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Criticwire Survey: The Unscreened

Does holding movies back from critics until they're in theaters turn them against the film or lower their expectations -- and should it matter at all?
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Russell Crowe is "Noah"
Russell Crowe is "Noah"

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: Paramount held "Noah" back from many critics until the day of release, inviting only a handful of critics to see it in advance. Two questions: Does it affect your mindset going into a movie knowing the studio didn't want critics to see it before it opened? And is there anything wrong with making critics wait to see a movie at the same time the public does?

Kristy Puchko, Cinema Blend 

I'd be lying if I said a studio keeping screenings from the press doesn't concern me. It makes a critic's job more difficult. We have to see it once its opened and so have less time to formulate our thoughts on a given film before submitting our review. As to how it influences my thoughts on a film, it usually makes me wonder, "What are they so afraid of me seeing?" Which is probably not the best starting point to enter a movie on. Plus, I think a lack of press screenings lowers some critics' expectations so low they'll skip a movie entirely, possibly missing something they'd gladly champion. That was the case with "Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters," a movie me and a trio of fellow critics saw opening night. Three of us had a blast and wish we'd had a better opportunity to sings its praises. I also imagine that movie would have done better with critics if it had screened for more of them. In my experience, many of us will give a weird little movie a shot in the environment of a press screening that we're less willing to on opening weekend. 

Matt Zoller Seitz, Vulture, RogerEbert.com

It doesn't affect my mindset if it's the kind of movie that seems like it would be hard to promote because of the subject matter, or because the filmmakers are known for making movies with somewhat complicated or tricky tones -- in other words, if it's the kind of movie that seems like it might be personal or a bit odd. For movies like that, I usually assume the studio didn't have any faith in it because they didn't get it. So a sense, by not screening such a film, they're making me more receptive to it. I have found that films that studios don't know what to do with tend to be more interesting than movies they think they know exactly what to do with.

Certain action and horror and other genre films, on the other hand, I don't have any advance feeling about if they aren't screened for critics. Particular genre films are basically critic-proof anyway, I mean in the sense that our opinions really and truly do not matter to the studio, and have almost no bearing on moviegoers' decision to see it or not to see it. I never get outraged if the distributor doesn't screen a new splatter horror film, or some medium-budget action picture. It would be like being outraged over not being invited to a party with people who have never invited you to a party at any point in the past, and who really don't consider you part of their circle anyhow.

Carrie Rickey, The Philadelphia Inquirer

Until 1995 I subscribed to the theory, "No preview, negative review." That year a movie called "Clueless" was scheduled to open. I called the studio rep to see if there was a screening. She said no. I immediately called Amy Heckerling's office and asked an assistant, "Does Heckerling have it in her contract that her movie gets screened for critics?" Her assistant said she's get back to me. 20 minutes later the studio rep called to tell me that a screening just got scheduled.

Since then, I have believed that no press screening means merely that the studio doesn't have faith. (Or that it's a Tyler Perry movie. He doesn't screen them for critics.) I've liked a lot of films that had no press screenings, including "Clueless," some Perry films, and also Michael Mann's "The Keep," which was not screened in advance.

Piers Marchant, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Philadelphia Magazine

It can color my first impressions about a film a certain way, I suppose, but historically, studios have often lacked faith in films that I've found to be fascinating, so that alone wouldn't bias me overly much. As to the second question, I think that would come down to your given deadline: Most outlets demand having the review in the can before the film actually opens. Personally, I hate it when a film screens the night before it opens -- either your editor will bail on it altogether, or you're pulling a very late night.

Rafer Guzman, Newsday

When studios hold back a release from critics, that only tells me what the studios think. I still go in with an open mind, and often I'm surprised and rewarded. I'll risk my credibility with a few examples: "R.I.P.D." was not a total failure. I actually enjoyed "I, Frankenstein." The studios held "Pompeii" for a Wednesday night screening, usually a bad sign, and that turned out to be one of the best pulp movies I've seen in years. I think, or at least I hope, that I can be objective about a movie no matter what the circumstances.

