All across America, the sounding cry has gone up. Entertainment blogs, reviews and wire-service trend pieces have been drawing attention to the recent spate of Hollywood movie releases for which there have been no advance press screenings'more in the first four months of 2006, according to several counts, than in all of 2005. And that’s saying nothing of the dozens of films that get a token Thursday-night-before-opening-Friday screening, ostensibly to keep potentially damaging opinions out of the Friday papers.
The response from critics has been a resounding, “Why aren’t you studios letting us see your movies early?” Because, apparently, mainstream America does not already have enough reasons to consider us arrogant pains in the ass.
In fairness to my critical brethren, the response has not been universally pitched in a whine. My colleague Sean Means at The Salt Lake Tribune wrote an even-handed column on the subject several weeks back, and others have taken a similar analytical approach over foot-stomping and breath-holding-until-we-turn-blue. Critics are not even alone in the screeching on this subject. Sony Pictures threw a fit when an Orlando Sentinel critic was inadvertently seated at a preview screening for The Benchwarmers and subsequently sent his review over the wire services. Sony essentially warned that any newspaper running this “unauthorized” review would earn the frowning of a lifetime.
The public has responded to this issue with a collective shrug of the shoulders so overwhelming as to be audible. The people who have to pay $8 every time they go to the movies view this critics-vs.-studios pissing match in much the same way they view the bickering between players and management during sports labor disputes. Both sides want to win the public-relations battle, oblivious to the fact that making the battle public at all makes rank-and-file ticket buyers want to gag into their $5 tub of popcorn.
The fact is, as stupid as Hollywood can be about a lot of things, it’s being smart about this. Nobody owes us our free look. The unscreened films in 2006 have generally been either lowbrow comedies (e.g., The Benchwarmers), horror thrillers (e.g., Stay Alive) or films targeted at black audiences (e.g., Madea’s Family Reunion)'in other words, films made for people whom the studios don’t think consult critical opinions. It would make just as much marketing sense for an opera company to pay so that my 7-year-old could publish his thoughts on La Traviata. So studios do nothing, then get to laugh themselves silly as the same critics who were just deemed irrelevant to marketing the film then pay out of their own pocket for an opening-day ticket. I’m willing to wager that around half of the opening weekend gross for the animated flop Doogal came not from kids, but from guys carrying notepads into the theater.
The problem is actually with the publications themselves, which for some reason feel compelled to be completists about reviewing every film that opens in a given city. It’s a phenomenon peculiar to film criticism, perhaps because the number of released films is still manageable enough that a publication could theoretically stay on top of all of them. Those same publications don’t review every single book, CD or video game released in local stores, nor do they send someone down to the brand-new Taco Bell on the corner for their food section. In every other area, they discriminate'in the original, positive sense of the word'based on what they think will matter most to their readership. In the movie section, everything goes.
Hollywood has been able to rely on this tacit promise to cover every single film, but there’s nothing obliging us to give a drop of “no such thing as bad publicity” ink to these movies. And there’s certainly nothing obliging us to kick into the opening-weekend collection plate.
So here at City Weekly, we’re instituting a policy that we’re hoping will catch on. We will no longer provide reviews for films that are not screened for press. There will still be films with screenings too late to meet our editorial deadlines, and we’ll continue to cover those films thoroughly. For those hidden entirely from view, however, there will be just a plot summary and a note in “New This Week” that the film in question was not screened for press.
I’m sure some folks are bound to see this decision as a petulant “so there.” But frankly, it’s kind of a relief. It’ll mean more space spent on other films, and less money spent on opinions the studios themselves have already told us are worthless. After all, they’re not the only ones capable of making savvy business decisions.