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Criticwire Survey: The Unscreened

Criticwire Survey: The Unscreened

Every week, the Criticwire Survey asks film and TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday morning. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?” can be found at the end of this post.) Send suggestions for future questions to sam at indiewire dot com.

Q: Paramount held “Noah” back from many critics until the day of release, inviting only a handful of critics to see it in advance. Two questions: Does it affect your
mindset going into a movie knowing the studio didn’t want critics to see
it before it opened? And is there anything wrong with making critics
wait to see a movie at the same time the public does?

Kristy Puchko, Cinema Blend 

I’d be lying if I said a studio keeping screenings from the press doesn’t concern me. It makes a critic’s job more difficult. We have to see it once its opened and so have less time to formulate our thoughts on a given film before submitting our review. As to how it influences my thoughts on a film, it usually makes me wonder, “What are they so afraid of me seeing?” Which is probably not the best starting point to enter a movie on. Plus, I think a lack of press screenings lowers some critics’ expectations so low they’ll skip a movie entirely, possibly missing something they’d gladly champion. That was the case with “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters,” a movie me and a trio of fellow critics saw opening night. Three of us had a blast and wish we’d had a better opportunity to sings its praises. I also imagine that movie would have done better with critics if it had screened for more of them. In my experience, many of us will give a weird little movie a shot in the environment of a press screening that we’re less willing to on opening weekend. 

Matt Zoller Seitz, Vulture, RogerEbert.com

It doesn’t affect my mindset if it’s the kind of movie that seems like it would be hard to promote because of the subject matter, or because the filmmakers are known for making movies with somewhat complicated or tricky tones — in other words, if it’s the kind of movie that seems like it might be personal or a bit odd. For movies like that, I usually assume the studio didn’t have any faith in it because they didn’t get it. So a sense, by not screening such a film, they’re making me more receptive to it. I have found that films that studios don’t know what to do with tend to be more interesting than movies they think they know exactly what to do with.

Certain action and horror and other genre films, on the other hand, I don’t have any advance feeling about if they aren’t screened for critics. Particular genre films are basically critic-proof anyway, I mean in the sense that our opinions really and truly do not matter to the studio, and have almost no bearing on moviegoers’ decision to see it or not to see it. I never get outraged if the distributor doesn’t screen a new splatter horror film, or some medium-budget action picture. It would be like being outraged over not being invited to a party with people who have never invited you to a party at any point in the past, and who really don’t consider you part of their circle anyhow.

Carrie Rickey, The Philadelphia Inquirer

Until 1995 I subscribed to the theory, “No preview, negative review.” That year a movie called “Clueless” was scheduled to open. I called the studio rep to see if there was a screening. She said no. I immediately called Amy Heckerling’s office and asked an assistant, “Does Heckerling have it in her contract that her movie gets screened for critics?” Her assistant said she’s get back to me. 20 minutes later the studio rep called to tell me that a screening just got scheduled.

Since then, I have believed that no press screening means merely that the studio doesn’t have faith. (Or that it’s a Tyler Perry movie. He doesn’t screen them for critics.) I’ve liked a lot of films that had no press screenings, including “Clueless,” some Perry films, and also Michael Mann’s “The Keep,” which was not screened in advance.

Piers Marchant, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Philadelphia Magazine

It can color my first impressions about a film a certain way, I suppose, but historically, studios have often lacked faith in films that I’ve found to be fascinating, so that alone wouldn’t bias me overly much. As to the second question, I think that would come down to your given deadline: Most outlets demand having the review in the can before the film actually opens. Personally, I hate it when a film screens the night before it opens — either your editor will bail on it altogether, or you’re pulling a very late night.

Rafer Guzman, Newsday

When studios hold back a release from critics, that only tells me what the studios think. I still go in with an open mind, and often I’m surprised and rewarded. I’ll risk my credibility with a few examples: “R.I.P.D.” was not a total failure. I actually enjoyed “I, Frankenstein.” The studios held “Pompeii” for a Wednesday night screening, usually a bad sign, and that turned out to be one of the best pulp movies I’ve seen in years. I think, or at least I hope, that I can be objective about a movie no matter what the circumstances.

I try to be very clear about who the studios are, and what they owe me. They are private companies and they owe me nothing. They’re not the U.S. government. They’re under no obligation to show me their movie, offer up their stars or treat me any differently from the average moviegoer. And even when they do, I’m still duty-bound to be an honest critic. I was reading Carl Sandburg’s old reviews recently, and I’m pretty sure he just walked into a theater like everybody else and then wrote down his thoughts. I like the purity of that, the total absence of handshake agreements and back-scratching. In an ideal world, things would still be that way!

