The difference between film critics and film pirates

November 11, 2011

I recently (and publicly) said that I wouldn’t be attending next week’s all-media premiere of “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1” – or reviewing the film. This was triggered by receiving a screening notice for the sole pre-release showing of the film, alerting recipients to the fact that anyone who wanted to enter the all-media premiere had to surrender his cell phone to be allowed in.

What I said in the e-mail I sent was: “As a critic who takes pride in his professionalism, I object to the forced surrender of my telephone or any other device at a screening to which I have been invited in a professional capacity. I therefore will not be attending this screening or reviewing this film.”

That’s less a courageous stand than a luxury; while I write movie reviews for a weekly magazine on a freelance basis, this screening was too late for that publication’s deadline, coming as it does only two days before the film is released. So if I’d reviewed it, it would have been for my own website – because I wanted to, not because I needed to. And, if it had been in time for my deadline, I would have had to swallow hard and deal with it (or, more likely, hide the phone somewhere in my briefcase before I got there, which has worked in the past).

The studio in this case was Summit Entertainment, which normally doesn’t force this kind of treatment on critics. But this is an issue I’ve been stewing about for a while, because there is one studio that regularly refuses to accommodate the working press at all-media screenings.

That studio is Twentieth Century-Fox, which generally refuses to screen its major releases for critics in any other venue than an all-media screening – and then demands the surrender of all electronics at the door, whether you’re there as a professional or just as a member of the public who happened to get a free ticket to a screening.

As a three-time chairman of the New York Film Critics Circle and a professional, I resent both the implication and the practice, as a time-wasting insult to working members of the press.

I understand the practice of all-media screenings, at which the press is compelled to review a film while watching with a so-called “real” audience, as opposed to a press screening to which the public is not invited. All-medias are part of the publicity/marketing playbook; apparently, conventional wisdom has it that, no matter how good or bad a film may be, watching it with an enthusiastic audience (free tickets tend to lower the bar for people who don’t watch movies for a living) will somehow convince the critic that he’s seeing something better than he is. Trust me – it doesn’t.

I also understand that the studios regard piracy as a serious threat. But I have yet to be shown any evidence that a working critic has ever engaged in the practice of pirating a film he is reviewing by filming it with his cell-phone camera – or any camera.

Indeed, an Internet search of the words “critic” and “movie piracy” turned up only one story, about a guy in Boston – and he was caught selling advance screening DVDs on eBay. The only other similar case I recall involved a character actor named Carmine Caridi, who gave his Academy screeners to a guy who then pirated them. Caridi was kicked out of the Academy as a result.

So this is a control issue, one which all of the other studios except Fox (and, in the “Twilight” case, Summit) have figured out how to handle. At other studios’ all-media screenings, there’s generally a publicist at a check-in table for the press, who hands out special tickets identifying the bearer as a working journalist, exempt from having his cell phone bagged and tagged to be retrieved in the crush of departing filmgoers after the screening.

Fox, however, has chosen to ignore this practice.

Never mind that, two days after the all-media screening, when the movie opens, there’s no one guarding the doors of the world’s multiplexes, confiscating cell phones (or video cameras, for that matter). Never mind that the bulk of the films pirated and streamed on the Internet are either copied from preview-screener DVDs or, worse, duped in labs in the studios’ own facilities.

I’m not asking for special dispensation for myself. I’m asking for Fox to recognize just how ridiculous its stand is – particularly when its December lineup consists of “The Sitter” and yet another “Chipmunks” movie (along with Cameron Crowe’s “We Bought a Zoo”).

I won’t go so far as to say that having a hostile encounter over surrendering personal property to strangers for arbitrary reasons actually has an impact on the reviews that critics write of that movie. At least not out loud. Draw your own conclusions.

We’re there to do a job, not to steal your freakin’ movie. Lighten up, Fox.

Print This Post Print This Post