Almost every review I send my editor at ScreenCrush includes the exact same line at the top of the email: "Embargo for this one is Wednesday at midnight." If I forget to include that information, I always get a quick response back: "What's the embargo on this?" Everything about our coverage is determined by them.
It's a fact of life for film critics these days: if you review mainstream movies, then you have to contend with embargoes. Nearly every major release from the studios comes with one -- the date and time when reviews are allowed to be published. Early publication is considered a "breach" of the embargo, and can come with harsh penalties: namely, a ban from future press screenings held by that distributor. If you want access to Hollywood movies you have to play the game, and embargoes are that game's most important rules.
In a piece on the Huffington Post and his own website, Marshall Fine breaks down the world of studio embargoes and explores, in lengthy and inside baseball-y detail, how they work and how they are, in his eyes, stifling critical discussion:
"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."
These embargoes are about control: ensuring that good reviews hit when they can do the most good for a movie's box office and trying to manage bad reviews so that they do the least harm. In our recent interview, critic Laremy Legel put this whole issue in perspective for me. He noted that your average moviegoer puts a huge amount of stock in a movie's Rotten Tomatoes rating -- without necessarily looking at any of the reviews that back that number up. Joe Averagemoviegoer (which, coincidentally, was my high school physics teacher's name) wants to see something on Friday night, so he goes to Rotten Tomatoes, finds what has the highest score, and buys his tickets accordingly, without checking to see whether, say, "Oz: The Great and Powerful"'s 61% rating is out of 10 reviews or 100. It's a studio marketer's job, then, to keep that Rotten Tomatoes number as high as possible for as long as possible. Even if that means doing it artificially.
Is it good for critical discussion? In a lot of ways, no. But it's worth remembering that access to advance screenings is an honor and a privilege, not a right and an entitlement. If you want that early access so you can interview a movie star for a freelance assignment, you have to abide by the rules (the ethics of reviewing a movie and also interviewing its creators is another can of worms we'll have to open at a later date).
Modern online criticism, like modern online everything, is about traffic, and generally speaking the earlier you publish your review, the more traffic you're going to get. And in a world where traffic equals dollars, it's certainly important that film critics get paid. If I can play Devil's advocate for a second, though, I can see at least one way in which embargoes might actually raise the level of critical discussion.
The rush to be first doesn't allow a lot of time for introspection or serious consideration. If all you care about is getting your opinion out there and attracting some eyeballs, you can write a review in thirty minutes and have it online in an hour. But writing something truly thoughtful and intelligent takes times. That's where embargoes can be beneficial to critics, giving them a few more days to fully develop their critique. As a result, the very thing designed to marginalize critics can actually be a boon to their writing. If you want to be first, they're certainly a problem. If you want to be the best, not so much.
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