FOX, Early Film Reviews and You

Rupert Murdoch and Homer Simpson
FOX owner and “billionaire tyrant” Rupert Murdoch
explains to Homer Simpson just who’s really in charge

Lately it seems like the people running FOX have really been freaking out about their ability to spin the perception of their films before they’re even released to the general public. Maybe they are or maybe I’m reading it wrong. The truth is, if I was any less connected to the business end of Hollywood, Hollywood would be the spaceship Discovery and I’d be Frank Poole desperately but futilely clutching at the severed air tube of my spacesuit, helplessly spinning away to my certain death in the cold, infinite vacuum of space. I don’t know squat about how Hollywood runs itself and mostly I couldn’t care less. I’m interested in movies, not the business of movies. However, sometimes the two things intersect and it gets me to thinking. In this case, I understand why FOX would be sensitive about protecting its business and creative interests, but I’ve never quite understood the root phenomena that seem to have them so worried: the need of some reviewers to be first to post a review and the desire of some moviegoers to begin consuming a movie long before they even see it.

When I first started writing this post about a week ago, I scribbled out several paragraphs detailing some of the stuff that’s been going on with FOX lately, complete with links. Sadly, in internet time a week is like forever and this is all old news. Instead of regurgitating old information in detail, I’ll just post a few links sketching out the brouhaha and then I’ll get back to talking about what I really want to talk about.

  • FOX pressures a movie theater in Memphis to fire some projectionist schmo who had used his position to review an early screening of Live Free or Die Hard for Ain’t it Cool News.
  • FOX won’t let critics see The Simpsons Movie until mere days before the film is to open.
  • The Chicago Film Critics Association complains publicly.
  • Jeffrey Wells is supposedly blacklisted by FOX for talking about the CFCA thing.
  • The LA Times paints it as a growing boycott (though David Poland says all along that there is no real boycott and the LA Times later backs off a little bit). This issue…if it really was an issue…appears to have been resolved anyway.
  • FOX pulls out of a planned exhibition at San Diego’s annual Comic-Con, the very nexus of many of the groups of people who popularize websites like Ain’t It Cool News in the first place as any nerd with a storm trooper outfit in his or her closet can tell you.

Heavy handed as their actions may seem to be, it makes sense that FOX would want full control of their product up to the moment it’s made available to moviegoers. What I don’t understand is what’s driving this need on the part of fans to pick apart a film before most people can even see it. First there is speculation about whether a certain movie is going to be made or not. This is followed by questions of who is going to make it and who is going to be in it. Scripts are leaked. Production photos are posted. Rumors of on-set problems are published. Eventually the movie is previewed in varying states of completion and reviews start coming out. This whole process is accompanied by the running commentary and debate of people who’re probably the movie’s main audience. For these folks I guess all the business leading up to a movie is itself a part of the entertainment and actually watching the movie seems like something of an anti-climax.

Outside of this hard core niche of movie lovers, I assume most people use reviews to help them decide whether or not to see a particular movie and then only a few days or hours before making the choice. Most print reviews still come out just before (or on the day of) a movie’s release. I assume with weekly or monthly publications the reviews are published in the issue that will be current on opening day. On the internet however, reviews crop up on legitimate websites (legitimate meaning the site’s critics are at least armed with actual press passes from the studios as opposed to dopes like me with nothing more than a keyboard and an internet connection) as soon as the studios say it’s ok to publish and in some cases sooner. For example I started noticing reviews for The Bourne Ultimatum appearing last week, a full two weeks before the movie’s August 3 release date. I wonder if early internet reviews like this will pressure traditional media outlets to go with their own reviews earlier and earlier.

I understand that on the internet old news isn’t news at all and there’s a currency to running a story right away, but a review isn’t news. It’s an opinion and it only has relevancy when people can share it. Right? I’m sure this review of Bourne from Kris Tapley is impassioned and well written. Same with this one from Jeffrey Wells. The thing is, I’ll probably never know. By the time I’m able to see the movie, these reviews will be buried. Ironically, the reviews themselves will be old news.

