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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

Disney does not want me to see ‘Race to Witch Mountain’

Disney does not want me to see Race to Witch Mountain. Take from that what you will. I must wield some awesome power that I’m not aware of if Disney thinks what I have to say about a movie could be a problem for it.

It seems like it should feel pretty cool to have that much power. But it doesn’t feel good, actually. Disney’s been lying to me for the last week. First I was told that the film would not be screening at all, for any critics. But I learned from my fellow critics — of course we talk to one another, just like any other group of professionals do — that the movie is, indeed, screening all over North America early this week. And then I learned from a fellow critic here in New York City that, sure enough, there will, in fact, be a screening of the film here on Monday night. When I asked Disney to clarify this, I was then told that the movie wasn’t being screened for “online press.” Which is, naturally, also bullshit: As a member of the Online Film Critics Society, I communicate with other online critics, and I know for a fact that plenty of online-only and hybrid print/online critics (as I am) have been invited to screenings and will attend.
Disney has the right to invite whomever it wants to its screenings, and the right to exclude whomever it wants from its screenings. I understand and respect that. What is mysterious, though, is being lied to about something that it is quite obviously easy for me to refute. Being lied to in that way is an insult, and it never feels good to be insulted.

What is even more inexplicable, however, is how Disney can make any distinction about “online press.” All press is online these days. And if Disney doesn’t care that, say, the Los Angeles Times or Entertainment Weekly will have a review of Race to Witch Mountain up on the Web on opening day, if not earlier — when those outlets have much larger readerships than I do — then why should Disney care if I do?

Here’s the thing: I think it is all about readership. What it really means that “Disney does not want me to see Race to Witch Mountain” is that Disney does not want you to know what I think about Race to Witch Mountain. You, dear readers, are the ones with the power that I am in awe of. The readerships of the L.A. Times or EW are not particularly discriminating: everybody reads them. (Which isn’t to say that individual readers of those publications cannot be discriminating, of course.) But that’s not true here. I’m not exactly the most populist critic, and I’ll flatter myself by assuming that those of you who do come around here regularly aren’t doing so necessarily because you agree with me all the time, but because you like really thinking about movies in a way that isn’t dominant in most online movie coverage. And for some reason, even though you are not like most moviegoers in this respect, and so cannot possibly have an enormous impact on the opening-weekend box-office numbers of this film (or any film that opens in thousands of theaters), Disney doesn’t want to take the chance that you might rely on what I have to say about the movie when deciding whether to see it or not.

It’s either that, or Disney truly doesn’t understand that everything is online these days. Could be I’m giving the company much too much of the benefit of the doubt in assuming there’s an actual, bona fide reason behind excluding me from screenings, and not just random thoughtlessness. Which may be too much to assume…



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  • Paul

    Option #3: You are no where near as important as you think you are, and whatever tiny number of readers you have isn’t worth the $10 Disney would have to spend on your ticket. Good lord does someone need their ego deflated.

    For what it’s worth, I have never heard of you in my life. I followed this page from Google News, because I have a “Disney” section, and they inexplicably occasionally link to tiny little unknown website articles that happen to mention Disney in the title. That is the only way the vast majority of people would ever hear about you.

    To think that you are worth even the smallest amount of concern to a major conglomerate like Disney is just mind-bafflingly egotistical. Please get over yourself.

  • I do come here because of you make me think about films. No, we don’t always agree, particularly in the way I’m far more tolerant of rom-coms than you are, but that’s not important to me. I want a critic who has a definite and consistent point-of-view, who is intelligent in their criticism and who makes me think about films. You do that very well, MaryAnn. Even when I disagree, I enjoy your writing.

    Why might Disney have done that? As they say, never ascribe bad motives when stupidity will do. It might well have been a simple oversight that embarrassed someone, and then they hemmed and hawed about the mistake instead of just saying they goofed.

    More likely, however, they are starting to collect a database of information about all critics. They pick up tendencies and start to realize when a critic is likely to enjoy or not enjoy a particular type of film. Maybe their database said you were unlikely to rave about ‘Race to Witch Mountain’ so the computer left you off the invite list.

