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Confessions of a movie website owner

Posted by Patrick Sauriol on Monday, August 23, 2010

Lately I've been giving a lot of thought to what it's like being a movie website owner in 2010 and I've come to one or two conclusions. One of them is that I love what it is that I get to do with Coming Attractions. The other thought is that sometimes it frustrates the hell out of me to even try and run a movie website these days.

This is an editorial piece, so if you're not in the mood for reading my opinion and reflections on the state of online movie website ownership, then my advice is to go read one of today's scoops on a film database page or a news article. I think putting up with the site owner voicing his thoughts in one editorial piece is a small matter when judged against the hundreds of news stories that I've filed this year or the thousands of individual movie scoop updates.

I'm sure that the great majority of you don't care about the politics going on behind the scenes, the feuds, the gossip, the cold war battles between sites that don't link to other sites, the frustrations of not having enough manpower or hours in the day to get the job that you want to do done. But it's been over 15 years since I first threw the lights on at Coming Attractions and I think that I've earned the right to voice some of my frustrations publicly. Maybe even a few of you want to hear what I've got to say, and some of you might even be site owners or well-known writers from other entertainment sites.

Ever since I relaunched CA I've been on the outside looking in. Four years is a long time to have your movie website offline. Even though I might have been writing for other sites, the cache value of Coming Attractions has dimmed in the eyes of movie studios, publicists and my fellow online brethern. People that may have talked with me five years ago don't seem to be interested in saying hello, or answering a question I ask them on Twitter. Movie publicists that I once knew working at studios have moved on, changed jobs or left the business. In their place is a whole new group of new publicists, ones that I don't have a relationship with. When I approach them to introduce myself, they're cordial enough, but ask them if there' s a possibility of lining up an interview with a director and my requests go unreturned. Shit happens, and one of the things that I learned first-hand running Coming Attractions a decade ago (when it was at its height) is that the more eyeballs and traffic you have, the more power you have with a movie studio's publicity department. It's neither right nor wrong nor is it personal. It's simply an axiom of online existence, like a cat that catches a mouse. That's life.

But I'm human and there are times that I get frustrated with the way the system works now, both as a content creator and as a business owner. Yes, I am a small business owner; one of the reasons that I got back into the online game was that I would treat running my site as a business, and that means setting a course. One of those rules of mine means not asking people to contribute writing to the site if they can't get paid. I know that I'm fighting a losing battle; the default for most content sites (including the big ones like Huffington Post, the Gawker sites and others) is that you get paid by the amount of traffic you bring in. For site owners, that means you have a constant stream of writers submitting articles to your site and fresh content. For the writers, it means toiling away for a chance to have that one big piece of content that delivers big traffic and a good payout. It should come as no surprise that the payouts don't happen that much.

I can't blame all my blues on a system that rewards volume, and often it's repurposed news, over original content. In the past four years advertising rates for sites across the board have fallen substantially. Sites that used to get tens of thousands of dollars a month are now struggling to get by. The irony is that online ad spending has been going up. Speaking solely for my niche, the ad agencies that act as the middle-men between the movie studios and the websites get half of that diminishing ad revenue. It doesn't help that the biggest ad agency for movie/entertainment websites (Gorilla Nation) bought out ownership in several websites (Coming Soon, Shock Till You Drop). Logically it would make sense for that agency to send more ad sales to the sites they owned. I can't speak for the independent movie webmasters affected by that particular deal or how they feel about it. In fact, I haven't seen anyone talk much about the business side of this business.

Go on Twitter and follow several of the hundred or so prominent movie website owners, big writers or columnists and rarely will you see talk about our financial woes. Instead, it's a constant stream of what we think about this movie or that showbiz event. Sometimes you see the odd flame war between a Devin Faraci and an Alex Billington. Discussion about why movie studios, who seem to be keen on sending DVD screeners, gift packages and set visits to a handful of websites, aren't taking out big ad buys across the blogosphere remains notably absent.

I love movies. I love talking about movies. I love to armchair quarterback movies, who gets hired to make them, why a studio messed up its marketing campaign, and to sing the praises of an overlooked underdog film or screenplay. But there should also be some discussion about this industry that I and my fellow movie webmasters have carved out. Fifteen years is a long time to experience the ups and downs of writing about movies online but I don't see this industry of independent content creation getting better. In fact, it's getting worse.

