THE DICTATOR’s Canned Press Conference: Can’t Sacha Baron Cohen Do Improv Anymore?

Paramount held a press conference where The Dictator himself showed up. But all the questions were pre-approved and the schtick was prepared.

The idea of movie junkets as journalism is a silly one, but they should ideally be something more than just a promotional opportunity for the studio. The junket for The Dictator, the new Sacha Baron Cohen movie, fully crossed that line. The press conference for the film was held yesterday in New York City, and it featured Cohen in his Dictator get up, answering questions in character. There's something amusing enough about that as a piece of performance. But Paramount didn't allow the event to be an organic performance; questions had to be pre-approved by the studio. Myabe they were taking the 'dictator' theme too seriously. Why were the questions submitted in advance? Likely to allow Cohen time to come up with funny lines.

He certainly had time to come up with them; reporters were asked to submit their questions before the weekend. But that didn't end up making the press conference a gut-buster; one person in the room tells me that, like the movie, maybe one in ten jokes landed. Cohen even recycled lines from the film. Apparently he did banter with some of the questioners, going slightly off script, but always coming back to the same jokes again and again.

Isn't Cohen supposed to be great at improv? He came up based on the strength of the Borat and Ali G characters, both of which found him in the wild bouncing off of random people. There's a joy to those characters, to the game that's being played as Cohen stays in character and reacts with lightning quickness to the marks. There's a magic to the way that Cohen seems to be eternally on his toes, always ready with a killer joke. Obviously he walks into these situations somewhat prepared - he probably had the 'sleeve of wizard' line written way in advance, for example - but it isn't like a press conference is an unknowable entity. I've been to enough of these, and they all go the same. In fact all of the PR for The Dictator has felt weirdly canned, down to Cohen reading off cue cards on Saturday Night Live this weekend. There's a stink of flop sweat to the whole endeavour.

My disappointment in Cohen comes as a fan seeing a talented performer fall into lazy schtick. My disappointment in the press corps is filled with weariness. "You guys sunk LOWER?" is all I can say. I've done my share of press conferences and junkets, and in recent years I've mostly sworn them off. I'll do a press conference in a unique situation - a living legend is appearing, or I have a great question and I can't get the talent in a one-on-one - but I don't really begrudge those who still attend. I find it funny when my colleagues piss and moan about stupid, pandering questions at a press conference. It's like complaining that the circus is full of clowns. 

But at least there's still a sense that the reporters asking stupid, vapid questions are, in some way, serving their own readership. I may think the question is dumb, but maybe the thousands of people who read that site will be enthralled. Who is being served when a press conference turns into nothing more than a promotional skit? Only Paramount (who, I have been told, enforced a selective embargo when The Dictator was screened at CinemaCon. More press manipulation). There's zero chance of a smart or tough question getting through, allowing the studio to craft the message coming out of the press conference.

This isn't even the first time this has happened this year! The Three Stooges junket had the actors appearing in character, and reporters were given a list of 30 or so pre-approved questions they could ask. 

The saddest thing about it all is that most of these reporters aren't even being paid by the studio. If they were taking graft at least there would be some tangible reason for them to be doing Paramount's bidding. Instead they're just rolling over for the sake of rolling over.