    Time will tell if this sort of thing happens and you critics talk to each other about it. You can create a counter-database, as it were. But if this is not the reason, I have no idea. Maybe you pissed somebody off at Disney, or maybe the guy in charge of the invites had a fight with his mistress and threw your invite in the trash in an emotional snit.

  • Chris

    Paul:

    Why in the world would Disney have to spend $10 on her ticket? THEY’RE screening it

  • Ryan

    Disney by now has probably caught on to the fact that you give bad movies bad reviews. They don’t want a bad review, hence they try and keep you away from the movie.

    Why you? Because as you mentioned, you’re a small enough site that you can’t complain about your exclusion in a larger way/forum. It’s just Disney trying to exclude the bad reviews that they CAN exclude.

    (A full embargo of a movie like this would be a kiss of death to it, so they can’t go that far)

    As has been much mentioned, this is most likely a mixture of half-hearted PR and old fashioned incompetence.

  • Muzz

    Not wishing to seem to jump in with Paul up there but:
    Is it possible they just booked one cinema for the screening and they “filled” it (or half filled it with one gay/B.O./snacktray seat per critic)?
    I don’t know how all this works. It’s definitely rude that they aren’t straight about it, one way or the other. But is it rudeness covering malice or stupidity?
    I’m not clear which it is based on the article/post up there, is all I’m saying.

  • David

    Paul:

    I don’t think the point is that they didn’t invite her but that they LIED to her about it. If they had just said “look there isn’t enough seats” or “your not big enough” then sure it would still suck but would not be insulting.

  • Gordon

    What’s with the Disney fanboy flame attack? That was crazy!

    Maryann is not Roger Ebert, but she’s no flash in the pan, either. It’s clear Disney is picking and choosing who gets to screen this film. That’s their right, but the person who lied to you about it probably didn’t even know he/she was lying about it.

    Of course, I used your “not screening for critics” information yesterday when a trailer for this movie came up as a way to tell my friends to stay away. So the damage was already done.

    Screw Disney and their lame fanboys.

  • Alli

    I think Muzz may be on the right track here, and that this is just a good example of Heinlein’s Razor. More than likely the person you talked to didn’t know what was going on, and so they couldn’t give you a straight answer. It sounds like a lack of communication on their end to me.

    You have to remember this is the same company that screwed of the Narnia Chronicles by not putting their lead characters on the advertising. How does anyone lose a profit with a pro-christian, family friendly fantasy series in this country?

  • Jennie

    Maryann may not be one of the “big critics”, but critics like her have the same weight as the big guys on something like the Rotten Tomatoes meter. If I was Disney, I’d invite the big markets (you can’t help it) and then pick the small market critics that were more likely to give a positive review. Then my pre-opening day “ratings” would be higher. It may drop over the next week, but they’d be up there for opening weekend.

  • Tyson

    I greatly enjoy your perspective on movies and regularly visit your page on my procrastination cycle.

    Thanks from Melbourne, Australia ;)

  • Matt

    Personally I disagree with you for 3 of every 10 reviews, and our personal convictions couldn’t be more different… but who said that I have to agree with someone to enjoy their writing or respect their opinion?

    I’d say you most likely weren’t invited either because of some database like the above poster suggested or simply because your reviews generally make people think about the movie. And we all know that thought is generally the enemy of Disney movies. The new ones anyway.

  • NorthernStar

    MaryAnn – I love reading your reviews and have found, in a broad sense, you seem enjoy films and view TV in the same sort of way as I do. I don’t always agree with you but more often than not, a bad review from you will make me think twice about seeing something in the cinema. So you definately have the power to affect the UK box office numbers by + or – 2 (sometimes 4!) tickets.

    Paul is only right in one aspect – your review pages do blip up high on google news. It’s how I (and I expect many others) first came here.

  • PaulW

    The only explanation I can think of why Disney would be telling MaryAnn that they’re not screening the film for her while letting other online film critics screen it is that MaryAnn writes her reviews and describes what she sees through a Gen-X cultural lens.

