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Criticwire Survey: Spoiler Alert

Should critics avoid divulging plot details, or is the audience responsible for keeping up with things they don't want spoiled?
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Game of Thrones

Every week, the Criticwire Survey asks film and TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday morning. (The answer to the second, "What is the best film in theaters right now?" can be found at the end of this post.) Send suggestions for future questions to sam at indiewire dot com.

Q: Advance copies of Sunday's "Mad Men" season premiere were accompanied by a request from creator Matthew Weiner that critics not several details about the episode, including the year in which it was set. On the same night, HBO aired a pivotal episode of Game of Thrones, whose advance episodes were sent with a request that critics not only avoid spoiling details but refrain from hinting which episodes might be "a big one." (Last night's was a big one.) Where do you stand on the issue of spoilers, and how does it differ in writing about TV, where everyone get a crack at an episode at about the same time, and movies, which sometimes open in different parts of the country weeks or even months apart?

Tim Grierson, Screen International, Paste

I can't speak for television reviewing, but my attitude toward spoilers in film reviews is, "What would I not want to know going into a movie I'm about to see?" And I personally don't like having much revealed: This is why I ignore trailers/commercials and never read press notes before a screening. (I learned my lesson the hard way with that last one while attending a "Seven" screening and glancing at the notes, which read, "We ask that you do not reveal in your review that Kevin Spacey is the killer." Almost 20 years later, I'm still mad about that.)

While writing a review, I assume that a reader will look at it before he or she goes to the film, and so I don't want to give away anything beyond what would be considered the end of the first act. I know that other critics go further into the story in terms of what they reveal but, depending on the situation, I'd rather spend my word count delving into how a movie works in terms of emotion, execution, etc. rather than focusing on the nuts-and-bolts of the plot. (If a movie deserves deeper examination after it comes out and people have had a chance to see it, then I'm all for dissecting plot points and spoilers at that time.) And, honestly, I like the challenge of talking about a movie without revealing things that are better left experienced in the theater. (This is especially true with comedies: Reviews that give away jokes drive me crazy, especially in our age when too many gags are already ruined by trailers and commercials.)

Avoiding spoilers can seem limiting, but I think that there's also something fun about it. If there's a movie I particularly like, I don't mind near the end of a review dropping a hint about where the story goes. I keep this hint utterly opaque in case you haven't yet seen the film, but once you have and go back to the review, it'll make sense as part of my overall assessment. I remain skeptical about how much power reviews have in swaying people to see movies, but if I can pique a reader's interest with a coy tease, then maybe I've helped a little. (I always prefer a reader to say, "Now I'm really curious to see that movie" than "Gee, now I feel like I've seen the movie already.")

Robert Lloyd, Los Angeles Times

I can't speak to film, but I have been at this game, the TV critic thing, since before spoilers became an issue -- since before "The Sopranos" made serial drama (and to some extent, comedy) standard, both on cable and broadcast network. The pressure not to reveal any kind of telling detail or plot point came first from below, that is, from the people, and only lately from above, that is, from Matthew Weiner. (Not coincidentally, I'd say, as the temptation has grown to be first with the news of some major story development, or even a picture from the set.)

As there is a customer-service element especially to writing for a daily paper, I've always felt rather indulgent toward anti-spoilerism. It's true that anyone who reads a review should be prepared to know something more than Did I Like It,  but it's true as well that there's an element of partnership between writer, reader and creator that isn't hard to at least partially honor. We can all get along here. From a consumer standpoint it's most fun to know nothing at all in advance (I've regretted reading flap copy on a book jacket), though good work will stand up to foreknowledge, and it's possible, inside the moment, to forget what you know. (And yet I might have been even more tense watching Josh Charles' final episode of "The Good Wife," whose outcome I'd stumbled over on Twitter before seeing the episode: There is so much to watch now, here in the Vast Wonderland, that I'll often see something not in advance of the public, but after it.)