I try to be very clear about who the studios are, and what they owe me. They are private companies and they owe me nothing. They're not the U.S. government. They're under no obligation to show me their movie, offer up their stars or treat me any differently from the average moviegoer. And even when they do, I'm still duty-bound to be an honest critic. I was reading Carl Sandburg's old reviews recently, and I'm pretty sure he just walked into a theater like everybody else and then wrote down his thoughts. I like the purity of that, the total absence of handshake agreements and back-scratching. In an ideal world, things would still be that way!

Ethan Alter, Television Without Pity

I'm sure that I'm far from the only critic who will say that, in general, when a studio declines to screen a film until a day or two before opening, it's hard not to go into that last-minute screening expecting it to be an abject bomb or a movie that the studio knows will find its audience despite poor reviews (see the "Paranormal Activity" series and most Tyler Perry-directed films). But there's also a certain category of movie -- like "Noah," "Killing Them Softly" from last year and "Margaret" from 2011 -- where it seems like the studio has no idea how it will be received and so run out the clock, hoping that perhaps a few good reviews will trickle in, but otherwise writing the film off as a lost cause. And in each of those three instances, I wound up loving (or, in the case of "Noah," mostly liking) the movie they seemingly wanted to shield. Those examples always inspire hope that a late (or, in some cases, no) screening date isn't an automatic indicator that movie will stink, but that does tend to be the case more often than not. As to the second issue, advance screenings are a boon that can be beneficial to both critics and studios, but I try not to look at them as a right. I certainly had a lot more fun -- and said so in my reviews -- at the unscreened "Snakes on a Plane" and (gulp) "Grandma's Boy" when I saw them with a paying crowd. 

Dan Kois, Slate

Yes. I definitely have a hunch the movie will be bad. I always hope I'm wrong and that it will pleasantly surprise me! That said, some of my fondest critical memories revolve around movies that I went to see at midnight Thursday night or 9 in the morning on Friday and then feverishly wrote about. Those pieces always feel pretty vivid in retrospect, and I think part of that has to do with seeing the movie in a real paying audience devoid of press. (Part of it, as in the case of this review of "G.I. Joe," has to do with sleep deprivation. Key 4 a.m. phrase: "As far as plot goes...")

Matt Prigge, Metro

These days, to be honest, I actually get a little more excited if something has been deemed persona (or filma, or whatever) non grata by the studios. Obviously, this might not apply if something is transparently dire, like "Grown Ups 2." (Although, even that may have some stray, spectral merits.) But studio nervousness tends to belie that there's something dangerous about it, and that it might prove worthy of defending, at least on some level. Anyone who enjoys plunging for quality in disreputable works should be excited when a studio is holding some genre film close to the chest, screening it only in the few days before release, if at all. Of course, this doesn't always prove true; it doesn't sound like "R.I.P.D." has much going for it after all. But even there, I'd be more happy not to add to the dogpile but to be among the lone, elite defenders, trying to say something nice rather than just see who can come up with the best derisive Rotten Tomato quotable. After all, what if the film proves to have a second life? Do you want to be among the glib dittoheads hung out to dry when some upstart writes his or her book-length defense of a once widely loathed future classic? In this case, I wish "Noah" was better, but I'm happy to point out its many, sometimes minor perks in addition to its other, sometimes major faults.

Peter Labuza, The Cinephiliacs, Variety

Studios can do what they want, and while the list of films not screened is mostly dire, directors like Paul W.S. Anderson and Neveldine/Taylor do not get their films screened in most cases, and depending on your perspective, they make very good (or at least idiosyncratic) movies worth considering. In regards to the second issue, as I've often said, one of my favorite pieces of film criticism was when James Agee wrote about Chaplin's "Monsieur Verdoux" three issues in a row for The Nation. The first piece was published six weeks after the film had premiered. Like great movies, great criticism will always out last "first" criticism.

James Poniewozik, Time

TV networks will often hold back advance screeners for different reasons -- spoiler concerns, production issues -- so it doesn't necessarily affect my preconceptions the way it might a movie critic's. It's a more complicated calculation, anyway.

As for the second half: There is nothing wrong with studios making critics wait to see a movie at the same time the public does. There is everything wrong, however, with a studio making critics wait to see only some movies at the same time the public does. The studios, reasonably, have the goal of maximizing audience. Critics have the goal (among other things) of advising said audience in spending their moviegoing dollars. This practice means that the studio only lets critics serve their goal if it also serves the studios' goal--which, de facto, undermines the goal of serving consumers. I don't expect that critics had any choice but to take it; but they'd have every right to say that any studio that will not let all its movies be reviewed in advance does not get any reviewed in advance. (I'm a TV critic, so this is easy for me to say, since I don't have to back up my principles with action.)

