Features and Columns

It Happened to Gawker, It Can Happen to Anyone

By  · Published on August 23rd, 2016

The Big Idea

A personal story about free press, litigation, spoiler culture, and the future of media.

This week’s edition of The Big Idea isn’t about movies, but it is about the people who cover movies. Namely, me and the writers whose work fills the pages of this website. It’s also about other writers and other sites and the fragility of our industry. And yes, it’s about the demise of Gawker. But it begins where all of this usually begins – where sites like ours began – with the fans.

Having launched Film School Rejects in 2006 at a time when it truly was “The Wild West of Blogging,” I’ve watched the industry evolve over the years. This evolution has been dramatic at times, glacial at others, but all the while it is constantly moving forward alongside other industries. In those early days, you published your content and relied on the links of other sites to get the word out. There wasn’t much to Twitter or Facebook. There wasn’t a Film Twitter. There were the sites that dealt in rumors and leaks (the Ain’t It Cools and Latino Reviews), the site’s that aggregated news furiously (/Film, JoBlo, and Dark Horizons), and the sites that trafficked in strong opinions (CHUD and our very own little site, Film School Rejects). In the years that have passed, some of these ships have risen with the tide, some have sunk. Others have emerged from broken parts of other ships. In the end, we all occupy the same space. And together, for better or worse, we’ve evolved. And as my good friend Drew McWeeny explained in a recent column at HitFix, some of our evolution has driven our industry toward a dangerous place.

Has spoiler culture spoiled pop culture completely at this point?

He’s talking about “spoiler culture”:

We’ve gone from reading from the menu at the restaurant to studying the menu before we go to the restaurant to asking someone to eat the meal for us and tell us how all of it feels exactly, right down to the crap they take to finally get rid of it. We can’t really devolve much further short of fandom just showing up to stand around on a set loudly telling filmmakers what to do before, after, and even during actual takes. Short of that, we have reached the event horizon for spoilers, and it’s time to ask what we do next.

What Drew is getting at is the endless dissection of every nerd production – from Spider-Man: Homecoming to Justice League – and our willingness (both audience and journalist) to go after and discuss any relevant spoiler. There are plenty of publications out there that deal in insider information – the Birth.Movies.Deaths and Heroic Hollywoods of the world – to fuel pageviews at times. Some do this with delicacy, others are more wanton. What matters is that the information is getting out there. If a major production is going to make a big decision that will be talked about by fans – like changing the race, costume, or background of a character or story – it’s going to get out. It doesn’t matter that the studio would rather keep it a secret until people see the movie. Fans want to know and blogs make money telling them. This is where we’re at as an industry. And by no means am I claiming to be above it. After all, I’m one-third of a podcast called A Storm of Spoilers, which trafficks in the discussion of rumors and theories about a host of topics, chief among them Game of Thrones. Very little of what we do is original reporting (it’s more punditry and insane guesswork), but it’s a first-hand example of the fact that there’s a market for this kind of thing.

The Blockbuster Scoop Culture: Hollywood’s Grandest Shell Game

So what does this all have to do with Gawker, as my title suggests?

Everything. Possibly.

No matter where you land on Gawker’s demise – you may be glad that it’s gone or sad to see it go – it’s important to realize the context of how it was destroyed. Billionaire Peter Thiel, after years of unsavory articles and torment at the hands of Gawker’s salacious editorial bent, found a way to exact his revenge. He poured millions into the trial against Gawker brought by Hulk Hogan, advocating for personal privacy rights and an end to what he believed was an unchained attack dog in the press. And in fairness to Thiel, there are lines the press shouldn’t cross. Whether or not the Hogan situation is one of them is a debate for another time. Regardless of the right or wrong of the situation, Gawker ceased to exist this week because a single person with the right resources decided that he wanted to make them disappear. He litigated them into extinction.

As I read through the many obits that Gawker’s team published yesterday, on their final day of publishing, I became at first whistful of a site that I’d been frequenting for many years. Gawker was a site that taught many of us a lot of the right things to do in order to succeed in this industry. It was also the site that went there, to the places the rest of us would never. In that way, it was always sort of a firewall – a mild precautionary tale of where the desire for bigger, better, more salacious reporting can lead. Today it’s a full-blown cautionary tale.

Once the wistfulness subsided, I was struck by a singular thought: What if this was us? There have been times in the history of our site that litigation has threatened our very existence. We’ve been presented with plenty of Cease and Desist notices from movie studios. It’s usually over the use of an image we shouldn’t have in our possession, a leaked call-sheet or piece of concept art, or even some information that a studio doesn’t want in the public eye. For years, our editorial team took Cease and Desist notices from studios with ease. They wouldn’t really sue us, we thought. All we have to do is take the information down by the end of the day and we’ll be all good.

It was a lax stance that lasted until we were actually sued. Not by a studio, but by the rights holder of an image we had pulled from Google Image Search years before. They were serious. And taking the image down wasn’t going to be enough. Months went by and thousands of dollars were spent to get us out from under the legal avalanche. It didn’t kill us, but it was crippling. With some distance, I can safely say that it set the site’s ambitious growth back by at least a year.

Our specific situation is a little different than Gawker’s. Copyright issues aren’t the same as personal privacy issues. And ours is not an uncommon situation. I know of many sites that have been faced with such promises of litigation – some by copyright trolls and others by legitimately wronged parties. Though I can’t help but wonder what would happen if a studio decided that spoiler culture had gone too far. What if a site like ours or /Film had a writer with some amazing insider information about an upcoming superhero movie. The kind of information too juicy to pass up. Something that tows the line between insider information and intellectual property theft. Would we have the restraint to resist publishing? I’d hope so, but what if we didn’t?

In the post-Gawker world, this is something over which a studio – perhaps with the added vindication of years of insider information blowing their secrets – might be able to litigate. What would happen to said site if a studio allowed its legal team to hulk out? Like Gawker, it would be wiped off the map completely. Not every entertainment blog has venture capital, corporate overlords, theater chains, or massive media conglomerates backing them up. Some of us have to go out and find a lawyer and pray for the best when something like this happens. And if an angry billionaire can shut down Gawker, there’s no limit to what an angry movie studio might do.

For our part, we’ve moved away from posting “scoops” and “leaks.” We were always better at providing commentary and being fun, anyway. But I worry all the same for some of our friends around the industry. Especially as spoiler culture – this desire to dig deeper and reveal more – continues to wash over us like a Terrigen Mist, turning us into Inhuman scoop-hounds.

I wonder, like many others elsewhere among the free press, if a dangerous precedent has been set with the Gawker situation. Because now all it takes is one angry billionaire.

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Neil Miller is the persistently-bearded Publisher of Film School Rejects, Nonfics, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the Executive Producer of the One Perfect Shot TV show (currently streaming on HBO Max) and the co-host of Trial By Content on The Ringer Podcast Network. He can be found on Twitter here: @rejects (He/Him)