimeno, who are the fictional and real-life wives to the duo we'd interviewed first.

In the publicist's suite I ran into Sean P. Means, film critic for The Salt Lake Tribune and an old friend from when we were colleagues in Utah. Sean works for one of those reputable outlets that won't let you go on junkets on the studio's dime, so the Tribune had flown him up that morning and would fly him out again that afternoon. Junket-going is rare for him, but this movie seemed like enough of a big deal to warrant it.

The thing is, I was so humiliated to be among the whores, and to be partaking of their whorish ways, that I compounded my whorishness by lying to Sean. When he asked if I had driven or flown from Portland, I said I'd driven. I figured if I said I'd flown, he'd assume I had done so at Paramount's expense (which I had), whereas I could plausibly have driven on my own. I feared I wouldn't have the time or eloquence necessary to explain my experiment, how I was being a whore just once to see what it was like, and how I actually felt sick, just sick, about wasting so much studio money and being such a stinky, stinky junket whore. So I went with the lie, which also made me feel bad. I guess there's just no winning when you're a whore.

Sean had been lucky and/or influential enough to score one-on-one interviews with the actors (though he'd have to feed at the roundtable trough for Stone himself), so he went his way and I went mine. The Peña/Jimeno interview was in a conference room on the fourth floor. There were seven of us, six men and a woman, and I got the impression most of the others knew each other from previous junkets. No introductions were made, but they were friendly enough and not at all cliquish. I mostly just listened while they chatted about celebrity gossip and casting news.

Alt text
Michael Peña (far right), accompanied by three actors who weren't at the junket.

Peña and Jimeno were eventually led in by Ginger's assistant Asia. (An interesting note: Ginger is Asian while Asia is caucasian.) Jimeno went around the table and shook everyone's hands, while Peña smiled celebrity-like from his seat on the other side of the table. The publicists told us we had 20 minutes and left. The seasoned junket interviewers began immediately, with no small talk. I guess when you only have 20 minutes, you learn to fire off the questions right away.

It soon became apparent that as interesting as Peña might be as an actor, and though he seemed to be a nice enough fellow, Will Jimeno was far more interesting. Jimeno had actually been trapped under the rubble of the World Trade Center for 13 hours; Peña had merely pretended to do it for a movie. The only problem was that if you asked Jimeno a question, he would give you a much, much longer answer than it required. So you'd have time to ask Peña a greater variety of questions, but Jimeno was the more engaging interviewee. I imagine that's the kind of tough dilemma junket whores must deal with regularly.

I've heard horror stories about junket reporters who hog the interview time or ask ridiculous or impertinent questions, but I didn't witness any such behavior. Everyone generally took turns asking questions, and the questions were not, for the most part, egregiously stupid. There was one person, however, who asked all the celebrities, "Where were you on 9/11?," which sounds relevant because of the movie's content but which is actually a very silly question. Who cares where Maggie Gyllenhaal was on 9/11? We have 20 minutes with her and THAT'S what you want to know? That's what you think your readers will be interested in? Geez.

We had an hour to kill after this roundtable before the Oliver Stone interview, so we hung around the publicist's suite and nibbled on granola bars and other munchies they had lying around. We were told after a while that Stone was running a little late and the 11:20 interview would probably be more like 11:40. At 11:30 we were ushered into another suite, where we sat around the table and waited for Stone. Ginger came in occasionally to assure us it would JUST be another couple minutes.

Bored, we chatted amongst ourselves. Sean was at this interview, so he and I caught up on the goings-on of Salt Lake. (The goings-on there are few, but they are intriguing.) I also got to observe the junket whores in their natural environment. Two write for movie Web sites I had not heard of, one that runs reviews along with features and one that only does features (and gossip and prize giveaways and so forth). Another fellow writes for a weekly paper in Vancouver, B.C. There were two more whose affiliations I didn't catch, though I believe one was a college paper and the writer, the lone female in the group, had not been to one of these before.

I noticed a trend among the seasoned junket goers. When they talked about movies, they didn't talk about whether they were good or bad. They talked about who was in them and what those people were like. The Vancouver guy seemed to relate to films only in terms of who the stars were and whether he could interview them. The idea of critiquing a movie, of discussing its merits as art or entertainment, seemed foreign. As a film critic, it was unsettling, a bizarro world of what my conversations with colleagues are usually like.