But as one who tends not to recap plot points anyway -- in the space you get nowadays writing for print, you have to choose between the ideas, the jokes and retelling the story -- avoiding spoilers has seemed to me more a minor annoyance than a real restriction. (It may just be that I am less good at recounting narrative, I'll admit.) At times, as with Weiner's overly cautious caveats, it's also amusing/bemusing, and his nervousness is so exceptional -- and it is, so far, exceptional -- as to necessarily become a part of the review itself; it also demonstrates that "major plot point" is a highly subjective term. It's pointless if not impossible to scale your writing to the most most spoiler-averse readers or producers -- you do have to substantiate your points, if you have them -- and we all set our own, basically inarguable limits. (It's up to the reader, too, to know which writers are liable to tell him more than he wants to know.) For my part, it's a game that for the moment isn't difficult to play. Faced with an army of Weiners, however, I might well join a revolution.

Alyssa Rosenberg, Washington Post

One of the great advantages of writing for publication after most readers will have at least had the opportunity to see the episodes and movies I'm writing about is that I tend not to worry about which details to leave out and which to include. The whole point of most of my writing is to dig into those details, rather than to get folks excited into the runup to consuming them. That said, I try to be clear in labeling. I don't tend to use the word "spoiler," because it implies a value judgement -- I often think you can enjoy a piece of art just as well knowing how it ends as not -- but at the top of posts, I'll explain what I'm discussing. After that, it's up to you to decide if you want to read or not.

Keith Phipps, the Dissolve

When I write about television -- which I don't do much these days -- it's usually a review of an episode and I assume that everyone reading has already watched the episode and wants to unpack it. When I review new movies I assume I'm writing for someone who has not seen the movie wants a sense of what it's about and its salient qualities but would prefer not to know what happens beyond the basic premise. When in doubt, I err on the side of restraint and obliqueness when referencing plot developments after a certain point, which isn't always easy. My usual rule of thumb is anything in the first quarter of the film is fair game, but exceptions abound. To use the most recent review I wrote, "Oculus," I referred to something as a "traumatic incident" even though it's depicted in the opening scene. That's because the film keeps returning to and altering the incident and if I were seeing the film cold, I wouldn't necessarily want to know that. That said, taking it off the table means I have to use fairly obscure language for the rest of the review. But, hey, we have these jobs because we know how to write, right? It's part of the challenge.

Eric Kohn, Indiewire

Historically speaking, the concept of a spoiler seems to date back to Hitchcock's insistence that latecomers were barred from entry to screenings of "Psycho." Presumably he wouldn't have made quite as big of a fuss about "Rope." So context is everything: If a surprise is blatantly wired into the mechanics of a movie, there's no real value in revealing it. But you can't possibly discuss a movie without referring to its contents. If something that's construed as a mild spoiler slips in there, well, you'll survive. But clearly viewers have a fundamentally different relationship with episodic storytelling on TV, which makes perfect sense -- the story is in motion, so revealing details before one sees the latest installment is akin to sitting in a movie theater during the first act of a movie and announcing developments in act two to the rest of the room. Probably best to wait until they've caught up with you.

Farran Smith Nehme, Self-Styled Siren, the New York Post

My reviews for the New York Post are mostly briefs. It isn't a burden for me to write those without giving away a twist. At my blog, where I write mostly about movies that were released 50 to 100 years ago, I often insert a warning when I'm revealing a major turn in the plot, if it's a film many people haven't seen. Some spoiler fanatics will have a tantrum if you reveal so much as the color of the font in the credits, so I didn't adopt this policy because I worry about them. Nor is it based on a philosophy of criticism or anything else. It's my way of being polite, that's all. The spoiler wars flare up from time to time, but I've never had much more to say than that. As for TV, I'm not sure I understand the dispute. Seems that Matthew Weiner wants to give people the chance to savor the last few episodes of "Mad Men" without the inescapable drumbeat of Twitter-hints and the like. I'm not a TV critic and I don't watch "Mad Men," but what's wrong with that? 

