Craig Skinner, a contributor to our weekly Criticwire Survey from the UK, emailed me yesterday with a link to a piece he wrote for his blog entitled "Films Not Freebies." In it, he voices his frustration with some of his peers in the London film critic community, who, in his opinion, are often more interested in the "fun in the foyer" before screenings like "Wreck-It Ralph" than the films they're supposed to be there to cover. The article concludes with a lengthy Twitter debate with one of those peers about whether the "fun in the foyer" is getting out of hand, and whether it's inappropriate for a critic to enjoy it.
Since this all gets into matters of critical ethics and integrity, I was very interested. There was just one problem:
I had absolutely no idea what "fun in the foyer" was.
I mean I could take a guess -- free swag and food? -- but this is not something we've got at press screenings here at the states, at least not in a codified, named way. So I emailed Craig back and he explained it to me. Fun in the foyer is:
"...activities designed to entertain children at the screenings. PR companies tend to organise weekend morning screenings for upcoming films (generally the big animated films) and offer critics extra seats to bring their kids or nephews/nieces etc. The activities include stuff like face painting and photos where you can be inserted into a digital background. Magic acts, animals being brought out and all sorts of other stuff often happens at the screenings too... the fun in the foyer is obviously aimed at kids but plenty of critics get involved too. Especially with the photos with them placed over a background related to the film."
One important component left out of that description that Craig also mentioned when I followed up with another email is food, and not just a bag of popcorn and a soda, either. Critics at these fun in the foyer screenings, which he says are "pretty common," can snack on sandwiches, pastries, pizza, and even beer and wine. Pizza and beer, he says, "generally seems to be reserved for films that critics will probably be unkind to -- things like 'Resident Evil' or 'Fast and the Furious' sequels." I'm not sure a couple of free slices of pizza would change anyone's mind about the quality of a movie, but enough alcohol might -- it could be interesting to compare the reviews from critics at booze-y UK press screenings and dry press screenings elsewhere, and see if they were any more lenient.
I've occasionally seen (and occasionally taken) junk food offered at major press screenings, and certainly press junkets are loaded with free swag, food, and drinks (though not, typically, alcohol). But most rank-and-file film critics, at least the ones here in New York, don't get access to that stuff on a regular basis -- and certainly not to the extent that there's a PR-endorsed term for them (Craig even sent me a sample publicity email for a screening; sure enough they advertise the "fun in the foyer" an hour before the movie).
Why is this a big deal? Craig explains:
"More and more I seem to see film critics obsessed with and discussing the nonsense of PR, the refreshments at screenings and whatever free promotional items they’ve received from a PR company keen on getting coverage for a film they’re representing. Sometimes it’s done with a knowing wink and a lot of snark but even then it’s just as tiresome and pointless and nowhere near as funny as those writing about it seem to think it is. This trend also raises key questions about integrity, professionalism and bias in film criticism and as both a critic and even more importantly as someone who really loves film criticism I find it increasingly worrying."
I don't know these critics or their work, so it wouldn't be fair for me to question their integrity, but I certainly have met American "critics" in my travels who struck me as more interested in free swag -- or even more basically, free movies -- than in the nitty gritty of their job. What should readers do in these cases? Always be wary of writers who won't stop bragging about their swag. "Swagbragging," is the technical term, I believe.
Read more of "Films Not Freebies."