Saturday, April 18, 2020

It Was 25 Years Ago Today: The End of The Houston Post

At around 10 am on April 18, 1995, one of my Houston Post editors called me at home while I was eating breakfast to break the bad news: The Post was shutting down, effective immediately, and we had until 5 pm to get all of our belongings out of the building.

It was a shock. But it wasn’t a surprise. 

Truth to tell, The Post had been on shaky financial ground long before the owners opted to pull the plug. And by the way: By “closing,” the owners were able to sell all their assets for a hefty sum to the Hearst Corporation, owners of the competing Houston Chronicle, allowing Hearst to avoid any inconvenient anti-monopoly regulations that might have kicked in had Hearst simply bought The Post. There were rumors that other companies had made offers to purchase our paper, and keep it afloat, but Heart evidently dangled a bigger check than anyone else.

That the fourth largest city in the United States had suddenly become a one-newspaper town was really big news for, oh, I dunno, maybe 24 hours. The next day, however, the Oklahoma City bombing occurred — a much worse tragedy, I would readily agree — and people stopped paying attention. Nowadays, I suppose, the Post closing might have remained fodder for cable TV chat shows for a week or so. But that is now, this was then. I vividly remember being interviewed by a headhunter for an out-of-town paper — one of several that descended on Houston the day after the closing, to see who might be worth recruiting — in a Holiday Inn hotel room. The guy was polite, and seemed truly sympathetic. (He represented the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and I did wind up landing a few free-lancing gigs from that paper.) But throughout our conversation, it was obvious that while he had one eye trained on me, he had the other eye trained on a TV across the room that was telecasting live reports on the Oklahoma City horror.

For years afterward, I likened what happened to me 25 years ago today to being aboard a ship that had suddenly been shot out from under me. Instead of grasping for any debris that might keep me afloat, I lunged toward anything, anywhere, that might keep me, at least temporarily, solvent. The Post closed on a Tuesday. By the following Friday, I had a free-lance piece in the Houston Chronicle — an interview with director Nikita Mikhalkov, whose Oscar-winning Burnt By the Sun was the opening-night film that year for the WorldFest/Houston International Film Festival. The following Sunday, I was one of a small group of Post survivors who were interviewed on the morning news show aired by KPRC-TV, the NBC affiliate. When the show ended, I approached the producer and suggested that, hey, wouldn’t movie reviews be a swell addition to his program? The following Sunday, I was on the air.

And yes, I have no doubt that had there been podcasts then, I would have launched one of those, too.

To this day, I can tell you who called me within hours after news of the Post closing broke to offer condolences, job leads and/or, no kidding, office equipment. I can also tell you who returned my calls during the days and weeks afterward. And I can tell you who immediately stopped taking my calls.

Clint Eastwood had one of his people call me to promise that he’d make himself available for an interview to promote his next movie, and he didn’t really care when or even if I could sell it. (He made good on that promise, and I did sell the interview pegged to the release of The Bridges of Madison County.) Todd McCarthy, then my editor at Variety, called with a fistful of free-lance review assignments — I had been writing for The Showbiz Bible since 1990 — and a promise that the paper would cover my expenses for the next Sundance Film Festival. (Again: Promises made, promises kept.)  Saundra Saperstein of the Toronto Film Festival called to assure me that I would get my press credentials for that festival the following September, no matter what. 

It was during the 1995 Toronto Fest, incidentally, that (with a little help from fellow critic Jami Bernard) I did an interview with Denzel Washington (tied to Devil in a Blue Dress) for the New York Daily News. Not long afterwards, when my son George asked me how he was able to have such a swell 9th birthday party even though daddy was, ahem, unemployed, I responded: “Uncle Denzel came through for us.” Years later, when I told Washington that story, he laughed heartily.

It helped a lot that, within days of the Post closing, Hunter Todd of WorldFest/Houston gave me an aging IBM PC that had been gathering dust at his headquarters. Up to that point, I had been getting by in my free-lance work for the better part of a decade with a Kaypro 2X. The upgrade increased my productivity immeasurably. (On the other hand: I still have 5-inch floppy discs of WordStar files from my Kaypro that I haven’t been able to access in a very long time.)

I worked so fast and furiously to assemble a patchwork of free-lance gigs, I didn’t have or make time to truly mourn the Post. The impact of what I had lost didn’t fully hit me until, while I was at the Toronto Fest, I got a call from my wife telling me she had gotten a call from the editor at a newspaper where I had been absolutely certain I would get my next film critic job. Except I didn’t. And somehow this shocked me even more than the closing of The Post.

Yes, that sounds impossibly arrogant. But consider: I started writing film reviews for professional publications in 1967, while I was still in high school, and continued while working in various capacities at The Clarion Herald in Jackson, Miss; The Shreveport Times; and The Dallas Morning News. When I landed my first (and, so far, last) full-time job as a film critic at The Post in 1982, I was truly in the right place at the right time. Editors under three different owners saw having a “celebrity” film critic as an asset to exploit while competing with the Chronicle. (At one point, God help me, I even starred in my own TV commercial.) So they encouraged me to attend as many junkets and film festivals as possible — it was not uncommon for me to attend Sundance, Berlin, SXSW, Cannes, Montreal, Toronto, and the Sarasota French Festival within the same 12-month period — review everything from Hollywood blockbusters to art-house obscurities, and accept every interview request from any TV or radio station.