One of the Web site writers lives in Seattle but still used the free hotel room the night before. That's $300 that Paramount might just as well have set on fire.

I noticed all the junket whores refer to celebrities by their first names. It reminded me of paparazzi, who do the same thing.

Oliver Stone finally arrived at noon, all smiles and gregarious pleasantries and not a word of apology. He probably didn't know what time he was supposed to be with us, or that he was even late. I suspect his lateness was due to other interviews -- he probably had to do phoners with out-of-town journalists who couldn't attend the junket -- running long.

Alt text
Noted conspiracy theorist and David Letterman look-alike Oliver Stone.

Whatever the reason, he was here now, and we had 20 minutes with him. I had expected him to be crazy and surly, but he was quite the opposite: only mildly crazy, and quite likable and friendly. He spoke of the disaster that was "Alexander," though he still refuses to accept its disastrousness. He said he plans to release an extra-long director's cut to DVD, because for sure what that movie needed was to be LONGER.

Ginger was on hand to tell us when our time was up, and once again the roundtable ended with everyone filing out. Two of the junket regulars, as they had done at the Peña/Jimeno roundtable, had the interviewee autograph their press kits. I shook Stone's hand, thanked him, and said it was an honor to meet him (which it was). Smiling graciously, he held eye contact with me for a second, which is one of those things you're supposed to do to win friends and influence people.

(Let me jump forward in time a couple days to quote what one of the Web site writers posted on his site's gossipy blog regarding this roundtable with Stone: "[I] just finished up lunch with the director -- a plate of fruit and cheese, and crackers -- none of which Stone touched, he just wanted his coffee -- and learned that Stone has decided to release a director's director's cut of 'Alexander.'" "Lunch with the director" makes it sound like he sat one-on-one with Stone and chatted over lunch, doesn't it? And I'm sure that was the point: to make it sound like this guy had lunch with Oliver Stone, to impress you. When in fact this guy shared a table with a half-dozen other people, and the only one having lunch was Stone. [It's true Stone didn't actually eat anything; that part wasn't a lie.])

On the terrace off the fourth floor lobby, there was a luncheon prepared for all the junket-goers (though not the "talent," as they would of course be dining privately somewhere). Most of the print and online people continued to stick together in a cluster, while the TV guys -- who would be interviewing everyone later, after we were through -- formed their own congregations at other tables. We had a few minutes to eat: Since everything was behind schedule for undisclosed reasons, the interview with Maggie Gyllenhaal and her real-life counterpart, Allison Jimeno, was now going to begin at 12:45 instead of 12:20. When the time came, as we were being hustled away from lunch and toward a conference room, the headsetted publicist told us, "We HAVE to finish by 1 o'clock." I said, "If they're so concerned about finishing on time, maybe they should have started on time." The headsetted publicist agreed with me but was in no position to say so publicly.

Alt text
Jake Gyllenhaal's pregnant sister.

Maggie Gyllenhaal is pregnant and has that radiant, lovely glow that many pregnant women have, even though she's not normally what you'd call "beautiful" and, viewed in direct profile, has a face that is flat like a pug's. Allison Jimeno is a good 10 years older than Gyllenhaal, has dark hair and Italian-American features, and a thick New Jersey accent that reminded me, charmingly, of Tony Soprano's wife Carmela.

As had been the case with her husband, Allison was the more interesting interview subject by far. I was disappointed to discover that despite Gyllenhaal's appearance in mostly independent, non-mainstream films, she still seemed a lot like a regular ol' shallow actress. She said things like this: "I think 9/11 was for everyone a wake-up call." Really, Maggie Gyllenhaal? You think 9/11 was a wake-up call? Where have I heard that before? Oh, yeah: From EVERY SINGLE PERSON who has ever said anything about 9/11, that's where. The rest of her answers (to questions that, admittedly, weren't very probing to begin with) were generic actor stuff about getting into character and channeling your emotions and so forth.

I did not envy her. She's pregnant, first of all, which makes traveling uncomfortable. And then to go around to all these cities and answer the same dumb questions time after time -- part of me didn't blame her for just giving up and reciting the same half-formed superficial answers at each roundtable.

