Will “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” screen for critics? No one knows, or at least no one who knows is talking. It’s been reported that it’s definitely not showing early enough for groups like the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Board of Review, both of whom announce their year-end [sic] awards at the beginning of December, to consider it, but that’s not terribly uncommon for a movie whose box-office prospects are far more entwined with preserving the element of surprise than whether select groups find it awards-worthy or not. The question is whether it will screen at all before the first paying audiences get their eyeballs on it, which in the U.S. will be at 7 p.m. Eastern on December 17. (A representative for Disney tells me he has “no information to share at this time.”)
It’s become customary for movies as high-profile as “The Force Awakens” — if, that is, any previous movie has had quite this high a profile — to be held back until a few days before they open, and given that this one arrives under the aegis of “mystery box” proponent J.J. Abrams, it’s not surprising the emphasis on secrecy is so high. Whatever his strengths as a writer or director, Abrams is a master of advance publicity, and when simply excluding Mark Hamill’s Luke Sykwalker from the trailers and posters has stoked such curiosity, why blow the surprise earlier than you have to? But even if no one at the film’s Hollywood premiere on December 14 blabs, “The Force Awakens” opens in Indonesia, South Africa and numerous European countries on December 16. Unless J.J. Abrams has the power to shut off the Internet, the movie’s secrets are going to leak out at least a day before anyone in the U.S. has seen it.
So why freeze out reviewers? And if Disney decides to do just that, what would it mean? At the Verge, Bryan Bishop worries that it could set a precedent for a “new blockbuster template” where heavily anticipated movies bypass critics entirely, and if you take blockbusters out of the equation, people may give up reading criticism altogether.
“There’s always been an unspoken, often uneasy alliance between film critics and studios,” Bishop writes. “They show us movies early to get free press, and in exchange we say what we think to help readers decide, discuss, and contextualize. But with the glut of well-known, expanded universe films and more emphasis than ever on opening weekend performance, the balance of that dynamic could be changing. Critical coverage is an uncontrollable variable — an unnecessary risk — and in all honestly, forgoing it probably wouldn’t be bad for most big movies. What it would hurt is the smaller films. Every month dozens of limited release and speciality movies arrive in theaters or on VOD services that don’t have the marketing budget of a comic book flick or sci-fi saga, and the way those films break through is through word of mouth and the film press — movies like ‘Tangerine,’ ‘Ex Machina,’ and ‘Spotlight,’ to name just a few that we’ve covered this year. Those films would never take part in a ‘Force Awakens’-style strategy, but they do rely on the larger entertainment coverage ecosystem for their survival, and if people get used to not reading reviews about the upcoming blockbusters they know about, they’re likely not going to spend a lot of time reading about the smaller films they’ve never heard of.”
There’s a limit to how far you can generalize from the example of “Star Wars,” the most enduring franchise of the last 40 years. It’s like trying to follow Radiohead’s strategy of releasing music for free and getting fans to pay for add-ons — “Step 1: Be Radiohead.” A movie like “Jurassic World” may not need good reviews to drive box-office, but every notice serves as free publicity: Even the worst review of “Jurassic World” still reminds you that the movie is opening Friday. It’s why Fox screened even the calamitous “Fantastic Four” in advance of opening, albeit not until the Wednesday before: Why buy a half-page ad in the New York Times when you can get them to run a half-page review for nothing? This is also why it seems incredibly unlikely that “The Force Awakens” won’t screen at all, although when it does and who gets to see it is very much up for grabs. (Were I a cynic, I might speculate that Disney is keeping mum on their plans because rumors of no screenings make the movie’s presumed secrets that much more enticing.) Studios don’t screen movies in advance because they’re concerned about the viability of film criticism; they do it because it’s a place where their interests and the interests of the corporations critics work for converge.
Let’s say the worst-case scenario comes to pass, and “The Force Awakens” doesn’t screen at all, for anyone. (As far as I can tell, that’s never happened with a movie of this size that the studio wasn’t actively burying, but then again, none of those movies were “The Force Awakens.”) Critics will buy tickets to the 7 p.m. screening on the 17th — despite worries that the movie would be sold out for days, plenty are still available — and file their reviews by the following morning, too late for the print deadline but in plenty of time for the web. The doomsday scenario leads to a late night of frantic typing and reviews running opening day — which is when they ought to run anyway, although trade papers and major dailies have made a habit of breaking review embargoes, knowing they’re too big for the studios to retaliate against.
The devolution of criticism into consumer advice, crystallized by Siskel & Ebert’s thumbs-up/thumbs-down, has gotten to the point where simply discussing a film in detail requires a flotilla of spoiler alerts (and even then, you’re not safe from complaint). Building up to a movie’s opening weekend allows publications to piggyback on a movie’s marketing campaign, but it also cuts critics off at the knees, and it flies in the face of how people actually read. Sure, you can talk about “SPECTRE” without discussing the identity of its villain, but once the movie’s opened, that discussion, hemmed in by vague allusions and “trust me on this” complaints, becomes foolish, if not obsolete.
Although it’s trailed off somewhat, the last decade has been marked by the explosive growth of TV recaps, which assume that their audience already knows what happened — or, at the very least, that they want to be told. It’s past time film criticism followed suit, or at least provided a separate space to talk about twists and turns that fundamentally alter a movie’s meaning. That’s less an innovation than a return to earlier times, when it was assumed that either movie plots were so predictable there was no point in keeping them secret or, in the case of longform writing like Pauline Kael’s New Yorker reviews, that the critic’s function was helping readers dissect what they’d already seen, not whether or where to spend the price of a ticket.
Critics can serve as both consumer guides and intellectual catalysts, and many do. But too many are forced to operate under a model where it’s more important to be first than best, jockeying to see who can post the earliest review of a movie only a few hundred or a few thousand people have seen. This feeds the internet’s bottomless desire for the new, but it doesn’t serve criticism, or even the people who read it, well. If not screening forces “The Force Awakens” reviews to wait until opening day — and how crazy is it that we’re even talking about that like it’s an intolerable delay? — it might serve as a reminder that criticism can serve as a digestif as well as an amuse-bouche. If no one’s reading about “The Force Awakens” a day or a week after it opens, criticism won’t be in nearly as much trouble as “Star Wars” is.