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February 20 2006

Hollywood skips critics for box office success. Focusing on 'Date Movie' as the latest example of a movie where studios keep the critics from seeing the movie ahead of time - to prevent bad reviews.

I find it interesting that Date Movie was not previewed at all, compared to the number of times we got to see Serenity over the post-production. Not a contrast in the movies (which aside from the Whedonesque connection are totally different), but in how the marketing was handled.

(The critic) added the studios will hide a film from critics to prevent bad reviews, in order to "make a fortune on the first weekend before people realize how bad it is."

The tactic seems to be working.

People who go to see a film like "Date Movie" on the first weekend aren't likely to read reviews on it anyway.
Bingo. This tactic has been around for a good long while, and is used primarily by, uh, films of a certain calibre.
I tend not to put a whole lot of stock in negative reviews. It seems there's a lot of "reviewers" counted on RottenTomatoes who care more about making a sensational quip than about providing a balanced option. (The Island, for example, I found enjoyable, despite it being brutally panned by critics...)

Positive reviews, on the other hand, can make me consider a film I'd otherwise dismissed. From the promotions, Curious George had seemed to be pretty much Garfield 2.0. But the overwhelmingly positive reviews have ignited my curiousity about the flick.
People who go to see a film like "Date Movie" on the first weekend aren't likely to read reviews on it anyway.

This also keeps peer reviewing out; I don't pay a lot of attention to the reviews - I like to hear what gets said, but the reviews don't affect my decision to go. But the previews for reviewers often also are opened to the regular public (win 2 free tickets! radio contests, etc.). I just watched this week's Ebert & Roeper (after posting this) and they also discussed that there's been a marked increase in this tactic in the last year.
I tend not to put a lot of stock in reviews period. One possible exception is Roger Ebert. Not because I agree with him. About half the time I don't. I respect his opinion though and I appreciate HOW he reviews a film.

First off, and perhaps most important, he rarely (if ever) gives away the ending. Admittedly, I'm a spoiler whore, so this isn't necessarily as big a deal for me as for others. However, since he's dubbed a film critic, a reviewer, I'd prefer he steer clear of spoilage. If I want to be spoiled, I want to hear it from someone who admits up front and proudly, "I'm a spoiler and I'm gonna ruin the ending for you - consider yourself warned," then gives you a chance to not read any further. Ebert avoids all that by just not going there, and I respect him for that.

Secondly, his tone is not high fallutin'. He doesn't talk down to his audience and he doesn't write as if he's trying to find THE catchphrase or one-liner to get everyone to say the next morning around the water cooler. His writing style is that of a friendly uncle offering friendly advice that you can take or leave with no offense either way. He's not just saying a film sucks or rocks. He describes what he sees and lets you make the final decision.

Third, rather than to just egotistically berate his audience with his opinion (something I tend to do admittedly myself, but I don't get paid to review movies) Ebert does his best to convey towards what audience he thinks the movie is aiming. So it's more "if you're this kind of person, then you'll like this kind of film."

A recent example is Ebert's review on the aforementioned Curious George. His review effectively explained this is a children's film in the literal sense of the word, meaning parents may not find much to interest them, but kids will appreciate it. This is different from films like The Incredibles, which are "family films" and cater to wider age groups on different levels. So Ebert's not saying the movie sucks because he's an adult and he doesn't get it. He explains the film obviously doesn't cater to adults, but aims its humor and story to children exclusively. That's paramount for a good film critic. ...in my opinion. *smirk*

With that said, Ebert described Serenity as "an old-fashioned space opera, and differs from a horse opera mostly in that it involves space, not horses." Ebert explains Serenity "is made of dubious but energetic special effects, breathless velocity, much imagination, some sly verbal wit and a little political satire." He then points out that he allegedly learned of Firefly's cancellation "in a letter from Stephen McNeil of Sydney, Nova Scotia" thus fairly explaining that Firefly is a worldwide phenomenon with fans scattered everywhere. Ebert says Whedon "deserved the benefit of the doubt" when the network executives prematurely cancelled the series, and there he shows some measure of respect for the man behind the movie. So while I don't always agree with Ebert, I respect how he puts words together. A good critic is not one with whom you agree.

