The New York Post has managed to raise industry eyebrows after reporting in its Monday edition that it had obtained an unauthorized video copy of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of Christ” and screened it for its movie critic, a priest, a rabbi, a religion professor and a “Post reader” selected at random.
After the screening, a Post reporter interviewed the panel for their reactions to the film. Each person got to describe his reaction in about 250 words except for the Post critic, Lou Lumenick, who filled 500 words (natch).
Each panelist focused on whether the depiction of Jews in “Passion,” which is due to be released on Feb. 25, is anti-Semitic.
It is virtually unprecedented for a news org to write about a film using a bootlegged copy.
A Post spokesman would not say where it got the tape, which the paper described as “a grainy, second-generation videotape.”
“A source provided us with the tape, no copies were made and we have returned the tape to Mr. Gibson’s representatives,” a Post spokesman said.
The tape was returned on Wednesday afternoon after the Gibson camp asked for it. The spokesman added that editors at the paper believe the story had news value.
“The filmmaker has already held a number of screenings for individuals and comments from those viewers have been reported in the media. With so much controversy and attention surrounding this film, we feel this is a legitimate news story,” the spokesman said.
Jeff Berg, chairman-CEO of ICM, which reps Gibson, said he was disturbed the Post managed to get a bootleg copy of the film. “More damaging for the industry,” he added, “is the idea of a major metropolitan newspaper reviewing a film three months before its theatrical release. It is unprecedented.”
Pubs typically make — and keep — agreements with studios on the date they will first review pics, and breaking those dates can cause serious friction between moviemakers and news orgs.
But Post sources insist they weren’t trying to review the pic. The package was edited by the news desk, not the features desk that handles the paper’s movie reviews. It also ran in the Post’s news pages, at the front of the tabloid rather than in the entertainment pages at the back of the paper where its reviews run.
Lumenick also said he wasn’t reviewing the film. “I said repeatedly (in the paper) that it was not a completed work and I wasn’t reviewing it,” he told Daily Variety.
Berg is unimpressed with the Post’s defense that it was breaking news. “Even if that’s true, who authorized the New York Post to hold a screening panel of a film they don’t own?” Berg added that he thought the Post’s actions were “deeply violative of the social contract between media, creative, production and finance.”
Piracy issue heating
The Post’s “Passion” package comes during a heated debate over the threats piracy pose to the movie industry.
While whoever dubbed the tape could be open to criminal charges and to a lawsuit from Gibson’s Icon Entertainment, New York state’s shield law for journalists would likely protect the Post from liability.
That law allows news orgs to refuse to identify their confidential sources, which in this case could be the person who provided them with the “Passion” tape.
A spokesman for Icon said the company had no comment about the situation, though according to Berg, “The legal matters are being handled by Mel’s attorneys.”
This is not the first unauthorized leak related to Gibson’s project.
In early April, a copy of the “Passion” script mysteriously appeared at the door of a Jewish scholar in Chicago, according to the New Yorker. That copy ended up in the hands of a group of Catholic and Jewish scholars affiliated with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Anti-Defamation League.
When those groups condemned the “Passion,” Icon threatened to sue them for possessing a stolen script. Ultimately the scripts were returned and the Catholic org retracted its criticism and said it would wait to judge the film until the final cut is released.
Though reviewing unauthorized copies of films is unheard of, news orgs frequently write news stories based on unauthorized copies of books and other works when they touch on controversies.
- Nov. 7, Salon.com posted the entire 213-page script of “The Reagans” miniseries shortly before CBS decided to move it to its pay-TV cousin Showtime.
- In June, the Associated Press printed quotes from Hillary Clinton’s “Living History” a few days before the book went on sale, much to the dismay of her publisher, Simon & Schuster.
- In May, news that discredited magazine writer Stephen Glass had penned a roman a clef about his experience at the New Republic first came to light after the New York Times got a copy of it and wrote a story that quoted from the book.
But back to the Post. What was the panel’s judgment on how “Passion” depicts Jews?
The rabbi: “Painful.” The priest: “Very bad.” The prof: “Unfair.” The critic: “Deeply troubling.” The reader: “Fair.”