And then there's the ethics of this strange industry. Last month an incident went down at Comic-Con where, allegedly, Alex Billington of FirstShowing.net threatened Lindsey Mesenbourg, the online publicist for Universal Pictures, to spread the word of a secret invite-only screening of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. I didn't go to Comic-Con but I heard about what happened and the subsequent letter of intent that several prominent movie onliners wrote and sent off to studios, condemning Billington's actions and asking movie studios to effectively show their support that there is a code of conduct that the online press shouldn't cross. The idea was for the studios to blacklist Alex for the dirty pool he played and not give him the full press access that he currently enjoys (and which I don't.)

The fallout of this letter? Alex Billington is among a dozen or so onliners invited to a set visit for Fox's Rise of the Apes that takes place in my hometown of Vancouver. I get to publish blurry photos of the greenscreen set of Rise of the Apes. And nobody in my circle of movie journalists/onliners/Twitter followers took me up on an offer to hang out and have drinks while they were in town.

Maybe if I had only been playing this game for a couple of years I would be angry and bitter, but like I said, I know it's not personal. Carol Cundiff and Chris Petrikin aren't bad guys working at Fox -- they just don't see the value in inviting a site that doesn't get the same hits as First Showing. But yeah, there are some days when, after getting up early to write stories, go off to my day job, write some more stories during lunch hour, then come back home and write some more until it's way too late, that I wonder just what the fuck the point in playing nice guy gets you. Let me tell you, it's not a more comfortable sleep at night.

You might be someone that says at this point, Buddy, if you don't like the heat you can always step out of the kitchen. True, but what's that really supposed to mean? That criticism or commentary about declining ad rates, plagiarized content, bullshit stories designed to get mass inbound links and more juice from Google or questioning whether a site's relationship with a movie studio shouldn't be discussed? If your only answer is to get out of the business, how is that supposed to address the problems in the first place?

Like I said, if I were younger and had only been doing this for a couple of years maybe I'd be an angry man. Instead, I'm starting to see it as being liberating. The studios aren't inviting me to set visits, or sending me DVDs and the people running the online publicity division doesn't know who the hell I am, much less what Coming Attractions or Corona is. Maybe that gives me a nice spot to be the wildcard and troublemaker, not just in publishing stuff that the studios don't want you to know about but in talking about the uglier side of this business.

Some days I get frustrated, and they're harder than the others, but there are also days when I kind of like being in the position that I am. Not all days, and sometimes I don't think it's the majority of days, but somedays...yes. It kind of feels good to be the underdog.

This likely won't be my only time that I decide to wax on the state of the business. I have been thinking of doing a series of interviews with online movie writers, site owners and columnists because I believe those stories aren't being told, and I think that they are of interest. I'm not sure yet if I'll get around to doing them or even if there's interest out there with the online community to go on the record about what they think. I guess we'll see.

The Swollen Goi...
Location:
Posts: 14343
Posted: 9 years 15 weeks ago

I would like to see interviews with other site owners--the big names, the small names, the new names, the old names.

Strider
Location:
Posts: 1430
Posted: 9 years 15 weeks ago

I know that I'm in the minorty here, but I prefer to read the smaller movie sites out there than the bigger names.  There may not be nearly as much quantity there, but it is more than made up for with quality and a more personal attention to detail.  Larger sites tend to lose their personality, becoming boring and whitewashed.  I like reading  about a movie that one person is excited for (whether from a set visit, interview, or whatever), even if I'm not interested in it myself. It is infinitely better than a slightly modified press release.  Sometimes I am even caught up in their enthusiasm and end up seeing something that normally wouldn't be on my radar.  In the end, I think that quality is much more important than quantity.  It's too bad that doing so can make it hard to break through.

I would definitely be interested in reading those interviews if you can make them happen, Pat. I'm curious as to what others think of the state of the current movie website "scene".

www.gamingoutsiders.com
Jakester
Location:
Posts: 5753
Posted: 9 years 15 weeks ago

I've always liked what you've done, Pat, and how you've done it.

I don't ever read /film and this is the first time I've heard of FirstShowing.  I keep up with you, Garth, Harry, and the Digital Bits. Once or twice a week, I'll check out Latino review to see how El Guapo is skewering Bay or Ratner.

Maybe you could convince Ari Gold to give you an exclusive on the upcoming Ghostwalker flick.