Richard Brody, the New Yorker

You can't spoil a... Wait, wrong survey. If the way that the surprise is realized isn't better than the surprise itself, the movie or the episode is hardly worthwhile; the greatness of this cartoon is in that hidden notion: if the ending really mattered, Lucy wouldn't have bothered watching "Citizen Kane" ten times. On the other hand, there is something special about the first time, and, even the morning after a national episode-orgy, I assume that plenty of readers will be catching up with a show later in the week; I don't write about TV series often, but, when I do, it's always as I do with movies -- trying to say enough about any surprises to be clear about what makes them important but not so much as to give them away. Allusiveness doesn't just hold for surprises; it gets to the very nature of criticism, which isn't a matter of analysis but of evocation, of getting to an experience and rendering its most intimate and subjective implications readily and publicly and objectively visible. (That's how I feel this morning, at least.) Since the twists and turns of a plot, the pushing and pulling of expectations, are inextricably part of that experience, I'm as likely to avoid apparent spoilers with movies that have been around for seventy years and that lots of readers may have seen -- and not just with big endings, but with enticing details all the way through; if there's any marvel to the mystery, it's better to suggest it than to show it openly; sexier, too.

Peanuts

Alissa Wilkinson, Christianity Today

If I'm reading a TV recap, of course, I've been fairly warned. That's the point. And TV moves along at a much faster clip than movie franchises -- new releases every week -- so the expiration date on spoilers is very tight. When it comes to television, to me, spoilers are fine, even in think pieces, as long as they're necessary for the point that's being made. 

But I think Matt Weiner has a right to ask critics to hold their fire till 11 p.m. Sunday night. Critics have a right to disregard him, too. In my view, TV spoilers are best held for after the episode has aired (or after the thing has happened on the episode and we all herd onto Twitter to freak out). But nobody has some kind of "right" to get on Twitter on Thursday night and not get spoiled about" Scandal," and it seems odd to me that we think we do. (I also got very frustrated at people who read articles on "House of Cards" two weeks after the season released and were made at those who talked about the Big Thing That Happened in the first episode.) 

When it comes to movies, though, I think it's all about the date of publication of the piece and the readership. About half of my readers seem to read reviews in order to decide if they should see the movie in the theater, rather than sort out their feelings afterward, and most of my readers also don't live in New York or Los Angeles, so I have to be extra cognizant of rollout dates nationwide. Sometimes I strip spoilers out of my writers' reviews if it seems like their point can be made just as well by merely gesturing at a plot point, rather than actually giving it away. If I edited coverage at a publication read largely by film lovers or NY/LA folks, I think I'd see it differently. I don't think it ever hurts to put a HERE BE SPOILERS at the top of an article, though. Be nice. I'd hate to ruin someone's fun by accident.

That said, as a reader/watcher, I actually kind of love spoilers. I read recaps of whole seasons of TV before I watch the show. It helps me concentrate on things other than plot, like what's going on in the background and how silly the dialogue is, and I like that. The point of television and movies includes but does not only include the visceral shock one gets when something crazy happens, and maybe spoilers help us be better watchers the first time around. Basically, I'm an unsatisfactory nerd.

Alan Zilberman, Brightest Young Things, Tiny Mix Tapes

When I'm reviewing a film, I generally describe the plot insofar that I can mention all the major characters and their relationships to another (unless the character relationship is a spoiler and of itself (e.g. Vader and Luke). It's an easy way to hash out the blueprint of the plot while still remaining appropriately vague later in my review. When it comes to TV, I think critics should avoid big episode reveals on social media for maybe a day, then use discretion. For both TV and film, the overarching rule is always, "Don't be a dick." No one should spoil anything out of pure malice.

