Q&A with Michael Cieply, Hollywood correspondent for the New York Times

Michael Cieply is a journalist-turned film producer-turned journalist who now covers Hollywood for the New York Times.

Prior to his stint at the Times, he has worked for Forbes, the Wall Street Journal and the L.A. Times, and was the man responsible for putting the script for “The Last Action Hero,” into the hands of Columbia Pictures.

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Editor in Chief Allison Sylte and CTV’s Wayne Stafford sat down with Cieply prior to his lecture at CSU on Wednesday to chat about the covering the Oscars, entertainment journalism and the movie business.

Sylte: In a blog post, you said that off the record, Hollywood writers, directors and actors are some of the smartest people out there. That’s not something you hear a lot.

It’s true — it’s the endemic problem of covering Hollywood. There are lots of smart people. It’s a fun culture, it’s a smart culture, and it’s highly political. But the thing is, there’s a cultural prohibition against speaking the truth publicly.

That’s why there’s such a fascination with journalists, because they put their names on something that’s supposed to be the truth every day. People operate so inside of a corporate, cloistered, cloaked environment where they can’t believe that anybody would speak the truth. It’s so hard to bring a degree of candor out of them that lets people on the outside see who they really are.

Every year, you can sit and watch the Oscar’s, and if you bet money, you can make a fortune if you bet that not one interesting thing will be said by those people. And it’s astounding to me that you can take someone as old, as grizzled and as smart and wily as Clint Eastwood — someone who you think would speak his mind — but put him on the Oscars, and he’s as sanitized and inane as anyone else. They can’t constitutionally talk on that stage.

Sylte: But I’m assuming that the candor you’re talking about is not necessarily trying to get pictures of Kristen Stewart cheating on her boyfriend… 

Cieply: Sometimes, yes. (laughs)

Sylte: What’s the difference, then, between the New York Times and TMZ when it comes to covering Hollywood? What’s the goal?

Cieply: With regard to the TMZ question, there’s a more superficial way to answer it, which is the question of what you do with the gossip story. TMZ goes for the throat on all of them. The New York Times actually has to make, or does make, a kind of judgement call on impressionistic call on all those stories. There’s no one I know who in the paper who can tell you, systemically, what’s in and what’s out.

With Mel Gibson, we were in. With Lindsay Lohan, we were half in. With Paris Hilton, we were out. With Michael Jackson, we were in, and we’re still in.

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It has to do with perceiving that there’s a slightly deeper and more meaningful something in the story. With Mel Gibson… it you took away the anti-semitic nature of what he actually said, it would have lapsed into a Paris Hilton thing. You’re looking for a platform, so it’s more than just frivolous.

I think the simple rule of thumb is, if you’re the New York Times, it has to be to always look for the story that they don’t want you to tell. There’s no fun at all being someone who wants to do a simple, sit-down Q&A with a director with a movie coming out soon. That’s easy, and it doesn’t get you anywhere.

You always need to be asking yourself, “What is it that these people don’t you to put out there?”

Sylte: You cover the film business a lot. And overarching theme I’m seeing is that it’s kind of being overtaken by TV in terms of relevance.

It’s being killed. It’s just being killed.

It’s hard to sort it from the perennial, it’s hard to say the movies are dying, but it’s kind of clear that something real has set in. And it’s coming from a lot of different directions. I don’t think there’s anything sacred about movies persay, but I think there’s something kind of sacred about long-form storytelling.

The ability to tell stories to large amounts of people is lost in this culture, and I think you’ve lost something valuable. Movies take you somewhere deeper, somewhere you should want to go.

It’s the movies that mean anything that are really starting to suffer. That’s where you’ve seen the biggest numeric decay. There’s a zone that comes from companies… that pick up independent movies, and distribute it and make it into a contender for the Oscars, that try to produce movies that people that mean something at the end of the year.

Over the course of two years, the pictures in that zone dropped by about 50 percent, and it’s because they don’t make money.

Sylte: How is TV becoming more culturally relevant, then?

I think there are probably various reasons. I’ll give you the biggest reason: Movies, picture by picture, are behind a paywall. And there’s a difference between going to see a movie and actually paying, or watching the Sopranos or something else on TV.

The other aspect is character. In a two hour movie, you can only do so much to develop a character. But Tony Soprano, you come back to see him again and again and again. As television got better and better, you came used to living with, you know, the people in “Mad Men,” and then you go to “Bridemaids” and you’re with them for, you know, two hours. That’s why you see large franchise movies being made into large, serial enterprises.

That’s a huge shift from past generations. What does that mean for us as a culture?

That’s a question that I hope I can answer next week for a story I’m working on. I’ve been knocking on the doors of people smarter than me, and they really don’t like addressing that question.

But let’s face it: Seth McFarlane, hosting the Oscars? Yes, he had a movie, but he’s a guy that’s known, predominantly, for television. We’ve had guys with variety shows hosting, but those shows you usually have a movie element. Suddenly though, you’re basically waving the white flag, by giving the Oscar gig to someone who’s claim to fame is success in another medium.

I wrestle with your question, and it’s my question too, but I don’t have an answer today.

Stafford: Do you think there’s been a diminishment in cinematic quality and story quality, if you think about popular films like “The Avengers,” “The Wedding Crashers,” etc…

A thing is that the studios are extremely market driven. What people pay for is what they’ll get. There’s an absolute reward to producing broader, more fantasy, more common-denominator films.

Most of the money in the industry is coming from abroad. And it’s coming often from countries where even the English language is not a factor. About 70 percent of box office sales for studio pictures comes from outside the U.S. and outside of Canada, so you’re getting a kind of movie that’s designed to play equally well with or without words.

This hit me a couple of years ago while I was watching “War of the Worlds.” I’m watching Tom Cruise and the giant monsters and everything else, and I thought to myself: This is actually a silent film. It’s so loud, and it plays like a Charlie Chaplin movie. It plays well in any language, because nothing is being said.