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Critical Confessions: Part 9 - The Night Before

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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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