Ethan Alter, Television Without Pity

I’m sure that I’m far from the only critic who will say that, in general, when a studio declines to screen a film until a day or two before opening, it’s hard not to go into that last-minute screening expecting it to be an abject bomb or a movie that the studio knows will find its audience despite poor reviews (see the “Paranormal Activity” series and most Tyler Perry-directed films). But there’s also a certain category of movie — like “Noah,” “Killing Them Softly” from last year and “Margaret” from 2011 — where it seems like the studio has no idea how it will be received and so run out the clock, hoping that perhaps a few good reviews will trickle in, but otherwise writing the film off as a lost cause. And in each of those three instances, I wound up loving (or, in the case of “Noah,” mostly liking) the movie they seemingly wanted to shield. Those examples always inspire hope that a late (or, in some cases, no) screening date isn’t an automatic indicator that movie will stink, but that does tend to be the case more often than not. As to the second issue, advance screenings are a boon that can be beneficial to both critics and studios, but I try not to look at them as a right. I certainly had a lot more fun — and said so in my reviews — at the unscreened “Snakes on a Plane” and (gulp) “Grandma’s Boy” when I saw them with a paying crowd. 

Dan Kois, Slate

Yes. I definitely have a hunch the movie will be bad. I always hope I’m wrong and that it will pleasantly surprise me! That said, some of my fondest critical memories revolve around movies that I went to see at midnight Thursday night or 9 in the morning on Friday and then feverishly wrote about. Those pieces always feel pretty vivid in retrospect, and I think part of that has to do with seeing the movie in a real paying audience devoid of press. (Part of it, as in the case of this review of “G.I. Joe,” has to do with sleep deprivation. Key 4 a.m. phrase: “As far as plot goes…”)

Matt Prigge, Metro

These days, to be honest, I actually get a little more excited if something has been deemed persona (or filma, or whatever) non grata by the studios. Obviously, this might not apply if something is transparently dire, like “Grown Ups 2.” (Although, even that may have some stray, spectral merits.) But studio nervousness tends to belie that there’s something dangerous about it, and that it might prove worthy of defending, at least on some level. Anyone who enjoys plunging for quality in disreputable works should be excited when a studio is holding some genre film close to the chest, screening it only in the few days before release, if at all. Of course, this doesn’t always prove true; it doesn’t sound like “R.I.P.D.” has much going for it after all. But even there, I’d be more happy not to add to the dogpile but to be among the lone, elite defenders, trying to say something nice rather than just see who can come up with the best derisive Rotten Tomato quotable. After all, what if the film proves to have a second life? Do you want to be among the glib dittoheads hung out to dry when some upstart writes his or her book-length defense of a once widely loathed future classic? In this case, I wish “Noah” was better, but I’m happy to point out its many, sometimes minor perks in addition to its other, sometimes major faults.

Peter Labuza, The Cinephiliacs, Variety

Studios can do what they want, and while the list of films not screened is mostly dire, directors like Paul W.S. Anderson and Neveldine/Taylor do not get their films screened in most cases, and depending on your perspective, they make very good (or at least idiosyncratic) movies worth considering. In regards to the second issue, as I’ve often said, one of my favorite pieces of film criticism was when James Agee wrote about Chaplin’s “Monsieur Verdoux” three issues in a row for The Nation. The first piece was published six weeks after the film had premiered. Like great movies, great criticism will always out last “first” criticism.

James Poniewozik, Time

TV networks will often hold back advance screeners for different reasons — spoiler concerns, production issues — so it doesn’t necessarily affect my preconceptions the way it might a movie critic’s. It’s a more complicated calculation, anyway.

As for the second half: There is nothing wrong with studios making critics wait to see a movie at the same time the public does. There is everything wrong, however, with a studio making critics wait to see only some movies at the same time the public does. The studios, reasonably, have the goal of maximizing audience. Critics have the goal (among other things) of advising said audience in spending their moviegoing dollars. This practice means that the studio only lets critics serve their goal if it also serves the studios’ goal–which, de facto, undermines the goal of serving consumers. I don’t expect that critics had any choice but to take it; but they’d have every right to say that any studio that will not let all its movies be reviewed in advance does not get any reviewed in advance. (I’m a TV critic, so this is easy for me to say, since I don’t have to back up my principles with action.)

