a pro script reader ponders movies, reading, writing and the occasional personal flashback

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Putting a Bag Over Your Movie's Head

There's a column in the Los Angeles Times today, about the fact that moviegoers care less and less about what critics say. The piece cites a stat that only 3% of moviegoers between the ages of 18-24 consider reviews the most important thing about determining whether they see a movie.

In the same column, the writer mentions that 2006 is setting a record pace for movies not screened for critics in advance.

The problem is, that these two facts contradict each other. If critics have less and less power, then why would studios care if they saw the movies in advance or not?

The irony is that not screening your movie for critics should be even a bigger red flag than the movie getting a bad review. All movies get bad reviews in places, but not letting critics see it? It's essentially saying "We know it sucks, and we're trying to trick you into going to see it before you find out just how bad".

It's like a blind date making you buy her dinner, before she takes the bag off her head.

As much as I rant against a lot of movie critics nowadays, at the same time they do perform an obvious service. They are the taste-testers, the ones who wave the white flag when a movie is really bad, or bring attention to the gems that might otherwise be missed. Sure, critics get it wrong, but at the end of the day they are much more reliant than picking a movie based solely on who is in it and what the ad says.

You don't have to see the true stinkers, because they are there to take the bullet for you.

The irony is that, for me, I'm more likely not to see a movie if it isn't screened for critics, than if it gets a bad review, because if the studio isn't willing to stand behind it, then there have to be major problems. Helpfully, many newspapers also happily list the films not screened, just so you know, and I wish more moviegoers were canny enough to realize this, and factor it in heavily.

Last weekend, "Zoom" and "Pulse" weren't screened for critics. Not a hidden gem among them. "Pulse" still made $8 million, and it's hard to think it would have made less if your local critic had blasted it, because it's a horror movie, and what the hell? And if they did screen it for critics, and it got a couple of good reviews here and there, those reviews would have been more likely to get people to see it, than bad reviews would have gotten people not to see it.

The bottom line, of course, is that this business is about money. And because of this, the studios have broken a key covenant with audiences, because they have to release a movie, even if it sucks, and they have to do what they think it will take to maximize their profits.

But wouldn't it be refreshing to have a studio that promised that they'd only put their name on good movies? A studio that doesn't try to sneak crap into theaters, by not screening them ahead of time? Instead, the studios wonder why people aren't going to the movies as much any more?

If you went to a restaurant, and the food was only good half the time, would you keep going there?

Last weekend, "Step Up" was also released. It didn't get great reviews, but the studio didn't try to hide it. And it made $21 million in its first 3 days. The people who wanted to see it went to see it, the people who didn't could read the reviews, and see it probably wasn't for them. In a perfect world, "Step Up" would have been a great movie, but here at least the system sort of works.

So I'm spreading my dogma from coast to coast. If a film isn't screened for critics, don't go see it. It's gonna suck. It's pure cause and effect; only bad movies don't get screened. They don't hide the good stuff from critics.

But it's not going to matter. Because the next movie that's not being screened for critics?

"Snakes on a Plane".

Don't say I didn't warn you.


At 10:16 AM, Blogger Brett said...

Seriously-- does anyone feel a need to actually *see* SoaP? At this point it really feels like the movie came out a year or two ago -- the entire meme has been beaten into the ground like a tent stake in moist sand. I can;t imagine HOW it would begin to live up to the ridiculous imagined versions we've all been sniggering about for 14 months.
gilas on a golfcart B

At 12:25 PM, Blogger Scott the Reader said...

Don't fool yourself. It'll probably do $25 million opening weekend. At least.

At 12:37 PM, Blogger s.warren said...

New Line isn't ashamed of SoaP and they're certainly not hiding its quality (or lack there of) by not screening it for the critics. They're opening it hursday night in bigger markets and letting word of mouth carry the film into the weekend. I don't think you do that if you know you've got a stinker. It's pretty inline with their whole marketing concept for this movie.

