Film Critics Challenge Studios Over In-Person Screenings: We Have to Do Our Jobs Safely

From issues of disability to access outside major cities, Covid is not the only reason all film critics should be able to review on screeners.
People are watching a movie in a screening room of Kino Kijow cinema on the first day od reopening after lockdown due to the spread of coronavirus pandemic. Krakow, Poland on February 12, 2021. Poland's government partially eased COVID-19 restrictions that have hit businesses. Among the new measures is the reopening of cinemas and hotels, as well as outdoor sports facilities and swimming pools. (Photo by Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto via AP)
People watching a movie in a screening room of Kino Kijow cinema
Associated Press

When Covid forced theaters to close last year, movie criticism rolled on as publicists cheerfully provided screener links to critics. Now, studios are returning to their pre-pandemic ways: Watch the film in a theater, or don’t see it.

Amazon offered links to Cannes musical “Annette,” but screenings for A24’s “The Green Knight” were in-person only. Disney, which offered in-person screenings and screener options since the beginning of the year, told writers this week that “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” will screen in-person only, despite plans for a virtual junket.

Before Covid, critics say, asking for a screener for a major studio release would only inspire publicist laughter. Now that theaters have reopened, it’s more of a random feeding schedule: One studio source who spoke on condition of anonymity said if a critic explained their situation, they would be accommodated with a screener.

However, critics say they resent having to justify or plead for special dispensation, especially after a year of proving that critics can effectively review major movies on screeners and the Delta variant makes it clear that Covid isn’t going away.

“I always felt this would be the most dangerous moment. It’s that point where the false sense of security arises,” said L.A. Times film critic Justin Chang.

In Los Angeles, homebase for many critics, that sense of security is being replaced by deja vu as the Delta variant spikes Covid cases to the peaks seen last winter. Covid hospitalizations doubled over the last week and Los Angeles County currently tracks nearly 3,500 cases a day.

Chang said he understands that studios face financial and logistical pressures, but asking critics to feel uncomfortable while they watch a movie is not a good strategy. “The privilege of even going to screenings existed before the pandemic,” said Chang. “I worship the cinema, I love going to the cinema, but for heaven’s sake, people have got to be able to do their jobs. Let’s not be so precious about this.”

CANDYMAN, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, 2020. ph: Parrish Lewis / © Universal Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection
It’s rumored that Universal will allow critics to review Jordan Peele’s “Candyman” via screener©Universal/Courtesy Everett Collection

For the public, watching movies at home is a new normal as studios shorten theatrical windows and accelerate VOD release schedules. With theaters reopened, studios resist consistently extending that standard to the professional community. While A24 required critics see “The Green Knight” in person, it now offers digital screener links as the movie hits wider release. Universal required in-person screenings only for “F9” as well as “Snake Eyes,” but there have been rumblings that screeners could be made available for “Candyman.”

Yolanda Machado, news editor at Nerdist, feels studios don’t understand the risk; she said Covid impacted family members and the rise in cases has her nervous. “I am fully vaccinated, but I am around kids in my family a lot,” she said. “I just can’t risk getting them sick since they can’t be vaccinated yet.”

Several critics said they were turned down for screeners of M. Night Shyamalan’s “Old,” with studio Universal citing “filmmaker preference.” Machado said that when she asked, she was told to fill out a form to explain the reason. “They’re going to judge whether or not I should receive a screener based on what I say,” she said. “It didn’t sit right with me.” (This reporter received an “Old” screener on request without a form.) After the publication of this article, a representative for Universal Pictures clarified that links for “Old” were available to all interested parties.

Rick Marshall, a film writer based in Albany, New York, took his frustrations to Twitter when he learned that the only way to see “The Suicide Squad” was an in-person screening — even as Warner Bros. released all of its 2021 titles day and date on HBO Max.

“‘The Suicide Squad’ is available to stream during its theatrical run due to safety concerns, so forcing press to risk COVID to cover it seems unnecessary & cruel,” he wrote. Marshall lives two-and-a-half hours outside of New York City; he also has two young children who can’t be vaccinated and has been close to losing family members during the pandemic.

“The Suicide Squad” director James Gunn responded to Marshall’s tweet: “Your voice (and others) are heard. We’re trying to figure something out. We don’t want people to be left out.” Neither Gunn nor Warner Bros. responded to requests for comment.

Chang said he wonders whether directors are aware of the struggle over screeners. “If filmmakers knew what studios were doing on their behalf and how they were treating their films … they would be really upset,” he said. “All this mess is because we’re in a big public health crisis. There needs to be some sacrifice made for people’s safety and health, and people’s ability to do their work.”

When studios created screener access in response to Covid, it created a positive domino effect for underrepresented critics who faced other access issues. Screeners mean that critics who live outside major cities, don’t have transportation, face disabilities, or have childcare responsibilities can have the same privileges as their peers who have no problem spending the afternoon at the Wilshire screening room.

Writer Nguyen Le, who fears theaters not only because of Covid, but also because of continued anti-Asian violence, called screeners “a genuine blessing.” “I’m not sure if I want things to go back to the familiar normal,” he said. “It didn’t work out well enough for me then.”

“I totally respect filmmakers’ wish to have critics screen their work in theaters,” said Jill Pantozzi, deputy editor at io9 and Gizmodo, who uses a wheelchair. “No one wants another person to view their work in a way it wasn’t intended. But I want to stress that even if you provide the option for a screener, most journalists are going to opt to go to a theater anyway when we’re well and truly out of the pandemic.”

“There’s no downside to providing equal access,” said Lawrence Carter-Long, communications head for the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund. He cautioned that while he is not a lawyer, if a critic needed a screener as a reasonable accommodation to do their job “I can’t imagine how it wouldn’t be [a legal issue],” he said.

Critics hope that studios will be flexible, but worry that might require something more powerful like state mandated shut-downs. “More entertainment journalists and critics have to realize that something that affects what might be a small portion of them really has ramifications on the greater sort of relationship between studios and critics and journalists,” said Marshall.

The issue also has the potential for consumer ramifications. “What we’re seeing here is just Hollywood,” said Chang. “This screener journalist access issue is just Hollywood’s desperation to get back to normalcy and not realizing, ‘No, everything has changed.'”

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