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Does Sharing Early Screening Reactions Devalue Critics?

Does Sharing Early Screening Reactions Devalue Critics?

It’s not uncommon to hear ecstatic reactions out of any early screening of a major film, but there’s arguably a downside to giving it much notice. HitFix’s Kristopher Tapley reported early reactions on Paul Thomas Anderson’s much-anticipated “Inherent Vice” from those who have already seen it, all of which were highly favorable. The Film Stage then picked up the report in a news roundup and, naturally, sent it out on Twitter. But film critic David Ehrlich had two cents to throw in on why maybe it’s not such a great idea to share.

I’m of two minds on this: on one hand, I have a lot of respect for HitFix and The Film Stage in general and Tapley in particular, and as overheated as a lot of Oscar prognostication gets, it’s hardly out of the question to devote some space to it. And while I’m more eager to listen to writers I respect than the general public or Hollywood insiders, ignoring those groups completely risks cultural myopia.

On the other hand, first reactions to screenings of highly anticipated films usually verge on the rapturous, whether it’s “Django Unchained,” “Saving Mr. Banks” or “Guardians of the Galaxy.” Some of these can’t be helped: Scour any message board on reddit for more than a few negative opinions on new superhero movies and you’ll be looking all day. It’s when we get to ostensibly serious films that the rush to get any scoop on whether the film’s critical, audience or Oscar chances are good becomes counterproductive.

The value of critics is that they help shape conversations about new movies into something constructive, beyond mere pronouncements of “good” and “bad” and into more thoughtful evaluations from other writers and audiences. The best reviews, even at their most effusive, avoid hyperbole and evaluate what the film says in isolation, in a director’s career, in relation to other films that year, and so on. By contrast, random screening reactions are all hyperbole, “it’s one of the films I’ve seen in years” or “I’ve never seen anything like it.” It starts a conversation before anything meaningful can be said about the work, and all of the sudden the question isn’t whether or not the film is good or what it’s about, but that it’s a masterpiece right out of the gate or and it’s going to earn x Oscar nominations (which always goes well). Suddenly any actual questions about the film are marginalized.

So maybe it’s best to err on the side of temperance when it comes to taking heed of any of these. Or maybe this is all just me getting in a huff that there are people who have already seen the new Paul Thomas Anderson movie, the stupid jerks.

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