GOOD critics should be given the chance to see a film before the rest of us do, and if I see that a film was purposefully NOT previously shown to the press, it tells me the producers are afraid. Where there's smoke there's fire, and when a film producer pleads the fifth? They're guilty until proven innocent. Maybe that's wrong. Maybe that's unfair, but no one ever said making movies (or critiquing them) was supposed to be fair.
I saw Curious George today. My kids really liked it, and so did I. It was charming, the animation was beautifully-rendered, and it was full of old-fashioned little sight gags that somehow seemed fresh.
I may be in the minority, but I definitely listen to reviews when it comes time to decide to see a movie. If something is universally panned then I don't want to waste my money on it, and if something is adored I may end up seeing it even if I had little interest in it before. The only exception is horror films, which I tend to have fun with even when they're crap.

I don't think reviewing Date Movie would have effected the box office any. If the commercials didn't convince people it was horrible, nothing can.
Since I am a reviewer, I can only say ... who cares?

I typed until my fingers bled to spread the word about SERENITY. Did it help? (Okay, stupid question. Of course it didn't.)

I typed with much less fervor to maybe prevent the odd soul from seeing HARRY POTTER. Did _that_ help?

So, when a studio (or a distributor, over here) decides not to show a movie up front, we shrug and move on to the next one. Well, _I_ shrug and move on to the next one. Some people prefer to make a fuss over nothing ...
I think people would like to see what the local movie critic, if not nationally-known ones, thinks of the latest movies before deciding whether to go. That's why we see movie ads that show that seemingly every major newspaper thinks this movie or that movie is worth watching. Remember the "King Kong" ads that included long passages from the Time Magazine review?
Movies are fairly expensive these days, so people want a little help in deciding which one is good and which isn't.

[ edited by impalergeneral on 2006-02-20 20:54 ]
You often hear that a movie like DATE MOVIE is critc-proof. And that makes sense to me. But if they're critic-proof, then why are the studios so afraid the critics?
You often hear that a movie like DATE MOVIE is critc-proof. And that makes sense to me. But if they're critic-proof, then why are the studios so afraid the critics?

Also, Ebert is one of my favorite critics. He really allows a movie to be itself before coming to a conclusion. As does David Denby, another critic who is also a great wordsmith.
As far as movie critics go, the only ones I really trust is Shawn Levy of the Oregonian, my local paper.

Ebert lost credability for me after his reviews of "The Fifth Element" (he hated Chris Tucker's character - I found the character hilarous) and "UHF" (he found it crass and un-funny, especially the Raoul's Wild Kingdom segments - I found this film funny as well, especially the Raoul's Wild Kingdom segments "We don't need no stinkin' BADGERS!"), and while he gave a decent rating to X2, his review seems to say otherwise, and his "Video games cannot be art" comment just burned my bum. Though, hopefully he'll change his tune on that last point after he sees "Silent Hill", which is fortunatly *not* directed by Uwe Boll or Paul WS Anderson, but Christophe Gans (writer/director of Brotherhood of the Wolf - which Ebert liked).

(Oh, by the way, Christophe Gans was interviewed by EGM, and he gave his thoughts on Ebert's remark. In short he's not pleased.

But anyway, I find that I prefer reviewers based on their track rating combined with my taste in movies, rather than just going "Ooh, Ebert likes this!" That said, if Ebert likes a movie that I like, then that does make me happy, because then, hopefully, it will do well and more people will go see it.
Uh-oh, this looks like a Zachsmind length post....but anyhow, I think the mistake people make about critics is that -- and this may come as a shock -- they are people. They (or should I say we, since I play that game from time to time) disagree among themselves as mush or more as any other group of people. Conversely, they are also as much or more subject to the herd mentality as any other group.

Personally, I try never to be very much influenced to go or not go to any given movie because of the opinion of any one or two critics. I read Roger Ebert because I think he's a wonderful writer, and I love his affectionate approach to movies, even though I disagree with him fairly often. If I went to see every movie he gave three stars to, though, I'd be an angry man. Still, I always get something out of reading him.

Now, if you can find a critic whose tastes are, say, 95% congruent with yours (I haven't -- other than myself, I mean), that's useful -- but it's kind of self-important to knock the critic for having taste that doesn't happen to agree with your own, since no two humans I know are able to do that.

All this is why I'm such a big fan of the Tomatometer at Rotten Tomatoes and the Metacritic scores. Individual mileage will always vary, but when you start dealing with larger groups of people, reviews become about a million times more reliable.