At 12:38 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

... and $8.00 of that $25 million will be mine. I can't wait to see it. In fact, there's a midnight show on Thursday I'm very seriously considering going to.

So if I sound bleary and wiggy and keep shouting "SNAKESONAMUTHAFUCKINPLANE" on Friday, that's why. :-)

-danny boy

At 12:51 PM, Blogger Scott the Reader said...

There is no precedent for not screening a movie for critics that is actually good, because it's no-lose; it doesn't cost much to do, and the benefit in free advertising from good reviews is priceless.

The fact that they are opening it Thursday night is entirely due to demand, and the fact that they want everyone to see the movie opening weekend, because they get a bigger percentage of the box office. Plus, if the movie isn't very good, they want to grab as much cash as poossible before word spreads.

The wide opening, and Thursday night screenings, aren't a sign of quality, just demand. The not-screening it for critics is a sign of quality, and it's not a good sign.

Word of mouth is nice, but you get that (good or bad) with or without reviews, and the bottom line is that if Snakes on a Plane isn't that good, they want the public to be in the dark about that as long as possible.

I hope Snakes on a Plane is good dumb fun. But if they aren't showing it to critics, it's because they expect critics to hammer it. So there's no good way to really spin their decision to go out without reviews.

At 12:58 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Speaking of which, did you read the article about ideas for SoaP 2? Not too late for Alligators in a Helicopter ...

-danny boy

At 2:24 PM, Blogger Scott the Reader said...

In the first 3 months of 2006 (the only list I could find), the following movies were released without being shown to critics:

The Netflix queue from Hell:

Grandma's Boy
Underworld: Evolution
When A Stranger Calls
Date Movie
Madea's Family Reunion
Stay Alive
Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector.

Among the next few months' unscreened movies were Phat Girlz, Silent Hill and Benchwarmers.

Underworld: Evolution, When a Stranger Calls and Madea's Family reunion all debuted as the #1 movie in the country. It wasn't because they were good; it was because they hid the badness so the audience wouldn't be scared off.

At 3:07 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There's no way critics are going to like a movie called "Snakes on a Plane." So big deal if they don't screen it. Who's expecting a movie that couldn't even come up with a title to be any good?

My problem with critics is that they unfairly go out of their way to dislike anything they know the mass audience will like to make their jobs feel important and to make themselves feel superior to the common people. If mass audiences started loving stuff like "Good Night, Good Luck" then critics would start praising Snakes on a Plane just to be contrary.

At 3:14 PM, Blogger Reel Fanatic said...

Snakes on a Plane will do at least $25 million in week one ... it will probably be a blissfully bad movie, but we all know that already and I, at least, am still a sucker for a good B-movie with Sam Mother-fuckin Jackson

At 3:18 PM, Blogger MaryAn Batchellor said...

I'd see a lot more movies in the theaters if they'd go back to the good ol' days with ushers - would love to see a few thrown out parents for screaming babies, rowdy teenagers, people with lazers, cell phone chatters and, in the case of Nacho Libre, a guy snoring so loud I couldn't hear the dialogue.

At 4:03 PM, Blogger Steve Peterson said...

You're not going to see SoaP?! That's like treason.

Anyway, I thought the entire marketing angle of SoaP was exactly that it would suck. Perhaps they're not screening it because they're worried that it will get good reviews and undermine all the cheese-factor they've built up around it.

At 4:31 PM, Blogger deepstructure said...

i have to take issue with your logic here. the two facts you state do not contradict each other.

your argument betrays an allegiance to the old way of thinking, when it was deemed necessary for critics to pre-screen movies.

but if we didn't have critics and they were obviously not necessary, it would be ludicrous to argue that we should have them anyway, simply because having them wouldn't change anything.

if the studios don't care if critics see the movie, then why go out of their way to make it happen? why not just let them see it when everyone else does?

and if, as has been argued by peter bart, critics are only important for the smaller films with more discerning audiences so that the movie can live by word-of-mouth, then it doesn't matter if the critic sees the film before it opens because those movies aren't measured by their opening weekends.

to two facts actually complement each other - if critical opinion is worth less and less, then there's no point in utilizing critics. period.

regardless, i think not showing the movie for critics as a barometer for terrible movies is going to go away. sooner or later a prestigious director is going to release his/her very good film without previously screening it for critics and that'll be that.

