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Tuesday, Dec 16, 2008

Who, exactly, is the audience for a World War II film in which a certain group of Nazis are portrayed as the good guys? Do children really want family films that tackle tough speculative themes and/or adult-level sexual innuendo and violence? Does quirk and idiosyncrasy taken to outrageous, Herculean limits have a viewership, and does a comic who once did exaggerated mugging to massive box office notoriety fit into today’s Apatow oriented bromance slacker laughfest world. These are the questions critics contemplate while sitting in a screening, bored out of their mind and/or wondering if what they are watching will ever see the light of a legitimate commercial day. It happens more times than we’d care to admit, actually.


This past week, Delgo, an incredibly mediocre CG cartoon, earned the distinction of being the lowest earning film in wide release EVER! According to Yahoo Movies, the fantasy’s “two people per theater per showing” extrapolation marks it as the biggest bomb ever. Yes aside from the movie’s obvious creative and entertainment limitations, was there ever going to be an major audience for shell-less turtles taking on pissed off dragonflies, their race-baiting battles resulting in near genocide levels of death? Sure, it was a labor of love for the filmmakers (close to a decade in the contemplating and making) and an attempt to wrestle the animation mantle from the likes of Disney, Pixar, Fox and Dreamworks, but did the six screenwriters - SIX - ever think that the material they were marketing had limited to almost no appeal?


It’s the same with Charlie Kaufman’s sad, funny, bodily fluid and illness obsessed solo writing/directing debut, Synecdoche, New York. Beginning with the linguistical twist in the title, and moving through the life of a self-absorbed, unlucky in anything remotely related to interpersonal affection, theatrical director, we get industry in-jokes, spiraling self-referentialism, allusions to death and the meaninglessnes of life, and some random shots of stool samples - all colors. Expanding on the absurdist surreality of his previous work with Spike Jonze - Being John Malkovich, Adaptation. - and Michel Gondry - Human Nature, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind - it’s the rare mad genius that makes such strangeness appear to create some manner of sense. But beyond the college age noncomformist who believes that all cinema exists either to serve the Establishment or speak to the medium as meaningful art, who exactly is going to line up to see this?


Clearly, some studios recognize the value in demographically specific targeting. Twilight is considered a major hit, tapping into the already flush Mamma Mia! pool of unfulfilled spinsters, merry widows, bored housewives, and hormonally overcharged tween to teen girls. Disney could put its name on a pseudo-snuff film with anthropomorphic household items acting out revenge fantasies and a horde of blinkered boomers would drag their aging offspring to see it. Tyler Perry, in true Gospel roadshow circuiting, continues to give the underserved urban crowd his various takes on “black is bankable” morality plays, while subgenre horror still rakes in the adolescent allowances. But there are those who take the concept too far.


With Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, Dreamworks decided that the best way to handle the return of its quartet of clueless globetrotting zoo animals was to take them back to the land of their ancestral birth, and then toss the entire book of bad movie clichés at the camera. The amount of forced laughter coming from the preprogrammed throngs is matched only by the rampant use of fear and danger as a plot device, occasional lapses into racially inappropriate stereotyping, and a weird, almost pornographic reliance on passion to sell any kind of sentiment. Let’s face it, this is a movie where a 3D giraffe wants to nuzzle up to a plus-size Hippo who herself has the hots for a deep voiced, awkwardly muscled member of her own species. Ew.


In other instances, star power (or the presumed last bastions of same), is the implied reason. While he stands somewhere between his former superstar glories and a bumbling buffoon leaping on alarmed talk show hosts’ couches, Tom Cruise is still considered something of an international icon. Yet after the one-two thud of Mission: Impossible III and the horrific Lions for Lambs, the former Top gunner was clearly looking to re-elevate his floundering fame. While the cameo in Tropic Thunder was a brilliant sideways shift, the hero laden loopiness of his turn as Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg in Bryan Singer’s Third Reich thriller Valkyrie seems like a stretch. First, those in the audience familiar with history will experience little or no suspense, and while the first half of the film plays like a crackerjack espionage actioner, the last 45 minutes are Fail Safe shuttled over into an “is he or isn’t he” deathwatch for a supposedly assassinated Fuhrer.


