As Embargoes Go, So Go the Critics

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by Matt Singer
March 12, 2013 1:04 PM
11 Comments
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"Ratatouille."
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.

Read more of "Why So Serious About Review Embargoes?"

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11 Comments

  • David Poland | March 13, 2013 9:09 PMReply

    The only reason films show at film festivals (where there are rare attempts to embargo) is because they are hard to market, so chatter (mostly real world word of mouth) helps.

    There a multiple reasons for embargoes... which are later for most critics than for many of us in LA or NY who see things earlier than all-medias. One is that the studios genuinely want to have all the buzz they can on the day or two before release. Unless there is near unanimity to the positive, early chatter doesn't stick on opening weekend.

    Another reason is that critics can hurt a movie, more early than on the week of opening, when the marketing and features are hitting like a hurricane. If there is a strong negative vibe, it can attach to a movie.

    I have always felt that studios have the right to control review dates. But they need to be fair. Trade papers are no longer trade papers and should not be reviewing before anyone else. It serves no business purpose anymore and the "trades" are mainstreamed on the web, making their reviews as consumer oriented as any other review (sans Ebert and NYT).

    But journalists are not trusted anymore... and that is our own fault. Some of us - both print and online - can be counted on to break embargo. But studios also don't want to be in the business of banning people... especially those seen as more valuable.

    There are more "critics" than ever. (There are some who are happy to say that I am not a critic, though I have done more long-form criticism than most over the last 15 years. So it goes.) But it is not the studios' job to make our life happier or to indulge our impulses. They are selling very expensive movies.

    If a studio said, "Everyone reviews the Tuesday before opening" or the Wednesday or Thursday or Monday or even Friday of release and stuck to that and banned those who broke the rule and didn't adjust their review date for 10 different people, this would not have to be a conversation anymore. The studios are just as bad as those who break the rules (which includes the major trades, which jump embargo on big movies often).

    And that is really the thing. It's not a judgment of what the timing of reviews is. This is – to me – about professionalism on all sides. There is a lack of consistency and trust and trustworthiness… and it keeps the ground shifting. And that never allows anyone to feel the situation – whether you agree with how the studios make their strategic choices or not – is stable and safe on a professional level.

    In the end, we’re all just trying to do our jobs.

  • Colin Biggs | March 13, 2013 6:39 PMReply

    Great article, my only problem with embargoes is that they are not applied equally. Publications like Variety and Hollywood Reporter break them early and often.

  • Anne Thompson | March 13, 2013 1:38 PMReply

    I hate it that I can't review as soon as I've seen a movie. I do think the studios stifle conversation this way. Which is why I try to go to as many festivals as possible.

    Festivals are an open door that can never close. No publicist can enforce an embargo after a movie has played to other reviewers at a festival. That's ridiculous. And in an online world, when a movie opens overseas in London, say, and is reviewed by The Guardian et al., the rest of us are free to post as well.

    The trick is to know your rules when dealing with publicists. When is the trade embargo? I put TOH reviews up--considering that Indiewire is a trade--at the same time that the trades do, which is usually well ahead of the reviewer release embargo. That assumes we've seen the movie early enough, have a review at the ready, and know when that embargo is.

  • Anne Thompson | March 13, 2013 1:21 PMReply

    I hate it that I can't review as soon as I've seen a movie. I do think the studios stifle conversation this way. Which is why I try to go to as many festivals as possible.

    Festivals are an open door that can never close. No publicist can enforce an embargo after a movie has played to other reviewers at a festival. That's ridiculous. And in an online world, when a movie opens overseas in London, say, and is reviewed by The Guardian et al., the rest of us are free to post as well.

    The trick is to know your rules when dealing with publicists. When is the trade embargo? I put TOH reviews up--considering that Indiewire is a trade--at the same time that the trades do, which is usually well ahead of the reviewer release embargo. That assumes we've seen the movie early enough, have a review at the ready, and know when that embargo is.

  • Joey Magidson | March 13, 2013 3:57 AMReply

    Considering I accidentally broke an embargo yesterday without realizing (I only found out when I was asked to hold off on talking about the film for a few days), this certainly is something that I think about on an almost daily basis. Well said as always Matt.

  • john lichman | March 12, 2013 2:23 PMReply

    speaking of sxsw, remember the great "work print" screening of BRIDESMAIDS in 2011? No one was allowed the film, but publicity used every critic/trade reporter that tweeted about it for the posters, trailers and blurbs. Yet reviews were bared until day of release on may 13th.

  • john lichman | March 12, 2013 2:24 PM

    *no one was allowed to review the film...

    alas.

  • Vadim Rizov | March 12, 2013 2:03 PMReply

    Matt, as always, I appreciate your being thoughtful and coming out the other side of a topic that normally brings out instant heat and agitation. I'd like to add one more thing to this: embargoes aren't just unequal for quote-whores vs. other reviewers or tiered according to publication, but also applied on an arbitrary, regional basis. E.g.: tonight there's an embargo on THE INCREDIBLE BURT WONDERSTONE (oh noooooo etc.) for critics seeing it in NYC or LA, including Twitter etc., a movie which already played, to the non-embargoed public, at SXSW. I've heard much talk of critics in Boston or other cities lower down on the platform-release scale being embargoed from any Tweeting reviews etc. of movies that have already been hitting up the festival circuit or major cities and been reviewed weeks or months ago.

    At a certain point, I think it's fair to say that many publicists, especially those working for major studios, think of publicity as a negative activity, one more concerned with restricting rather than enabling access, leading to petty, arbitrary and frankly stupid embargo decisions like that. Doing this work is already tough enough; dealing with an extra layer of arbitrary bureaucracy, in which it's often clear that conflicting decisions are being made on multiple tiers, is totally unnecessary.

    And yes I know it's a privilege, get a real job, etc. etc. Just saying.

  • embargoat | March 12, 2013 2:00 PMReply

    heh heh hAAA. he he he. he he he he. meh he he he. he.

  • Scott Mendelson | March 12, 2013 1:54 PMReply

    If studios want to have embargoes until relatively late in the game, fine. Two caveats. First of all, make it the same for every publication, with no special exceptions for the trades or certain high-profile and/or geek-friendly critics. But then also make an effort to screen said movie earlier for most (all?) of the critics, not just the select few or geek-friendly bloggers/critics. When you have an All Media that's on Tuesday or Wednesday night, then you're in just as much of a rush to get your review up as if there were no embargo at all. My favorite part of seeing a big studio release somewhat early (and some studios are nicer to me than others about this) isn't just seeing it earlier than I'm used to but also not feeling the compulsive desire to rush out those 800 words as quickly as I can. That's arguably as much my problem as "the system" (those who like my work will read a review from two weeks out or Saturday morning and the same goes for them on my end), but it is a token annoyance. An embargo that applied to everyone equally *and* longer lead screenings for all movies would indeed improve the majority of film criticism, for what it's worth.

  • Arch | March 12, 2013 1:40 PMReply

    Clearly you're good as the Devil's advocate in the last paragraph. I'd say you have a point.
    Then again, thinking about SXSW there will always be alternatives to advance screenings I guess. Not for every movie though.

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