Luke Y. Thompson, Topless Robot

Does it affect my mindset? Not much more than any other aspects of the marketing. Like, if there’s a terrible scene in a trailer, I might think, “Uh-oh, this could be trouble.” Same with movies that don’t screen, although if it’s a horror movie the lack of screenings never means anything, because there is an unwritten assumption (that’s fading a little, thankfully) that no major critics ever like or are fair to horror. Also most Tyler Perry movies don’t screen, but by now you know exactly what you’re going to get from those.

In the age of print deadlines, not screening things early was a bigger deal. I remember working for weeklies, when many of the big studios would schedule screenings in time for daily paper deadlines but not weeklies, presumably because they thought alt-weekly critics were edgier and tougher (and they may well have been right).

In the Internet age, however, I can go to a midnight screening and have a review online by 4 a.m. opening day, getting my take out there as quickly as it would have run anyway, even if it had screened. Just a tiny bit more of a headache for me, and maybe a slightly more rushed review, but the studio’s policy in that instance will have halted nothing. I think they mostly realize that now.

Joanna Langfield, The Movie Minute

It is, and always has been, the studios’ call as to who gets to see a film before it opens. And sure, as much as I believe in going in open minded, hoping for the best, when I know there’s been careful culling of the critical crowd, I can’t help but wonder why. Do the producers feel the film won’t “work” for certain demographics? While we can insist it is our jobs, as professionals, to not let personal agendas color our reviews, it sure doesn’t seem as if those creating the invitation lists always buy that.

The question of critics waiting to see a movie when the public does gets down to the very definition of criticism: is part of the job to help the ticket-buying, or streaming, public decide which films to see, not see, or back burner? It’s pretty clear the studios think it is when they screen something early, confident we’ll add to the buzz they hope to create. It goes to follow the non-existent screenings are a plan to tamper down what’s expected to be harsh criticism.

There’s not a whole lot we, the critics, can do. It’s the studio’s call because, until the movie opens, it’s their ballpark, as it were. But I do make it a point, on opening day broadcasts, to tell my audience what I was not invited to see. They’re a smart bunch: they know what that means.

Alan Zilberman, Brightest Young Things, Tiny Mix Tapes

A cold open does not effect my mindset about a particular movie. The movie succeeds or fails based on my experience with it, not any marketing strategy. But if I see a good movie and it opens cold, I’m curious about what the studio staff was thinking.

I do think it’s wrong for studios to make critics wait. A cold open denies critics the opportunity to do their job well: an early screening is meant to give critics time to form a thoughtful review, which will then inform/entertain their readers. If studios prevent that opportunity, then the critic’s work suffers and the public does not have the opportunity to read their recommendation. That’s the purpose of the cold open: studios want to maximize box office returns by minimizing the blowback of negative reviews.

Scott Weinberg, FEARnet

I often whine (a lot) about how Marvel hand-picks specific writers, lifts the review embargo, and then has “normal press” wait a week to see the film. It marginalizes a lot of good critics, it makes some great L.A. writers look like puppets, and it pisses me off to see new “classes” wedged in among the film press. But that’s all marketing, PR, and fleeting nonsense. It has nothing to do with the film itself, and I would never waste my time reading someone who bashes a film because of a press screening problem.

Christopher Campbell, Nonfics, Movies.com

Frankly if the movie isn’t screened I’ll never need to judge it because I won’t see it. It’s not on principle but because as a father and someone who works all the time and has interests other than movies I don’t have the time or money to see movies outside of what I see to cover these days. That often includes stuff I’d like to see unfortunately since I live somewhere that many movies aren’t screened or don’t play.

Stephen Whitty, the Star-Ledger

Obviously, a studio has no obligation to screen a movie in advance for critics. It simply makes it easier to get the review in print (and for me, logistically, to get to see everything I need to, in a timely fashion).

My question, I suppose, is WHY they don’t screen. I realize it’s out of self-protection — they don’t want the bad reviews that they’re expecting, for one reason or another — but does not having press screenings really shield them from that anymore? All it protects is that very first Thursday-night show; once that’s over, everyone is all over social media.

So while I’d admit studios don’t have to show before opening, it seems kind of counter-productive not to. After all, you might be surprised and get some good reviews; on the other hand, for a lot of people, not screening gives the film a bit of a bad smell to begin with. (In fact, I know critics who are immediately suspicious of films that only have one all-media screening on a Wednesday night.)

Personally, apart from convenience and deadlines, the times (and circumstances) don’t make much difference to me. I haven’t seen many gems that opened without screenings, but then I’ve seen lots of bombs that had multiple previews. And I’ve seen just as many awful pictures in swank screening rooms as I have good ones in tiresome radio-promotion “events.” It’s the movie that counts.

