Why No One Is Served by Early Movie Reviews

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
Dec. 6 2011 8:44 AM

Why Early Movie Reviews Are a Bad Thing

dragontattoo

The film world has been atwitter since yesterday over a dustup between New Yorker film critic David Denby and cartoonishly maniacal uber-producer Scott Rudin. The issue? The New Yorker has published a review of a new Rudin-produced film a week or so before its scheduled opening date.

The film is The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the much-awaited English-language version of the first of Steig Larsson’s best-selling crime trilogy. The director is David Fincher, who nearly won best director and film Oscars last year for The Social Network. Girl is considered to be potential Oscar bait this year as well, despite its lurid subject matter. You can read detailed accounts by Nikki Finke of Deadline and Jeffrey Wells of Hollywood Elsewhere; Denby’s review is here. (It was behind a paywall early yesterday, but is unlocked now.)

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All of which may sound like small potatoes—and, of course, fights between film critics and film producers don’t matter much in the grand scheme of things. But—amazing as it is to write these words—the producer in this case does have the ethically correct and principled position. What’s more, while much of the discussion yesterday mocked the idea that the embargo on early reviews demanded by Rudin is meaningful or worthwhile, in fact, embargoes like the one Denby violated—though obviously set up to serve the interests of movie studios—actually serve some useful purposes for critics and filmgoers as well.

Let me explain. I’ve gone to free film screenings arranged by studios for critics since I was 19 years old. All screening invites plainly say that reviews are to be held until the film’s opening day. The screenings make life easier for critics, giving them a few extra days, sometimes weeks, to get reviews together, and for film-section editors to get the reviews edited and their sections ready.

For some movies—art films, mostly—the screenings are in empty theaters in the mornings or early afternoons. More commonly, the critics are put into roped-off rows in regular theaters rented out for the evening. The rest of the place is filled out with lucky folks who’ve won tickets on radio shows or through other promotions. They provide an easily impressed audience to show the critics how well the film plays to regular folks; they are then supposed to go out and tell their friends how great the new Bruce Willis movie is.

Over the last decade, the Internet has put a lot of pressure on this arrangement. Ain’t it Cool News pioneered the practice of harnessing a network of correspondents who sneak into the word-of-mouth screenings (and sometimes the even earlier exclusive screenings for exhibitors or studio folks) and regularly blow embargoes. This drove the studios nuts for a while, until they effectively suborned many of the violators by turning them into VIPs.

Why do the studios use embargoes? For certain films, bad reviews and bad word of mouth can have a deleterious effect. (Fanboy sites like Ain’t It Cool were particularly potent for some films targeted at that demographic.) Indeed, films the studios know are dogs, or that they know are going to be successful no matter what critics say, are often not screened until the very last minute. Keeping bad reviews suppressed lets the advertising build up momentum. By the time Friday rolls around and the critics weigh in, many folks have already planned their film-going weekend.

(Some films aren’t screened at all; once in a while a dutiful NYT reviewer, for example, will troop over to a late Friday morning showing of some sad film, frequently starring Eddie Murphy, which the paper will put, belatedly, into the Saturday editions.)

The second reason is just as crass: Studios want the reviews to come out at the same time as all the TV and print ads. Even if the reviews are negative, the headlines and photos are one more impression made on potential customers. (This is also part of the reason films now open nationwide, instead of being rolled out slow, as even big-studio movies often were until the 1980s.)

Now, the movies are the studio’s property and they can screen them as they wish, and they do so in ways that serve their own interests. But the embargoes also have actual real-world benefits for both journalists and readers. For one thing, they level the playing field: All credentialed critics have time to write considered reviews, which then appear at the same time. Those with the best reviews can shine, not those who got the thing into print (or up on the web) first.

Without such embargoes, the rush to be first would be far worse than it is now. I have little doubt we’d soon reach the point where critics were tweeting impressions of films while screenings were under way. That wouldn’t serve readers. Giving critics time to write serious reviews does.

Denby saw Dragon Tattoo at a screening specially arranged for the New York Film Critics Association, set up so the film could be in contention for the group’s end-of-the-year awards. His explanation for breaking the embargo is that there are a lot of important films coming out before the end of the year, and the magazine doesn’t have the editorial room to print all the reviews. This is specious. That Oscar movies were clumping at the end of the year has been obvious for months. And every publication has to pick and choose what to cover in the space it has at any given time.

Movie studios in general—and producers like Rudin in particular—prevaricate frequently over the course of a day, of course (Hello, He Lied is the title of producer Linda Obst’s potent Hollywood memoir). But journalists don’t get to. In his email, Denby explains why he’s being unethical, not devising an argument as to why he isn’t being so. (This suggests he has gone Hollywood in the worst sense of the term.)

What’s even worse, though, is when Denby tries to excuse the move by saying his review was positive: “I never would have done it with a negative review.” Here he explicitly allies himself with the studio publicity machine. The idea that a magazine is making editorial decisions based on whether reviews are positive or negative is worse than breaking the embargo in the first place.

This is another dirty secret about the media and the studios. Even in higher-end publications, there is often a reluctance to showcase negative reviews as much as positive ones—which frequently makes little sense editorially. Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is one of the most anticipated films of the year, with a sparkling pedigree. Wouldn’t it be bigger news (and thus more worthy of an embargo-breaking piece) if Denby thought it sucked?

Bill Wyman is the former arts editor of NPR and Salon. More at www.hitsville.org.

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