The extent to which Long Shot underperformed at the box office when it was released earlier this year has become one of the central narratives of entertainment reporting in 2019. A romantic comedy starring Charlize Theron and Seth Rogen should have connected with audiences, especially given the sheer volume of “the romcom is back!” think pieces that have been published in the wake of hits like The Big Sick, Set It Up and a handful of other films. There were even reports that studio buyers were snapping up romcoms left and right at Cannes in May, energized by Netflix’s “Summer of Love” in 2018 and other success stories.
So when Long Shot brought in only $30 million domestically, it was massively disappointing. Two massive, enormously likable stars in a breezy popcorn flick like this should have been gold, Jerry, gold! Indeed, the campaign mounted by Lionsgate utilized the chemistry between those stars as the main selling point for audiences.
Missing from the campaign was any mention or reference to the most interesting part of the story: The pointed, spot-on message about the current unstable state of the media industry.
The romantic comedy element of the story begins when Fred Flarsky (Rogen) takes a job as the new speech writer for Secretary of State and aspiring presidential candidate Charlotte Field (Theron), who’s also his childhood crush. But their reunion is precipitated by Flarsky quitting his job as a writer reporter for Vice-like publiciation where he has a reputation for gonzo investigative pieces. For example, the movie opens with him undercover in a neo-Nazi organization in order to expose their members and actions.
Following that incident he’s informed by the publisher that the site has been sold to a Rupert Murdoch-like media mogul named Parker Wembley (played with gusto by Andy Serkis). Flarsky is taken aback by this, not least because he himself has written several stories about Wembley. The purchase does not bode well for the future of such hard-hitting pieces and Flarsky quits in protest, afraid he won’t be able to continue doing what he’s been doing.
If you’ve been watching the media landscape for the last several years, you may recognize the events above as being remarkably similar to what has happened time and again to websites that have taken on powerful figures. Peter Thiel was so offended by the things written about him by the journalists at Gawker he sued the publication into bankruptcy and oblivion. In 2017 Todd Ricketts purchased the Gothamist network, which promptly deleted negative coverage of Ricketts from its sites but was still shut down by him just months later.
Cinematic stories about journalists are relatively common, but few get it so right or offer such relevant commentary on the state of the media industry. Most just show a reporter who in appropriately involved with the subjects they’re reporting on, or present them as either naive do-gooders or hardened cynics.
Here, the realities facing freelancers and reporters is offered starkly, albeit to comedic effect. Flarsky has to choose between A) compromising his ethics and principles in the service of maintaining (for the time being) steady work, or B) drawing a moral line in the sand and saying he refuses to see his work compromised by someone who may feel threatened by that work.
Taking that kind of stand can not only impact current income but future opportunities as well. Freelancers are subject to vague “morals” clauses that may cause them to lose work simply because someone complained about something they wrote on social media. They censor themselves lest any criticism of a publication, company or individual be held against them when pitching or bidding for work.
Flarsky’s journey following his dramatic exit doesn’t follow the same path it would for most writers, editors or freelancers. Not only do most people not have the luxury of letting their ethics act as the primary motivator when making life-altering decisions (see season three of “The Good Place”) but aren’t then rewarded by scoring a sweet gig writing jokes for the girl they’ve been in love with for 20 years. Most then spend much of their time figuring out what the hell they’re going to do now and living with the regret of not swallowing their damn pride because how they going to pay the mortgage now, huh?
Still, that the screenwriters would even approach the idea that media ownership by the rich and powerful types who are often the subject of investigative takedowns is a step in the right direction. It’s an acknowledgement that the world is run by those who feel that power should, by all rights, make them immune from criticism and repercussions, no matter what their wrongdoing may be. They’re using that power to buy up the kinds of outlets that have traditionally held them in check and made them accountable for their actions.
It’s an angle I would have liked to have seen explored more deeply. Flarsky has a chance later on to tell Wembley what he thinks of him, but it comes out as a temper tantrum more than a biting critique of his maniacal need to avoid responsibility.
The media industry commentary is not the point of the movie, but it is an important subplot the likes of which are uncommon on the screen. Making a more concerted effort to bring it to the forefront, even just for a targeted media-centric audience may not have made much of a difference at the box office, but it would have presented something truly original about the movie that might have acted as a wedge for some people to take a chance on it, potentially generating positive word of mouth that could cascade outward.