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Why Do Review Embargoes Exist?

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by Eric Kohn
December 5, 2011 10:07 AM
8 Comments
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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...

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.

8 Comments

  • Kevin | December 6, 2011 12:20 PMReply

    Critics have no reason to play into a studio's marketing needs, fair enough. Of course those critics will turn around for their year-end wrap up issues and bemoan how deserving films never find their audience, but that is another issue. The real problem here, which was clear in Scott Rudin's email exchanges, is that there was a deal, and Denby broke the deal. Had Denby not agreed to it, he never would have seen the film at that juncture.

    Your comment that "letting a group of influential critics see a movie and assume that none of them would use that knowledge for their own means... is naive" implies critics are little more than untrustworthy, possibly sociopathic villains in a superhero movie, shooting their allies in the back like Heath Ledger's Joker. "Honor among thieves? Never! Mwahahaha!" I believe most people in general and critics in specific are far more honourable than that. I stand by the deals I make, and I don't make deals I can't live with. Seems simple enough. It's a fragile armistice between filmmaker and reviewer at best, and critics would do well to remember that as they grumble about ever-shortening lead times handed to them by studios worried about precisely this type of action. Finally, I respect Denby's writing, so this whole sorry incident saddens me because not liking the review one planned to run that day is about the most pathetic excuse I could imagine for breaking one's word.

  • Sketchbook | December 6, 2011 6:07 AMReply

    In politics, "prepared text" for a speech go out all the time with a "release date."
    The jump-gun issue here may seem trivial. Indeed it may be trivial. But the
    fact is that Denby acted unethically to give himself an interesting column.
    He didnt want to write about the Zoo movie.

  • jean vigo | December 5, 2011 5:16 PMReply

    Eric - don't be so facetious about putting out reviews of things in the script stage. Most of us trained in the making and study of film form/content know that there is a HIGHLY reasonable chance that the resulting film will not exceed the promise of the screenplay.

    It might save lots of money from being thrown prematurely at putting bad scripts into production or fast track those that hold promise!

    In medicine it's called getting "early screenings"/preventive care to avoid potential health problems later.

  • Eric Kohn | December 5, 2011 10:12 PM

    Jean Vigo--An honor to address you, sir! Of course, any critic reviewing the screenplay for your brilliant L'ATALANTE would only come to a positive conclusion.

    Joking aside, I have no interest in reviewing screenplays, as I consider it entirely unfair to the work in progress. It's sort of like critiquing a painting while the paint's still in the bucket. That being said, many blogs do make a habit of reviewing scripts, so the need to keep a tight lid on these things before they're ready to make the rounds is more of an imperative than ever before.

  • Thomasi | December 5, 2011 3:22 PMReply

    I would enjoy the poetic justice of the New Yorker issuing an "embargo" on blurbs from Denby's positive review being used in any of Sony's advertising for the film, and then if it is broken, refusing to ever review another film from Sony or Scott Rudin.

  • industry 101 | December 5, 2011 1:50 PMReply

    "Adherence to a marketplace agenda" isn't at the top of critics' agendas? No s**t Sherlock! Eric, what is the point of running a review if the film is not out yet and no one can go and watch it? Breaking the embargo simply amounts to critics wasting everyone's time.

  • Eric | December 5, 2011 2:54 PM

    That's a moot point, Industry 101. You may want to check your syllabus. Early reviews run ALL THE TIME, often at film festivals where the first crop of critical reactions take place. In fact, I'm sure there was some discussion about DRAGON TATTOO playing festivals before its placement on the calendar made it difficult to do so.

  • dragon | December 5, 2011 1:49 PMReply

    It is hard to take sides but I do enjoy the orderly tease to the big reveal and breaking embargoes opens the doors so there is no carefully built launch to a movie...or a play, book, TV show, new Apple product, etc.
    These things are carefully orchestrated in hopes of a proper public launch of a product. Critics have an unwritten agreement to honor the embargo but now every critic will want to be in the lead and review, both good and bad can be published.

    Bloggers do jump the gun but relatively few people read most of them and they rarely write an informed, thoughtful advance review, preferring to be the first to spread tidbits.

    For a high profile movie it probabaly doesn't make much difference but for films dependent on strong reviews, they need to appear very close to opening because our lives and minds are filled with so much clutter that most information is "here today, gone tomorrow."

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