Jim Carrey has also been riding the white horse toward commercial obscurity in the last few years. Outside of the Lemony Snicket film from 2004, and his turn as the title elephant in the animated Horton Hears a Who, the rubberfaced funnyman has starred in a comedic dud (Fun with Dick and Jane) and a hackneyed horror film (The Number 23). Yes Man will be hailed by some as a return to form, but the interesting premise - Carrey is a man who must always say “Yes” to any opportunity, no matter how outrageous, as part of a self-help seminar promise - wants to be Liar, Liar without the magic realism. Instead, the idea of self-discovery and the potential in PMA is constantly countermanded by moments of certified Carrey craziness and action scenes which seem oddly pointless.


In both cases, Hollywood clearly hopes that, like muscle memory or the maxim regarding riding a bike, audiences won’t forget what made Cruise and Carrey ‘80s/‘90s moneymaking behemoths and flock back to the Cineplex in cash flush droves. Yet neither movie really offers the predisposed their Benjamins worth. Yes Man will be a hit since it tricks the viewer into thinking its more of an Ace Ventura styled romp than it really is, while Valkyrie will get some initial interest, before word of mouth undermines its spoiler-stoked backlash. And again, the question becomes - who thought these films would find their audience. Something like Che, or the Brad Pitt epic The Curious Case of Benjamin Button stand as clear cinematic triumphs, but do mainstream moviegoers really want to see three to four hour films as dense, directorial showcases?


From little kids dying in concentration camps to horndog teens having sex with former war criminals, from 100 minutes of people getting shot in the face to laborious love scenes between actors with no chemistry whatsoever, Tinsel Town seems stunted in how to make meaningful films that also support a sense of entertainment and enjoyment. One should never watch a movie wondering who is the aimed for audience, and will said spectators respond. In a business that is already a big fat gamble, it seems like Hollywood is recklessly rolling the dice over and over again. Oddly enough, ‘craps’ appears to be an appropriate sentiment/metaphor when all is said and done.


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Monday, Dec 1, 2008

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?


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Wednesday, Sep 3, 2008

It appears to come on suddenly, almost without warning. One minute you’re juggling a schedule to see if you can fit a few more screenings into a certain week, the next Hollywood forgets you exist and takes an extended preview hiatus. Too call it feast or famine would be an understatement, since after the lull, you’ll more than likely have access to more cinematic product than you can shake a celluloid stick at. Between Oscar screeners, ancillary awards hype (read: book, screenplays, soundtracks, promotional materials), and actual trips to the theater, Fall forces a critic into a state of solitary suspended animation. It’s just you, the studios, and an endless parade of motion pictures.


So why the dead zone? Why now? Why the lack of anything legitimate for the last two weeks? Some point to the industry’s notorious track record (load up Summer and Winter, screw off Fall and Spring) while others indicate a pro-festival format. Right now, between Venice, Telluride, and Toronto, the last remnants of the old guard print media are schmoozing and cruising on company expense accounts, getting early looks at potential award winners and larding their bylines with interviews, insights, and occasionally insipid gossiping. As a result, the suits figure that few are in town to take apart their feeble failed popcorn fare. So they release these titles sans screening and wait for the season to start up mid-month.


Indeed, looking at the calendar in my office, there are approximately 12 screenings from 8 September to 15 September. Fourteen days. Twelve new films to consider. Some are being tagged right before their release date (be warned, fans of Pacino, DeNiro, and Righteous Kill). Others are being dragged out early, hoping to generate a little gold statue buzz. Such pre-prerelease presentations usually bode well for a movie. While it wasn’t my cup of tea, last year we saw Michael Clayton a full six weeks before it opened. On the other hand, Persepolis never arrived on our shores until AFTER it had won an Academy award, and even then there were review restrictions based on region and potential release.


Understand this - Tampa is the artistic armpit of the movie business. We are frequently forgotten when it comes to art house offerings while readily relegated to numerous screenings of the latest mainstream mung. In fact, you know a film must suck and suck mucho hard when Cigar City fails to get a sneak peek (I’m talking to you Babylon A.D. and Bangkok Dangerous). Heck, there was even a Disaster Movie offering the night before it opened. You’d figure that a city a mere 70 miles from Orlando (Eastern home of one Universal Studios and the House of Mouse) and 175 miles from Miama (South Beach, BABY! ) would warrant a tad more consideration. But unless we push for titles, or remind studio reps that we work here, several significant films would simply pass us by.