That said, she could have been more gracious. When the interview was over, she made no effort to shake anyone's hand or say farewell or anything, instead smiling wanly and disinterestedly as she ate a piece of melon, evidently pretending that once the interview was over, we ceased to exist. ("Scoop: I just returned from lunch with Maggie, where she chomped on cantaloupe and told me she thinks 9/11 was a wake-up call!") Allison Jimeno, on the other hand, thanked us warmly for our interest in her story.

It was 1 p.m. now, and my career as a junket whore was pretty much over. All that remained was to take a cab to the airport and fly back to Portland. I'm told the hardcore Hollywood junkets, where all the whores come to the studio instead of the studio traveling around to whores, usually have gift bags for the whores to take home to remind them of their pleasant experience. No such luck this time. I wasn't even sure if I was allowed to take the fancy bottles of toiletries from the hotel. I was fairly certain I couldn't take the bathrobes, though I really wanted to.

* * * *

Between the hotel (two nights!), the stipend, the plane ticket and the cab fare, Paramount spent close to $1,100 on me, not including things like the breakfast and lunch that were produced for the benefit of all the whores. For Paramount to have spent its money wisely, my story about Stone and the movie, wherever it's published, will have to convince readers to spend $1,100 on the film. Is my article going to influence 150 people to see the movie who would not have done so otherwise? I highly doubt it. The point of the article won't be to tell people to go watch the movie -- that's what advertisements are for -- and besides, there will be a not-especially-positive review of the film appearing in the same issue, which may counteract it.

Multiply that $1,100 by the 20 or so junket whores at the Seattle event, then by however many stops there were on this tour, then factor in all the additional expenses -- Stone's hotel room, the interview suites, the publicist's suite, black SUVs to take the talent to and from the airport, etc., etc. -- repeating that for every city -- and you start to get an idea of how expensive it is to promote a film.

You also get a sense of what an insane waste of money it is. Ginger and the other publicists aren't to blame, of course; they're gracious and pleasant and wonderful. It's the whole system, where dropping $50 million or more on promotion and advertising alone is considered normal. But if the goal of the studio is for the film to make a profit, then it's absurd to spend so much promotional money on things that, in the end, won't actually increase ticket sales very much. TV commercials, online ads, posters, soundtracks, sure. All that makes sense. Those things directly influence consumers. The puffy interview stories that will appear as the result of this junket might bring in a few more audience members, but surely not enough to justify the extravagance.

I mean, honestly. The water came out of the CEILING.

Stumble It!

Notes:

I debated whether to name the specific people at the junket, but not for very long. I suspected the whores knew who they were, and I wasn't interested in siccing the whole Internet on them. However, it eventually became necessary to go after one of them in particular, chronicled in this blog entry.

As for the reaction: Well, I knew Paramount wouldn't like the article if they happened to read it, and I figured they wouldn't invite me on any more junkets. But they went a step further and banned me from all their press screenings, too -- the ones that ALL critics (not just junket whores) go to. Or so I was told, anyway, by Allied Integrated Marketing, the agency that handles Paramount's affairs in Seattle and Portland. I eventually determined (as discussed here) that the ban was Allied's idea, not Paramount's. It was also Allied that took it a step further, banning me from all Allied-sponsored screenings everywhere in the country. Allied really knows how to hold a grudge! Paramount, I'm pretty sure, got over it quickly.

Another side effect: In all likelihood, Paramount's reaction to this column prevented me from getting a full-time job at the newspaper I'd been freelancing for. More of that story is here.

The column and Paramount's response to it soon became big news around the Internet, with dozens of blogs, message boards and Web sites linking to it. I was delighted to have the extra traffic, of course, though I always get a little nervous when everybody's looking at me. I wrote the column with a few hundred "Snide Remarks" readers in mind. How would the rest of the world react to it? ("Snide Remarks" was available only by subscription at that time, but I made this specific column open to the public due to its general-interest subject matter.)

To me, the two most noteworthy and amusing consequences were these: I was interviewed by Bob Garfield of NPR's "On the Media" program; and a Romanian entertainment magazine called Re:Publik translated the column into Romanian and published it in the October 2006 issue. I believe this is the first time anything of mine has been translated into a foreign language. For this they paid me 200 euros (which came to $253.31), payable by Western Union moneygram, since they had never heard of PayPal. Awesome!

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