Tom Freston has been pushed out of MTV Networks and I have to say that I am not surprised. He had a brain. A big one, I think. One that said to everyone else that no, the people watching MTV and Comedy Central are not all 14 year olds. And they do want to know more about movies than who kisses who and if there were any (groan) "hiijinks on the set."
Tom was way, way, way higher than me on the food chain or anyone I had regular contact with. But I have a personal story involving him that is indicative of some of the frustrations the "good people" encounter working there.
When I was at MTV News, a friend of mine from another department invited me to a "town hall" type meeting that was being presided over by Tom Freston one evening. I went along. The small auditorium was nearly packed.
The main event was a presentation on diversity being given by someone Tom had brought into MTV to gather data, give advice and implement different changes. Tom took questions afterward.
One woman's question (I can't remember what it was about) included the sentence, "You know, since we have to cater to the 14 year olds, since that's who is watching, I am wondering --" and she was quickly cut off.
"No, no, no!" Tom cut in from the stage, with a sort of mixture of good-natured "fatherliness" and a stern, matter-of-fact tone. "I am so, so sick and tired of hearing people that work here say that. Our audience is not made up of 14 year olds."
"The medium age of our viewers is more like 21," he said, pausing for dramatic emphasis. "That's right. 21. THAT is who you should be targeting with your writing, your programming, everything you are doing. Sure, 14 year olds watch our channel. But you know what else? Every 14 year old wants to be a 21 year old. So write to the 21 year olds."
I felt so... vindicated. At that point, for over a year, I had endured various people in management who had told me things like "you should subscribe to Teen People to better understand our audience" and "watch more Entertainment Tonight and try to write in that style."
I was actually told to "dumb it down" by one Vice President numberous times (she is no longer there).
Another Vice President, who decided to check in on the constant movie coverage we were doing in our office because she heard I had talked to Tom Cruise, scolded me (via my immediate supervisor in LA who scolded me in turn) for "wasting" my three minutes with the pre-Tomkatster at 11PM on a Saturday night in Beverly Hills by talking about his movie "The Last Samurai," his spiritual state of mind, and being underestimated but ultimately vindicated by movies like "Interview with a Vampire." Her suggestions? "You should have asked him what he thinks about the R. Kelly trial, what's in his CD player, and what his hottest onscreen kiss was. That's what our audience cares about." (She was fired not long after).
My first week working for MTV News I was asked to write something for the air about "Spider Man" which was then about to be released. I checked around the office for the tapes from the press junket and when only Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst turned up, I immediately asked "Where is Willem Dafoe?" The response I got, was, "Who? You mean the villain? He's too old. We can't use him." Next up: "What about Sam Raimi? You talked to him right?" Silence. "He's the director," I added.
"The director?" came the reply. "We don't use directors. They are not our audience." (I don't know if anyone noticed but *cough* that movie did go on to spawn one of the biggest movie franchises of all time). Flabbergasted for the first of what would become countless times, I said, "Well, what did Tobey and Kirsten talk about?"
"We asked them about their kiss in the rain." Um... OK. Anything else?
"You don't get any time at those things."
Not long after I was told to prep questions for Ben Affleck to be asked on the set of Daredevil for the show "Movie House," which was being hosted by a good-looking struggling actor who can now be seen on the soon-to-be-dead WB (catch it while you can!). I told the woman running the show (the real one running the show, not her boss) that we should lead with this:
"You wrote in the introduction to a collection of Kevin Smith's Daredevil comics that you were worried that having one of your best friends write about your favorite superhero might take some of the magic away. Now that you are your favorite superhero, is there any magic left?"
She immediately told me that would never work for MTV. "Too geeky," she said. (God forbid you get geeky in a piece about a Marvel movie on a show being aimed at people who... Like movies).
She leaned back in her chair. Spun around. Looked out the window. Then turned back to me.
"You are on the right track though, Ryan. Here is your question: 'Ben. Daredevil is based on a comic book. Have you ever read it?'"
This is the same person who would later tell me she "doesn't care about Star Wars and that kind of junk" (after she corrected me that Sam Jackson had to be Darth Vader because Hayden Christensen -- who I said played Darth Vader -- was "Anakin somebody" in her press notes, shortly before she departed to Skywalker Ranch (!!) to supervise Master P(!!)'s interview with George Lucas) and that she was mostly into Hitchcock movies and documentaries (oddly, I love Hitchcock, docs and "Star Wars." "The Crow," too). If I am not mistaken she was later fired for making production assistants swing by her house and walk her dogs... Allegedly.
