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When Political Spin Doctoring Comes to Movies : Society: Political campaigns are shaped by spin doctors who direct the flow of opinion. Now, with 'Last Action Hero,' Hollywood adopted the tactic.

August 29, 1993|Neal Gabler | Neal Gabler, the author of "An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood" (Anchor/Doubleday), is now working on a book about Walter Winchell

NEW YORK — The campaign was in trouble. Leaks from within the hierarchy--one published in this newspaper--indicated the candidate, in trying to reach out to a younger constituency, was foundering. Other reports enu merated the experts who had been consulted and recruited to save the day, though the reports only contributed to the sense of impending doom. By election day, it was a foregone conclusion that the candidate would be trampled--by dinosaurs. And so it was that "Last Action Hero" expired even before any civilians outside the film industry had a chance to see it, even before word-of-mouth could render its verdict.

The political analogy is apt, since the techniques of politics, for the first time, seem to have supplanted more traditional ways of merchandising movies. Where just last summer a movie would be pitched almost exclusively through advertising and puff pieces, movies are now preceded by a buzz from what in Washington would be labeled "top Administration officials," by advance disinformation from competing studios, by leaked audience poll results, by press bashing of one picture and boosting of another--just like political candidates maneuvering for advantage.

The key to all this, in Hollywood as in Washington, is the relatively recent phenomenon of spin doctoring. Spin doctoring is to opinion what alchemy is to lead. Its purpose is to persuade people not to heed what they have heard, seen or felt. For it makes the appearance of opinion into opinion itself. Hence, we all wait to find out who won a presidential debate by hearing the post-mortems, no longer trusting our own judgments. We believe what spin doctors tell us we believe.

We listen to them because we are uncertain about what we feel and because we are afraid of being wrong--that is, out of step with prevailing opinion. Once the spin doctors have done their duty, we can get the received wisdom: Designer opinions straight from the pundits.

To appreciate just how dramatic a change spin doctoring has wrought, one must return to first principles. In Hollywood, it has long been an article of faith that word-of-mouth ultimately determines a film's success or failure. A studio can hype a picture, advertise it with tens of millions of dollars, send its stars out on the talk-show circuit and the critics to junkets, can arrange tie-ins with fast-food chains and hawk toys, books, records and lunch boxes. But word-of-mouth can destroy the best-laid plans. If the people don't like it, they won't go.

At least that is the way it always was: the consumer as sovereign. And that is what capitalists everywhere, not only in Hollywood, wanted us to believe, so they could work their wiles undetected. Theoretically, no studio, no critic was as powerful as your neighbor telling you whether he or she liked a movie or not.

But while captains of industry continue to give lip service to this sort of economic populism, the Holy Grail of American capitalism has been to find some way to circumvent the ruling consumer entirely. Advertising was the first attempt. By ballyhooing products and, more subtly, by creating positive associations with them, marketers could soften consumers for the kill. The problem was that the consumer still rendered the final judgment.

A more sophisticated approach was demographics. One could scout the audience, discover its predilections and aversions and then predetermine word-of-mouth by tailoring a product to the buyer's specifications. Hollywood does this all the time. Nearly every picture has its "focus group"--a cross-section of Americans bantering around a table over what they liked and didn't like about a picture. It is the economic equivalent of biofeedback.

Demographics may have been an improvement over advertising, but it still required collaboration with the consumer. The authentic Grail would make consumers' desires superfluous by making it seem as if they had already spoken even when they hadn't had the chance. Instead of word-of-mouth, one would then have words-in-mouth, put there by the merchandisers themselves.

This, indeed, was the refinement that politics brought to salesmanship in the '80s with spin doctoring. If advertising was the selling of America, and demographics the sussing of America, spin-doctoring is the preempting of America--the preempting of our own thoughts and feelings.

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