At 6:01 PM, Blogger Dante Kleinberg said...

I don't use movie reviews as my primary means of determing what I see, but if there's something on the fence about and it gets a lot of really good or really bad reviews, it can push me over either way. Though I agree when a movie isn't screened for critics, it's never a good sign. Similarly, when a movie is moved from Summer to February, it's a bad sign (*ahem* Ghost Rider).

The hype has been building on SoaP for so long, there's already a direct to video ripoff out there called Snakes on a Train. They had time to make and release a whole nother movie!

At 6:26 PM, Blogger wcmartell said...

Actually, I think it's the opposite: the studios aren't screening movies for critics because the critics really don't matter at all. They are so meaningless that screening a film for them is just a waste of time - escpecially a film that they probably won't like because it's *not* an arthouse film.

Critics don't like genre movies, and when they do - they tend to have weird taste. Roger Ebert *hates* DIE HARD but *loves* UNDER SIEGE (an inferior rip-off). He gets inundated with letters and e-mail about this, and a few years ago decided to review both films... and still absolutely *hated* DIE HARD.

And that's the reason why critics don't matter. There was a time when critics relly tore apart a film to show you its flaws - now, it's more opinion and fewer examples. I remember reading John Simon reviews of films I liked, where he would expose all of the flaws. I could agree with those flaws (even though I still liked the film). Now I will frequently read a review and wonder if they saw the same film as I did.

I think in that Pauline Kael / John Simon era (they were writing about films at the exact same time) we were at the highpoint of film criticism. Now, we get a lot of people who have no idea what they are talking about. I'm sorry, but if you walked out on CLERKS 2 when you were supposed to be reviewing it, you should lose your job.

Along with analysis, the other thing that I think is missing from reviews is the basic theory behind film criticism: What was the film trying to do? Did it do that? CLERKS 2 does exactly what it was trying to do, and so did JACKASS.

By the way, I laughed so hard I hurt myself watching JACKASS, and I can't wait for #2. And one of my favorite films was directed by Fellini.

- Bill

At 7:26 PM, Anonymous Joe Valdez said...

Well put, both Bill and Scott.

I can't remember who said it, maybe Kenneth Turan, but movie critics aren't supposed to function as applause meters. They're being paid to give their opinion.

Like test screening reviews that leak on the Internet, no one in the industry gets up in arms until the movie is getting panned.

If the movie is being praised, that's free advertising money can't buy and this is why I think "The Critics" and media screenings aren't going the way of the typewriter just yet.

At 2:53 AM, Blogger The Gambino Crime Family said...

Exactly. You try to release a film for the over-25s without critics' screenings and watch it drop without a trace. And doesn't releasing SoaP on a Thursday screw up that strategy anyway? You're still going to get reviews in the daily newspapers and all over the internet by Friday.

At 5:35 AM, Blogger Spanish Prisoner said...

The thing is I always read a movie critic AFTER I watched a movie. Almost never before. First I try to avoid spoilers. Some critics just have no idea how they spoiled some movies for me. Just imagine someone spoiled "Million Dollar Baby" for you. It happenend to me. Secondly, I know if I want to see a movie. Critics are strange at times. After a movie, when I have my own opinion, I find it interesting to see what others think of the movie.

At 7:12 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The truth of the matter is critics are becoming more and more irrelevant except in one area: Oscar. Want an Academy Award? Better get the critics on your side. As long as critical acclaim is still a necessary ingredient for Oscar gold, critics will stick around.

As for genre films, critics made themselves irrelevant by panning almost all genre films for the sin of being genre. If your friend hates all the movies you love, are you going to keep asking him whether or not you should see a particular film? No. You're going to ask a friend whose tastes are more in line with your own.

At 4:15 PM, Blogger wcmartell said...

