LOS ANGELES — If you think reviews mean nothing in this age when anyone can blog, tweet or Facebook their opinions about a movie, I urge you to check out the dust-up between New Yorker film critic David Denby and “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” producer Scott Rudin — it’s a fascinating glimpse into the murky, often impenetrable set of rules and customs of reviewing as well as the simmering tensions between critics and content producers in the Internet era.
The fracas began when Denby, despite having agreed to honor Sony Picture’s Dec. 13 embargo, decided to run an early review of “Dragon Tattoo” in this week’s issue of the magazine. The movie arrives in theaters Dec. 21. Rudin hit the roof — even though the review was positive, though hardly a rave. His beef was the timing.
Denby’s justification for jumping the gun? As he said in an email exchange with Rudin that was leaked to the press over the weekend, the studios release too many quality movies at the end of the year, and that wreaks havoc on publications like the New Yorker, which have a limited amount of print acreage to review the high-class stuff before it becomes old news. Saying “we don’t want to run a bunch of tiny reviews at Christmas — that’s not what the New Yorker is about,” Denby decided to breach the embargo.
In the age of Twitter and iPhones, where there is such an uninterrupted stream of information scooting around every minute, it’s haplessly old-fashioned to argue that you broke an embargo because you needed to get your copy into print two weeks early. Of course, it’s almost equally hard to believe that movie studios still rigidly try to dictate when top-notch publications can run informed analyses of their films, as if the content had as much strategic importance as a Defense Department weapons system.
Rudin is notorious for his attempts to exercise control over not only reviews but feature coverage of his films and Broadway shows. But he’s hardly alone — all studios want reviews of their new movies to run when it fits their marketing priorities. They agree to let critics see the movies before the general public with the understanding that reviews won’t be published until a date they set.
Since publications want the reviews to run before films hit theaters, critics agree to the studio’s terms. (If a movie is really awful, the studios won’t screen it for critics at all, preventing a hailstorm of bad reviews on opening weekend.) Suffice it to say, the balance of power lies with the studios.
But the case of “Dragon Tattoo” is more complicated. Sony sees the film, directed by David Fincher and based on a bestselling novel, as the first installment in a blockbuster franchise. Good reviews are a bonus, but not an absolutely necessary ingredient in the film’s marketing campaign. Critics wouldn’t have seen the movie nearly as early as they did if it weren’t for the fact that the prestigious New York Film Critics Circle had moved up its year-end voting deadline to get a jump on the other awards.
Since the NYFCC had lavished all sorts of awards on Rudin and Fincher’s “The Social Network” last year, Sony felt it would have been disrespectful to not show them “Dragon Tattoo.” The NYFCC moved its deadline back a day to accommodate a screening of the film.
But Sony still insisted on a Dec. 13 embargo date for publishing reviews, believing that if they were printed any earlier, their impact would be lessened. When a studio unveils a quality picture like “Dragon Tattoo,” it wants to hit consumers with a wave of ads that whet their appetite, then have reviews arrive to help seal the deal.
By jumping the gun, Denby could have thrown off the finely calibrated rhythm of the marketing campaign. So far no other major publication has broken the embargo. But from the studio’s perspective, it was a potentially serious threat to its remarkable control over content dissemination. In a world where even the most powerful figures in government and finance are unable to stem the tide of pesky reporting into their most delicate internal dealings, the studios have a sweet deal: They establish an embargo and critics abide by it.
One of the few cracks in the wall occurred in 1999, when a few mainstream publications ran reviews of George Lucas’ “Star Wars” film “Episode 1: The Phantom Menace” 10 days before the film’s release, claiming the movie was a newsworthy event in itself.
It caused a minor furor, especially because the reviews were largely negative. But the studios had enough leverage to make sure it didn’t happen again. This gentleman’s agreement still holds in the theater world as well, although a rare breach occurred earlier this year when a host of critics jumped the gun with early reviews of the troubled Broadway show, “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.” Because the show’s producers had repeatedly pushed back the official opening but continued to sell expensive tickets to theatergoers during a months-long preview process, critics decided that the show was newsworthy enough to review before previews ended.
The publishing world has embargoes too. But they are rarely enforceable — the New York Times runs book reviews early all the time, justifying the practice by saying it obtained an early copy of the book from a retail outlet. Being far and away the most important outlet for book coverage, the Times has more than enough clout to escape punishment.
In truth, the whole idea of an information embargo has become an almost laughably outdated assumption. But it still works in Hollywood because the media have allowed studios to exercise control over their products, be it with informal agreements over when to run reviews or the extremely well-choreographed scheduling of softball feature stories about the stars of an upcoming movie.
A decade or so ago, Ain’t It Cool News founder Harry Knowles briefly emerged as an industry power player because he was willing to exploit a breach in the studios’ armor — his minions would sneak into test screenings and post often stridently negative reviews on his website. The practice prompted an uproar. Although studio executives complained that it was unfair to review an unfinished film, what really unhinged them was Knowles’ ability to give potential moviegoers unfettered access to early information — the information being that a lot of the studios’ movies were stinkers.
The studios co-opted Knowles by jetting him around to so many screenings that he soon decided to stop biting the hand that was feeding him. It’s hard to imagine anyone buying off Denby, which is perhaps why Rudin was so enraged by the New Yorker’s violation of the embargo, which the producer called “a deeply lousy and immoral thing to have done.”
Rudin is right about that. Once you’ve agreed to an embargo, if you break it, you are a louse. But thanks to this flap, maybe it’s time for newspapers and magazines to reexamine their willingness to abide by every studio-inspired publication schedule. If a review has news value, isn’t it time we treat it with the same dispatch that we treat other breaking news? In journalism’s new digital universe, agreeing to embargo a movie review feels a lot like agreeing to keep our mouths shut entirely too long.
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