One of this Summer’s hot ticket releases was Man on Wire. Telling the story of daredevil and high wire performer Phillipe Petit’s 1974 walk between the World Trade Center towers, the documentary has been getting stellar reviews and lots of positive press. But not in Tampa. There has never been a general screening of this film, and any critic who has reviewed it either got a deal from the distributor direct or saw it outside the area. Come the end of the year, when ‘Best Of’ lists are getting put together, many think Man on Wire will be right up there. Yet instead of using this downtime to play catch up with places outside the major metropolitan loop, it’s the clean slate calm before the storm.


Another example of locational prejudice, if you will, is City of Men. Last April, Tampa got an exclusive press showing of the Brazilian drama (a follow-up of sorts to the award winning City of God and based on the TV series of the same name). While many felt Paulo Morelli failed to capture the same South American spice that Fernando Meirelles brought to the original, it was still a highly touted release. After seeing the film, we critics were informed by the studio rep that we would have to wait until a regional release before we could review the film. As dates were set and then retracted, excuses provided and then pushed aside, we have yet to be given the go ahead to write up this title. When it finally hit DVD on 1 July, I thought about giving it a go. But since there was no longer a need to satisfy a screening obligation, I decided to lighten my workload, so to speak.


Some of my fellow scribes LOVE this time of year. It’s an excuse for a vacation, or to simply decompress from a Summer overflowing with empty entertainment value. But if you’re part of the nu-media, the ‘constantly-having-to-update-a-blog-or-post-new-content’ contingent, this lull is literary death. You have to scramble every day, digging through a backlog of material and off the radar releases in quasi-desperation to find something to scribble about. After the typical post-Labor Day wrap-up, SE&L went silent for a day. We frequently skip a post, believing that something we said previously warranted an extra bit of attention. But with no movies to talk about last week, and even less available now, it’s almost impossible to come up with a fresh or fun approach. Everything just feels - well, dead.


And the notion of four months filled with daily screenings doesn’t make the dearth seem any more acceptable. Indeed, as the calendar dates float by, one finds themselves wondering why THREE films have be scheduled for the 18th, or why some films are being shown at theaters 25 miles outside the city? Would it have been so hard to drag a print to the area for the last week of August/first of September? Granted, you didn’t want us to see Vin Diesel destroy yet another semi-solid sci-fi premise, but couldn’t that look at the new Mike Leigh comedy Happy-Go-Lucky have filled its spot? Who cares about the well named Disaster Movie? How about an earlier look at Spike Lee’s Miracle at St. Anna (which, by the way, is getting the standard Disney sneak - the night before it opens…Sheesh). 


Instead, we are stuck waiting - waiting for the press reps to decide whether The Women deserves our attention (the answer - HELL NO! ), or arguing with New York/LA publicists over whether or not they should send a screener DVD your way (“you write WHERE, again???”). Sure, it sounds like ungrateful bellyaching and anyone who has done this job for longer than six years laughs at the suggestion of a slowdown. But with something like the Internet which functions like an infinite source of information - and a seemingly equal number of individuals looking to get it and publish it - offline is off topic, and soon, out of touch. This may be the way things have worked for decades, but times tend to change. If the business model doesn’t alter its tendencies, this pause might end up a literal dead zone before long. 


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Tuesday, Jul 29, 2008

Someone in marketing must have thought it was a good idea. After all, it was a concept that went together with the theme and main character of the movie quite well. Better than a t-shirt (which was also offered) or a keychain (huh???), a pair of drum sticks symbolized ex-80’s hair band musician Robert “Fish” Fishman’s main motivation. All he ever knew was the skins, and when he lost his shot at rock and roll immortality, he lost everything…except his kit. So at a recent screening of the upcoming comedy starring Rainn Wilson, The Rocker, a local TV station gave away dozens of drum sticks, a token of their preview appreciation.


After the initial novelty of holding two pieces of wood in one’s hands started to wear off, the smallish audience was starting to get antsy - and as a result, inventive. A few took their recently received “instruments” and did a little air drumming. Others batted the balsa together, pretending to countdown the next imaginary arena anthem. Before long, the theater was filled with a cacophony of lumber lameness, patrons trying to keep the imaginary beat on the back of seats or their own legs…with minimal success. As the time for the movie to start grew near, most in the critic’s row assumed that the rat-a-tat-tatting would stop. After all, the inherent charms of the storyline should stifle such nervous energy, right?


