It seems like no movie season is complete without at least one big controversy - the unfair MPAA rating of the latest bromantic masterwork from some lustful young turk, the recasting of a popular (on in the case of Twilight, ridiculously trendy) character, the studio hyping one thing when the film itself is something completely different. It just wouldn’t be Hollywood without the “harrumph”. But come tomorrow, Paramount will be doing something so debatable, so outside the clichéd standards and practices of the biz, that it warrants a closer look. Sure, studios have frequently dumped films into the month of August knowing the fanbase is basically burnt from 90 previous days of pure popcorn fun. But for G.I. Joe: Rise of the Cobra, such a strategic anti-screening stance suggests two very frightening, and foreboding, quandaries.
First, don’t let the legitimate press and the rest of the banned blogsphere fool you - Stephen Sommers latest action adventure based on the famous ‘80s cartoon (not necessarily the old ‘50s/‘60s toy line) was indeed screened. A call went out last week to several predetermined websites, an invitation to an exclusive carrot at the end of this particular prickly publicity stick. Targeting ‘Net nation regulars like CHUD, Ain’t It Cool News, Drew McWeeney’s upstart HitFlix and a couple of similarly minded members of the nu-media, rumor has it that Paramount only had two requests - like what you see, and ignore any inferred embargo to write about what you liked. And if you, for some weird reason, didn’t like it? Keep your yap SHUT! As word slowly trickled out among the “legitimate” journalists over cancelled screenings and a lack of access, G.I. Joe was building a telling 80 - 90% average on Rotten Tomatoes.
It’s hard to argue with such a strategy. Anyone in the arts, from little kids practicing piano to musicians making their own albums and CDs would prefer to have a friendly audience in attendance once they are forced to unveil their efforts. The last thing a mindless, kid-oriented blockbuster-in-the-making needs is a bunch of old fart critics sitting back on their years of analytical intellectualized expertise and tearing your multimillion dollar baby a new one. While they love to argue that fans and filmgoers really don’t pay attention to these stuck up spoiled sports, it’s clear they fear some manner of early negative word of mouth. Of course, all they’d have to do is look at Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen to realize that no amount of critical drubbing (219 reviews in - 43 pro, 176 con) can keep people away from something they want to see.
So as a side issue, one could easily ask Paramount why they didn’t find a way to market this movie properly. Sommers himself could be a draw. No matter how crappy his previous films have been (Van Helsing? The Mummy 2?), they’ve made money, and he’s a franchise guy. Even with the scuttlebutt a few months ago about him being “removed” from the project (clearly wishful thinking on the part of some member of the production), position him correctly and you’ve got some instant appeal. Similarly, the TV show has lots of leftover geek appeal. Yes, initial buzz once again has the big screen version avoiding much of what made the animated series special, but surely you can interest some percentage of the under/at 30 crowd to take in your eye candy update of the material.
And besides, if they really do believe that critics don’t matter, then why screen it to the chosen few? The answer, oddly enough, is hypocritical. What Paramount should really argue is that traditional media no longer matters - at least prior to a film opening. If for some reason, the stodgy old press corps and the grandfathered in film brains determine that G.I. Joe has some value, then bully! It’s a win-win for the studio. But in the meantime, the studio will cater to the choir, letting them preach as they do every day to a congregation completely immune to the notion of film as an art. While it may seem like a grand overgeneralization, the truth is that most geeks get their label because of acknowledged narrow-mindedness. They will argue incessantly over the greatness of a certain cult anomaly or champion for classicism a title few have followed. In turn, they develop their own People’s Temple, complete with complimentary cinematic Kool-Aid.
It’s the revolution that the digital camera was supposed to create, downsized and deferred to actually talking about, instead of making, film. It’s the home video curse all over again. Still, it sets Paramount up to look like fools, and the voices they got to champion their cause could also pay as well. Let’s say, for example, that G.I. Joe is an unconscionable mess, the kind of flop that simply festers as it plays until the viewer has nothing left inside them except a horrendously bad taste in their mouth. By not screening it to the “proper” press, the studio can get away almost Scott-free. But those websites that went out on a limb to help Paramount shed the image of predetermined disaster? They look like what they allowed themselves to become - shills. Even if their opinion of the film is an honest and wholly true reaction - and no one is saying its not - they were still used by a conglomerate who parlayed their desire for access and that all important “scoop” to become the scapegoat for a potential box office bomb. And that’s the second frightening aspect to this whole brouhaha.
All issues of ethics and integrity aside, taking favors from a studio in order to get an advantage over your rivals is nothing new. And when you think about, the printed press has been secretly doing the same to their online equivalent for a few years now. Orlando loves to “block” any member of the wired Fourth Estate to their screenings, while a still sitting journalist for the Sentinel sees almost anything he wants. Similarly, certain companies don’t care if a blogger can access their previews, making it very clear that they, not something as silly as a job description, will determine who is legitimate and who is not. As more and more young people turn to the web for their informational lifeline, some guy sitting in a South Florida newsroom will quickly become obsolete. Then who will companies like Paramount turn to in order to peddle their wares?
And maybe that’s the reason for the specialized screenings. By picking and choosing now, seeing who’s willing to sell their soul for an exclusive and who would rather work sans special conditions, the marketing men are laying the foundation for the nu-publicity ideal. Horror films will only be reviewed by horror sites (for the most part, they are already - just check out any current DVD cover and look for a publication name that doesn’t include “Bloody” or “Dark” in its tag). RomComs will be reserved for woman-oriented outlets, while action and gross-out comedies will be reserved for the dorks, dweebs, and dullards. Soon, all criticism will come with a caveat - if it’s not reviewed by the specific group it’s intended for, the opinion isn’t valid. After all, isn’t that what Paramount is basically arguing?
So don’t be surprised if, come Friday, you see a lot more disgruntled middle-aged men than normal at your local Cineplex. They are just critics and bloggers, freelancers and the curious, all paying their own money to see something the studio deemed outside their specific need to know. And who knows - maybe G.I. Joe isn’t some manner of motion picture affront. Maybe it is just a big dumb action film that doesn’t need some nasty old curmudgeons piling on. But if this real American hero turns out to be a true cinematic zero, Paramount gets to play dumb and simultaneously wash its hands of the whole thing. Either way, it’s the critical communities fault. We apparently turned G.I. Joe into G.I. NO! - and now we have to pay the price…or at least, some of us do.