Just, publicists — please — don’t tell me “It’s a movie we really want the audience to experience for themselves.” I like that one about as much as the old “The print’s not ready yet.” Just tell me you’re not screening — period. And um, one embargo date for all?

Sean Burns, Spliced Personality

I wish they’d just get rid of press screenings altogether, instead of this half-measure limbo that we’ve been stuck in for awhile and seems to be getting worse. “Noah” was a perfect example of the current clusterfuck – just show it to everybody or don’t show it at all. How many times have we heard the same bald-faced lies from flacks claiming a movie isn’t screening for critics when some of your colleagues already saw it a week ago? (I don’t think they understand that we talk to one other.)

This arbitrary nonsense started getting to me a couple years ago, when “selected” Boston critics were invited to see “The Fighter” at a “secret” 10 a.m. screening, while the rest of us lowlifes were forced to wait until 7 that evening. I’m not sure what special marketing advantages Paramount saw in giving a nine-hour jump to folks they deemed our betters, but the reps sure made their point that a lot of us are considered second-class citizens and I had to miss Monday Night Football.

The public seems to have this idea that press screenings are lush, luxurious affairs. In my experience, the opposite is true. Boston is lucky to have several beautiful movie theaters, yet despite years of complaints and public ridicule, press screenings are still held in the city’s dumpiest, most dilapidated, rodent-infested multiplex. Constant presentation cock-ups are the stuff of local legend. The 3D lens being left on the projector for 2D movies is such a given that Ty Burr wrote a front-page Boston Sunday Globe article about it that got a lot of attention and changed absolutely nothing. 

I’ve had to review films seen on a screen torn up by knife slashes from a gang fight weeks before. We saw “The Tree of Life” with pre-show advertising word-jumbles intermittently projected on top of the film, “The Avengers” cropped to the incorrect 2.35:1 aspect ratio, and I’m told that two weeks ago Boston critics watched “The Raid 2” with the subtitles delayed and out of sync. (I look forward to reading those reviews.) Don’t even get me started about that time we all gasped in horror, mid-movie, as a fellow reviewer’s Boloco burrito take-out bag went scurrying away across the auditorium floor.

How much of a modern critic’s time is wasted being lied to and jerked around, fighting for the privilege of being granted sometimes less than 48 hours notice about an inconveniently timed mid-afternoon screening held in a public toilet? After fifteen years of this garbage, I can’t begin to express how much I’ve recently enjoyed once again being able to just pay and go see films properly projected at clean, competently run theaters. 

If studios get rid of publicists and press screenings, I might start reviewing their movies again.

Peter Keough, Boston Globe, Critics a Go-Go

It used to bother me a lot more when I was film editor at the Phoenix and have to schedule reviews I’d complain a lot, so did the president of the Boston Society of Film Critics, to little avail. Some films are screening-proof.

It’s been bad for a while — the “Noah” thing is nothing new (did they get any blurbs from junketeers?) It’s clear they regard us as just part of their marketing and promotion department. And though it’s usually an indication that a movie is terrible when it is screened late or not at all, it can also be a sign that the studio just doesn’t understand what they have and are afraid that someone is going to tell them. Though no examples of that come immediately to mind.

Peter Howell, Toronto Star

When a studio doesn’t preview a film to critics, it means 10 times out of 10 that it doesn’t have confidence the film will stand up to critical scrutiny. Yet I try very hard to maintain an open mind, especially since studios often abandon films that really aren’t so bad. “Snakes on a Plane” opened without critical previews, and it was actually pretty good, although not as good as the advance hype would have suggested. Occasions like these are a reminder that it’s never good to approach a film with your mind already made up — and that applies to studios as well as critics.

Jordan Hoffman, ScreenCrush, New York Daily News

Does it affect the mindset? I can not tell a lie — it does a little. When a studio makes it difficult to see a movie, you have to ask, “What are they hiding?” If you get to the screening room/theater with time to kill beforehand, this is frequently the topic of chatter. “Did you talk to any of the junketeers who saw this? Why did they wait so long to send the invite? Why only a 7:30 p.m. screening? Why do they seem to have double the amount of of winners from a local radio station in attendance?” But if the movie is good, the movie is good. Sometimes it’s just the strategy. There are a lot of people on a studio’s marketing team, plus consultants and strategists and producers and directors’ brain trusts. All these people need to put in their two cents. Who the hell knows the reasons behind such things? There have been plenty of movies that I reviewed positively that were a hassle to see. “Noah,” is, in fact, one of them.