Well, not exactly. Within the first ten minutes of the slightly subpar comedy (nice, but bloated with every musical cliché in the lexicon), the first nods to Neil Peart could be heard from way in the back.  Before long, wannabe Bonham’s were tapping along to the concert sequences. When there was no reason to rap, the sticks still struck anything within range, the hallow noise adding an unnecessary drone to what was already a trying entertainment experience. By the end of the screening, the combination of novice Charlie Watts and the standard in theater din turned The Rocker into something akin to motion picture waterboarding. Sadly, not even the Bush Administration could condone this level of intolerable torture.


Complaining about noise in a movie theater, especially circa 2008, is a lot like kvetching over too-skinny supermodels or skanky reality whores. Thanks to home video, and a lessening human etiquette, people treat the cinema as their own personal private space, answer phone calls, texting their pals, talking intermittently over plot points and narrative particulars, and in general, acting like there is no decorum in visiting the local picture show. So to mention it within this context seems foolish. But in reality, a preview or advance screening is supposed to be a different animal. Since they are solely set up for the benefit the press (the other audience members are invited guests), there is an attempt to create some clear sonic parameters.


Sometimes, they work. Rarely do you hear people arguing over what some character said. Doing so usually meets with a strong “shhhhh” chorus. Even better, a cellphone ringing or any other kind of communication with the outside world leads to monitor admonitions, and frequently, an escort out of the theater via security. In general, the studios try to maintain a professional clime for the few remaining critics to work within. But there is one element they can’t control, and in fact, would never want to manage. You see, when a theater agrees to a screening, they accept a flat rate payment for the seats they would have sold for that showing. So the company is reimbursed for the loss.


But since most movie theaters make their money from concession sales, the pittance they get for the lost seats is nothing compared to the cash they can commandeer from snacks. And since the audience is already getting to see a soon to be featured film for free, their tolerance for overpriced drinks and crappy popcorn is greatly diminished. And so they buy. They buy and buy and buy. They buy the salty sweet snacks en masse, loading the stadium seats with the nauseating aroma of fake butter, nacho cheese, pickled jalapeno slices, and microwave pizza. Some theaters - especially ones located in malls - even allow patrons to bring in their food court purchases. This means that the scent of fast food Chinese or mediocre meat sandwiches can be added to the swimming sea of stench.


For those of us in the biz, the olfactory assault we suffer each time we attend a screening is typically offset by our irritation over other issues (seating situations, credential clarifications). Still it can be quite a chore balancing our disappointment over a typically mediocre movie with the omnipresent fragrance of stale State Fair styled cuisine. Sometimes, we even take a “can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” approach and indulge ourselves. But far more disgusting than the stink generated by such gluttony gang bang is the noise - the endless streams of slurps, slorps, burps, farts, crunches, crackles, munches, rustles, and jostles that accompany the cinematic feed bag.


It’s inevitable. No matter where I sit in the press row, I usually find the ‘drink demon’ behind me. You know the kind - plastic straw constantly sliding up and down the super-sized lid, the resulting “creak” like a dead clown’s coffin door opening and closing. In between audible gulps, the ice is shaken and stirred, the better to mix the melting mixture with the backwash present. Every once in a while, a dry spot will be located, and the resulting libation loss causes an aural vacuum that brings back memories of the family dinner table, and Dad giving you that awful “punishment after the meal” look. Since the serving is typically 20 times that of what a human normally needs, this sipper cup ritual goes on for at least an hour. Once the last ounce of syrupy sugar has been tapped however, it’s time to remove the top and chew on the remaining frozen fun for a while.


Or maybe you’ll be lucky enough to sit in front of the ‘snack spelunker’. You know the kind - the top of the popcorn bag is never enough. No, for this two fisted face stuffer, only the product at the bottom of the container will do. As a natural result of such digging, there’s a distinct racket, similar to weevils burrowing into your brain. As the feasting continues, the noise grows more distinct, oil filled hand hitting on secret pockets of pseudo sustenance. Add in the constant chewing, the cow cud creation of the perfect cinematic experience and you have a soundtrack no film composer can compete against. There have been times when I’ve missed lines of dialogue as patrons partake of mandatory mastication, the combination of eating and obtaining producing a pronounced ruckus.