Now, I have to admit I’m probably a little strange when it comes to movie reviews. I mostly don’t like to read them until after I’ve seen a movie. I try not to use them as a part of my decision making process at all. There are exceptions. Sometimes a good review calls my attention to a movie I’d never heard of (Once) or it convinces me to rethink a movie I’d already decided not to see (Live Free or Die Hard), but I try to stay away from reviews. That’s the theory anyway. In practice I’m not completely immune to the buzz, bad or good, and I can always be swayed one way or the other. Too often though, reviews have tried to steer me away from seeing a movie I really ended up liking. Don’t Come Knocking is an example of a movie I might have missed if I’d read the mediocre reviews and that would’ve been too bad. It turned out to be one of my favorite movies the year it came out. Catching one good but poorly reviewed movie makes up for seeing however many bad ones I may stumble across unawares.

Another danger of reviews is that too often they reveal elements of the plot. The worst offenders give away endings or significant plot twists, but I think damage can be done even in more subtle ways. A movie is more than just a loved-it/hated-it proposition. It’s a series of moments that stimulate some kind of response in a viewer. As with many things, the first response is the best one and if you’ve already responded to some element in a movie before you see it, your response is dulled and so is the overall experience you’ve just spent $10 to enjoy.

It reminds me of one Christmas when I was a little kid. Being young and impatient, my older brothers and I wanted to know what our parents had gotten us well before Christmas morning. Rather than go to all the trouble of trying to find where the presents were hidden before they were wrapped, one brother came up with the idea of just waiting until the presents were under the Christmas tree and then using an X-acto knife to slit the tape along the side of each package. This way we could open just enough of the wrapping to see what was inside the package and then reseal it without a trace. Ultimately we opened every one of our presents one night while our parents slept and essentially had our own quiet Christmas right then and there. My parents never found out, but several days later when the real thing finally came, it was a depressing, anti-climactic bust. I had to fake surprise and excitement over the new Girder and Panel building set I’d been desperate for and it just wasn’t the same. I learned a bitter lesson that Christmas: sometimes it’s better to wait.

But I digress. Back to spoilers. When it comes to ruining a movie, trailers can be just as bad as or worse than a review. We’ve all seen trailers for comedies that give away the best jokes. Personally, I prefer the classic ‘teaser’ trailer that comes out well in advance of a movie. The teaser doesn’t reveal too much but instead gives you a tiny taste of what’s to come. You see just enough to whet your appetite and get you excited but not so much that the best parts of the movie are spoiled. The original teaser for Marie Antoinette is a great example. Same goes for this teaser of Casino Royale. You’re given a glimpse of what’s to come; enough to know that things are different and more exciting than what you’ve seen from James Bond before and that’s all you need to know. I’ve been a James Bond fan since I was a little kid, but had outgrown my enthusiasm for the most part and had no real intention of seeing Casino Royale…until I saw the teaser and I was hooked. It was perfect. It got me excited for the movie by showing very little. By the time I actually saw the movie, I don’t think I even remembered a single image or line from the teaser, I just remember the way the teaser made me feel. Without it, I might have skipped the movie altogether.

In most cases, a trailer is made before a movie is finished by people who aren’t even involved with the movie’s production. Their job is to do whatever they can to convince an audience to come back and buy a ticket. They won’t hesitate to show you as much of the movie as they can get away with. They don’t care about your experience once you’ve plunked down your hard earned dollars, they only care about the dollars themselves (and don’t even get me started on trailers that try to make a movie look like something different than it really is). In a few cases however, a filmmaker has so much control over his or her projects that they even have a hand in the advertising. Stanley Kubrick was that way. I believe David Lynch has that kind of control as well. In these rare cases, I don’t worry too much about a trailer ruining a movie and even consider the trailer itself to be a part of the filmmaker’s intended experience.

For the most part though, trailers are bad news. Unfortunately, they’re almost impossible to avoid if you see movies with any regularity and I accept them as a fact of life in most cases. There are a handful of filmmakers however whose movies I automatically want to see. Every time they announce a new project, I challenge myself to remain as clueless about it as possible. No commercials, no trailers, no reviews, no spoilers. Nothing. I want to be the first skier vaulting himself down a freshly powdered slope. I want the thrill of discovery and I want it untainted by the baggage of marketing and buzz and spoilers. I trust the filmmaker to take me wherever he or she will and I’m happy to go along without being weighed down by expectations or advanced knowledge.