Your second question is a bigger issue. If the studios wanted to shut down all critics’ screenings tomorrow there’s no law stopping ’em. I’m surprised they haven’t tried — or at least tried to contain all such screenings ’til just a day or two before release. 

Here’s a thought experiment: Would junket interviews demonstrably change if the junketeers went in solely off the trailers? Print interviews would, although topics not in the trailer might be considered a “spoiler” and need to be banked post-release anyway. Video junket interviews? I doubt you’d see much of a change. For a few select, very sharp interviewers, maybe. Two or three. But the bulk? The stuff you see in elevators? Come on. 

But the video junket screenings, by necessity of editing time, need to happen earlier, and then some of the people who see the movie for the junkets then end up writing reviews. So when a few of these reviews come out, everybody who didn’t get a chance to see it yet gets all worked up because their review isn’t going to go live with the embargo, which definitely does have an impact on a site’s traffic. I’ve been on both sides of this equation many times.

Of course, there are some outlets that don’t care about embargoes. The New York Times puts their movie reviews in the paper and online that Friday and if you don’t like it, go read it elsewhere. Some of my outlets do the same thing, and this makes for lowered blood pressure on my part. But some of my other outlets live and die by web traffic and it is, at a certain point, up to me to make sure that my review is on the right timetable.

This is probably the most inside baseball response I’ve given — and it’s a little rambling at that — but I’m guessing anyone who is reading Criticwire, and who isn’t already living this, is genuinely curious about this sort of thing. There have been times when I’ve not been present at a junket screening for a big title, either by choice or lack of invite, and then the review embargo date got moved up because the response was good. You want to scream and yell “THAT ISN’T FAIR” to the studio, but, let’s be realistic, the studio’s job is to promote their film and market it to the public. They really don’t owe me squat.

Scott Renshaw, Salt Lake City Weekly

I’ve long said that distributors don’t owe me anything; a preview screening, if it occurs, is simply the result of a distributor making a decision that it’s in the best interest of their marketing plan to get reviews out there, not something I’m “due” by virtue of being a journalist. Professional critics do, of course, come to recognize certain patterns among movies that aren’t screened, but it’s virtually impossible to go into any movie without some preconceptions. It’s not okay, however, to go into that opening day screening of an un-screened movie with dagger drawn because you’re gonna show that distributor you best not be spurned.

The bigger issue is that “firstie” culture when it comes to film criticism coverage — and falling in line with the distributors’ obsession with opening weekend — is the only thing that makes early screenings seem necessary. And it’s serving such a minuscule percentage of the viewing audience — those that actually race out on opening weekend, rather than waiting a week or two, or seeing it on DVD or Netflix or HBO months or years later — that it’s deeply frustrating. If every distributor decided tomorrow never to hold a press screening ever again, we’d learn something interesting: Which writers simply served as consumer guides, and which ones can write toward enriching the experience of having watched a movie.

Richard Brody, the New Yorker

This could be the shortest response I’m ever likely to offer: No, and no. I have no particular reason to believe that a studio’s marketing decisions contain any useful judgment regarding a movie’s artistic merit, whether in withholding press screenings or pumping them copiously and far in advance. The history of movies is, in part, the history of crap being sold as art and vice versa; I simply don’t pay any attention to the marketing, except as a curious epiphenomenon–and once the lights go out, the intensity of the personal response to a movie blasts away any memory of the marketing, and has done so long before I started working as a critic. And there’s nothing wrong with not offering press screenings; I love attending them (not least, for the pleasure of kibitzing with colleagues from other publications) and consider them a privilege, but, again, the studios are in business and if they think that it helps their business to control the pattern of reviews in a certain way, it’s their business, and it’s certainly not relevant to my ideas about the movie once I’ve seen it. As a writer for a weekly magazine, though, I can’t help noticing that the sharpest effect of eliminating press screenings is on the pattern of reviews in weeklies and monthlies. A critic for a daily newspaper can catch a movie the day that a movie opens and get a review into print the next day; writing on-line, I can catch the earliest-morning (or midnight) show and do a blog post on opening day; but if my colleagues want to review a movie in the magazine, the lack of a press screening means that their review wouldn’t appear in print for more than a week after the movie’s release (and the same is true of my capsule reviews); for those at monthlies, possibly much later. There’s also the matter of thinking-time: seeing a movie far enough in advance lets a critic simmer the movie before writing. On the other hand, this, again, is a matter of critical and editorial practice–why not write one review day-of, in the heat of passion, and another a week later when you’ve mulled things over (and maybe gotten even more passionate)?