Naturally, no one is going to put the kibosh on such high profit margin behavior. Imagine the backlash should a studio monitor grab a microphone and announce, pre-screening, that the eating of snacks should be ‘restrained’ during the course of the running time. These people already get surly when having to ditch their Blackberry and quite their wee ones. Take away their food? That’s a violation of their cinematic Constitutional rights. And since these free movies are all about entitlement (not to the media, who are usually getting paid to suffer through the situation), the more rules you try to impose, the more insurgency you foster. Heck, such behavior even happens in ‘critics only’ previews. Between sips of Starbucks and nibbles of Egg McMuffins, we members of the press can put up quite a cacophony.


Certainly The Rocker situation was unusual. Most advertisers don’t try so hard to tie their swag into the storyline. It’s usually CDs, clothing, and the occasional promotional poster. But even if the reps had removed the drumsticks from the equation, one would still have to suffer through endless gorging and the accompanying biological braggadocio that comes with it (and let’s not talk about the occasional bouts of flatulence, shall we?). While we’ve come to expect some clamor within the theatrical experience, the sound of screenings can be trying indeed. To paraphrase the Buzzcocks, noise does annoy. And you don’t have to be hit over the head with a piece of wood to prove it.


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Thursday, Jun 5, 2008

It’s Thursday, and that means someone, somewhere, in the great big world of film criticism, is sitting on pins and deadline-breaking needles. It’s the one word that strikes fear into the heart of any respectable journalist. Deadline! In the old days, beat pounders would drum up sources, track down leads, build their clever and sometimes incendiary copy, and manage that last minute factual additions/subtractions, all before the boss bellowed for the presses. In the realm of film criticism, this meant that a newspaper or magazine scribe sat in a screening, developed his or her opinion, and put it down in black and white for cultural posterity to enjoy (or ignore).


Nowadays, thanks to a little thing we like to the call the Internet, deadlines no longer really matter. Granted, there are websites who pride themselves on a sense of editorial ethos and strive to keep fresh content available in a judicious and dependable manner. But in the blogsphere, a domain undaunted by the needs of standard publishing, information is metered out in a constant stream. There is no longer a need to offer up traditional availability. Whenever you think of something, or have an event/effort worth discussing, all that’s required is the time to post and a way to do so. And in the overly protective realm of movie marketing, studios are well aware of this.


At first, it was easy to handle the online community. It was more or less a case of “out of sight, out of consideration.” With print media making up the vast majority of those needing access to upcoming films, a wise representative simply didn’t invite the web writer to their press opportunities. Sure, the industrious ‘net critic would figure out how to attend a public showing or “word of mouth” advance, grabbing a free ticket and enjoying the experience as part of the rabble. But for the most part, if they weren’t a card-carrying member of the so-called ‘legitimate’ leg of the Fourth Estate, they were ignored.


Of course, money changes everything, and with financial considerations always key in any corporate dynamic, big businesses looking to cut costs did as many school districts do - they kept sports and other high end profit margins and slashed the arts. At present, a day doesn’t go by where a major newspaper or periodical doesn’t announce “buyouts” and layoffs. And many in the accountant’s sites are part of the film/TV/theater arena. Some will argue that it’s simply a matter of dollars and sense/cents. Others will point to the marginalized status of the critic (a discussion for another day) and simply sit back and count their savings.


Naturally, as a direct result of such belt-tightening, the online scribe has stepped up in import. Smart studios, recognizing completely free publicity when they see it, have started catering to the blogger and the webmaster. But without the principles that print sought so hard to protect, the inevitable backlash has begun. You see, most of us writing online do so for places that stress a sense of publishing ‘morals’. From checking facts to sustaining “style guides”, we mimic those who came before. But there are others more interested in scoops than scope, and so the long established rules get bent for the benefit of one, not all. And the studios have started to strike back.


Originally, a Thursday Night Screening was indicative of one thing - a piece of crap. A movie a company had little or no faith in would be offered up the day before it opened as a courtesy to the critic, but there were no expectations. Studios didn’t anticipate a review - at least not during the film’s first week run - and they understood that any take on their acknowledged bomb would be bad. It was a wink and a nod between professionals, a way of keeping the media happy while colluding to maintain the easily persuaded public’s gullibility to pay for junk. Sure, there were times when a proposed stinker actually became a sleeper, but for the most part, waiting until Thursday was just as bad as not screening a film at all.


