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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

furor over an early review of ‘Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer’

I won’t even get to see Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer until tonight, but obviously the film was not held from all critics, because there are already many reviews available online. Some of them even trash the film.

So why did a projectionist in Memphis get fired from his multiplex job for posting a review of the film on Ain’t It Cool News?
Apparently 20th Century Fox threatened the theater chain Jesse Morrison — AICN nom de critique “Memflix” — works for:

On Monday, two days after his “Silver Surfer” pan appeared, Morrison was called into a meeting with Malco senior VP Jimmy Tashie and, according to Morrison, was “suspended until further notice,” with the suggestion that he would not be asked to return.

Morrison said Tashie pointed out that “20th Century Fox called them that morning and threatened to take away the press and trade screenings because of this whole thing. They were upset.”

Asked if Fox had any role in the suspension, Tashie said: “Absolutely none.” The executive said his company received a call from Fox that said “there’s somebody there working for (Malco) who is writing reviews in advance. That’s all they said. No one asked us to do anything….”

But clearly Fox expected the theater chain to do something. Corporations don’t throw their weight around looking for apologies.

More:

“No one asked us to do anything. We have been in business 95 years, and this is the first time anything like this happened…”

Right. Because the theater chain had a real clampdown on their employees reviewing films on the Internet in 1937.

More:

“…this is the first time anything like this happened. And this boy knew what he was doing was the wrong thing…. He was in a position of trust and he violated that trust.”

This “boy” is 29 years old, which is, apparently, old enough to understand that although “some entertainment companies, including film productions, do ask workers to sign confidentiality agreements, agreeing not to disclose information,” Morrison was cognizant of the fact that “he had never been asked to sign such an agreement, though he would have if asked.”

(Just as an FYI, if you search on AICN for Memflix’s review of the film, it looks as if it has been taken down. But a quick Googling brings up the review.)

Here are some questions. We can assume Morrison is telling the truth about not having a confidentiality agreement because Tashie is quoted in the article as saying: “In the future, anybody in that position will sign something.” So, if Morrison was not bound to keep any secrets, what’s the difference between him telling his family and friends that a film he recently saw in the course of his projectionist duties sucks, and him telling the readers of Ain’t It Cool News that that same film sucks? Would Fox have let it slide if Morrison had posted the review on a blog that no one reads? How much control should a corporation expect to have over the dissemination of opinions about its products? And if a job such as “projectionist in a movie theater chain wherein valuable and confidential corporate products are exposed and vulnerable” comes with a gag, shouldn’t that job pay more than seven lousy bucks an hour?

I’m just askin’ is all.

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  • Oy vey. Where to begin on this topic?

    Studios view critics as publicity by other means. That is our function in their universe and as far as they’re concerned, we have no other. Anyone who presumes to write reviews on anything more widely read than a personal blog needs to understand that. There’s nothing inherently wrong with it in theory. As the Mafia says, it’s just business. The trouble, I think, is how they’re trying to exert that paradigm on a medium that defies any sense of control… mainly the internet. Anyone can post anything at anytime. Teenagers can come home from a movie, log on, and tell anyone and everyone how badly it blows. The rapidity with which word of mouth spreads is a source of terror for big studios, because there’s nothing they can do to control it. So they use the embargo as a means of containing it. Want to come to our screening? Please hold your reviews until opening day. It’s certainly not an unreasonable policy. The problem is that the embargo rule isn’t applied consistently. Different studios have different policies, different movies are enforced differently (they rarely mind your posting early if your review is positive), and not every critic is treated with the same distinction. If you look at the FF page on Rotten Tomatoes (right now, Thursday night, 6 pm Pacific), the vast majority of posted reviews are from newspapers (i.e., “established” critics). Newspapers still have the clout to assert some pretense of independence, so they receive preferential treatment. Is it any wonder that mistakes invariably happen… and that those critics with the least amount of clout and influence are punished the most?

    We have to walk a very fine line sometimes. Press screenings and early reviews are one of the best ways we have of securing an audience, and yet in order to enjoy them, we have to play by the studio’s rules to a certain extent. The problem is that those rules are often arbitrary, self-serving, and short-sighted… and that there are some of us who view our jobs as something other than co-opted studio cheerleaders. Ideally, the studios will develop a more enlightened policy about internet criticism, and — in exchange for expecting certain reasonable standards of professionalism — allow us to do our jobs without trying to delay or alter what we publish. But the more they try to shape perception — the more they try to control what people do or say about their films out here — the more honest and well-intentioned critics will get caught in the middle.

    (PS, for the sake of disclosure, I should mention that I broke embargo on a Fox film about a year ago, and they sent me through the ringer for it. It was an honest lack of communication, and I’m willing to take responsibility for the slip-up, but it’s another example of how a lack of coherent rules on the topic creates more problems than it solves.)

  • MaryAnn

    Want to come to our screening? Please hold your reviews until opening day. It’s certainly not an unreasonable policy.

    I agree completely, and I have never broken such an embargo. But that’s not what’s going on here. This guy was not sworn to secrecy, and he was under no embargo. He was a member of the public who had a certain access to some films and was never told he shouldn’t talk about those films.

    The issue really is: the studios know, absolutely know, that they are producing utter crap. And they want to keep the lid on that news for as long as possible. The solution is not to gag those who are offering their opinion on the product — and when we’re talking about a film like *Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer,* we ARE talking about “product,” not art. The solution is to make better product.

  • Shadowen

    The solution is to make better product.

    Or even–gasp!–strive for art.

  • I agree 100%. As I said, it’s an effort to control the public’s perception. They have a turkey, they know they have a turkey, and they want to contain bad word of mouth as long as possible. The trouble comes that when they *don’t* have a turkey, then they’re eager as pie to get the word out. A few studios stay consistent through good films as well as bad, though I suspect it’s mostly to provide cover for the embargo notion. But without setting a consistent policy, nobody know what the rules are supposed to be… and if the studios can change the rules whenever they like, then people like this guy in Memphis end up getting smashed.

    I agree the best solution is to just make better movies. But that’s *hard*. It takes *effort*. And it doesn’t always guarantee bums on seats. As long as proftiability is mistaken for quality, there will be shitty movies.

    Perhaps the solution is to get the public to stop seeing bad films? There, at least, I feel the critic is on unimpeachable grounds. :)

  • MaryAnn

    Perhaps the solution is to get the public to stop seeing bad films? There, at least, I feel the critic is on unimpeachable grounds. :)

    Yes. But no amount of Internet chatter — at least at the moment — can trump a corporate marketing campaign.

  • Or apparently a backroom deal to shitcan someone who spilled the beans early.

    Does AICN have any comment? They made their rep on spilling the beans, after all. Are they standing by their man?

  • MaryAnn

    AICN is standing by Morrison. See the link for the quoted news article for more.

  • Zoe

    Maybe this is too obvious, but:

    Was memflix’s review positive or negative?

    I imagine it was negative.

    So I wonder: If he posted a positive review would he still have his job now and be considered “a team player” for getting on board and promoting a lackluster film?

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