    Race To Witch Mountain is a remake/reboot of the Witch Mountain movie done in the mid-70s, a film (along with its sequel) a lot of people in the Gen-X range (born 64-75) would have seen. I’ve seen it, along with my brothers. If MaryAnn were to go see it, and then come back with a bad Red-Light “OMG our childhood is ruined once again,” there’s a good chance the Gen-Xers here reading it will not go, and also not take their kids (fer example my nephews and nieces) to see it. Admittedly, that won’t be a huge dent in the film-going public; however, it may be enough that Disney doesn’t want her or other like-minded critics slipping word out about how this movie might not rock.

    And as the others have noted, if your reviews pop up high on the Google search results then there are a lot of people seeing your comments.

    I have to ask: have any other online film critics received this same treatment from Disney? I mean, were any others told the film would not be screened only for it to be screened, and were any others then told it wasn’t being screened for ‘online press’ when there were online reviewers being invited?

    I’ll tell you one thing: whoever thought to lie to you about this movie’s screenings really screwed up. Because now everyone visiting this site is seeing that NO sign over the Witch Mountain poster and are getting the idea that it’s a movie to avoid. You NEVER want negative publicity, and if this is a high-traffic site…

  • This really feels like a good moment to remind everyone of Hanlon’s Razor:

    Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.

  • Anne-Kari

    Bob – I like that. But what about malicious stupidity?

  • MaryAnn

    You are no where near as important as you think you are, and whatever tiny number of readers you have isn’t worth the $10 Disney would have to spend on your ticket.

    I’m sure that’s it, Paul. After 10 years on Disney’s press list, they finally realized their mistake.

    I followed this page from Google News, because I have a “Disney” section, and they inexplicably occasionally link to tiny little unknown website articles that happen to mention Disney in the title.

    Google News does not “inexplicably” link to stories: sites have to apply to be considered news sources. Perhaps Google will realize their mistake soon, too.

    (I wonder how obvious I’d have to be for someone like Paul to understand that his “Option #3” is the gist of the posted piece. It’s barely even the subtext, that I truly don’t understand why I’d be worth lying to over this…)

  • Arco

    (I wonder how obvious I’d have to be for someone like Paul to understand that his “Option #3” is the gist of the posted piece.)

    Judging from both the content and style of his post, I would say: you, standing on a building in front of his house, with a megaphone yelling “WHY WOULD I BE IMPORTANT ENOUGH FOR THEM TO DO THIS!!” non stop….and have a banner of 30 by 10 feet behind you showing the same text.

    Might do it.

    Possibly…

  • Don’t go mad with the POWER of it all Mary Ann!

    heh.

  • JoshDM

    I bet $ Paul doesn’t come back.

  • The senior Paul

    Well, there are a lot of Pauls. Just don’t get us confused.

  • nyjm

    …those of you who do come around here regularly aren’t doing so necessarily because you agree with me all the time, but because you like really thinking about movies in a way that isn’t dominant in most online movie coverage

    Amen to that! You are my primary source for film reviews (not the only mind you, that would be limiting). But I greatly appreciate your wit, candor and acumen. You also tend to watch movies and TV shows that I like to watch and often appreciate them for the same reasons as myself. What I appreciate most is your Bias Meter. It’s all subjective damn it, and you are among the few who have the guts to blatantly say so. So, good on you and keep it up.

    As for the whole Disney thing, I’d like to deflate ideas of conspiracy, lists of critics, etc. In all likelihood, you’ve just encountered the idiocy inherent to corporate bureaucracy (or, hell, any bureaucracy for that matter…). One person you contact comes up with an answer just to placate you – or feel important himself. Another person has slightly different information or just construes the same memo differently.

    It’s not you, MJ – they’re just ill-managed. And the rest of us suffer for it.

  • Mo

    Hmm… Tomatometer engineering? Frighteningly plausible, actually. I’d say movies bad enough to need it are usually critic-proof to begin with, especially kid-friendly remakes, but after the latest Pink Panther bomb they may be rethinking that…

    Or it could be that they didn’t want to screen it for critics at all, but they also didn’t want it to look like they weren’t screening it for critics, so they went for the muddled middle ground instead.

    That said, it still sounds like a lowly, harried assistant making up a poorly thought out lie on the spot to cover up a booking snafu. Which is stupid, but very human.

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