All that changed, however, with the new ‘meta media’. With websters able to attend those last minute showings, the conspiratorial kibosh was countermanded. Remember, most studio previews today are open, public presentations in connection with radio station promotions, newsprint ad campaigns, and other pre-buzz marketing ploys. Embargoes mean nothing to someone not purposefully invited to follow them (meaning, not forced to comply with the old ways of the traditional media) and soon, Thursday evening reviews were available, whether Hollywood liked them or not. Extrapolate that backward, and we have the current system in place with sites like Ain’t It Cool News and Dark Horizons offering “first looks” at films that may not be opening for months.


Tinsel Town was, understandably, in a tizzy. The online community was already considered a pariah, with even the legitimate web critic cobbled together with the blogger and the news-groupies. Secretly, A-lists and B-lists were drawn up, and in a very sneaky manner, print personnel found themselves invited to clandestine screenings while the Internet was lied to, or just ignored. No matter their status as a member of a professional organization like the OFCS, they were kept out of the loop. Of course, that led to an even bigger counterattack by those on the ‘Net. Spies purposely tried to crash these confabs, defying bans and other restrictions to get the word out to their so-called readers.


Today, a kind of truce has been brokered. Studios understand the power of online publishing - and with it, the advertising possibilities - and with the death of print, they see no way of avoiding us former undesirables. But that doesn’t mean that they’ve given up. Not at all. Most marketers assume that human endurance guarantees a Thursday night screening will not equal a Thursday night review. So they continue to keep their marginal movies in such a state. Yet, oddly enough, some even drag out their big time blockbusters in such an unmanageable manner.


Take Disney, for example. Over the last few months, every one of their major releases - from The Game Plan and National Treasure 2 to this Summer’s Prince Caspian and the upcoming Wall*E - have been, or will be, screened on Thursday ONLY. That means that everyone from yours truly to the longstanding scribe for the Creative Loafing either sees the movie the night before, or not at all. Now, in the case of the first three films mentioned, such a strategy may seem like standard operating procedure. Those flailing fluffballs aren’t going to be around come awards time. But in the case of Pixar’s latest, early word has it pegged as a potential masterpiece.


Remember, none of this applies to the major markets. Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, etc. will all have Wall*E press days, with the House of Mouse courting favor with the long established critics. A few newbies will fall into the mix, but for the most part, it will be Uncle Walt’s way, and not the information superhighway. Smaller media outlets - like Tampa - will be treated to a ‘like it or lump it’ public sneak, and that’s it. The reps have even warned us; get there early or there may not be a seat. One could argue that Disney is just responding to the notion that audiences no longer listen to critics, that their supposedly learned opinion is passé and unimportant. But to avoid potentially GOOD publicity for your film (just look at Ratatouille) seems counterproductive.


And you know there are writers who take every opportunity to strike back at such strategies. Locally, one of our more important papers ran a piece about Disney’s embargo on reviews of last year’s Oscar winning rat restaurateur. It wasn’t a review, just a mention that as much as he liked/disliked the movie, he couldn’t write about it until after his deadline. ZAP - he has now been blackballed. It’s been a year, and he has yet to receive another screening invite from the studio…and he’s a print journalist, someone the studios still cater to.


Of course, the movie makes the argument. No one is decrying the ‘night before’ acknowledgement of Rob Zombie’s Halloween, or James Wan’s Death Sentence, and some, like those involved in the Saw franchise, simply avoid a screening all together, knowing they can’t win against a community prejudiced against horror. But as the online realm slowly consumes the long standing traditions of its fish-wrap predecessors, studios seem set on making everyone’s life as untenable as possible.


This means that, in a couple of weeks, I will be anxiously awaiting my chance to see the latest CGI epic about an amiable automaton interacting with a similarly styled alien species - and then come home and try to come up with something salient to say as quickly as possible. No matter how good, or groan-inducing it turns out to be, readers do turn to sites like PopMatters to gauge their interest in what, at this time of year, is a weekly onslaught of popcorn product. As long as they feel it maintains some manner of commercial control, studios seem willing to wait until the night before to unleash their latest offering. It threatens to become more and more common. Unfortunately, it seems antithetical to what either side is trying to accomplish.


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