Luke Y. Thompson, Topless Robot

Does it affect my mindset? Not much more than any other aspects of the marketing. Like, if there's a terrible scene in a trailer, I might think, "Uh-oh, this could be trouble." Same with movies that don't screen, although if it's a horror movie the lack of screenings never means anything, because there is an unwritten assumption (that's fading a little, thankfully) that no major critics ever like or are fair to horror. Also most Tyler Perry movies don't screen, but by now you know exactly what you're going to get from those.

In the age of print deadlines, not screening things early was a bigger deal. I remember working for weeklies, when many of the big studios would schedule screenings in time for daily paper deadlines but not weeklies, presumably because they thought alt-weekly critics were edgier and tougher (and they may well have been right).

In the Internet age, however, I can go to a midnight screening and have a review online by 4 a.m. opening day, getting my take out there as quickly as it would have run anyway, even if it had screened. Just a tiny bit more of a headache for me, and maybe a slightly more rushed review, but the studio's policy in that instance will have halted nothing. I think they mostly realize that now.

Joanna Langfield, The Movie Minute

It is, and always has been, the studios' call as to who gets to see a film before it opens. And sure, as much as I believe in going in open minded, hoping for the best, when I know there's been careful culling of the critical crowd, I can't help but wonder why. Do the producers feel the film won't "work" for certain demographics? While we can insist it is our jobs, as professionals, to not let personal agendas color our reviews, it sure doesn't seem as if those creating the invitation lists always buy that.

The question of critics waiting to see a movie when the public does gets down to the very definition of criticism: is part of the job to help the ticket-buying, or streaming, public decide which films to see, not see, or back burner? It's pretty clear the studios think it is when they screen something early, confident we'll add to the buzz they hope to create. It goes to follow the non-existent screenings are a plan to tamper down what's expected to be harsh criticism.

There's not a whole lot we, the critics, can do. It's the studio's call because, until the movie opens, it's their ballpark, as it were. But I do make it a point, on opening day broadcasts, to tell my audience what I was not invited to see. They're a smart bunch: they know what that means.

Alan Zilberman, Brightest Young Things, Tiny Mix Tapes

A cold open does not effect my mindset about a particular movie. The movie succeeds or fails based on my experience with it, not any marketing strategy. But if I see a good movie and it opens cold, I'm curious about what the studio staff was thinking.

I do think it's wrong for studios to make critics wait. A cold open denies critics the opportunity to do their job well: an early screening is meant to give critics time to form a thoughtful review, which will then inform/entertain their readers. If studios prevent that opportunity, then the critic's work suffers and the public does not have the opportunity to read their recommendation. That's the purpose of the cold open: studios want to maximize box office returns by minimizing the blowback of negative reviews.

Scott Weinberg, FEARnet

I often whine (a lot) about how Marvel hand-picks specific writers, lifts the review embargo, and then has "normal press" wait a week to see the film. It marginalizes a lot of good critics, it makes some great L.A. writers look like puppets, and it pisses me off to see new "classes" wedged in among the film press. But that's all marketing, PR, and fleeting nonsense. It has nothing to do with the film itself, and I would never waste my time reading someone who bashes a film because of a press screening problem.

Christopher Campbell, Nonfics, Movies.com

Frankly if the movie isn't screened I'll never need to judge it because I won't see it. It's not on principle but because as a father and someone who works all the time and has interests other than movies I don't have the time or money to see movies outside of what I see to cover these days. That often includes stuff I'd like to see unfortunately since I live somewhere that many movies aren't screened or don't play.

Stephen Whitty, the Star-Ledger

Obviously, a studio has no obligation to screen a movie in advance for critics. It simply makes it easier to get the review in print (and for me, logistically, to get to see everything I need to, in a timely fashion).

My question, I suppose, is WHY they don't screen. I realize it's out of self-protection -- they don't want the bad reviews that they're expecting, for one reason or another -- but does not having press screenings really shield them from that anymore? All it protects is that very first Thursday-night show; once that's over, everyone is all over social media.

