The Reviewer Who Wasn't There

David Manning of The Ridgefield Press is one of Columbia Pictures' most reliable reviewers, praising Heath Ledger of "A Knight's Tale" as "this year's hottest new star!" and saluting "The Animal" as "another winner!" The studio plastered Manning's raves over at least four different movie advertisements, including "Hollow Man" and "Vertical Limit." But Manning's own life story should be called "Charade," because he doesn't exist. Challenged last week by NEWSWEEK about the reviewer's authenticity, Columbia parent Sony Pictures Entertainment admitted that Manning is a fake, a product of the studio's advertising department.

The Ridgefield Press (which was unaware of the deception) is a small Connecticut weekly, but that's where any verisimilitude ends. An unidentified Sony employee apparently concocted the Manning persona last July, using the name of a friend, and attributed fictional reviews to him. Supervisors using the quotes in movie ads didn't question Manning's legitimacy. "It was an incredibly foolish decision, and we're horrified," Sony spokeswoman Susan Tick said of the hoax. "We are looking into it and will take appropriate action."

In Hollywood, where desperate marketing tactics are the norm, news of the deception astonished even longtime executives. "I have run two studios over two decades, and I have to say this is a first for me," says Joe Roth, whose Revolution Studios produced "The Animal" for Columbia. "It's hard to believe. It's terrible. Sony has to apologize and pull the ads." Dick Cook, chairman of the Walt Disney Motion Pictures Group, says: "That certainly does cross the line. We would never, never, never, ever do that."

Sony is removing Manning's quotes from "Knight's Tale" and "Animal" ads, but some arts sections this past weekend were already printed before the fakery was revealed. The real question is why Sony had to conceive the counterfeit critic to begin with, given the world of movie junkets, where normal reporting standards don't apply. Reading the glowing newspaper-ad recommendations for even the lamest movie, you might wonder if those quoted critics are real. Unlike Manning, they are. Many are habitues of the junket circuit, an all-expenses-paid gravy train where the studios give journalists free rooms and meals at posh hotels and the reporters return the favor with puffy celebrity profiles and enthusiastic review blurbs. Sometimes studio executives will suggest what kind of quotes they need, and even shape the reviews to suit the studio's goals. If a studio wants its movie pegged as "This year's 'Alien'," the reviewer delivers precisely that. No one complains, and bad movies end up with great quotes. The junket troops are a mostly anonymous crowd working for obscure outlets like Wireless Magazine and Inside Reel, which helps explain why nobody-even people within Sony and Revolution-noticed that Manning was a sham. "If he doesn't exist, he should at least have given us a better quote," Roth joked. The Manning fabrication broke even Hollywood's lax rules. But the real scandal is what's considered acceptable.