Let me tell you something, powers that be at the ole Music Television, your ever shrinking TV audience (yes, I saw the VMA numbers) cares about iPods, they care about MySpace (you really should have outbid Rupert, no?), they love Johnny Depp. They like YouTube. Hopefully "Overdrive" isn't too little too late. (Nice that I can finally watch it on my Mac, that's for sure!)
And sure, "the kids" care about "Laguna Beach." But you know, there is something called "the middle" and Tom Freston got it. Unfortunately, not one person from my entire department turned up to hear him deliver that quote. Not even the good ones. I don't think they knew about it, honestly, but I returned to work armed with it and prepared to recite it when necessary.
My first opportunity came, alas, very quickly. The guy in New York on the other end of the speaker, a nice enough guy and one of my many bosses but in that particular instance acting much like one of the bad guys, stammered and stopped when I whipped it out. But then he went on again like nothing had happened, because surely, I had misheard what was said.
Why get so worked up? Because there are great people in the trenches there (and in management) and a great cast of on-air reporters... That's why. And because I got to interview Metallica and Oasis and Tarantino and watch our movie coverage improve by leaps and bounds, whether I had to fight tooth and nail or not. Because I greatly value my time there, regardless of the above (the good stories really do outweigh the bad for the most part). Because it sucks to see a "good one" (by my small estimation) shot down by his corporate leash-holders for what were more likely their shortcomings. Scapegoat much, Sumner?
Anyway, poor Tom, I barely knew ya'. Literally. God Bless you man and keep fighting the good fight.
FLETCH LIVES... Sorta
And to bum me out even further, it looks like the planned relaunch of the "Fletch" franchise ("Fletch," dear friends, is my favorite comedy of all time) is going ahead with ZACH "I'M SO SMARMY IT HURTS" BRAFF in the lead.
Want to see what he has to say about it? I don't.
Once upon a time, Kevin Smith bought the rights to all twelve books and planned to reboot with "Fletch Won," the "Casino Royale" of the series. He had hoped to cast Jason Lee in the role made famous by Chevy Chase. But then a couple of things happened... Like Jason Lee's bad rom-com for MGM. And "Jersey Girl." I asked Jason what was going on with it at one point on a red carpet and he said simply, "Ask Kevin." I guess "Earl" and "Clerks II" came a moment too late?
I never saw "Garden State." The trailers were too packed with PEOPLE LOOKING MEANGINFUL PONDERING MEANINGFUL THINGS UNDERNEATH MEANINGFUL MUSIC WITH QUIRKY, MEANINGFUL SEX APPEAL.
Give me Brandon Lee in "Rapid Fire" and Powers Booth telling him to "take those Fists Of Fury of yours outside" anyday. Now that is meaningful.
LIKE A ROCK(Y)
But here's a story about a good fighter (like Brandon and maybe Tom) actually getting his due. The "Rocky" statue is going back in front of the museum! Yes, that's right, that legendary statue of Sly's greatest creation is going back where it belongs. Thank you, Philadelphia, for coming to your senses. It almost makes up for Mumia and blowing up the "MOVE" organization. Almost.
BUSH DOESN'T ALWAYS LIE!
Bush finally admitted that the CIA has secret prisons. Thanks, W.
FURTHER DOWN THE TAIL...
Amazon and iTunes will offer downloadable movies in a pre-emptive strike against a Napster sized catastrophe in the movie biz. It looks like iTunes is only going to offer Disney movies right now, but hey, it's a start.
IT'S A WONDERFUL BUT GOTH LIFE
The "darkness" of Jimmy Stewart? You betcha. Or so Slate would have us believe... interesting reading, no doubt.
On my viewing list for tonight: "Brick."
Listening to: "The Al Franken Show" on Air-America
One of these men just won a "VMA." Again!
- Ryan J. Downey
- I'm a longtime contributor to MTV, Billboard, Alternative Press and MovieWeb. I've worked as on-air reporter, host, writer and producer for MTV, MSNBC and E!. I have provided opinion and commentary to programs on VH1, IFC, G4, Fuse, Current and Oxygen. I have written for Huffington Post, Premiere, OC Weekly, SFGate.com, NextMovie.com, MTV's television and movie blogs and other publications. I am the founder of Superhero Productions, providing broadcast, online and aftermarket content for a number of clients including Lionsgate, Sony and Warner Bros. I personally handle artist management for a handful of bands. "Ryan Downey has established a history of breaking some good scoops in the last few years, and you could certainly do worse than bookmark [him] to check in on." -- Ain't It Cool