Do Critics Matter?

by clarencecarter
January 12, 2007 10:07 AM
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With all the 2006 hullabaloo about how film criticism was going the way of the dodo, it’s somewhat surprising that no one’s really discussing what could possibly be read as a late-year victory for the form: the successful nationwide expansion of the heavily lauded Children of Men. When J. Hoberman reviewed the film in the Village Voice he opened thusly:

”History repeats itself: 11 Decembers ago, Universal had the season's strongest movie—a downbeat sci-fi flick freely adapted from a well-known source by a name director. With a bare minimum of advance screenings and a total absence of hype, the studio dumped it. This year, they've done it again.”

He’s talking about Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys (the film eventually went on to gross something like $57 million, not exactly chump change for the day), which hit theatres much wider on 1/7/96 than the 17 screens reported for the 12/25/06 open of Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men. It certainly looked and sounded like a classic studio rush job—the trailer pushed to laughable excess by sloppy inclusion of Sigur Ros, a half-hearted poster, no Clive Owen appearance on The View, no TV ads anywhere in sight.

Except that, buoyed by extremely solid opening numbers, the film was on 1200 screens by its second week, and, as of yesterday, was the third-highest grossing film in the country, even though the two movies ahead of it, Night at the Museum and The Pursuit of Happyness were both showing on far more screens. A few hundred more locations have been added for this weekend, and it seems likely that Children will remain in the Top Ten. During last week’s The Office I even saw a few TV spots. Compared to the average Universal Studios release, this isn’t huge, but when most of the other well-reviewed films of 2006 have petered out (let’s look back in a few weeks and then contrast this expansion to something like Babel’s flameout), there’s a lot of room for this film to run.

Who’s responsible? I suppose critics who championed the film in those early markets could feel pretty pleased with themselves, except for the fact that Universal may well have used them all like patsies. Patsies for a good cause, but in the end, most likely played like fiddles with Universal dropping a play-action fake, no, better—a phony field-goal attempt run in for a touchdown on the wings of hyperbolic critical outrage (whether expressly voiced or sublimated into acclaim) over the injustice done to a terrific film by evil corporate masters. At least that’s my somewhat cynical take. It’ll be interesting to see how Children of Men fares over the next few weeks—there’s certainly nothing in the marketplace right now with same look and feel, and certainly nothing playing wide with as many positive reviews (84 score on

Oh, we reviewed some movies over at indieWIRE, too: Coffee Date, Abduction, and God Grew Tired of Us. Check ‘em out.

For the record, I'm taking: Eagles, Chargers, Bears, and Ravens


  • bill simmons | January 16, 2007 7:29 AMReply

    1 for 4 and that one on an overtime fg, yikes.

  • Alex Murillo | January 15, 2007 9:37 AMReply

    I was heartened to see "Children of Men" do well in its first week of wide might be my favourite film of the decade. Unfortunately, it dropped to #6 this week. I normally don't pay any attention whatsoever to box-office grosses (what's the point?), but when a movie comes along that you really love, a part of you hopes that many others get to see it as well. I hope that "Children of Men" makes an impact on the culture (regardless of how much money it makes) deserves to.

  • jshumate | January 15, 2007 8:27 AMReply

    I personally found Children of Men to be a wildly overrated and vile concoction undeserving of the praise lavished upon it. I haven't heard a word about the ever-relevant, ever-superior Good Shepherd from anyone except Hoberman or Sarris (can't ever tell them apart.) Any constituents?

  • clarencecarter | January 14, 2007 9:53 AMReply

    You may be right, but then, if you're a big studio playing with a genre picture, even a really good genre picture, you're not looking for end of year accolades to sell tickets where it counts: middle america. (And it's not as though the Academy has been particularly kind to dystopian sci-fi in years past.) So, do you take a chance when you're thinking the reviews are going to come in gangbusters and go for the small '06 foothold followed by expansion, or do you go wide all at once in the disaster zone that is January?

    In all honesty, the release pattern on this was probably a nice mixture of savvy and sloppy. And it hasn't held up tremendously well this weekend, so we'll see where it is in a couple of weeks.

  • Mark Asch | January 13, 2007 9:49 AMReply

    Your skepticism in re: the self-congratulatory "critical rescue job" is a welcome corrective, but I do think Universal is more likely sloppy than Machiavellian: opening the movie as late as they did, a lot of critics didn't get a chance to see the movie before the filing deadlines for their Top 10 lists, or filling out their ballots for year-end polls, or for the annual awards of whatever group they belonged to (anecdotally: at the screening I attended I spotted at least three or four members of the New York Film Critics Circle, and this was a day or two after they announced their awards; in your respective Indiewire year-end polls, both you guys and Dennis Lim noted that Children of Men would have done better if more critics had, you know, gotten to see it before ballots were due). And yeah, the fact that Universal seemed to be shielding the movie from the awards-season horse race has likley played a role in why critics have given it such a push, but to call this intentional is to offer a pretty roundabout conspiracy theory, and I guess I imagine that if Universal had been at all aware of the fact that they had such a strong contender, they never would have started it with a handicap.