Beating the big guns on the Disney beat

Last week, the Walt Disney Company announced a $1 billion-plus revamp of its Disney’s California Adventure theme park, which has been plagued by low paid attendance and poor customer reviews since it opened in Anaheim in February 2001. The Los Angeles Times detailed the plans in a story the morning of Disney’s press conference, writing that the plans were “first reported on the Wall Street Journal’s website.”

Actually, the plans first had been reported months earlier, on a website called MiceAge, run by long-time Disney-watcher Al Lutz.

I’ve been covering theme parks, online and off, for more than a decade. But Lutz is the dean of theme park reporters on the Internet. A former music recording producer, Lutz started writing about Disneyland on USENET, then on a series of websites. For fans used to ever-positive coverage about Disney and its theme parks in the traditional press, Lutz provided a bracing splash of reality. His reports detailed an ugly side at the so-called Happiest Place on Earth, from chipped paint and burned-out lights to maintenance cutbacks that other critics charged endangered the public safety. Two fatal accidents at the park, later blamed on park personnel and mainentance failures, brought more attention to Lutz’s critical work.

In 2003, he left MousePlanet, a Disneyland news site founded by a group of USENET veterans, to go solo on MiceAge. Since then, he’s added other writers his site, where they’ve broken many stories about developments at Walt Disney theme parks, including the plans to revamp California Adventure.

Despite the fact that we’ve covered the same industry for years, I’d not had the chance to meet Lutz in person. So last week, I called and arranged a get-together, where we talked about how Lutz found his way into Web publishing, as well as how he’s managed to build a part-time interest into a news-breaking bully pulpit about a multi-billion-dollar industry. An edited transcript follows:

OJR: Tell us about your background and how you got into reporting news about Disney on the Web.

Lutz: It wasn’t anything that was planned. I used to work for RCA Records; spent 10 years there. When the problems started hitting in the music business, I got out. Then I got into helping with my family business, the [real estate] appraisal business, which isn’t going so good right now. [Smiles.] But I had started going on to USENET, because that had fascinated me when we’d started talking about it in the music business.

I started on alt.disney.disneyland. There was one guy handling the Disneyland FAQ at that point, and he’d kind of given up on it so I took it over because I got tired of answering the same questions all the time — what time is Fantasmic! this weekend?, you know. Then Werner Weiss from Yesterland [a website devoted to now-closed Disneyland attractions] contacted me and said ‘You really should have a website,’ and that was the start of the DIG [Disneyland Information Guide].

It just started as an FAQ, but then we developed it into a gossip column. I think having the viewpoint is what’s important to me. Because that’s one thing they’ll kill you for on the Web is not having one.

OJR: How often do you file a Disneyland update on MiceAge, and what goes into preparing each update?

Lutz: I don’t determine the timing. The timing is determined by when I confirm things and when there’s some news to report. To me, a press event is not news. News is finding out about a make-over of a park, or an attraction getting a new ride system.

OJR: What’s been Disney’s reaction to what you’ve done?

Lutz: It depends upon the arm of the company. The parks division; they’re not real happy. The other divisions, movies and music, they’re fine. They appreciate the coverage and we have a good working relationship with them.

Did you see the coverage on Finding Nemo [a new attraction at Disneyland] and what happened with that? They invited in all the media, but they put the bloggers in the walkway by the Matterhorn [a location many yards away from the Finding Nemo ride]. That’s what they think of the Web. They put them in Siberia. I feel badly that they don’t understand that we reach more people in one day than all of these podunk newspapers that they fly out to cover these events.

You have a culture there which is very secretive. So for employees, instead of getting information from their bosses, they are getting it from the Web. And it creates this hostile environment toward the Web. They could correct it by informing their own people about stuff. There was one time when someone told me that they’d walked through Team Disney Anaheim on a Tuesday after an update and all the computer screens were up and they were reading it to find out what was going on. What’s funny is that I’d taken that same walk through the Simpsons animation people and they had all their computer screens on MiceAge, too. It’s interesting the people it reaches to.

OJR: How long did it take for you to cultivate a network of sources within the Walt Disney Company?

Lutz: It just kind of happened. People wanted to get the word out about stuff. Particularly during the [former Disneyland president Paul] Pressler era. There were a lot of people who were concerned. Before the Columbia accident, before the Big Thunder accident [two fatal accidents involving rides at Disneyland], people were concerned and they started talking.

I think that it is important to put a light on some of this stuff.

OJR: Compare and contrast what you do in covering Disney with what’s happening at local newspapers and TV?

Lutz: I like to sit down with a newspaper and learn something. I don’t learn anything from most of the reporting that’s going on nowadays. They tell you something that’s happened, but they don’t give you analysis or insight. The political area still maintains that, but the business area, in particular, has been lacking.

The other things that gets me is that they don’t do more alliances with the Web. Saying ‘hey, we can’t have a specialist reporter, so why don’t we put you on and make you exclusive to us for so much a month. So don’t talk to the other guys; talk to us first when anything breaks and you’ll be our stringer at a lower cost than maintaining a full-priced person.’

