MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

Marketing consultants add their 2 cents to debate on critics, and that's exactly what it's worth

April 19, 2006
Just stumbled upon an article in the corner of reserved for “Unsolicited Advice,” under the headline “Freezing Out the Critics.” It was written by Marc E. Babej and Tim Pollak, who, we’re told, are partners at Reason Inc., a “marketing-strategy consulting firm that works with clients in a range of categories, including media and entertainment.”
Please read their column,, and answer for me this question:
Based on what you just read, who in their right mind would pay these guys anything more than the cover price of a Forbes magazine for their opinion on anything to do with Hollywood, let alone movie critics? If this is what Reason’s clients get for their investment, well … let’s say … they might as well have spent it on popcorn and a Coke.
For those who passed over the link to Unsolicited Advice, I’ve broken out the salient points:
• Studios finally have tumbled to the idea that by refusing to screen certain movies to critics, they can avoid the negative reviews that could put a crimp in weekend box-office;
• The majority of the movies left unscreened are those in genres – horror and sci-fi, specifically – that critics are “prone to disdain”;
• Because critics are, thus, forced to attend these films for purposes of review with non-professionals, “not only do they have to forgo the ego boost of VIP treatment … but now they also have to rush to regular old premieres, sitting next to the hoi polloi (read: you and me)”;
• That this “tactic of skipping advance screenings is taking hold now because the dynamics of movie marketing and pre-release publicity have changed. Like other professional arbiters of taste, movie reviewers just don’t matter quite as much as they used to”;
• The “ultimate upside for studios … remains that some people will see bad movies no matter what: ‘Benchwarmers’ – one of the ‘unscreened 11’ [of 2006] – got only 11% on Rotten Tomatoes’ aggregate index. Even so, it came in second on its opening weekend, pulling in a respectable $19.7 million.”
Arriving so soon after the discredited Duke University study on movie critics — and how their consensus opinions might be exploited by Hollywood and Madison Avenue marketeers – the column should remind us once again of the cluelessness of those considered to be experts. This is especially true of those academics and consultants whose knowledge of the motion-picture industry, critics and audiences derives from watching the Academy Awards ceremony and occasionally reading the Friday edition of the New York Times.
Fact is, the practice of not screening films perceived to be turkeys is hardly new. For all I know, it’s been going on for the entire 100 years of the cinematic experience. It certainly has been occurring for all of the 35 years that I’ve been writing about movies, reviewing them and, briefly, working as a publicist for a large Midwestern theater chain. If it seems as if more films are going out non-screened, it’s likely that more turkeys are being allowed to escape the coops of Hollywood, prior to a quick turn-around into DVD (a theatrical run, however brief, somehow adds a layer of sheen to even the dullest of titles). Then, too, the screening and junketing process has become so expensive that it’s to the benefit of shareholders that the budget item be excised.
Typically, a sharp marketing department can get all the mileage it desires from other compliant media outlets. For example, “Benchwarmers” was an unavoidable presence on ESPN on the opening week of the baseball season, and not just in commercials. Its stars also were able to plug the film ceaselessly on such cable shows as “The Showbiz Show With David Spade.” Celebrity-obsessed magazines and shows like “Entertainment Tonight” also offer free publicity to movies, whether they’re worth it or not.
Some critics do cop an elitist stance, and enjoy being the belles of any ball. Most, however, are working-stiff reporters who were handed the gig when they demonstrated an ability to turn a phrase and hit a pre-print deadline. Because there are few private screening rooms in flyover country, most also are forced to see the films at special radio-promotion screenings – with the hoi-polloi (a.k.a., their friends and neighbors) – or are required to drive a hundred miles to the nearest big city. Not being forced to travel that distance for the sole purpose of getting a head start on “Benchwarmers” is a blessing in disguise.
“Benchwarmers” almost certainly would have drawn the same box-office numbers if it actually had been screened by critics. No doubt, many of the 11 non-screened titles were considered “critic-proof,” as well.
In the case of entitlement, very few critics believe that studios are required to screen movies ahead of their release. It’s a convenient tradition, but, as we’ve seen lately, so was the 1st Amendment. Movies considered worthy of awards consideration should be screened, if only for strategic reasons and common courtesy. Typically, the task of reviewing bombs is reserved for third-stringers and wire hacks.
Indeed, if anything, too many movies are given serious attention and valuable space in newspapers, today. On a busy weekend, reviews of important movies will be squeezed, so that sub-standard genre fare is accorded space it doesn’t deserve (and young readers won’t see, because they don’t read newspapers anymore). What percentage of worthy books and interesting cable TV shows are reviewed? If niche titles are screened ahead of time for niche audiences, and those viewers head directly for AICN and other niche sites to dis or coo, who, in the end really cares?
Although some sites do shill for certain studios and producers, their readers can smell a turd every bit as easily as any critic for the New Yorker. On the other hand, many of the established masters of genre cinema were embraced by critics before niche audiences even knew their names. One need only look back at “Night of the Living Dead” and “Alien” as examples.