Josh Spiegel, Sound on Sight

I’d like to say it doesn’t affect my mindset when I go into a movie that a studio didn’t want the press to see, but if I’m being honest, I don’t see a ton of movies under those circumstances. “Noah” (which I’ve still not seen yet, but hope to soon) will be the first in a while that I pay to see in theaters due to a lack of a press-wide screening. Now that the movie’s out and the critical consensus is all over the place (but leaning to positive), I remain intrigued by “Noah,” but I’ll remain slightly cautious. In general, though, I would presume a movie’s not that great if studios outright refuse to screen it or hide it, if only because of historical evidence. It’s rare, at least, for a studio film to not get screened and also be a masterpiece. Not impossible, but rare. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a studio choosing to make critics see a movie at the same time the general public can; it’s the studio’s property, so they can do as they please. And, in the case of “Noah,” the movie did pretty well at the box office domestically and abroad, so Paramount will likely not regret its strategy. But to me, screening a movie for the press before it opens to the general public is a vote of confidence; or, conversely, not screening a movie for the press (or a majority of the press) displays a lack of confidence.

Marc V. Ciafardini, Go See Talk, Big Fan Boy

If the studio is unhappy or ashamed of the product they should have made efforts earlier on (like during production!) to ensure a better product. Easier said than done of course but no one sets out to make a bad film, it just kind of happens. Even so there is always a chance that something terrible can still make a ton of money. *cough, “Transformers 2,” cough* I sure wish the studios would take these steps more often actually to spare us seeing crap like “Grown Ups 2.”

Now regarding the questions du jour… I could care less if the studio wants or doesn’t want us to see something, so this move didn’t sway me one bit. However, seeing something right before or along with the general public nearly makes penning the review a moot point. Still we have a job to do and a stunt like this doesn’t do us any favors. Worst case scenario is that it “may” result in a knee-jerk and purely reaction based (not to mention biased) review, not a thoughtful think piece. Then again when tasked with writing a review for a stinker like “The Lone Ranger” I try to have my review written in my journal before the end credits roll.

Joey Magidson, The Awards Circuit, First Showing

I actually wasn’t aware that Paramount had held “Noah” back from most critics, which I suppose makes me pretty lucky that I saw it at an advance screening they invited me to. Regardless, it wasn’t on my mind when I went in to see it, and while once in a while I’ll have that in the back of my head when seeing a movie that doesn’t screen until Thursday night, for example, it usually doesn’t factor into my thinking much. Beyond that, I don’t have any issue with studios making critics wait to see a film, though greedily I obviously want to see them as early as possible. I suppose if the studio can accept potentially worse reviews due to this process, we can’t really complain all that much. I’d praise a good movie if I didn’t see it until the day of release and I’d take to task a bad movie if I saw it three months in advance (though I’d probably be kind enough to wait until the week of release), so that’s where I stand.

Cameron Williams, Popcorn Junkie, Graffiti With Punctuation

A studio not wanting to screen a film for critics before it opens shouldn’t change the mindset of any writer. Press screenings are a courtesy of the studio, and are often in advance of the general release to meet the publication of print, radio and television deadlines to align with planned publicity. The cost of inviting critics to a screening is considerably lower than buying advertising in media outlets. It’s low cost publicly regardless of the final opinions. A negative review may dissuade a reader from seeing a film but it could also inspire someone to make up their own mind, it’s the old saying “any publicity is good publicity.” Whenever a film doesn’t screen for critics it doesn’t impact my opinion, and it never should. I can understand why people from traditional media outlets get angry at the lack of a press screenings because it takes away their coverage. It hurts freelancers the most because they miss deadlines and opportunities. If I don’t get invited to a press screening I’m still going to buy a ticket to see that film the week it comes out. The lack of a press screening tells the media that the studio doesn’t have any faith in their product, but that’s a decision made by a company, not a critic. Sometimes I feel like a broken record when I say that critics should judge what they see on the damn screen. There is nothing wrong with making critics wait to see a film. Again, it’s a courtesy of the studio to screen films in advance. If a critic can’t stomach seeing a film outside the comfort of a press screening then it may be time to hang up the keyboard.

Jason Shawhan, The Nashville Scene, Interface 2037

Being a critic in a tertiary market, more often than not films don’t get screened here. Some studios are reliable for screening films in advance, some are piecemeal in their efforts, and others just ignore the market completely. It happens, and it very rarely has anything to do with the perceived quality of the film. 

