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PR, Paramount, and the 'Star Trek' Disaster

Paramount's decision to not screen Star Trek: Into Darkness for critics signals a troubling turn of events for the film industry.

In some ways, the studio's position is understandable. When you have a huge tentpole title like Star Trek, and you're trying to generate the kind of commercial buzz that will guarantee a Summer 2013 windfall, you'll do anything, within reason, to protect that. To this end, Paramount has decided on a tactic that has many film critics around the United States fuming. After offering pre-release PR stunts like red carpet celebrations and exclusive phoner Q&As to a select few in the industry, the company has completed its Into Darkness schedule by setting up its only press screenings... the day of opening... hours after the film will be available in the IMAX format for any paying customer to see.

That's right. Unless you jumped on the marketing bandwagon and sat down with Simon Pegg or John Cho, doing the jive junket routine, or unless you were in Los Angeles or New York, or one of the numerous premiere sites, the rest of the working film fourth estate have to wait until 9pm on Wednesday 15 May to see the latest Trek. For their part, Paramount has argued that a plot point, long rumored and ripe for spoiling, needs to be protected, and therefore requires that reviews be held until the very, very, very, very last minute. No Crying Game like communal promises not to ruin the twist (though IMDb and Wikipedia has already done so), no signature on an agreement to embargo such information until the day of release.

No, the studio has alienated a huge percentage of the working press (including those considered mainstays of the mainstream movie critic game) by suggesting they can't keep a secret. Even worse, the movie has already opened overseas, raking in reviews (and numerous hints about said spoiler) and significant box office without the need for a USA-aided Rotten Tomatoes rating. Again, Paramount is pretending that this all has to do with narrative, about keeping the experience pure for those who might otherwise see it destroyed by knowing who's who in advance of opening day. But there is more to it than this, a subversive bit of blowback for a decade or more of Internet access and, as a result, social networking soapboxing.

Let's backtrack a bit. Over the last few years, Hollywood has seen its fair share of astronomical returns on its equally elephantine investments, and it's all due to one key demo, the international film fan. Movies like Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Skyfall, and Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland may have been minor hits at home, but around the planet, they were a panic. For example, Tides made a meager $241 million domestically, while earning a whopping $802 million everywhere else. Similarly, the latest James Bond was a bigger success in the West, where it made $304 million. But around the globe, another $800 million-plus payday was achieved. In fact, no film in the new Billionaires Club has made more money here than abroad. The closest anyone comes is The Phantom Menace, which earned 46.2% of its receipts domestically before banking the rest around the world.

For a while, no one was the wiser. Then someone in some studio (who probably has a comfy corner office by now) came up with the idea of ignoring the domestic potential of a picture to concentrate more on the international crowd. After all, if Transformers: Dark of the Moon had not even opened in the US and Canada, it still would have made over $771 million everywhere else. Heck, the number one grossing film of all time, Avatar, made 72% of its $2.7 billion gross in places like China and India (do the math -- that's $2 billion in international receipts -- wow!). Part of the problem though remained the prerelease buzz provided by a Western press apparently too full of itself, that is, if you listen to the suits.

In fact, in a recent interview defending the release of Iron Man 3 to the rest of the world before its US premiere, a House of Mouse (read: Marvel parent company Disney) executive said something akin to the following: "We are sick and tired of the entitled American press acting as 'tastemakers' for the rest of the world." This person then went on to say that a movie should stand on its own, without the multiple opinions of the domestic critic community dictating what the rest of the world thinks. Of course, that seems like nonsense (this coming from the studio that saw scathing reviews of POTC Part 4 wind up winning Walt and company 10 figures), but it's a thought that can't be ignored.

In fact, the decision over Star Trek defends the trend. By opening the film in other markets, in places where the number of outlets and opinions will be limited (most aggregate sites like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic are Western-ccentric to a fault), the marketers can keep a handle on the hype. Even better, as in the case of something like Iron Man 3, a studio like Disney can make a big chunk of change (in this case, close to $500 million) before the US critics can 'complain.' Granted, in this case, Paramount is only jumping the gun by days, but with Australia, New Zealand, United Kingdom and parts of Europe in play, the movie has a chance to generate some decent accolades before hitting its home shores...

...Except, so far, the reviews have been uniformly excellent. Granted, no one is suggesting that the late Gene Roddenberry and his approach to the property is walking through the door, but as pure popcorn fare, the film seems to be doing quite well (90% at Rotten Tomatoes with more than 60 reviews in). So where does that leave the everyday working journalist, the guy who didn't have time to pitch woo with the talent or take up the studio on its numerous numbing advances? Well, it leaves them unable to do their job. Sure, some will decided to hit an IMAX showing instead of waiting until 9PM Wednesday, but for those who merely struggle to see movies in order to review them for sites who see them as content providers and nothing more, it's a slap in the face.

Again, nothing anyone says, sans a 0% score, will sway a public determined to see the next big thing in Summer 2013 entertainment and a few critics have said that the decision by Paramount will "adversely affect" their ability to be fair to the film. Really? Why is that? When a studio fails to screen something and you sit down in a public showing surrounded by the great texting unwashed, does your lack of a preview affect your final call? If it does, you should get out of the game. Besides, a two weeks in advance press screening can have its own issues (especially when a studio insists on having "invited guests" to give the journalists a chance to "experience the film with an audience." Yeesh).

Still, Paramount is standing firm, failing to listen to numerous cries of "foul" from the film community. Other studios, like Warners and Fox, have yet to follow suit, but one imagines if Paramount and Disney define the strategy, others will hop on board fairly soon and they won't fall victim to the specious trendsetter argument. They'll argue piracy or publicity control, but the truth remains, shockingly, the same: the movie biz no longer needs the US to succeed. They will rely on the international box office until that ships sails, and then some. Until then, our take on Trek will have to wait until Thursday AM, long after the fans have found out who Benedict Cumberbatch is really playing.

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