I am currently sitting on five reviews. Five. Five films I have already seen (in preparation for year end “Best of” consideration) and five films I am NOT allowed to write about. It’s the standard studio spiel - embargoes. Keeping the critical content under wraps until the publicist says we can finally speak our mind. It’s nothing new. We members of the new ‘Nth’ Estate are constantly required to live up to unrealistic rules, especially when considering the light speed dissemination of information that is the Internet. You’ll hear the online community complain quite a bit - e-publication ‘A’ gets to break the restrictions while they are stymied, sticking to a day-of-opening schedule.
While being the “first” to pass judgment on the latest Hollywood title used to mean something, the blogsphere fetish with festival exclusives, along with the still-in-flux feelings toward the Web in general means that many writers hoping to extol the virtues of cinema are left to rot in a nomenclature no-man’s land where old time marketers can’t tell the professionals from the plebes. And to make matters worse, what’s now global is ignored by those in control. Living in Tampa, I am stuck obeying Florida release rules. And yet PopMatters and SE&L are international draws. That means that if something like Milk doesn’t make it to theaters in the Sunshine State until sometime in 2009, that’s when I can run my review (in actuality, said film is scheduled to open on 12 December, 2008).
The excuse for embargoes is easy to understand - it’s called “control of public opinion”. If the studios have a turkey, a gosh-darn dump of a major motion picture and they want to keep the proposed demographic as clueless as possible, they will force critics to sit on their reviews, sometimes circumventing the process entirely by offering the dreaded Thursday night preview (or keeping the movie from journalists all together). Yet it’s weird when something like MENTIONED DELETED is offered almost four weeks before it hits the Cineplex - and yet we are told to refrain from even mentioning it before the Christmas Day delivery (heck, even this mere tongue in cheek mention may get me in trouble - masterpiece or not).
The other three films I have already seen besides Milk and MENTION DELETED are Doubt, the John Patrick Shanley adaptation of his Pulitzer prize winning play, Frost/Nixon, another theatrical turn brought to the big screen by Ron Howard, and early Oscar frontrunner Slumdog Millionaire, Danny Boyle’s unbelievably brilliant odyssey through India. As you can probably tell from the context, I loved all five of these films. They all represent varying degrees of greatness. Many, if not all, will probably make my Top Ten list for 2008, and each represents the pinnacle of cinema as an artform, a commercial consideration, and an entertainment enterprise. And yet if I offered up a legitimate review of any of them, I could be banned from all future press events.
Regional considerations are a funny thing. Disney’s ‘world’ is just 70 miles away from my office, and yet they never fail to ignore their Florida critics when it comes to previews, press materials, or awards season screeners. On the other hand, we’ve had word of mouth advances for motion picture puke like Disaster Movie, Meet Dave, and perhaps the year’s absolute worst cinematic atrocity - Towelhead. It seems that outside the major metropolitan markets of the US - read: New York, LA, San Francisco, Chicago and DC - a “catch as catch can” concept is at work. If you get a screening, bully. If not, well then wait a couple of days. Death Race 2008 will have a big bang premiere you can sink your souring review skills in.
Naturally, the studios still insist on embargoes, and as discussed before, that makes sense. Why let the public know what an unsightly stink bomb you have up your sleeves when the TV ads for Four Christmases make it look like a rib-tickling, raunchy lark. But how do you defend keeping a lid on quality? If I loved Milk, if I was bowelled over by MENTION DELETED, why not let me say so? Will my voice make any real difference to those already poised to see it? Will an emphatically positive review from Short Ends and Leader actually turn off potential viewers? While one can’t see the publicists as being this insightful, are they aware of the love/loathe relationship currently playing out between the critic and the messageboard community? Could they be thinking that the anti-Bill Gibron brigade is so massive that, if he likes something, it’s a sure sign to avoid it at all costs?
And this doesn’t explain the up and down, hit or miss mumblings of places like Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, or that most flagrant of “why’s he so special?” candidates, EmanuelLevy.com. All of these sites have reviews up of David Fincher’s unmentionable movie. Mr. Levy, the man with the massive moustache, even has takes on The Reader, Revolutionary Road, and Defiance. His Frost/Nixon was posted on 4 November and his Milk arrived two days before. No one is questioning his access (clearly, the studios don’t care that he violates dates by sometimes a month or more), but one does argue the necessity for keeping others at bay. Can Mr. Levy, who many may come to rely on for his early take on titles, be much more of a benefit/liability than a lowly Florida critic who’s stuck waiting until Friday to post his thoughts?
Again, we are not talking about films I can’t wait to tear apart. I am not chomping at the bit to vivisect ACTORS NAME DELETED‘s pitch perfect performance, Boyle’s use of the amazing Indian landscape, or Michael Sheen’s amazing take on that British bad boy of staged journalism, David Frost. My keyboard isn’t smoking from the scolding I’m prepared to give Sean Penn’s career pinnacle, Meryl Streep’s amazing transformation into a surly ‘60s nun, or the wonder that is old school artistry transformed to a post-modern mindset. If anything, I am supremely frustrated that, in a season that has so far sparked little interest beyond the occasional inspired mainstream amusement, I can’t celebrate some truly stellar filmmaking.
Critics are typically attracted to the profession because of their love of the medium (music, art, film) they are putting into perspective. Embargoes are like hearing a great song and then not being able to play it for your friends. In the case of the five reviews I am sitting on, I want to argue over and discuss them, to let readers into the pleasures each one offers while hopefully giving them fodder to further their own experience while in the theater. Sure, keeping the searing slaughter of a high profile title - say, my complete dismissal of the crap that was Blindness - is probably best saved for the day the film opens. After all, it’s not going to do anyone (reader, writer, greenlighter) any good. But when it’s time to trumpet the wonders of the annual awards season, a barrier seems foolish. Guess I’ll just have to wait until the courtesy screeners start arriving in the mail. Then all bets are off, right?