Everything’s in transition right now. I think the future is quite bright for the Web. But it’s very painful getting there.

The good thing is that we’re reaching a point traffic-wise where the numbers are finally starting to make some sense.

OJR: Tell me a little about the business side of MiceAge.

Lutz: There’s nothing formal. All the alliances we have are informal. It’s not a real business per se because we haven’t reached those levels where I can pay my rent with it, though it is certainly a lot better than it used to be.

OJR: Are you doing a revenue split with the other writers?

Lutz: They all benefit is some way or another. Alain [Littaye, who covers Disneyland Paris], for example, sells books. And he sells quite a few. At ninety bucks a pop, seventy bucks, he does pretty good. Kevin [Yee, who covers Walt Disney World,] sells a lot of books and he gets coverage from other areas for what he does. For Sue [Kruse], it’s pretty simple. She likes covering the press events and doing all that fun stuff. She runs an antique store, normally. So there’s a trade-off for everybody.

What they do is they submit a story then I handle all the layout, design and pick the graphics and do all that stuff. I’m a real big believer in a magazine-type of layout. I like blogs, but I don’t think they have a soul, or a life like a magazine does.

OJR: What advice would you give to someone who wanted to start their own “MiceAge”-style site, covering some other topic?

Lutz: Two words: Be honest. Have a viewpoint and be honest. People respond to opinion. They might not like what you have to say, but they will respond to it.

OJR: Some traditional journalists might find that statement a bit contradictory.

Lutz: Well, I’m not a newspaper. I think that in a balanced world, you’d have both, just like a newspaper has a columnist. If I’m telling you something and giving you my opinion on it then I expect you to be smart enough to know what the facts are and what my opinion is about the facts.

When you say theme parks or Disney, people just don’t take you seriously. What’s funny is that when Eisner and Wells came in, they had a plan to sell all the parks. Then they looked at the books and said ‘my God, these Disney brothers knew what they were doing.’ Whenever they had a bad period, the parks fueled everything. It just happened with NBC Universal. They were going to sell everything, then they looked at the books and said ‘my God, this is a cash cow.’ I don’t think that even the business reporting elite in the mainstream media understand what the theme park business is.

Dick Cook and John Lasseter are former theme park people. All the people at Disney who are involved in films are former theme park people. There’s going to be an even tighter integration now, then ever before between these properties, because it works. It brings in cold, hard cash that they don’t have to split with anyone, like they have to do in a theater.

Once a curiosity, Oscar news sites earn clout, build buzz

Kris Tapley has interviewed Nicole Kidman. He’s also interviewed director Mike Leigh. Who is Kris Tapley? He’s a full-time waiter — but he’s also a sometime columnist for popular site, one of the new players with clout in Hollywood during Oscar-courting season.

This bizarre mid-winter ritual has phases and windows and “for your consideration” advertisements that boggle the mind — unless you play the game. In phase one, the studios (and their publicists) try to convince the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) to nominate their films. If the studio gets the nomination, this is worth a lot at the box office. In phase two — right now — the studios (and their publicists) try to convince AMPAS members to vote for their nominees. If they get the statuette, this is worth a TON in prestige for the studio, actor and director.

On the receiving end are trade publications such as Variety and Hollywood Reporter, which are awash with special ads during the two open windows of voting for Academy members. Then add in the large print publications such as the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times and their Web sites. And pile on the movie sites, from Rotten Tomatoes to Movie City News. As Tapley has found out, it’s not just ads that are being pushed onto the Web: it’s access to stars.

Awards expert Tom O’Neil, who runs his own non-profit site, wasn’t above knocking the online competition in his column for the New York Times. Under the subhead, “Stooping to Conquer,” O’Neil wrote that Oscarwatch, “which is run by amateur fans,” was even doing celebrity interviews and mentioned how Tapley was a little too chummy with Kidman.

Sasha Stone, who has run Oscarwatch for seven years, bristles at the suggestion that she is an amateur, telling me that she writes film reviews for the Santa Monica Mirror, as well as other freelance writing and script reading. Oscarwatch is more of a seasonal job for Stone, she says, bringing in supplemental income.

“The traffic is huge – in the busy season, 4 million hits a day — it is a seasonal gig, only really taking up my time from September through February,” Stone said via e-mail. “Not enough to live on totally but enough to keep it going with minimal output on my part.”

Online traffic might be nice to build buzz about a new movie release, but how can anyone know if the Academy members are online reading? Most people assume these folks are a little older, a little less hip and mostly offline. But that’s not always the case, especially for some of the younger craftspeople on films.

“Just recently, following a piece I wrote on the media reaction to Martin Scorsese’s ‘The Aviator,’ my inbox was flooded with responses, all from insiders and some from Academy members,” Tapley told me. “Now that’s not to say they take this [online] arena with anything more than a pinch of salt but that they are indeed watching. That’s enough in and of itself to know that what we are doing goes at least a step beyond a mere ‘hobby.'”