There’s no question that critical opinion has become less important to box-office over the last three decades … but only when it comes to mainstream products (and that’s what most Hollywood movies have become). Distributors of indie, foreign and documentary fare remain almost entirely dependent on good reviews to draw people to arthouses. Few newspapers or pop magazines run feature stories on the actors, themes and directors addressed in arthouse movies, preferring puffball interviews with such over-exposed artists as Sharon Stone, Harrison Ford and even Lindsay Lohan (which, again, go unread by people under 25).
“Brokeback Mountain,” “Capote,” “Good Night, and Good Luck,” “Munich” and “Crash” all were brought to the attention of ticket-buyers by critics and essayists, not the junket press or studio marketing campaigns. Hell, from all the evidence available in television ads for “Brokeback Mountain,” even for the DVD edition, few would guess that its romantic angle was anything but heterosexual. Only a couple of the Best Picture nominees could be said to have done well in their initial theatrical runs, but all should kill in DVD.
Ballej and Pollak also forward this absurd theory: “Inevitably, the New York Times or Chicago Tribune reviewers are taken off their perch when their sound bites [sic] appear next to Movie Mom at Yahoo! Movies,, or (our favorite) Hollywood Bitchslap. Even worse, their opinions are devalued when they become just one datapoint in an average score.”
Even the studios don’t buy that line of thinking. Junkets of mediocre products and star vehicles are conducted to coerce positive early press – and just these kinds of blurbs – from newspapers willing to allow their reporters to attend such gang-bangs. For the most part, screenings are held within hours of an interview, thus precluding the journalists (and I use the term very broadly here) from backing out. Those who rely on these affairs for access do so because it’s one of the only sure ways to do pieces they can freelance to celebrity-obsessed editors.
The term “junket whore” or “blurb whore” has come to be associated with writers who would – and have – allowed their names to be attached to the most untenable of complimentary quotes (occasionally supplied by a publicist). This assures them of continued access and more invitations to wallow in the troughs of celebrity muck.
Contrary to what these columnists believe, no studio as ever chosen a blurb from a professional junketeer over one from an established critic – or thumb from Roger, Gene and Richard – at any newspaper. Typically, the blurbs seen on the ads that run on the Sunday before a movie opens are those of junketeers; by Friday, they will have been replaced by those quotes, if any, of legitimate critics. Readers picked up on this ruse years ago, and the studios continue the practice because they’re afraid not to do it.
The same is true for the aggregate scores on Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic sites. Only an idiot – or columnist for a mainstream periodical – would fail to notice that critics who carry weight in the real world are the same ones that carry weight on compilation sites. And, in any case, amateurs don’t frequent Metacritic any more than they do the New Republic.
If anyone is to blame for the diminishment of prestige accorded mainstream reviewers – as opposed to the respect still reserved for the handful of true critics left in the business – it has more to do with newspaper and magazine brass than Internet pirates. Today, editors take their responsibility to the public discourse far less seriously than readers possibly could imagine:
• When feature editors demand that their critics also interview the celebs whose products they are also required to grade, the readers are left to separate the puff from the punditry … and, typically, they no longer expend the effort.
• Newspapers that insist on using a star-system as shorthand for a movie’s value, have, in fact, given their subscribers an excuse for not reading the text.
• When knowledgeable critics are replaced by “younger voices,” with little or no background in film history or theory, it diminishes the value of all criticism.
The studios have had no role in forwarding this trend, except to have their ad sellers bitch incessantly to their newspaper counterparts about critics they deem overly negative. At a time when studios are cutting back on their newspaper buys, these opinions are given much more weight than in previous years. (This also explains why the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and newsweeklies recently choose to expend an obscene amount of manpower, energy and money into covering the Oscars and Globes.)
Or, one could take the easiest route possible, simply by blaming everything on Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel, who opened up a Pandora’s Box with “At the Movies.” Many film snobs have argued that its success gave mainstream audiences – or the hoi-polloi, if you so choose — every opportunity to never again read another newspaper or magazine. And, of course, neither gentleman ever recommended any such thing.
Upscale and learned audiences, young and old, continue to read as many reviews of important movies as they can get their hands on, though. For them, the aggregate sites have become indispensable tools.
It took the Pulitzer board almost 30 years to award any writer, other than Roger, its prestigious award for criticism, even if there were several deserving candidates. So, blame the board, too.
Giving the studios credit for diminishing the importance of criticism – at a time when newspapers have become their own worst enemies — may pass muster in Forbes. In the wild and wooly blogosphere, however, that kind of lightweight thinking just won’t cut it. – G.D.

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So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

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“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

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