Danny Bowes, RogerEbert.com

Both cited examples are a bit singular within the larger discussion about spoilers, because if it were up to Matthew Weiner, episode descriptions would be "On this episode, there might be characters saying dialogue; no, I won't confirm that that's definitively Jon Hamm," and "Game of Thrones" is based on pre-existing books, so anyone with the remotest familiarity with the "Song of Ice and Fire" series knew exactly who ate it last night months if not years in advance, and that's why we were Gchatting each other since last season's finale in excitement. These distinctions aside, speaking more broadly about spoilers in general, I think the burden of responsibility falls more on viewers themselves than on critics with TV. For one example, on "Breaking Bad" (which I hope is long enough ago for this following spoiler to not piss anyone off) when Mike got killed, a guy I know who isn't a critic or anything, just a normal civilian with a couple thousand followers tweeted: "RIP Mike" at the exact moment he died on the show. I was a bit behind at that point (in fact, I hadn't even gotten up to Mike's introduction yet), so I quietly reached out to the guy and asked could he maybe not with the ejaculatory spoilers? I bring this up because that's how TV gets spoiled. TV critics know better, and a spoiler alert at the top of a review for something like a major character getting killed completely absolves the critic of any responsibility. Movies are a whole different thing, precisely because critics can see a movie months, and maybe even years, before civilians can. All in all, it would probably better overall if we kept our "OHHH SHIT!!!" reactions off Twitter and in the room we're watching in (though in a movie theater, maybe even keep that bottled until you get to the lobby).

Adam BattyHope Lies at 24 Frames Per Second

I'm pretty liberal on the whole subject of spoilers, and would even go as far as to say that overzealous spoilerphobes distract from the discourse far more than any spoiler ever has. Jonathan Rosenbaum nailed the subject with his In Defense of Spoilers blog post, the go-to text for the counter-movement. "The whole concept of spoilers" writes Rosenbaum, "invariably privileges plot over style and form, assumes that everybody in the public thinks that way, and implies that people shouldn't think any differently". That plot registers fairly low on my own list of priorities when it comes to cinema means that I share in his ultimate thesis.

I don't write often about television, but was interviewed on the subject by a national newspaper as a part of the fallout of an incident in which that publication ran an illustrated discussion of the infamous "Red Wedding" episode of "Game of Thrones" the day after it aired in the U.K. My rules remain now as they did then: if a show has aired in one's native land then the onus is on the viewer to avoid anything that may potentially ruin their eventual experience. Seeing folk whining on Twitter over having encountered a spoiler for a show that is airing live (that they're not watching) is a major pet peeve of mine, and comes across as incredibly entitled. As a general rule of thumb I've always used the home video release date of a film as a marker for when it should be safe to discuss specific plot points in regular conversation or on social media, but don't actually engage in any kind of active avoidance at any point on my own website. 

Neil Young. Hollywood Reporter; Tribune.

Spoilers are bunk. Any decent writer should be able to imply crucial third-act (or second-act) developments in as many words without unduly nailing spoileristic specificity. The ratio between actual spoilers (X dies out-of-the-blue; a shocking twist reveals that Y was in fact Z) and non-spoiler "spoilers" (vaguely important plot detail) seems to grow unhealthily larger every year, resulting in increasing -- and unambiguously deleterious -- pussyfooting on the part of critics, and thus a slight but regrettable diminution of general journalistic standards. So it goes.

Peter Keough, Boston Globe, Critics a Go-Go

I avoid giving away plot points that might detract from a first viewing of a film. But I think the spoiler proviso, whether demanded by studios or fans, detracts not just from thoughtful reviews but also intelligent viewing. It disregards the fact that a good film is one that improves with multiple viewings and not one that delivers a one shot pay-off and little more.

Mike McGranaghan, The Aisle Seat, Film Racket

From a professional standpoint, my rule is don't divulge anything in a review that a reader couldn't ascertain from the film's trailer. On those rare occasions when I feel like I can't properly explain my like/dislike of a film without dropping a spoiler, I give fair warning beforehand. This approach just feels respectful to my readers. Every once in a while, a PR rep asks me not to divulge something about a movie, and in those instances, I make sure to respect the request.