Tony Nunes, Sound On Sight, Hey You Geeks

A film without critics quotes behind it is like a baseball stat with an asterisk. Its always questionable to me, and something I’m usually aware of. I tend to assume a movie without a press screening is going to be terrible. Critics are the filter between society and art. Sure, you won’t always agree with a critic, but without that vote of support or damnation to start the word-of-mouth cycle, I hold off. Critics are there to start the conversation. Thats why we exist. 

Kenji Fujishima, Slant Magazine, In Review Online

I admit that knowing a certain film wasn’t screened in advance for critics before its theatrical release probably has influenced my expectations going into that film; I’d like to think that that ultimately doesn’t affect how I watch the film as it unfurls, though. As to that second question… well, as someone who still pays to see new releases (film criticism isn’t my day job), I generally don’t see anything wrong with making critics wait to see a movie at the same time the public does. It may not reflect well on a studio’s confidence in that particular movie, and that would certainly not help a critic meet certain deadlines, but there’s nothing inherently wrong with it, to my mind. I mean, what’s a critic going to say? “Ugh, I have to see this most likely crappy movie with a paying public?” Oh, how horrible.

Mike McGranaghan, The Aisle Seat, Film Racket

To the first question, the answer is no. Although studios often know when they’ve got a turkey on their hands, they occasionally have no idea what they’ve got. The decision to hold a movie from critics presupposes that we’ll hate it, but that is only based on an outdated stereotype of what critics will and will not view favorably. In other words, it’s just dumb, paranoid thinking. The second question is a little tougher. I’m not sure there’s anything wrong with making critics wait to see a movie. I don’t think it benefits anyone, either. A critic’s job is more difficult when he/she can’t see a film beforehand and get a review written. This often leads to what I call a “rush review” as we scramble to get something banged out as quickly as possible. Nor does this process benefit the studio. Audiences are pretty savvy these days. When someone gets on Rotten Tomatoes and sees there are no reviews of a particular film on opening day, the jig is up. In the end, it all comes down a misguided notion that studios can somehow do “damage control.” If it makes them feel better, so be it. They aren’t fooling anyone, though.

Sean Chavel, Flick Minute

Blocking me out I can’t deny certainly taints my expectations. But it’s also amazing how many times the studios are wrong about their own movie. The best unscreened movie to date is “Idiocracy” that still makes me laugh hard to this day. And I believe I had to also pay for “Rampart,” and Woody Harrelson’s performance is still the best I’ve seen of the new decade. I am not lost though on 1-star movie misery that studios hide from us.

Danny Bowes, RogerEbert.com

It’s increasingly rare that Bollywood films are screened for press in the States, so I’m in a slightly different position from most on this question: being on that beat, I hardly ever get a screening of anything. On the other hand, American studios choosing not to screen a picture for critics is a fairly reliable, if imprecise, gauge of how confident they are in it. This doesn’t mean something they don’t screen automatically sucks; sometimes they don’t bother because it’s a guaranteed genre (usually low-ish budget horror) moneymaker, sometimes, like Noah, it’s an expensive auteur picture they don’t know what to do with. So, in spite of the fact that something an American studio doesn’t screen probably won’t be any good, we still can’t assume anything, and I try my hardest not to, personally. As for there being anything wrong with making critics see movies with civilians, I personally think there are far worse fates one can be assigned in life. Especially if the outlet is reimbursing me for the ticket. Not to put words in anyone’s mouth, but anyone regarding this as any kind of disrespect to critics ought to take a couple deep breaths.

Jeff Berg, ABQ Arts, Las Cruces Bulletin

To my knowledge, there are only two reasons that studios/distributors don’t want critics to see things: fear of panning and knowing a picture won’t need reviews (since we are a voice in the wilderness for most anyway). It doesn’t really make any difference to me, although it does make me wary that someone(s) think they have a lousy film on their hands. I don’t mind waiting, since I usually won’t wait! I’d just skip it. One of the pubs I write for has an arts editor who never gets to see things in advance so he writes a review that is in print a week after release. Odd, that..

Sam Fragoso, Movie Mezzanine, RogerEbert.com

Logic leads me to believe that no studio would ever attempt to hide a movie they wholeheartedly believed in. If it’s a great piece of filmmaking, why do everything in your power to prevent critics from writing about it? As for the second part of the question: no, there’s nothing morally or ethically wrong with making critics wait to see the film at the same time the public does. Unfortunately, I imagine there are few reputable outlets interested in compensating a writer for a review after the film has been released. When it comes to weekly reviews, publications pay for exclusivity and punctuality. Forcing critics to see a film they’re reporting on Thursday evening/Friday morning would make that nearly impossible.

