Earlier this week, a film critic friend of mine sent me an email exchange they’d recently had with a publicist. The critic had attended a press screening of an upcoming release; the publicist privately emailed the critic for their reaction. The critic said they liked it; the publicist asked if they’d provide a quote for possible inclusion in the movie’s marketing materials. The critic, not really wanting to do that, half-heartedly provided an honest positive comment that would definitely never be used as a pull quote; the publicist, unsatisfied, asked the critic if they maybe could give another quote, this one with either of two specific buzzwords they wanted to emphasize in their ad campaign.
I’m not sure if this qualifies as literally putting words in someone’s mouth — after all, this exchange was written and not spoken — but it’s awfully close (the critic, by the way, declined the last request). A critic provides a publicist with a “quote” they can use in an ad. This quote does not appear in anything the critic has written, and possibly even said, in any context anywhere. But when this quote, generated at the request of the publicist is deemed unsatisfactory, it’s sent back for rewrites.
This conversation is mind-boggling and, no doubt, totally common in the private world of film publicists and critics. Nonetheless it was on my mind today as I performed one of my treasured weekly rituals: reading the Village Voice film section from front to back. The habit dates to my days as an NYU grad student, and continued through my time as a Voice intern and occasional contributor. Now that I work from home in Brooklyn, picking up a copy of the Voice is one of the routines of my Wednesday walk with my dog. I generally read the reviews, browse the listings, and examine the print ads for any potential candidates for our occasional Criticwire column, Weird Pull Quote Theater. With my friend’s emails echoing through my mind, I decided to perform an experiment:
I tried to source every single pull quote in every single ad in this week’s Village Voice (Vol. LVIII No. 12).
My findings? Generally, most quotes are accurate and easily verifiable as having been pulled from an actual review of a movie by an actual critic. But about 20% fall into that weird ethical gray area where either quotes are invented specifically to appear in an ad, or they’re Frankensteined from words and phrases taken out of context. A few could be described as simultaneously truthful and misleading.
The ad for “From Up on Poppy Hill,” on page 35, for example, contains four quotes: one from Variety (“Breathtaking!”), one from The New York Times (“Visual magic!”), one from NPR (“Gorgeous!”) and one from Time Out New York (“****!”). All four quotes are accurate, including the four-star review from Time Out. But Time Out grades their movies on a five-star scale, so their “From Up on Poppy Hill,” while certainly positive, isn’t quite an unmitigated rave. At a glance in this ad, though, it might be easy to assume that it is.
At a glance, you might also assume that Entertainment Weekly gave a rave review to “The Place Beyond the Pines;” the quote credited to EW in the full-page ad on page 31 calls it “a riveting crime drama.” And former EW writer Dave Karger did indeed call “The Place Beyond the Pines” a “riveting crime drama” — in a roundup of Toronto Film Festival movies’ Oscar chances. At the same festival, former EW critic Lisa Schwarzbaum completely panned the movie; her Toronto review called it “A pumped-up exercise in genre and a playground for big acting gestures rather than a story told with conviction about characters worth caring about.” But “a riveting crime drama” makes a much better pull quote.
Other quotes probably fall under the category of what Steven Colbert would describe as “truthiness” — there are facts in there somewhere, but they’re fudged just a bit. The headline-sized quote on the top of that full-page ad for “The Place Beyond the Pines” cites “Movies.com” in calling the film “An exhilarating epic of fathers, sons and consequences.” But if you track down the original Movies.com review by Monika Bartyzel, you won’t find that phrase anywhere. Instead, you’ll find three distinct quotes have been smooshed together to form a single thought. The headline calls the movie an “epic in the vein of ‘The Godfather;'” the intro says it moves director Derek Cianfrance’s aesthetic “into the world of fathers, sons and consequences;” the conclusion says it’s “exhilarating to get pulled into a story that grows bigger and bigger in scope without losing its heart or focus.” Put those three ideas together and you get one pull quote.
Page 35 also features an ad for Walter Salles’ adaptation of “On the Road” which includes a lengthy quote from the Los Angeles Times‘ Kenneth Turan. It looks like one long and complete thought lifted directly out of a review — “Achingly romantic. Jack Kerouac’s peerless anthem to the romance of youthful freedom and experience has finally made it to the screen with its virtues and spirit intact. Garrett Hedlund hits all the right notes.” — but, in fact, that statement has been pulled from two totally different articles by the same author. In his review, Turan called the movie “achingly romantic” and said that Hedlund “hits all the right notes.” The rest comes from an interview with Salles conducted seven months earlier at Cannes.
Similarly, if you type the phrase “An electrifying masterpiece!” and “Harry Knowles” into Google, you won’t find any article on Ain’t It Cool News that uses that phrase to describe “Spring Breakers” — even though that’s his quote in the ad for the film on page 37. Even though it’s only three words long, this is another phrase stitched together from multiple sources. Knowles’ AICN review of “Spring Breakers” calls it “electrifying” — but not a “masterpiece.” He said that part in a separate tweet about the movie.
Attribution’s always a tricky thing in these quotes as well. The ad for “Dorfman in Love” on page 37 quotes “Yahoo!” in crediting the film’s “smart writing and clever performances.” The quote does indeed come from Yahoo! but it’s provided by an article on the Yahoo! Contributor Network which, at least in my mind, isn’t quite the same thing as an article from someone on the staff of Yahoo! Movies. A quote for the new rom-com “Admission” (“Tina Fey and Paul Rudd are a match made in movie heaven!”) on page 29 says it came from “ET.com” — but ET.com doesn’t exist; type that address into your web browser and you’ll get a domain name placeholder. I reached out to “Admission”‘s distributor, Focus Features, who clarified that the quote came from a contributor to ETOnline.com, the website of the television show “Entertainment Tonight.” You won’t find the quote on the site though — it was provided to the publicist by the writer.
I think by now most people know to view pull quotes with a skeptical eye — but most isn’t all. Hopefully these examples show just how tenuously some of these ads view the concept of quotation. If a quote strikes you as too good to be true, it could very well be. And if a quote convinces you to go see a movie, you should probably try to source it back to the original review first, just to make sure it’s accurate. It couldn’t hurt — and you’d get to read an actual piece of film criticism in the process, which is always preferable to an excerpt in an ad anyway.