From a personal standpoint, I don't have movies spoiled for me often, because I see many of them before the general public does. It's TV where spoilers have been a problem. As a film critic, my schedule often requires me to screen a movie or write a review at night. I can't always be in front of my TV to watch a show live. My job also requires me to spend a certain amount of time on social media, where spoilers for TV shows are abundant. I've found a very effective way of eliminating the spoiler problem: I simply don't watch shows that could easily be spoiled. "Game of Thrones," "Breaking Bad," "Homeland"- - all shows I would probably like, yet I've never watched a single episode of any of them. Honestly, I don't even feel like I need to. Thanks to people incessantly commenting about them in real time on Twitter and Facebook, I already know how "Breaking Bad" ends and what most of the events that took place on the show were. I know all about the Red Wedding. I know about the death of a major character on "Homeland." What's the point in actually watching these shows when people are so ready to spill the details on social media mere seconds after they happen? Yes, I know there's still pleasure in seeing things play out, even if you do know the outcome in advance, but our spoiler-heavy culture has made me unmotivated to bother. Perhaps someday, when I've forgotten all the details, I'll binge-watch these shows on DVD. For now, though, it's much less stressful if I simply skip them. 

John Oursler, The L Magazine, Under the Radar

Spoilers are a peeve of mine because I genuinely think it's no one's responsibility to protect someone from a spoiler of an event/movie/TV show. If you really, truly want to avoid hearing about the latest person who was axed on "Game of Thrones," avoiding social media shouldn't be too much of an ask; contrary to what some say/think, it's not an unavoidable form of communication. Who's to say what will be a spoiler, and to whom? What's the statute of limitations? A week after an episode airs? until a film has been released on home video? The entire enterprise is too subjective to put it to chance. Furthermore, why would you want to put your enjoyment of something in the hands of the public at large? It's a surefire recipe for disappointment and anger. I don't see a marked difference between spoilers and TV/Film.

Gary M. Kramer, Gay City News, Philadelphia Gay News

I hate spoilers. When I saw "JFK" or "Lincoln," I didn't want to know that the President was shot. When I saw "United 93," I kept hoping for an alternate ending because I knew what happened. There is something about being totally absorbed by a film that makes it lesser experience when you know what's going to happen. For television -- and I don't watch much -- I do think spoilers should be avoided so the experience can be a discovery for anyone at any time. 

Joey Magidson, The Awards Circuit, First Showing

I try to stay away from spoilers in any review whenever possible, though there are times where it's very hard to not talk a bit about certain elements of the plot. That being said, more often than not, if there's a specific request or a particular moment I know is better left being discovered by audiences, I avoid mentioning it.

Josh Spiegel, Sound on Sight

I take spoilers on a case-by-case basis; I don't think there's a way for a person's preference, or lack thereof, of spoilers to apply wholesale to both TV and film. I have, at times, actively chosen to spoil myself on a plot twist of some TV show before I get a chance to watch it. For example, as a non-cable subscriber, I couldn't watch a recent momentous episode of "The Good Wife" live, and as it was clear from Twitter that the episode featured a shocking twist, I decided to see for myself what had happened. Somehow, and I doubt I could rationalize it well or at all, I find it less bothersome when I choose to spoil myself, instead of it happening passively, as when someone inadvertently reveals a surprise to me. I think it's challenging, also, to deal with spoilers on a TV-compared-to-movies level; some TV shows and movies are so buzzworthy and popular that, to avoid spoilers, a person might just have to avoid the Internet. For most of us, that's not ideal (and sometimes, seeing the movie or show in question may not be that simple), so I try my best to avoid such specificities, at least on Twitter and Facebook.

Scott Weinberg, FEARnet, Fandango

I often take a lot of (perhaps unnecessary) effort to avoid spoilers in my film reviews (see my old "Moon" review, or this one for a new IFC acquisition called "Home") and the reason is simple: the joy of discovery is one of the most basic components of film appreciation. I don't want to rob my reader of something the filmmakers want to deliver their own way. Could be a major plot twist, an unexpected cameo, or a simple exchange of dialogue; it doesn't matter. One should take great care that they don't damage the film experience they're trying to praise.

