Movie Reviewing, Studio Publicists and the Dreaded E-word — “Embargo”

In the interest of transparency, and perhaps to avoid shipping out another form email to a studio publicist irate over which “embargo” they’ve placed on whatever movie they have entering the marketplace, let me put a few thoughts down here on this subject.

News embargoes are what producers — of cars, books, TV shows, electric lawnmowers and movies — use to control who gets to talk about their product and when.

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They want to control the flow of information about their product, want it to peak just as it is available to the general public — information released just early enough to build anticipation, just late enough where a bad notice cannot kill that product in the marketplace.

It’s understandable, especially with costly cars, movies/TV shows etc. You want to do everything you can to ensure you make money off it, control “bad buzz,” and your deal with the devil is that you press the press to help you get the word out.

But sometimes the press isn’t going to like your Tesla/novel/Major Motion Picture.

Thus, embargoes, which in the motion picture world, have gotten completely out of hand.

Sure, movie reviewing/criticism has lost much of its punch over the years, and the audience has, in fits and spurts, shrunk — especially this year.

Now every studio, from the majors to the tiniest of the minors, wants to slap an embargo on reviews of their product. And everybody throws a different date on it. Everybody wants to cherry-pick who gets to review their movie, and get good reviews out before bad ones.

Sometimes, they embargo reviews before whatever they’re calling the “premiere.” Understandable, again. But a reason in and of itself to delay getting the word out about a project? No.

To be clear, I don’t work for these “flaks,” I work for myself — and you. Always have.  And I have a very low tolerance for this crap.

It’s bad enough when a Disney/Pixar/Marvel, Warners, Fox, Paramount, Sony/Tristar/Columbia/ScreenGems, Universal/Focus, Lionsgate or the doomed Weinstein Co. tries to unlevel the playing field and “control” what is said, by whom and when. Smaller studios are pulling the same nonsense, in imitation of the big boys.

And the big boys, for those following what Disney is trying to do to the Los Angeles Times, play rough.

Here’s an email I got with a screener link to a DOCUMENTARY released by a ONE OFF tiny distributor, just today — “Reviews embargoed for 11/12 at 7:45pm.”

Oh? What arbitrary set of circumstances dictate that you should SPRING your barely-released non-fiction (ever so tiny audience) upon the world at that time? Is it after the.director’s gone to bed, so she won’t have to see a bad notice? The dear.

 

That’s insane. There’s no set, generally agreed-upon day/date (two days before release, midnight, for instance) among this lot. Everybody has their own theory of when “buzz” and # traffic should peak for a film. It’s a load of bollocks, especially for tiny operators with next to nothing for a marketing budget for a movie.

They depend on reviewers to upload and play their trailers, because they don’t pay to put them on TV and theater chains only have so many spots to squeeze one in before a given “feature presentation.”

They depend on reviewers to generate ALL the interest their film garners. And then they want to force every review to post at whatever whimsically-chosen time some dope in marketing dictates. Aside from the innate stupidity of that (They think your average smart phone user will go through 25 movies whose reviews are all posted in the last hours before release? “Think” doesn’t figure into it.), it’s unfair and arbitrary for the people doing their heavy lifting for them — critics.

As a general rule, I respect the embargo. So long as that is made clear before I see the movie. These after-the-fact “By the way, there’s an embargo” emails that come my way if the studio publicist gets it in his or her head that I don’t like their movie, I laugh off. A “Please” in the embargo note is just a suggestion. I know you want all reviews of the movie to pour out at the same time. It never happens, and pretending that it does (aside from “Bad Moms Christmas”) is living in denial.

Seriously. Stop it.

People in my position have to take each movie/review/embargo on a case-by-case basis. I see it as “an embargo is either for everyone, or it’s for no one.” If there’s another review out there in the ether, by God I’m posting mine.

Publicists who cannot read a calendar and insist an embargo stay in force AFTER a movie has opened (in some markets, any markets) I ignore, maybe with a laugh.

Any outmoded model that hidebound studios stick to, that “the trades” get to post the first reviews, is bull. It’s not 1979 any more.

Fanboy sites getting first crack at this or that genre piece isn’t unheard of, but it’s a manipulation of the system, “band-wagoning” in propaganda terms. I don’t sit back and wait for some phantom date to pass in those cases. If I’m the first guy to pan a bad horror, sci-fi or comic book movie, I win.

Once a review of mine is posted, it stays posted — aggregated. That’s that. Not breaking the links.

