Friday, March 16, 2007

Premiere Magazine R.I.P.

Premiere Magazine is gone. It's a sad day for me, since so much of my New York career began and still springs from my time at Premiere Magazine. Like many magazines (Spy, 7 Days, Interview) it had its heyday and influenced many others and then became a shadow of its former self.

But I can still remember what a revelation Premiere was in 1987 when it debuted with the Dan Ackroyd remake of "Dragnet" on the cover. Here was a magazine that talked about the movie industry and was smart and fun. Before Premiere, you could go to dusty academic journals for dry essays or just get celebrity profiles. Premiere covered the entire movie business, profiling not just stars but agents and writers and directors and publicity departments and managers. It made the business side of the movies entertaining and it took the entertaining side of the movies as seriously as the Wall Street Journal covered business. People certainly went on the sets of films before Premiere, but it made that journey a mainstay and Premiere didn't just visit the set and take the guided tour -- it COVERED the making of a movie, complete with drama and excitement and battles over budgets and casting and the fights that are a part of any business, all without devolving into gossip. It took the work seriously, it took the artists seriously and it wasn't a puff piece magazine. If you behaved like a jerk on the set, Premiere would make that clear. Today, everyone goes on movie sets all the time and expects to report faithfully what they observe, rather than just provide free publicity for the film. Premiere is a big reason why.

Premiere also did innovative articles like "Shot By Shot," which detailed how the special effects worked. Behind-the-scenes talent like composers and cinematographers and costume and set designers and editors and special effects guys -- the giants of the industry in their fields -- got covered and profiled with as much professionalism and vigor as the stars. And the stars were treated with dignity. Premiere would talk about their private lives but it was always in the context of a meaty profile and how it informed their work; not in the context of wondering who they were sleeping with.

Premiere for a time had a Summer and Fall movie preview that was powerful and prescient. Today, everyone mimicks the Premiere summer movie preview, but does it in a toothless way. Even Premiere became toothless eventually. But at first, Premiere's rankings of the summer movies and descriptions of the buzz and hurdles the movies faced were spot-on. They would champion movies they thought would break-out, call an obvious disaster-in-the-making exactly that and weren't afraid to say when a movie just looked dull. Today, everyone just politely hints at bad buzz or the obvious problems with a movie. Premiere was feared and respected for a while because it reflected the actual talk in the industry about a movie's prospects. Hollywood wasn't used to seeing the conversations they were having reflected in the media, but there it was. Back in the day, if Premiere had to rank which summer blockbuster was going to come first ("Spiderman 3" or "Shrek 3" or "Pirates 3" ) it took that challenge seriously and the studios really, really cared about where they fell on the list. If everyone was talking about "Knocked Up" (the Judd Apatow movie out this June that is getting good buzz), Premiere would let you know. And if an awful "Nancy Drew" remake (out June 16) looked dead in the water, Premiere let its readers know that too -- or even worse, relegated it to a listing of "Also coming out," indicating it wasn't even worth talking about. No, Premiere didn't invent summer or fall previews (heck, I was doing summer previews in high school and college papers before Premiere even existed), but Premiere took them seriously and gave them weight for many years.

Perhaps Premiere's most imitated innovation was The Power List. I'm sure other mags or newspapers must have had a ranking of top people in an industry before. But Premiere's Power List defined the genre and made it spread everywhere, to the point where every industry of any sort has an annual power list compiled by somebody, somewhere. Again, Premiere's Power List mattered because the magazine took it seriously, invested a great deal of time and energy in reporting, talking to industry people, balancing different factions off against each other, all just to compile a list of the most powerful people in Hollywood, whether it was CAA's Michael Ovitz at the top or Steven Spielberg or an actor. People obsessed over their ranking and whether they would move up or down or god forbid not make the list at all. Everyone from Entertainment Weekly to the Widget Makers of America does annual power lists now. Premiere is the reason why.

Most of all, Premiere magazine took movies seriously without taking itself seriously. It had FUN. Movies were fun and Premiere was fun. They proved you didn't have to be Pauline Kael or American Film to talk about a movie in a serious, intelligent manner. They did lengthy pieces about the creation of classic Hollywood films, writing about the making of, say, "Bonnie & Clyde" as if it were coming out next week. And because so much time had passed and because Premiere didn't just speak to the stars but also to the cinematographer and the set designer and the key grip if they could, the stories were juicy and revealing. They celebrated behind the scenes people like Polly Platt. They revolutionized the way people covered and talked about movies.

