'Games' Games

by Bill Gibron

19 March 2012

After a continuous onslaught of commercials and come-ons, it looks like the former question mark is now solidly earning exclamations, the shifting screenings a sure sign of faith, not flop.

By now it’s clear - The Hunger Games is going to be huge. Perhaps not Twilight or Harry Potter huge, but in the world of young adult lit hits, it has a chance of being unbelievably big.  Ever since Lionsgate bought the rights to the popular book series and projected out a four film treatment of the trilogy, fans have been anticipating the results. Once Gary Ross was hired to direct and up and comer Jennifer Lawrence was picked to star, the typical trepidation arrived. Even with a non-stop social media onslaught involving images, games, and contests, and a PR push that’s seen the studio cherrypick the early reviews, many still wonder about the final product’s viability. After the events of the last few days, the situation is even cloudier…or perhaps, clearer.

Let’s begin with the so-called embargo. Critics usually are required to abide by the film company’s demand that reviews be held until a certain time. It’s never the same for all (that’s why you see early articles up from such stalwarts as Entertainment Weekly, The Hollywood Reporter, and Variety) and usually is based on medium (online or print), name, location around the globe, and publication popularity. Of course, not every reviewer falls into one of these categories. Some are bloggers invited because of their associations and society (OFCS, SEFCA) credentials. Others are mere spectators, empowered by a preview ticket and capable of commenting without restriction. Because of the weird dynamic at play, few writers actually adhere to their embargoes. Late reviews are almost always the product of availability, not studio restrictions.
In the case of The Hunger Games, those outside the prime coastal (East/West) fray had to agree to a strict policy of publication. As a matter of fact, the initial invitation warned of no cellphones (to avoid piracy), no guests (to avoid the random Facebook post), and a signed promise to avoid discussing the movie before the embargo date. Rare is the situation that requires a journalist’s John Hancock, but in this case, Lionsgate wanted to make sure that secrets (and eventual consensus) would wait until ticket buyers were already paying. While there was lots of grumbling from the members of the Fourth Estate, many chalked it up to a sparkly vampire sense of flop sweat and reluctantly agreed…

...that is, until this morning. Suddenly, the embargo was gone, and the studio dismissed the need for any signed paperwork. Instead, they asked that all comments be held until after the final press push (Monday 19 March). Of course, the cellphone and guest mandates remained intact, but the loosening of the opinion part of the process marked a decided turn for the title. Before, The Hunger Games was seen as a significant gamble. Reaching beyond the readership seemed like a stretch. After the bevy of positives that came out over the 16 March weekend (apparently, these ‘first’ outlets had no such embargo restrictions), the studio sensed a sizable hit. Now, as the Rotten Tomatometer teeters around 100%, sequels are being discussed and box office bonanzas are being banked.

Clearly, the latest capitulation comes in light of an overridingly optimistic response. But there is more to the mystery than 16 “fresh” ratings. For a while now, studios have been using the preview date as a means of control. They know that most print outlets demand a Tuesday deadline for Wednesday through Thursday publication, aware of what scheduling a screening any time after Monday means. A marginal movie will more than likely be set for later in the week in order to avoid the permanence of the press. Online doesn’t matter very much, the suits still considering such critics like so many fanboys firing at each other’s incompetently written flame wars.

If the movie is really bad - or part of a genre (horror) that often gets little respect from the critics, it will be saved until sometime late Thursday. This guarantees a couple of things - the absence of so-called legitimate journalists (who have long since seen their editorial needs avoided) and the limited availability of the online press (who can publish whenever they want). So, in essence, the studio was/is playing games with The Hunger Games, moving around motivation to strike a chord for either compliance or commercial viability.

Yet the truth is, this movie is review proof. Just look at the comments SE&L received when we slammed the trailer a few months back. Like those invested in Team Edward and Team Jacob, this franchise has a built in audience so rapid and reverent that they would make a piece of cinematic crap with The Hunger Games tag on it a prominent blockbuster. Already aiming at a $90 to $100 million weekend, they know they’re going to make money, so the need to hide the final product no longer applies. Instead, there is a sense of impending pride, as if something good actually came out of the desperate run to follow-up the flaccid material manufactured by Ms. Meyers.

With its spirit of sell, sell, sell, and the apparently payoff for patience in pre and post production, The Hunger Games may become - perish the thought - an actual reason to celebrate. Rare is the phenomenon that actually lives up to its hype, artistically and aesthetically. Certainly there will be some who constantly recall better examples of the human hunting subgenre and question every modification from the source to the screen. But after a continuous onslaught of commercials and come-ons, it looks like the former question mark is now solidly earning exclamations, the shifting screenings a sure sign of faith, not flop.

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