Something that publicists with small studios don’t seem to appreciate is how there are a limited number of hours in the day, days in the week, etc., and that any movie somebody takes the time to watch, takes notes on and then review, is doing them a favor.

I review 600-700 films a year — limited release documentaries, Monterey Media, Gravitas Ventures, Fox Searchlight, IFC, Film Arcade, Shout! Factory, STX, Netflix, Amazon Studios, Cohen Media Group — I get to as many as I can. For those reviews to be worth my trouble, they have to enjoy a longer shelf life to generate any traffic at all. That means I post the review on my schedule, not theirs.

Every week is jammed with pictures to review, posting them all the same day or the same two days does neither the movie nor my website any favors. I spread them out, writing while it is fresh in my memory, posting it within a reasonable period approximating opening day.

Over the 35 years or so I’ve been reviewing, I get blowback on this from time to time, but that’s the way it is. You want me to spend my time on your movie that’s opening in 6 theaters and going on PPV a week later, I am posting as soon as I’m done seeing it. Grow up.

Most recognize that any early review is like priming the pump. If I see other reviews rattling in for a film, I take a look at who is in that movie and what it’s about. That helps motivate me to track down a screening or a screener and weigh in on it with a review. Other critics do the same. Reviews snowball for movies we see others reviewing. Every week, a few tiny releases get no reviews at all. That’s another favor I’m doing them  — the studio, the publicist for that studio — pointing out, “Hey, this one’s worth your trouble, too!”

The latest ruffled embargo feathers are over a movie that opened in limited release on Labor Day weekend, the worst movie-going weekend of the year. This summer’s ticket sales were so low that Labor Day promised to be exactly what it was — the lowest turnout of moviegoers in decades.

No studio that expects to make a dime out of a movie ever releases said movie on Labor Day. None.

The Film Arcade had a wan, listless Lake Bell not-so-near-miss they were pushing to get reviewed, got it to me early, and I reviewed it. Not a cruel takedown, as I’m a Lake Bell fan, just a pan. A simple, deserved pan. And I had to hear about it from a harassing publicist for a solid week (I posted an extra week or so out).

The stakes were low, a movie that was never going to make a dime, a review whose online traffic (practically zilch) reflected that. But scores of calls and emails suggested the world would end if “I Do…Until I Don’t” wasn’t reviewed until the very cusp of opening day. I don’t bend in these cases. And the world? It didn’t end.

Publicists “punish” critics by denying us access to their product, and fair is fair. Disney is probably the worst at that, but Universal, Sony and others have been known to pull that on people like me.

You don’t have to show me your wares pre-release. Many movies aren’t previewed at all  (Hellooooo “Bad Moms Christmas.”). I see a lot of movies in theaters with paying audiences opening night. This irked Film Arcade contract publicist also handles Bleecker St. films, and he figures denying access to their product suits his Film Arcade tantrum as well. Not sure how Bleecker Street feels about that. They’re going to need help selling “The Man Who Invented Christmas,” and cutting them off from my take is their loss, not mine. Take Mom to “Orient Express.”

But again, I don’t work for them or him, and if I have to see something of theirs opening day, that’s their right. Mastering the art of the perfect, cutting-to-the-chase Rottentomatoes blurb is mine. I don’t trash good movies, no matter how petty their publicists, but there’s nothing wrong with taking a special glee is nuking a dog they’ve tried to hide from the paying public or its critic-surrogates. And that perfect blurb? That’s how you “win” Rottentomatoes over opening weekend. I’m very good at that, Bleecker St.

Nobody hides a movie they’re proud of, and whatever you think of reviewers/critics, the vast majority of movies desperately need the attention, ANY attention, a small movie gets from us.

Why else is my in-box jammed with pitches every single day?

Why else would a director I know be emailing for suggestions as to how he could improve the aggregate score of his latest? Every little sliver of spotlight helps. He knows it, I know it, and Mr. Film Arcade/Bleecker St. should know it.

 

 

 

 

 

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One Response to Movie Reviewing, Studio Publicists and the Dreaded E-word — “Embargo”

  1. Mo says:

    Roger, thank you for such a masterful assessment on this “embargo” business and what it means to be a critic in today’s world. I probably don’t need to tell you this, but don’t let these things get you down. The quality (and quantity) of your reviews are greatly appreciated.

    While I’m glad you had a good vacation and took some time off, it’s certainly good to have you back!

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