Today, they've been passed by and so many of their innovations have become standard fare. Entertainment Weekly was always a problem because when it debuted after Premiere it was a lot more nimble on its feet. It could respond to a hit film quickly whereas the monthly Premiere always had to peer into the future and hope that it was right about which movies were going to matter. EW could throw "Borat" on the cover two weeks after it opened. Premiere couldn't throw a hit film on its cover four months after it opened, obviously. And while entertainment coverage has devolved since Premiere's heyday into gossip and facile celebrity profiles instead of meaty coverage not afraid to critique or paint an unflattering picture, that's our fault, not Premiere's.

The minute I saw that first issue of Premiere, I wanted to work there. I called them up to see about summer internships and the woman who answered the phone said, "Hey, we were just sitting around talking about that" and told me to send in some clips and my resume. Nothing. I moved to New York City in 1991 and the first and only place I wanted to work was Premiere. I couldn't even get an interview there, despite a ton of decent clips and some awards. I worked at a deli, trying to get a job somewhere during the height of a recession when even tiny jobs at Rolling Stone would garner 500+ applications of people who'd already worked elsewhere, unlike a former college student like me. Then a bartender I knew who stopped in my deli regularly (and whom I frequented on two-for-one nights) saw a sign I had posted in desperation on my register -- "Will Write For Food." What kind of job are you looking for? he wondered. I wanted to work in entertainment for a newspaper or magazine. He scrunched up his forehead. Would Premiere count as an entertainment magazine, he asked. Uh, yeah. He was having a brunch that Sunday and a friend of his would be there who worked at Premiere and he could introduce us. So I took an extra-long lunch break that Sunday from work, went to the brunch, met someone who actually worked at Premiere and he gave me the name of someone to call about an internship. So I went and I interviewed...and I didn't get the non-paying job. Aargghhh. (The guy, a friend, later admitted he made a mistake.) But he liked me and remembered me and when the photo department needed someone to work 20 hours a week sorting and unsorting photo stills, he called and I jumped. And I was in. I went from the photo department (where my terrific first boss was Charlie, a great gal) to the fact checking department to an actual job in the fact checking department (paying all of $18,000 a year for a full-time job, which meant I still worked at the deli on weekends). I loved it and worked hard and got on well with almost everyone there and made a few monumental mistakes as a fact checker (apparently it DOES matter whether The Last Of the Mohicans" filmed in North Carolina or South Carolina and everyone in both of those states will let you know if you mess that up) and as a conscientious fact checker, each and every one of those mistakes I let get into the magazine haunt me to this day. But I worked really hard and mostly did a good job as a fact checker and slowly but surely I got to write a tiny little item here and there (maybe a laser disc review), I got to go to screenings of movies and speak up in meetings to say that, say, "Rudy" was a delightful film and I even eventually got a semi-regular column on movie music, making me only the third person at the magazine to cover it, with one of the other two being Donald Fagen of Steely Dan. I even got to taste office politics when I had a one-sided feud with an editor who tried to get me fired for years and almost succeeded before I could jump to a full-time writing position at New York magazine.

Some of my closest friends in New York, I met at Premiere magazine. One of them provides most of my freelance work today at the NY Daily News. I'll be meeting another next Saturday at the annual IRAs meeting, where a group of crotchety guys who've known each other mostly since college get together every year for decades now to decide what THEY think are the best movies of the year. Another friend from Premiere comes over almost every night and we watch movies and TV shows together. I'm prouder of working at Premiere in its heyday than I am for any other job I've ever had. (Second place would be my modest contributions to the early days of Americablog -- about the only time I ever felt like what I did actually mattered.) I only wish its tradition of great writing and reporting lived on more strongly in the other newspapers and magazines that have now outlived it.

Goodbye, Premiere. I am missing you already.


Ed Sikov said...

"crotchety guys"

I'm grumpy, not crotchety.

Michael in New York said...

Fair enough. Grumpy it is.