Tony Dayoub, Cinema Viewfinder, Press Play

If I make it to a screening I usually go in with an open mind. However, unless there’s some compelling reason to attend the screening–a major director or star; some attendant controversy–I often skip screenings scheduled for the night before a movie opens. I tend to come to these particular screenings with a preconception that the studio doesn’t want me to have a whole lot of time to either ponder the film or write an adequate review of what’s likely a deeply flawed film. If I’m already pre-judging it, why even bother reviewing it. I guess that plays into what they’re trying to do anyway. But it’s the only way I can think of maintaining my objectivity.

Adam Batty, Hope Lies at 24 Frames Per Second

I do think that it is a bit of a stigma for a film to be held back from the critical community. I’d even go as far as to say that it does more harm than good, given that the stink caused by such seclusion is often far worse than any negative buzz. Let’s put it this way, I can’t think of a single film that has benefitted from not being shown to the press in advance (though this answer is veering dangerously close to “do critics matter?” territory, and I’m hazard to get started with that). 

In answer to the second part of your question, I don’t think there is anything wrong with having to see a film on release. Sure, it’s inconvenient at times, but living outside of London here in the UK has meant a gradual decline in the number of press screening I’m privy to, with the studios seemingly just as keen to pursue word of mouth-style consumer opinion-driven promotion as they are the thoughts of critics. These are accommodated by free, advance preview screenings that are open to the public as well as regional press. That being the way it is, I regularly see films play with a crowd, either at such previews, or on opening day, should a film not be deemed worthy of even that small amount of effort on the distributors behalf. The lone drawback from my having to wait to see a film on opening day is that any review won’t be filed until much later than it ordinarily would have done so had I seen it in advance. There’s also a chance that a particularly bland or uninspiring film seen in such a way will be relegated to a mere social media review, as opposed to getting the full 600-word treatment usually bestowed upon any new release, should my work load be particularly fraught.

John DeCarli, Film Capsule

It’s usually not a good sign when a film is not screened for critics before its release, but that’s only a rule of thumb and, though I haven’t seen it yet, Noah seems to be the exception that proves the rule. I don’t think there’s anything intrinsically wrong with not screening a film for critics before it’s initial release, it just tends to indicate that studios don’t have faith in their product. 

Gary M. Kramer, Gay City News, Philadelphia Gay News

I don’t know that most of the films not screened for critics — Uwe Boll’s movies, Nic Cage’s latest fiasco — are really protecting unsuspecting viewers from deciding about whether or not to see them. Genre films like these have their fan base, and I think films that are sooo bad they could be guilty pleasures really should capitalize on marketing campaigns that create a ‘can you top this’ negative review. Hell, “The Room” is more popular than ever for being called The Worst Movie Ever Made. (Oh, Hi, Tommy!)

In the case of “Noah,” I can appreciate trying to level the playing field and let folks go in without buzz — good or bad — and yet, only only some films can and will benefit from such a strategy. I think folks are savvy enough to know what they are seeing and critical praise or drubbing is not going to influence them too much if they have their heart set on seeing a particular film.

Edwin Arnaudin, Asheville Citizen-Times, Ashvegas

If a film isn’t screened for critics, that’s usually a red flag of poor quality ahead. Still, if that film was made by an interesting filmmaker, I’m going to want to find out for myself regardless of how the studio behaves. In “Noah’s” case, I can see Paramount execs upset that Darren Aronofsky took their $100 million to essentially make an art film and the studio wanting to enact some sort of revenge on him for not creating an easily digestible work. I find that a gross miscalculation on the studio’s behalf since Aronofsky has such high standing in the critical community and, as evidenced by reviews thus far, writers with early access have bolstered the film’s reputation, not hurt it.

It also helps that Aronofsky went through studio turmoil before with “The Fountain,” an experience that forever endeared him to me. With that in mind, Paramount’s added actions sent me into Noah even more determined to like it. Fortunately, other than the last 20 minutes or so, Aronofsky made that mission an easy one.

As for the legitimacy of early screenings, critics are ironically somewhat like the studio in that we try to steer viewers to or away from a film. The public can then heed or ignore these suggestions, which are slightly more thorough than the studio’s message. I think that generally the public likes to be informed and prefers that information in advance… so, yes, I vote to keep allowing critics advance access.

Q: What is the best movie in theaters?

A: “The Grand Budapest Hotel”

Other movies receiving multiple votes: “Noah,” “Nymphomaniac”

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