Mark Young, Sound on Sight, The New York Movie Klub

Well, there's definitely an aspect of "giving the audience what they want" to this issue. I want people to read my writing, and if you spoil too many details about a movie then people stop reading. However, I think that the audience is becoming too demanding about what is a spoiler and what isn't. I just wish readers had a little more faith in me as a writer: I know that you're spoiler-sensitive, and I'm only trying to tell you the bare minimum of things that you need to know for the purpose of criticism, but the minimum isn't zero.

Alonso Duralde, the Wrap


I generally avoid trailers and reviews because I like to see movies knowing as little as possible. If you do decide to read a review of a film before watching it, you run the risk of learning more than you wanted to. That said, I try to avoid giving away too much (or I give advance warning before doing so). Thankfully, my only TV coverage involves recapping shows that have already aired, so by that point, the barn door is well open. 

Tony Dayoub, Cinema Viewfinder, Press Play


When it comes to spoilers in movie reviews I make a distinction depending on various factors. If a movie is in currently in theatrical release and I'm writing a typical consumer-style review, then I generally do my best to avoid spoilers. Take "Captain America: The Winter Soldier," a spoiler-heavy film. There are plenty of things to write about -- performance, where it fits within the larger scheme of the Marvel franchise (both in the text and on a meta- level), the Russo Brothers' direction of their first action film -- that one can write a quality movie review without getting into spoilers. If I were to write a deeper critical analysis of the movie, how it fits in with current trends in cinema, politics, etc., then I would take a different tack and feel free to include spoilers because presumably the piece is directed at an audience ready to dig into the film's semiotics.

As concerns TV, it's not much different. Yes, Netflix and other streaming platforms extend the shelf life or newness of a show so that any given viewer might be watching a series for the first time, years or even decades after it first made its debut. Yes, I would be a little cautious about revealing Laura Palmer's killer if I'm writing about "Twin Peaks" for the uninitiated. On the other hand, the show is 24 years old. If my readers haven't seen it yet, that's not on me. So again, I feel less constrained to protect that particular secret, especially if the piece I'm writing is more analysis than simple weekly recap. In the case of TV, there have been many times when the day-after discussion of a major spoiler has actually enticed me to watch a show I had otherwise ignored. So there's that.

Luke Y. Thompson, Topless Robot

 One thing not covered in the question was viral videos: To cite one example, there was a "Doctor Who" "mini-sode," about 8 minutes long, that brought back Paul McGann for the first time. He's revealed about 30 seconds into it, yet many of my readers cried spoiler when I put his name in the headline. Likewise, comic books will sometimes put out advance images revealing big plot changes, but if I comment on those images specifically released by the publisher, people will sometimes cry spoiler too.

The basic rules for me - and release date is irrelevant, really -- are these: 1. Anything in officially released publicity material (trailers, stills, etc.) is fair game, because the distributor has decided it is. 2. Most anything in the first half of a movie is fair game. 3. Exceptions can be made if, for example, there is a tonal shift at the end so drastic and potentially offensive that you feel viewers may deserve to be warned, but even then, you should try to be vague. 4. Almost a category of its own: the third Austin Powers movie, in which New Line asked reviewers not to reveal celebrity cameos in the film's opening sequence. I was cool with that.

Never having reviewed TV, I can't really speak to that, but I think it's only natural that if you watch ahead and characters die unexpectedly, that ought not to be spilled. Though I did write a preview piece on "Game of Thrones" when it started, and was accused of spoiling by mentioning Lannister incest, which occurs in the first episode. Really, you can't win, but it helps to have a clear policy that regular readers are aware of.


Under the Skin

Q: What is the best movie in theaters?

A: "Under the Skin"


Other movies receiving multiple votes: "The Grand Budapest Hotel," "Only Lovers Left Alive"

This article is related to: Criticwire Survey


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