By the way - why does it matter if they screen a film ahead of time for the critics? The only one who would ever care about that is the studios - because they could use the reviews to sell the film to the public. So reviews are really just part of the hype...

And if a film doesn't need that kind of hype?

Nothing stops critics from seeing a movie *after* it has opened and writing their reviews. Those reviews won't influence the opening weekend crowd, but on many films the reviews wouldn't have influenced them, anyway.

One of the things in the article was about critics being more in touch with the audience. Yes, critics are not cheerleaders, but when you have a film like DEAD MAN'S CHEST that gets destroyed by critics, yet audiences seem to be loving it, there's a *reason*. It might be nice for a critic to include the good elements in a review as well as the bad - and factor those in. Entertainment Weekly hated DMC, and some reader took Lisa S. to task for it. She stood by her review, saying that even a popcorn movie has to make sense. But my question might be - does it? If a thrill-ride movie *delivers* on the thrills, isn't iot doing what it has set out to do? Whether I think the story makes sense or not, I would certainly mention that the movie had me laughing and had some great thrilling action scenes. It was fun...

Part of the reason why critics may not be getting the fun factor? They see films in little screening rooms with other critics at 10am when they need a couple more cups of coffee (at least, that was true for me). Maybe we sould get rid of *all* critics screenings - and have them see films with an audience?

- Bill

At 5:41 PM, Blogger Robert Hogan said...

Like you said, it’s all a business. The films that aren’t being screened for critics are the same ones that target the audience that don’t care about critics to begin with. Couldn’t it be possible that the studios are just trying to save the money they would spend on critic screenings that the film’s audience isn’t going to see anyway?

At 6:02 AM, Blogger Piers said...

I shall be seeing Snakes On A Plane ASAP, without reading a review.

Even if the film is *utterly terrible*, I don't actually care.

It has many snakes. On a plane. It's Sam Jackson in what I fully expect to be a trashy genre film.

And I love me the trashy genre films. I stand by them.

If it's not a trashy genre film, if it actually transcends its origins, that would be a bonus. But not necessary.

And I don't trust newspaper or TV critics when it comes to the merits or otherwise of trashy genre films.

At 6:18 PM, Blogger Abe Burnett said...

SoaP looks to me to be much like Ultraviolet: an utter waste of two hours of my life.

If anyone is aware of a way in which I can do some sort of pennance and reclaim those two hours, please tell me, I'll be entirely in your debt.

Some movies are good in a very bad, cheesy way; others are flat-out horrid in every way. Ultraviolet was the latter, and SoaP is almost guaranteed to be the same: extraordinarily lame.

I'm surprised that so many commenters on this post have expressed a desire to see it. I mean, you people are willing to actually PAY to see garbage, intentionally?

If I film my dog taking a crap on various parts of the lawn in slow motion at various times of the day, call it Sh*ts on a Lawn and market it heavily as being just that--my dog crapping on the lawn--are you going to pay $8.00 (or often more) to see it?

Before finding so many people interested in SoaP I would've thought that question ludicrous; but apparently it's not such a far-fetched question.

In the interest of full disclosure, I do love a wide array of movies--including Godzilla (M. Broderick version), Underworld, Die Hard AND Under Siege, Mask of Zorro, and many other classic camp, action, cheesy...films.

However, I've worked too hard for my $8.00 to willingly pay it to see ANY actor shouting numerous obscenities and doing battle with lots of poorly rendered, irrelevent snakes.

In fact, when faced with the option of watching paint dry this weekend or paying $8.00 to see SoaP, I'll be choosing the former.

I really hope it tanks (though I don't think it will) or we're going to be facing an epidemic of bad copy cats.

At 8:58 AM, Blogger Eric said...

I'm pissed, because I just finished polishing my original idea that I've been working on for five years, rewrite after rewrite, making it the best script possible, and now Sam Jackson screwed it all up.

It was called "Tarantulas on a Train."

Life ain't fair.

At 9:01 PM, Blogger jefe said...

Why have you forsaken us?


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