As the Oscars have gone mainstream, the Oscar-focused sites have become the intelligence outlets for fans who bet in office pools or sign up for pick-’em contests online. Just as fantasy sports have spawned a hunger for online information, the Oscars have birthed a plethora of insider sites.

GoldDerby actually covers many other awards such as the Grammys and Emmys, and it utilizes panels of arts critics from major media to make predictions and help set faux betting lines. But the site doesn’t take advertising — except for promoting the books of its proprietor, O’Neil. Also a full-time editor at In Touch Weekly, O’Neil finances the $10,000-per-year cost of the site himself for now but tells me he will eventually raise money for it.

Movie City News mixes saucy opinions from seasoned journalists with link roundups from other major outlets for movie news year-round. Its special Awards Watch section tallies which movies have won the earlier awards from guilds and the like. Right now, you can’t help but notice the “for your consideration” ads all over MCN.

Building community with screenings

But the most visible symbol of the growing clout of the independent sites online is the fact that they’re hosting movie screenings for the studios. Ain’t It Cool News has held screenings for niche films, in Austin and Los Angeles, though not related to the Oscars. And then GoldDerby did Academy Award screenings in New York, while Movie City News had weekly Oscar screenings in Los Angeles.

Studios aren’t allowed to directly invite AMPAS members to screenings, outside of the official Academy screenings, but they use creative means to invite them through other guilds and groups that just happen to have AMPAS members in them.

Janice Roland is a publicist with Falco Ink who has helped promote “Maria Full of Grace,” “Hotel Rwanda,” “The Sea Inside” and “Vera Drake,” all of which have received Oscar nominations. Roland singles out O’Neil as being an important contact because of his Times pieces and GoldDerby site.

“This is the first time GoldDerby has hosted screenings,” Roland told me via e-mail. “I went to GoldDerby because Tom O’Neil is an expert on awards and I feel the site has weight. We do a Q&A at the end of the screening. Since some industry people are Academy voters — I think it creates a buzz for the film and the talent which leads the industry people to think about these films.”

Movie City News had an interesting way of capturing the attention of AMPAS members. The site’s editor and columnist David Poland was the host of weekly screenings at the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood. Poland said the screenings were open to anyone with a voting membership in any of the film guilds.

“Every week we had thousands of guild and Academy voters coming to the site specifically to sign up for films,” Poland said via e-mail. “The idea was to create a community of industry viewers who were voters and who would also spread buzz. None of the screenings were post-release…one of my rules. The idea was to be an early look and a place to build buzz and votes.”

Reaching those who reach the Academy

There’s a real black art to finding those 6,000-plus Academy voters and then winning them over with marketing. Do they watch TV? Do they read the paper? Would they read a handicapping site online, or catch the online buzz from a colleague or one of their kids?

One line of thinking for Internet promotion — placing interviews, advertising and maybe even anonymous forum postings — is that you’re reaching the “influencers.” These are people who tell other people who tell other people. So it’s possible that a tidbit of news might get play on the Oscar sites, then tumble into the trade publications and then onto the TV gossip shows and newspapers.

Alyson Racer, director of sales at, told me that the number of studios that are advertising online this Oscar season has doubled from three to six. “They’re seeing us as a viable place to reach the [industry people] and the influencers — not necessarily the voters,” she said.

Most online journalists I spoke with singled out New Line (and its Fine Line subsidiary) and Fox Searchlight as really understanding the Net and how to promote films in the medium. Racer noted that Fox Searchlight had been sponsoring’s site utilities (e-mail a friend, print an article) for the past six months because the studio’s more brainy films such as “Sideways” and “Kinsey” fit with the Times’ audience.

“Studios are being more adventurous about where they’re advertising online,” said Alex Romanelli, editor at “Oscar campaigning online is no longer restricted to the trades. They’re definitely targeting the broadsheets and the small, fan-based movie sites as well. The ads on those sites aren’t necessarily targeting ‘for your consideration,’ but they’re designed to increase awareness of key films being considered by key people out there.”

As for reaching AMPAS members, Romanelli not surprisingly thinks that Variety and its Web site still offer the most bang for the studios’ buck. gets 1.2 million unique visitors per month, according to Romanelli, and has 30,000 paid subscribers — half of them online-only subscribers.

Of course, not everyone will cede the whole game to Variety and the trades.

“These Internet opportunities are still quite cheap compared to print,” Poland said. “So for the price of a Variety cover, Fox Searchlight can push ‘Sideways’ for a month on a dozen sites, many of which will give up prime exclusive slotting.”

More likely, it’s the integrated approach, using multiple sites and media platforms, that helps build buzz for a film. And if the independent film and Oscar sites continue to gain the trust of studios — without selling out their objectivity to readers — they will reap the rewards of Oscar campaign season just as the TV business has grown fat during political campaigns.