Monday, December 5, 2011

The Embattled and the Embargoed

The latest awards season kerfuffle concerns New Yorker movie critic David Denby, who decided to publish his review of David Fincher's new version of "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" on December 5th, despite an embargo on reviews imposed by Sony Pictures, which insisted that no reviews be published before December 13th. The fact that the review is highly positive didn't keep "Dragon Tattoo" producer Scott Rudin from banning Denby from all future screenings of his films, or the studio from sending out dire warnings of doom and gloom to any film critic who would dare to follow Denby's lead. The critical community has erupted in debate, with some supporting Denby and decrying the current embargo system, while others are calling Denby's actions unprofessional and a breach of trust.

Now why are there embargoes on movie reviews? There are a lot of different answers to this. The most common one is that it's the price of early access. The studios provide early screenings to film reviewers, with the understanding that reviews will be published in a certain time frame, so they can be incorporated into release and marketing strategies. Positive reviews and critical support are especially important during the December and January awards push, pretty much the only time of year that the studios like to acknowledge the importance of the critical community at all. Smaller films like "Margaret" and "Tyrannosaur" have seen their profiles raised recently, thanks to support from individual critics, and "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" could use that kind of help to keep from being lost in the rush of late-December releases.

Critics benefit as well. Early screenings allow more time to write reviews, and a commonly cited reason for embargoes is that they are supposed to help to level the playing field so one critic or group of critics can't scoop everyone else. However, critics are an unpredictable lot and aren't in the habit of always writing the sort of reviews the marketing departments would like. So it's an odd sort of love-hate, symbiotic relationship that's developed between the critics and the studios over time. And as you might expect, sometimes things can get contentious.

The studios are under no obligation to provide early screenings, and have been steadily reducing them and adding more red tape and conditions to attend the remaining ones. Security restrictions have steadily been stepped up, with bans on everything from cel-phones to Twitter usage. Many studios don't screen films they know won't be well-received anymore, especially the horror and smaller genre pictures that good critical notices wouldn't help much anyway. For higher profile stinkers, where the lack of reviews might sound alarm bells, the embargo dates are often very close to the time of their actual release dates, to try and minimize the damage of bad reviews.

Generally the studios' tactics don't have much of an impact on publication dates for reviews anyway. Everyone tries to publish within a few days of film's release date, just because that's when the reviews will be the most relevant. Other reviewers have broken embargoes before, though usually only by a day or two, and haven't run into this kind of opposition. The New Yorker review presents a special case, both because Denby is very high profile in the New York critical community and because he's breaking the embargo date by a full week.

So why did David Denby publish so far in advance? "Dragon Tattoo" won't be released until December 21st. Well, according to Denby, it came down to publication constraints. The New Yorker magazine only devotes limited pages to film reviews, and in a crowded December, there were too many films and not enough space to review them. Denby published his "Dragon Tattoo" review alongside one for "The Adventures of Tintin," which will also open December 21st, because he wanted to save more room for other pictures. Better a slightly premature review in the New Yorker than none at all, right?

Well, Sony and Rudin, and a lot of Denby's fellow critics didn't see it that way. You can read some of the leaked E-mails between Denby and Rudin on Indiewire, over here. Anyway, reactions are coming in from all sides, fast and furious. Other critics who haven't had the chance to see the film yet feel they've been scooped. Some claim Denby's just doing this to drum up publicity. Some claim that Rudin is overreacting, and that he's trying to drum up publicity. Nobody seems to think this will hurt the film, but everyone is sure that somebody is at fault.

I don't know whose side I'm on. Denby breaking the embargo was a clear breach of decorum and established protocol. On the other hand, he lays out some pretty compelling reasons for doing so, and it's hard to see how a very positive review could possibly hurt "The Dragon Tattoo" simply by showing up online a few days early. Rudin being so hyperbolic makes him look bad, but he's not just worried about this film, but the ones in the future that might be seriously harmed if this instance of embargo-breaking sets protocol. Then again, does the studio-controlled system of embargoes make sense anymore, when all but a few films are "critic proof," and the ones that are actually courted for critical support all get squeezed into the last six weeks of the year?

I just don't know. But it sure is fun reading the debate. Stay tuned.

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