Just how elevated was my profile? One year at Cannes, Bertrand Tavernier introduced me to friends as not merely a Houston film critic, but “the film critic of Texas.” After reading my review of Bugsy, Warren Beatty asked that I be invited to the Love Affair junket, where he granted me one of a very few one-on-one interviews. I had enjoyed similar exclusivity when I got to sit down with Francis Coppola and George Lucas for an hour at the Tucker: The Man and His Dream junket. Harvey Weinstein (yeah, I know) took me aside at a film festival to inform me that I ranked among the handful of critics working at the No. 2 papers in their markets to be considered, by a wide margin, more influential on local moviegoers than their competitors at larger papers.

Fortunately, Jeff Millar, then the film critic at the Chronicle, was… well, it might be unfair to describe him as burnt out on being a film critic. But he had other things on his plate — like authoring novels and writing the Tank McNamara comic strip — so he didn’t attend junkets or film festivals, and he really didn’t write as many reviews as I did. He was nice fellow and a true gentleman — he took me out to lunch the week after The Post closed — but I have often wondered if I would have achieved anywhere near the recognition I did had I been up against a 1980s version of, say, Justin Chang or Inkoo Kang.

Anyway: I got the call in Toronto, and that’s when it hit me: The Post was really, truly gone, and I probably would never again have it as good as I did there. So I lay down on the couch in the living room of the friends with whom I was staying — friends who, fortunately, were not at home at the time — and starting crying. For a long time. And then I got up, wiped my eyes, and headed out to the next screening.

Things weren’t too bad for a while. It was a Wild West period on the Internet in the mid-1990s, and some newly established websites paid astonishingly huge sums for free-lance pieces. (For the better part of a year, I was paid $1,000 for every interview I wrote for; today, I would be fortunate to earn a tenth of that sum for the same product.) It didn’t take long, unfortunately, for editors to realize how many younger, hungrier free-lancers would work a lot cheaper than veterans in their 30s and 40s (or older). I got a gig writing for the weekly Houston Press that lasted about a year, until the people running the chain that owned it started using the same critics in all their alt-weeklies. The KPRC-TV job actually expanded for a while — I did interviews (many now available on You Tube) and interviews on both the Saturday and Sunday morning shows — but ended in 1999. The same year my wife and I filed for bankruptcy.

(Thank God she remained gainfully employed the whole time I was between jobs — and was able to keep me on her health insurance plan. If she had not been there, I would not be here.) 

And since then? Well, I must confess: When a dear friend introduced me to Coldplay in 2008, and I heard the lyrics, “Now I sweep the streets I used to own,” the shock of recognition was more than a little discomforting. But then as now, I press on.
Truly, I have no reason to complain. I started teaching at the university level in 2001, a job I enjoyed so much that I went back and earned an MA degree so I’d be qualified to teach even more. (I’m still an adjunct, not a full-timer, but that’s the way it goes.) I still write free-lance reviews for Variety — I will celebrate a much happier anniversary, my 30th, with that paper next month and I’ve been fortunate to discover some fresh talents over the years. Indeed, I am often reminded just how important a Variety review, by me or anyone else, can be. (I once got an email from a cinematographer who thanked me because, after I singled out his work on an indie film, he finally was able to land an agent.) And since 2006, I have held posts as contributing editor and senior writer for Cowboys & Indians magazine, which has put me in contact with many movie and music notables I admire. 

Looking back, I can see that I was a kinda-sorta canary in the coal mine when The Post closed in 1995. Many other newspapers have closed since then; many more no longer employ full-time film critics. I foolishly assumed that I would just leap into another film reviewing gig shortly after the shuttering of the Post. Even now, I remember what a friend and fellow journalist told me at the time: “They’ll be kissing your sneakers to hire you.” Every so often, I remind her of that statement, and we both have a good chuckle.

What neither of us could have foreseen, of course, is the paradigm shift that led to the drastic reduction of print film critics, and the massive increase of online film critics. For years, I continued to apply for film critic positions that sporadically opened up until… Well, I’m embarrassed to say just how long I kept sending out messages in bottles. But I do remember the day when I heard about a job, felt momentarily excited — and then told myself, “No, that time has passed. And you ain’t ever going to play Hamlet, either.”

Of course, to be brutally honest, it’s entirely possible that I was never as good as my friend thought, or I hoped, and that’s why I never landed another full-time gig. But even if that’s true, hey, I haven’t done too badly for a mediocrity, have I? Call me the Bob Uecker of film critics, and you won’t be far off the mark.

This probably is the last time I will mark the anniversary of the Post closing with any post this long-winded and self-aggrandizing. After all, I am not entirely bereft of shame. Still, I am a melancholy frame of mind right now that has little or nothing to do with the current COVID-19 pandemic. Well, actually, there is some connection: Because of the drastic cutback in advertising for newspapers and websites that can be traced to the pandemic and the accompanying lockdown, I know a lot of my younger colleagues (and a few older ones) currently find themselves in the same position I was 25 years ago today. As bad as I had it then, I fear it may be worse, much worse, for them. 

To the newly unemployed, I can only offer my condolences because, literally, I can feel your pain. I wish I could be more encouraging. But trust me: You’ll be much better off if you don’t expect anyone to kiss your sneakers anytime soon.

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