WEST HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA — The summer of 2011 is shaping up to be a pretty grim one for curmudgeonly film blogger Jeffrey Wells. Wells, who opines daily on film and the movie industry on his website Hollywood Elsewhere, hates the special effects-packed event flicks that Joe Popcorns, as he calls them, seem to love. And this summer has offered Joe P. more than his usual share of just such treats: The Green Lantern, Captain America, Thor, another Transformers, an eighth Harry Potter, a fourth Pirates, a new Conan, a return to the Planet of the Apes, and a youthed-up X-Men. Wells actually liked that last one, but in general, he says, “Comic-Con culture is one of the worst things to happen to movies. It’s catering to fanboys who want the same stories told over again.” Then he takes it one step further: “I’ve used the metaphor that I’d like to strafe the Comic-Con faithful in an F4 Phantom Jet.”
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Hollywood Elsewhere, which Wells launched in 2004, is known for going that extra step. “Known” is not to be confused with “widely known”–the site is read by 30,000-odd people a day, according to unique visitor data supplied by Wells. And “extra step” should not be confused with anything like muckraking. While Wells posts video interviews with actors and filmmakers and will dig a little, often on particularly picayune matters–last week he got Kubrick’s former assistant Leon Vitali to comment for a story on the aspect ratio of Barry Lyndon–his website is more a stream of consciousness. One minute he’s offering his take on the early script of an in-production film, the next he’s remembering his Siamese cat, Zak. Then there are the times he goes that “extra step”: talk of strafing the Comic-Con faithful and posts about a “Hispanic party elephant” in the apartment upstairs, when he used to live in New York. Wells and his blog are both an acquired taste.
“My site is kind of like what my day is, there’s a diary-like feel to it,” says Wells, whose face sits atop his site beside a Hollywood sign-styled banner. “The idea is to deliver reporting, but I’ve mainly got to deliver the brand of writing of Hollywood Elsewhere, which is knowledgeable, been around for a long time, mouthy, smart-ass, opinionated. Fair and modest and very careful and cautious reporting is not what I’m doing here. I’m doing incautious reporting.”
Of course, not everybody’s diary earns them a readership of thirty thousand; small by the Huffington Post’s standards but none too shabby for a one-man shop filling a niche within a niche. His audience is not just film-lovers but those obsessives interested in the early word on a potential Oscar frontrunner, the quality of new digital projections, and the frustrations of trying to use a washing machine in France. Among Wells’s readers are several filmmakers – including “names” like director Phillip Noyce (Patriot Games, Salt) and writer-director Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton, the upcoming Bourne Legacy).
Fellow film blogger Sasha Stone, who records an Oscar chat podcast with Wells, attributes his success to the fact that, unlike a lot of younger bloggers, “he’s seen it all. He can talk about Tony Curtis, Warren Beatty, and Hitchcock and then also talk X-Men and Lindsay Lohan.” The bits about washing machines help, too. “Jeff, and successful bloggers like him, never put the job down: it is part of his daily life. His blog is plugged into his circulatory system.”
Wells was among the earlier movers in the print-to-web migration: after a picaresque career during which he wrote a weekly column for the Los Angeles Times Syndicate and contributed to the Los Angeles Times and Entertainment Weekly, among others, Wells started a twice-weekly online column at the now-defunct Disney-owned entertainment website Mr. Showbiz in 1998. In 1999, he moved the column to Reel.com, the DVD-selling site owned by Hollywood Entertainment, and when Reel was blasted away in the dot-com kaboom, shifted the column to filmmaker Kevin Smith’s (Clerks) also-now-defunct website, Movie Poop Shoot–“I just wish it had been called The Poop or something,” says Wells, still “not turned on” by the name.
Hollywood Elsewhere was born in 2004, when Smith let him go and Wells decided to strike out on his own. “I knew nothing,” he tells me when we speak, suggesting the headline for a piece about his career would read OLD DOG LEARNS NEW TRICKS. Those new tricks–like coding–were taught to him by friends from Smith’s site and Reel.com. “I did not go to night school and sit in the third row with a cup of coffee in my hand taking notes.” Selling advertising was perhaps the toughest skill to master–he had never had to do it. He made his first sale to Fox Searchlight and describes the moment, in typically Wells style, as being “like God’s choir singing, the heavens parting, the rays of sunlight piercing through; it was astonishing. I felt there was actually an opportunity to really survive.”
Surviving as a movie blogger means a heavy reliance on Oscar advertising–think the ubiquitous “For Your Consideration” ads that fill the trades during the voting season–which comes mostly in the fall and winter in the lead-up to the awards ceremony. As his audience has grown, Wells has sold enough ads in the off-season to get by, but he says in the early days it could be barren. “You basically have to be like a squirrel and save it up when you can make it in the prime Oscar season.” His struggle now is convincing advertisers that his small audience is a quality one–essential if he wants to attract top dollar for the ads he displays. Earning a living from studio advertising while writing a highly opinionated film site seems a recipe for journo-ethical disaster. But Wells insists there is no “quid pro quo” about a film being left alone if it is advertised on his site. “I have to be myself and write the real stuff or Hollywood Elsewhere would lose its value,” he says.
Wells’s admitted incautiousness while being himself has landed him in just the kind of click-grabbing scrapes for which certain bloggers live. Gawker Media’s feminist blog Jezebel laid into Wells after he wrote a post reviewing the play reasons to be pretty in which he talked about giving women letter-based grades and declared, “Life would be heavenly and rhapsodic if women had the personality and temperament of dogs–forever loyal, non-judgmental, constantly affectionate.” In 2007, Deadline’s Nikki Finke published an e-mail that Wells sent to 3:10 To Yuma director James Mangold asking for still pictures taken on set during a “boob-baring nude scene.” Then there’s the fanboy strafing and the racially tinged posts: complaints about the “Hispanic party elephants” upstairs and another about New York City Latinos speaking disrespectfully loudly.
Stone claims the gruffness is cultivated for the blog and in real life Wells is a charmer. “He’ll complain about someone wearing flip-flops, people being overweight and the occasional sexist rant–he also verges on racist comments at times–but he does it to provoke people. They call it comment trolling or comment bait and it works, of course, every time.” But Wells says it’s all the truth. “I’m not just spewing something because I think it will get me a lot of page views. This is what I actually think.” Certainly, in an e-mail regarding the “Loud Latinos” posts he didn’t backpedal; he took that extra step, in fact, distinguishing between refined Latin men and women “who always exude a kind of elegant, soft-spoken confidence in a kind of Fernando Rey fashion,” and “the vocal social habits of working-class Latinos from lower social stations in the New York City area.”
The stories about bad WiFi service, split pants, and appropriate modulation may turn some off, but if you stick with him, Wells’s Hollywood Elsewhere is a brash, fun read. You might even come to like the man grinning at the top of the page. “I really think the personal stuff is what makes his blog so compelling,” argues Stone. “He puts out a good picture of his world–he comes off as an imperfect person–his readers feel protective of him and can relate to him. When they click on the page they are stepping into his virtual world. No one else in our field really offers that.”
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Name: Hollywood Elsewhere
City: West Hollywood