At leat for me, if say, 90% of critics say something is great or it's a complete stinker, it's probably (though not always) a film I think is great or a complete stinker. It may not be a perfect predictor for everyone -- especially since I'm obviously think at least a little bit like most critics since I'm kind of one of them -- but it's the best predictor I know, at least for people who are more on the discriminating end of things.

And, yeah, its interesting how supposedly critic proof movies are being protected from the supposedly ineffective ravages of bad reviews. The movies that really and truly do get sunk by bad reviews or saved by great ones are more of the arthouse variety -- but it's rare, or maybe even unheard of, for an arthouse film to avoid getting reviewed.

[ edited by bobster on 2006-02-20 22:29 ]
My brother is totally irrational. He says he trusts Jonathan Ross' reviews of films, the guy from Film 2006 who gave Serenity a generally positive review and where it was voted the viewer's favourite film of the year. Yet my brother still refuses to watch it despite being a fan of Buffy and Angel, and apparently still going to see films based on Jonathan Ross' opinions.

I mean the guy is pretty funny but I'd imagine a lot of what he says has been written for him, which is different to reading a review in a newspaper or film magazine. I've been trying to convince my brother to watch Firefly for months, and Serenity too. I might accidentally tie him to his chair and turn Serenity on.
Razor, I wouldn't underestimate Jonathan Ross. He is a genuine film buff, well-known for his love and encyclopedic knowledge of film history and films from around the world. It's why he got the job replacing the redoubtable Barry Norman in the first place.
I totally read reviews and while I don't live by them, I am very influenced by the few reviewers I can generally "count on": Anthony Lane and Denby from The New Yorker, Mick LaSalle from my local paper (SF Chronicle) and Stephanie Zacharek from salon.com (who is a major BtVS and Joss fan). How else do you decide to watch a movie? The only other way is to pay attention to the advertising, and it's far more likely that trailers and TV spots are deceptive than even the worst critic's taste. Trailers lie, and while I do generally listen to word-of-mouth, I also don't know many people with really excellent taste in movies. But I don't blindly follow any critic (well, besides Pauline Kael) because you have to track reviews intelligently. If you know a critic's taste and general blind spots, you can read their reviews and decide for yourself if his/her opinion is valid for you.

I generally read a review and list the few solid reasons a critic had for liking/hating a movie. If those reasons resonate for me, I'll scout around and see what other people are saying about it. What matters to me is not whether or not a critic liked/disliked a movie, but why s/he did.

I suppose it's because I have very definite tastes in movies, and am incredibly irritable about bad movies, especially in the theater. Not just that it's expensive, but I loathe being trapped in a theater unable to escape a bad movie. I've actually developed a defense mechanism to it: defensive napping, if I'm with people I can't walk out on. Otherwise, I just leave. It's not so much the waste of time, but that in a theater, you can't escape the movie. I've read people say how movie-going is like dreaming while conscious and while I won't go that far, I find that sitting there in the dark with a terrible, no-good movie being beamed directly into your brain is almost a torture. Love, Actually nearly made me vomit in my mouth a little.
I rarely read reviews before I see a film just because i'm almost pathologically spoiler-averse and some reviewers just can't seem to help themselves. I like to read good ones (by which I mean well written, not necessarily flattering) afterwards tho' to glean insights about the movie I might have missed and just generally get another opinion.

Deciding to see a film is, for me, a weird mix of online buzz, trailers, what friends have heard, who wrote it, who directed it, who's in it, subject matter and sometimes the meta ratings on sites like rottentomatoes and metacritic. If it's an adaptation of a book or comic i've enjoyed then i'll almost certainly go and see it (out of morbid curiousity if nothing else) sometimes despite other factors.

Also have to pipe up with the Wossy defence (it's like the Chewbacca defence only it has problems pronouncing its 'R's ;). The guy is a total film nut. I remember before he had the mighty Beeb behind him, doing 'The Incredibly Strange Film Show' on Channel 4 which I think he wrote entirely himself and more recently his 'Asian Invasion' programmes (which I managed to miss and which will hopefully be repeated on BBC4 soon) about Japanese, Korean and Hong Kong cinema. I'd be very surprised if he didn't write all the bits he says on 'Film 2006'. He's also a total comics geek and was actually tearing up and becoming inarticulate one time on his chat show while trying to convey the passion he feels for all things comicy (which I thought was quite touching, if maybe a bit over the top, and hardly the sort of thing you'd expect from Letterman).

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