So while I'd admit studios don't have to show before opening, it seems kind of counter-productive not to. After all, you might be surprised and get some good reviews; on the other hand, for a lot of people, not screening gives the film a bit of a bad smell to begin with. (In fact, I know critics who are immediately suspicious of films that only have one all-media screening on a Wednesday night.)

Personally, apart from convenience and deadlines, the times (and circumstances) don't make much difference to me. I haven't seen many gems that opened without screenings, but then I've seen lots of bombs that had multiple previews. And I've seen just as many awful pictures in swank screening rooms as I have good ones in tiresome radio-promotion "events." It's the movie that counts.

Just, publicists -- please -- don't tell me "It's a movie we really want the audience to experience for themselves." I like that one about as much as the old "The print's not ready yet." Just tell me you're not screening -- period. And um, one embargo date for all?

Sean Burns, Spliced Personality

I wish they'd just get rid of press screenings altogether, instead of this half-measure limbo that we've been stuck in for awhile and seems to be getting worse. "Noah" was a perfect example of the current clusterfuck – just show it to everybody or don't show it at all. How many times have we heard the same bald-faced lies from flacks claiming a movie isn't screening for critics when some of your colleagues already saw it a week ago? (I don't think they understand that we talk to one other.)

This arbitrary nonsense started getting to me a couple years ago, when "selected" Boston critics were invited to see "The Fighter" at a "secret" 10 a.m. screening, while the rest of us lowlifes were forced to wait until 7 that evening. I'm not sure what special marketing advantages Paramount saw in giving a nine-hour jump to folks they deemed our betters, but the reps sure made their point that a lot of us are considered second-class citizens and I had to miss Monday Night Football.

The public seems to have this idea that press screenings are lush, luxurious affairs. In my experience, the opposite is true. Boston is lucky to have several beautiful movie theaters, yet despite years of complaints and public ridicule, press screenings are still held in the city's dumpiest, most dilapidated, rodent-infested multiplex. Constant presentation cock-ups are the stuff of local legend. The 3D lens being left on the projector for 2D movies is such a given that Ty Burr wrote a front-page Boston Sunday Globe article about it that got a lot of attention and changed absolutely nothing. 

I've had to review films seen on a screen torn up by knife slashes from a gang fight weeks before. We saw "The Tree of Life" with pre-show advertising word-jumbles intermittently projected on top of the film, "The Avengers" cropped to the incorrect 2.35:1 aspect ratio, and I'm told that two weeks ago Boston critics watched "The Raid 2" with the subtitles delayed and out of sync. (I look forward to reading those reviews.) Don't even get me started about that time we all gasped in horror, mid-movie, as a fellow reviewer's Boloco burrito take-out bag went scurrying away across the auditorium floor.

How much of a modern critic's time is wasted being lied to and jerked around, fighting for the privilege of being granted sometimes less than 48 hours notice about an inconveniently timed mid-afternoon screening held in a public toilet? After fifteen years of this garbage, I can't begin to express how much I've recently enjoyed once again being able to just pay and go see films properly projected at clean, competently run theaters. 

If studios get rid of publicists and press screenings, I might start reviewing their movies again.

Peter Keough, Boston Globe, Critics a Go-Go

It used to bother me a lot more when I was film editor at the Phoenix and have to schedule reviews I'd complain a lot, so did the president of the Boston Society of Film Critics, to little avail. Some films are screening-proof.

It's been bad for a while -- the "Noah" thing is nothing new (did they get any blurbs from junketeers?) It's clear they regard us as just part of their marketing and promotion department. And though it's usually an indication that a movie is terrible when it is screened late or not at all, it can also be a sign that the studio just doesn't understand what they have and are afraid that someone is going to tell them. Though no examples of that come immediately to mind.

Peter Howell, Toronto Star

When a studio doesn't preview a film to critics, it means 10 times out of 10 that it doesn't have confidence the film will stand up to critical scrutiny. Yet I try very hard to maintain an open mind, especially since studios often abandon films that really aren't so bad. "Snakes on a Plane" opened without critical previews, and it was actually pretty good, although not as good as the advance hype would have suggested. Occasions like these are a reminder that it's never good to approach a film with your mind already made up -- and that applies to studios as well as critics.

This article is related to: Criticwire Survey


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