Why so serious about review embargoes?

March 12, 2013

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Why would a movie studio try to stop critics from reviewing movies?

It’s called a review embargo – and it seems a little self-explanatory. But still, I’d like to take this opportunity to discuss a little movie-critic inside-baseball stuff. Perhaps we can get a larger discussion going.

For those of you not in the business, here’s the deal: Generally speaking, when critics see a film – no matter whether it is two weeks before it opens or six months – there’s an unspoken agreement with the film companies that we won’t publish or post reviews until the week the film opens. Granted, we will publish our thoughts about movies after seeing them at a festival – but that’s rarely a substitute for a full, considered review. More like taking the temperature of the festival itself.

Occasionally, however, a film company will send out screening notices with a specific embargo in force: You cannot post or publish your review until X date. It might be the week of opening, it might be two days before opening – it might be opening day itself.

Sometimes, they even ask you to sign a non-disclosure release to that effect. The understanding is clear: If you see this movie at this screening, you agree to the embargo. And they have your signature to prove it.

(Never mind that, on a movie where reviews are embargoed until the Wednesday before the Friday opening, there are favorable quotes from critics in the Sunday newspaper ads the weekend before. See “quote whore” in Wikipedia. Or check the coverage on Criticwatch.)

It’s all about controlling information – and bad word of mouth. This kind of embargo is almost never associated with a movie which is expected to be a critical hit.

Inevitably, however, there are critics who simply can’t or won’t wait, who feel compelled for whatever reason to be the first to issue their review. So they jump the embargo date and publish anyway.

Then it’s up to the film company to decide what to do with them. The punishment usually involves barring that critic from that company’s future press screenings.

But what about the rest of us, once the embargo has been broken? At what point is our agreement nullified by the fact that others have published first?

I usually let Rotten Tomatoes be my guide. Most critics either post or have their reviews posted to this aggregating site, which collects excerpts from reviews of each film as they hit the Internet.

RT only allows critics the choice of Fresh or Rotten as a film rating (which is another issue in itself, one I’ve addressed before and will come back to at another time). Once there are five reviews posted, then the film gets a score, based on the percentage of Fresh reviews it receives. If three of those five reviews are positive and two are negative, it will have a 60 percent – or “Fresh” rating (60 percent being the cut-off line between Fresh and Rotten; somehow, the equivalent of a D is good enough for the RT folks). If only two are positive, then it will have a 40 percent rating, or Rotten. The numbers change as the number of reviews expands.

When I’ve had this discussion with studios – after posting early because others had already posted – the studio publicists try to parse those reviews in different ways: Oh, that doesn’t count because it’s from a trade paper. Or that doesn’t count because it’s from international press.

But, given that it’s called the “world-wide” web, segregating trade or international publications has no meaning to the average reader looking at RT. All they see is that there are reviews and that they’re on Rotten Tomatoes.

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So my rule is this: I will honor an embargo – right up until a movie has enough reviews to have a score on Rotten Tomatoes. Then I conclude that the embargo has effectively been broken and the movie is fair game for reviewing.

Obviously, the studios feel otherwise. At a screening of the film “Olympus Has Fallen,” which opens March 22, which I was seeing early last weekend in order to do an interview with one of the stars for a freelance assignment, I had to sign an agreement that I would not post or publish a review prior to the embargo date, which was the Wednesday before its opening date.

That’s fine. But when I asked, “What if other people publish reviews before the embargo date?” the publicist seemed flummoxed. She finally said, “Then they’ll be in violation of the studio’s embargo.”

And? I asked. “Umm, that’s up to the studio,” came the reply.

Look, I understand the thinking; I just don’t agree with it, for a couple of reasons.

I understand why reviews should be held until the week of opening. If you publish earlier, you’re merely teasing the reader with a review of a film that won’t be available for more than a week; instead of providing a service to the reader, you’re simply showing off your early access. And to the studios, an early review that’s positive is worthless because it’s too early – and an early review that’s negative could poison the well for the later reviews.

But these other embargoes – the ones saying no reviews until two days before or the day before or the day of opening – that’s simply about protecting the product from critical reaction. Because, believe me, though they’ll never say it, every movie company knows when it’s got a stinker on its hands. But they still have to sell it as if they mean it.

Disney, for example, had a Wednesday embargo for the Friday release of “Oz the Great and Powerful,” which limped into the Fresh column with an exact 60 percent at last count. Most major publications had little good to say about the film. And if you said it early, well, kill the messenger who bears the bad news.

Embargoes of this sort usually are only required of major studio movies that are obvious dogs (and, these days, that’s most of them; again, a discussion for another day). The thinking is obvious: Let’s delay the critics’ negative reviews as long as possible. The longer we can forestall the slams, the less likely it is that the reviews will have an impact on that crucial opening-weekend box-office.

Why not simply skip the critics altogether? Some films do, offering no screenings for critics at all for certain films. But embargoes tend to focus on big-budget movies that are being widely advertised, for which the studios want as much publicity as possible. So they make the bargain: We’ll show you the movie so you can interview the star. But you can’t review the movie until it’s too late for your review to have an impact.

So that’s my take on it. I’m going to pursue this topic with publicists and other critics and perhaps revisit it at a future date.

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