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Why Do Review Embargoes Exist?

Photo of Eric Kohn By Eric Kohn | Eric Kohn December 5, 2011 at 10:07AM

Over the weekend, word got out that New Yorker film critic David Denby decided to break the embargo on David Fincher's "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," reviewing the movie in this week's issue of the magazine, several weeks before the release -- and well ahead of the Decemmber 13 embargo requested (demanded?) by the film's studio.
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You do not want to mess with this girl, her dragon tattoo, or the embargo on her movie.
You do not want to mess with this girl, her dragon tattoo, or the embargo on her movie.

Over the weekend, word got out that New Yorker film critic David Denby decided to break the embargo on David Fincher's "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," reviewing the movie in this week's issue of the magazine, several weeks before the release -- and well ahead of the Decemmber 13 embargo requested (demanded?) by the film's studio.

The surprise move prompted Sony to issue a totalitarian mandate to all journalists who had seen the movie early, assuring them that this was no typical EMBARGO BREACH and that, for all intents and purposes, mum was still the word. The Playlist ran a juicy email exchange between Denby and "Dragon Tattoo" producer Scott Rudin, where both men attempt to hold their ground over this rather inconsequential matter.

The embargo is given far more credence than it ever deserves. What, exactly, are we talking about here?

Of course, if Denby slammed "Dragon Tattoo" and established a bad rep for the movie way ahead of its December 21 release, Rudin would have reason for concern. As it stands, Denby likes the movie, which turns this situation into a whole lot of steaming small potatoes.

Discussions about embargo breaches always involve some kind of theatrical if-then pontification. Denby has paved a new route to the state of the critical practice, rendering him a founding father for a new world! Now we can expand westward into uncharted terrain, touting the prospects of manifest destiny. I'm going to start reviewing first-draft screenplays… no, wait. I'm going to start reviewing lines of dialogue from first-draft screenplays… forget it. I'm going to review movies that don't even exist yet, but probably will, and then impose a review tariff on anyone who steals my ideas.

The entire concept of an embargo is given far more serious credence than it ever deserves. What, exactly, are we talking about here? When the White House doesn't want the New York Times to blow the cover on a major intelligence operation, they give the paper the heads up. Fair enough, when lives are at risk. But if a critic decides to go public with the fact that he likes a movie, exactly what damage can he cause?

Yes, there's the issue of precedent. If Denby breaks an embargo, doesn't it set an example for future infringements? Well, yeah. Last year, Film Comment's first review of "The Social Network" led to the grousing of critics who had yet to share their verdicts. But the review was glowing and resembled much of the positive buzz that followed.

Have we have reached a new paradigm in the history of the critical practice? Um...
Have we have reached a new paradigm in the history of the critical practice? Um...

Distributors, publicists and other representing parties try to control as many marketplace factors as possible; that's their jobs. But a critic or any other kind of journalist also must work on his or her own terms, and adherence to a marketplace agenda isn't always one of at the top of that list. As a result, I think an embargo can be considered -- at best -- a friendly suggestion, and nothing like an edict.

That said, if Denby saw the movie under the assumption that he would respect the embargo, it doesn't give him license to break it. Still, I find the idea of letting a group of influential critics see a movie and assume that none of them would use that knowledge for their own means to be naive. Critics are a fickle bunch. Those tasked with working alongside them just have to deal with it.

And guess what? They did. Leaking those Denby/Rudin emails was likely a smart move on the part of the film's distributor. It's next best thing to having Rooney Mara shoot a video threat to the rest of the critical community -- in character, of course, as the badass goth investigator she plays in "Dragon Tattoo." If anyone working on the movie happens to think that's a good idea, feel free to run with it.

This article is related to: David Denby, The New Yorker, Film Criticism , Rooney Mara, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Scott Rudin, Embargo