Richard Gozinya, Harold Snatch and Wilbur Jizz. Together we are the law firm Gozinya, Snatch and Jizz.
Strider
Location:
Posts: 1430
Posted: 9 years 15 weeks ago

There are a few movie-related sites I visit pretty much every day. Coming Attractions is one of them.  So is Chud and The Digital Bits.  I alos keep up somewhat with AICN, but more for reviews than news. 

A newer site that I really like is Screened.com.  It is part of the Whiskey Media collection of sites, the most successful of which is probably Giant Bomb (their video game site).  The WM sites are a great mix of original videos, trailers, articles, and user-edited wiki content.  Each site has it's own focus, and Screened is their movie/television site.  Each particular site is run by a small bunch of guys that are passionate about the subject matter.  I like that they have their own specific style of doing things, and they put a lot of time and effort into the community side of the sites.

Anyway, I'll stop sounding like an ad now and go back to reading Goiter's latest wall of text in the forums...

www.gamingoutsiders.com
Kaeos
Location:
Posts: 417
Posted: 9 years 15 weeks ago

Pat, my last email to you went unanswered, which I can understand. I'm a Dad and a Husband with a day job. Life demands a lot of our time. But I do understand where your coming from and what your trying to do. Trying to build a site with content you're passionate about and attract visitors. I'm doing the same thing, all be it in a different industry.

The bottom line, based on what you've laid out here Pat, seems to be that while you were gone, the game changed on you. You came back to a landscape that had been sucked up and swallowed whole by big business. Grass roots, quality work has been replaced by corporatism. And those that were around for the change followed along like "sheeple" and for better or worse they have reaped the benefits in the intervening years. I'm not condoning it or saying it's right, no one here would, but based on what you voiced, it's a reality.

The game changed on you Pat.

So change the game.

Break the mold and stop trying to reclaim a business model that doesn't apply any more. Rethink your approach based on what you see around you. Shake things up and do something no one else is doing, something you've never done. 

I am of course an outsider to your world so I don't know all the nuances that you are encountering among your peer group. I'm just offering a different perspective from someone who has the same motivations you do. Do with that what you will, and good luck man. My group has supported you all along and we will continue to do so.

The Best Music, and The Best New Talk Radio! www.iTMIRadio.com
Patrick Sauriol
Location: Canada
Posts: 20119
Posted: 9 years 15 weeks ago

Kaeos, you make a good, solid point. Some ideas about shaking things up were in that piece. Others are forming in my mind. Now comes the challenge of implementing them.

As always, thanks for your support.

No matter where you go, there you are.
LuminousSpecter
Location:
Posts: 2
Posted: 9 years 15 weeks ago

Hey Patrick,

I've read Corona's Coming Attractions since somewhere around 1999, when I started a little website called MatrixFans.net.  Since then I've started a few more fan sites, the largest of which are MNightFans.com and NarniaFans.com.  I've also worked with Carol at Fox, and she is terrific to work with.  In fact, I've met no one from Fox who wasn't fun to work with.

I like that you're on Facebook and Twitter, as that helps.  I also have a recommendation that could help you out, or at least entertain you.  If you haven't read it yet, pick up Gary Vaynerchuk's Crush It!

Within the four years that you were gone, the face of movie fandom online has changed.  I don't think it has as much to do with the corporate world as it does with the changing face of the internet on a whole.  While movie websites are losing traffic in some ways, in others traffic is becoming easier to garner.

Using features such as tweet buttons, facebook like or share buttons, or share this, plus RSS feeds can help bring in loads of visitors.

That being said, I'd like to see that series of articles featuring the webmasters of movie websites large and small.  They're always interesting reads.

Daltons chin dimple
Location:
Posts: 12800
Posted: 9 years 15 weeks ago

The man speaks sense!  On a site I used to work on, Digg/Tweet/Share really ramped up the traffic.  Vertical search engine participation really helped too.

....says "Kill Bond, NOW!"
Baelzar
Location:
Posts: 213
Posted: 9 years 15 weeks ago

Stating the obvious here, but there's also a bazillion more scoop sites now than there were when the original CCA was royalty.


Keep plugging away.  You have a good product, now you need to increase traffic and, in turn, increase access to exclusive content.


DEFINITELY need to add all the sharing options to your stories.

"INDEED!"