There's nothing so controversial in entertainment journalism as the set visit. They remain a point of contention between readers, journalists, and critics alike. The write-ups are seen as a payoff, as crass marketing, and as a sign of increased corporate control. What are they really? Do they serve any purpose at all? Are they any different than the banner ad slapped across your favorite website? Even if your favorite writer penned it, isn't it biased ?
In the interest of full disclosure, I've been on several set visits. They've all been fun, but they weren't the kind of glamorous payoff imagined by readers and old media writers. They were enjoyable because I like to travel (even if it's nowhere more exotic than Charleston) and because sitting on the sidelines of any movie is a treat. I had wanted to see a real movie made since I was a kid. I'm a curious person. The first invite I ever received was to the set of a Nicholas Sparks adaptation. I went not to stargaze (I had no clue who the stars were that time!) but mostly out of an academic thirst for the experience.
Subsequent set visits were a lot more blockbuster-oriented, but none were luxurious. One took me to New Orleans with dire warnings of snakes, swamps, and alligators. Nothing about going to the bathroom in the woods -- with a reminder to kick the grass for snakes -- encouraged me to be biased to the result. Another took me to Puerto Rico, which was definitely a lush destination, but the heat and humidity made it a grueling experience. There's nothing relaxing or seductive about sitting on boiling concrete all day waiting for your turn to chat with an actor. The memory is enough to induce a migraine. Recently, I spent a day in a location we quickly named Tetanus Town. I may have met one of the sexiest men alive, but it was a rough and dirty day that made me glad I packed combat boots.
I wrote positively about these experiences because despite heat, grime, and stagnate water, they were enjoyable and exciting. Field trips always are, and it's hard to be glum about a field trip that's movie-oriented. I'm an entertainment reporter, but I'm also a fan, and my goal was always to bring a piece of moviemaking to my fellow nerds. On a basic level, my job is always sharing information. But I approach my job hoping to tell you a story -- be it about casting, directing, or controversy -- in an amusing way. When it came to set visits, I wanted people to have fun reading my account of them. I wanted people to feel as if they were there. I approached the writing like a travel blog, not a marketing piece. Even if the location left a lot to be desired -- seriously, you did not want to be in Tetanus Town -- I knew I was lucky to be there watching a movie being made and I wanted to include everyone in my words. I promise if something bad had happened, I would have eagerly shared that as happily as the good stuff.
I know the studios intend these as pure marketing, but written with an independent spin. I can promise I was never censored or nudged to give anything a slant. I wasn't paid by anyone but my sites. I was simply asked to accurately write what I saw. Yes, what we viewed was undoubtedly a small and safe portion of a film, but I wouldn't be foolish enough to declare a film a winner or a dud from a handful of scenes no matter how big or small. You can't do that with a trailer. Why should a journalist expect to do it from a handful of workdays? Readers shouldn't expect to be told whether the film is a must-see or not. They can only expect to catch a little glimpse of its goals because the person reporting just doesn't have a coherent whole. No one on set does!
One common complaint is that all the set visits read the same, and that every site has a variation, leading to a repetitive glut of marketing. I get that. I feel as numb as you do reading it. In the feeble defense of someone who has written a handful of them (and is horribly embarrassed at the echo chamber of every one), I can only defend the repetitive details as coming from fannish enthusiasm. We all have an eye for detail. If we see Josh Brolin snoring away under his Confederate hat, we think it's so cool and in character that it inevitably finds its way into every geek report. The cynical could argue that Brolin did it purely to lure us to a marketable detail. His slack-jawed snoring suggests otherwise, but who knows? We're dealing with actors, after all. Good ones. Who knows what's real?
As for the sheer amount of set visits written across the Internet, well, you're completely right in what the intent is. They want to smother you in name recognition. It is no better than an ad banner. It simply has a bit more art to it.
But here's the kicker, and the part that requires some action and discernment on your part: Don't read them all. I know you love movie news, and I know that the more bookmarks the merrier you are. But don't rig up an RSS feed of the usual suspects, and then complain that they've all got the same set visit. Websites work under the assumption that you only read their work, and thus will only see one set visit report. We can't work under the idea you'll see all 15 of them. The same goes for any news item or roundtable interview. We all run it hoping to keep our people in a little fence of content, and it's a delicate balancing act. Pick one site. Pick two. But don't read them all. Read the people you like the most. Limiting yourself and rewarding a good site saves you the eyesore of duplication for a lot of content..
No, a set visit is not invaluable to you as a member of the public, or an intensely discerning filmgoer. It won't help you decide whether or not to see Film X. The studio is hoping it will. Perhaps it may sway your judgment if they are bland or intriguing enough, but ultimately they are a novelty. They're a peek behind the scenes, and an insight (however limited a window it is) into its process of movie creation. It's no different than the glossy print magazine with Twilight or Harry Potter on its cover. That too comes out of a set visit, and isn't going to be any more penetrating or judgmental than the version your favorite web writer has. For example, eons ago, I remember reading a glorified set visit in Entertainment Weekly about Van Helsing. Man, the film sounded awesome! When it wasn't good, I didn't assume payoffs and credibility issues with that cover article. I accepted it as a glossy celebrity piece, which is all it really was. It hadn't seen the final cut, so of course it too thought the film sounded nifty.
Ultimately, it's all marketing. It all has the same goal of getting you to buy a ticket. Someday a studio will decide set visits are pointless wastes of money and squash or limit them to particular people. But until then, you can ignore set visits as crass, or you can read them as stargazing fluff, but don't get upset or overwhelmed. Limit yourself and reward the good writer. If you read their set piece, do so for novelty, entertainment, and a glimpse of the grind of filmmaking. Don't expect anything more vicious, analytical, or definitive than that. That's what reviews are for.