For me, the attainment of this perfect vacuum becomes kind of an obsession. The best recent example of this is No Country for Old Men, the new movie from Joel and Ethan Coen. I’m kind of a Coen freak and I’d watch a movie based on the instruction manual to my TV set if their names were on it. I’m automatically committed to seeing whatever they bring out and I want to see it fresh. All I know so far is the title, two of the stars and the source of the story. Frankly even that is too much and it’s been all I can do to avoid all the reviews and trailers and spoilers that have sprouted up around the internet since the movie played at Cannes in May. So far so good, but I still have to make it until November when the movie is finally released…unless I get crazy and go to the Toronto Film Festival or something.

So, if I don’t use movie reviews to help me decide whether or not to see a movie, do I read them at all? Yes, but only after I’ve seen a movie. In fact, since I’ve been trying my hand at writing reviews of my own, I’ll even wait until my review is finished before reading what others have to say. At that point, I’ll seek out the handful of critics whose reviews and writing I enjoy to see if they agree or disagree with me. After that, I’ll read some reviews that openly disagree with my opinion. Sometimes these dissenting reviews get me to think about a movie in a different way and could even get me to change my original opinion. It’s all sort of a dialogue about the film with people who watch them for a living. It’s a part of the process of enjoying and appreciating the movies I see; a process that doesn’t begin until I’ve finally seen the movie.

That’s my take on things anyway. As the internet continues to conflict with old ways of doing business, it occurs to me there are much bigger issues here than what I’ve touched on. For one thing, the role of professional critics in passing along information about movies seems to be changing as more power is passing over to amateurs. Also, how we watch movies in the first place could be in the process of changing as new technologies become commonplace. Those are subjects for another time however. For now, I’ve written enough and I’m suddenly in the mood to go see a movie.

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6 thoughts on “FOX, Early Film Reviews and You

  1. Wow, I really admire your willpower in staying away from reviews. I know it’s probably the best thing, and I often regret reading too many reviews when I finally do see a film and realize it feels like I’ve seen it already due to all the information I already absorbed, but I’m just too curious to resist. The problem is compounded by the fact that films often come out much later here than they do in the US, and sometimes it feels like reading reviews helps me “get through” the time to the Netherlands release.

    I have determined not to read any Bourne Ultimatum reviews, because I’ll be seeing it in an “advance” screening on August 20th to be able to write a review for its September 13th release here, and I, like you, want my view to be as “fresh” as possible. I’m not sure I’ll be able to, though. For instance, I listen to the podcast “filmspotting” every week when it comes out, and they’re sure to review it. Will I be able to postpone listening? I’m not sure.

    I suppose that’s why I like the blog culture: it doesn’t focus so much on recent releases, and often features long articles on older films, which often focus on smaller details and style and so on, and not on plot details. Those serve to point your interest towards what’s worthwhile, and because of blogs I’ve seen many wonderful films I probably wouldn’t have otherwise.

  2. Sometimes I wonder if I’m not missing out on part of the experience by skipping reviews. It’s especially frustrating on the internet because everyone is talking about the movies on message boards and I’m afraid to read what’s being written and have nothing to add anyway except “Yeah, I really want to see that…”

    I can’t imagine living in another country. Waiting longer for a movie would kill me.

  3. I too have lived the pain of an exacto-knife Christmas.
    Just give me a tease, I dont want to know whats inside before I open it.
    Bob is gonna see what Bob is gonna see, regardless or often inspite of any review or trailer.

  4. There are really two kinds of reviews: ones written by hacks which typically consist of a plot synopsis cribbed from the press notes and a thumbs up/down recommendation, and ones written by good serious critics which are pointless to read until after you’ve seen the film so you can react to it properly.

  5. I’d like to think that all the fuss about the death of criticism is really about the hack critics whose job is easily done by any dope with a blog and that there will always be room for the serious critics who think of movies as an art form as well as an entertainment.

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