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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

question of the day: Are you suspicious when a studio tailors screening access to a film, as has happened with ‘Inception’?

We’re all familiar with this kind of situation: A studio has a stinker on its hands, so it frontloads the critical response by showing the film, weeks before it opens, to quote whores, entertainment “journalists” who aren’t critics but get their subsequently rapturous reactions splashed across posters and TV ads anyway. You know, they’re the ones who call a movie “the best film of the year!!” in January. By the time actual critics check in mere days before opening and the critical tide turns, the positive reactions have been out there for far longer, influencing potential ticket buyers.

That’s not what has happened with Inception, the long-awaited, highly anticipated new film from Christopher Nolan. Warner Bros. screened the film for a handful of carefully chosen film critics in Los Angeles recently, and their reviews started appearing this week. The critics include only one quote whote — Pete Hammond — and span a wide variety of publications, from industry press such as Variety and The Hollywood Reporter to online outlets including JoBlo.com and CHUD. The usual sort of objections online critics here when we ask for early screenings is that the studio doesn’t want spoilers getting out and ruining the film before it has even opened (there’s still a perception that the Internet = spoilers even though there are plenty of fair, honest critics only). And that would have been a legitimate reason to withhold Inception from critics, because it certainly has been sold, so far, on the mystery of what it’s even about.
But obviously that was not a consideration when it came to whom Warner Bros. decided to invite to its early screening of Inception. The logic behind it is so mysterious that it prompted Josh Tyler at CinemaBlend to note:

[T]he early praise for Inception is so universal, so effusive, that it’s somewhat unbelievable that the studio didn’t simply screen the film for everyone all at once, to eliminate any lingering doubts of its greatness. Reading through the dozen or so reviews which have been posted you’ll discover it most often being compared to the works of Kubrick as it’s hailed as one of the best movies of the decade and definitely of the year.

(Tyler complained in that post of a few days ago that CinemaBlend would not have a review up this week, but it does now have one posted, by Katey Rich, whom I know is based in New York. So for some reason Rich was given the opportunity to see the film prior to the all-media screening next Tuesday that I will attend, and that I was under the impression was the only screening in New York.)

Other observers are worried, too. Trey Smith at Projected Reviews fears that fanboy expectations will be raised too high by these glowing early reviews:

I plea with people who read this to take my words into consideration while wading through the early reviews for the film, don’t let your expectations soar too high, keep them in check and let the film speak for itself. It is natural to let positive reviews send your excitement for a highly anticipated upcoming film into the stratosphere, but letting hyperbole statements such as, “In terms of sheer originality, ambition and achievement, Inception is the movie of the summer, the movie of the year and the movie of our dreams.”, from Box Office Magazine’s review, take it to heights that may not be reachable, you stand a chance at actually enjoying the film less than you would have had you not read such grandstanding claims.

And Patrick Goldstein at The Big Picture fears that we latecoming critics will be tempted to be less kind to the film than we might have:

When the critics start building a film up like this, it only inspires other critics to assert their independence from the overwhelming groupthink by taking pot shots at the movie sooner rather than later. At this rate, the “Inception” backlash could begin before the film even plays Peoria.

I think both of those worries are a bit hyperbolic themselves, but something weird does seem to be afoot.

Are you suspicious when a studio tailors screening access to a film, as has happened with Inception?

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTD sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)



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  • JoshDM

    No because I have no interest in this movie.

  • David Conner

    I am suspicious… if I know about it, which I seldom will be unless I read about it here (and the vast majority of filmgoers probably won’t even have that much knowledge.)

    FWIW, I’m also more annoyed than intrigued by marketing campaigns based on “mystery of what it’s even about.” Maybe it’s just me being cranky, but my gut suspicion is that when they’re cagey about what the work’s about, what it turns out to BE about is “not much.”

  • Abhi

    Well, I don’t know. I find it unlikely that the studio has a stinker on its hands this time. I would be very very surprised to find out that Inception is anything less than excellent. Nolan hasn’t made a bad movie in his life.

  • markyd

    How anyone could watch a trailer and not be interested in this movie just baffles me. A couple months ago, I had yet to even hear about Inception. Now I’m totally jazzed for it.
    Anyway…
    The whole screening business confuses me. It should be either all or nothing. I don’t like the selective screening because it implies that some sort of shenanigans are going on. I just wonder how it affects the general public’s decision to see a movie. They don’t seem to care about reviews anyway. This is only relevant to film buffs, and I would hope that those of us who love movies would see what they are doing and be rightfully suspicious. Reason #456 to find a good reviewer and stick with her.

  • Nate

    FWIW, I’m also more annoyed than intrigued by marketing campaigns based on “mystery of what it’s even about.” Maybe it’s just me being cranky, but my gut suspicion is that when they’re cagey about what the work’s about, what it turns out to BE about is “not much.”

    Would you rather the trailers spell out everything for you and ruin the surprise?

    They make the basic premise pretty clear IMO. It’s a surreal world in which dreams can become tangible places where people leave tangible ideas, which Leo’s character subsequently steals.

  • CB

    Maybe it’s just me being cranky, but my gut suspicion is that when they’re cagey about what the work’s about, what it turns out to BE about is “not much.”

    I don’t have that reaction, but maybe that’s because for me the canonical example of this kind of marketing is: “What is the Matrix?”

  • Chris

    I dont think there has been any sort of tailoring here. Hollywood Reporter and Variety constantly get earlier screenings than most other critics. The other critics who have seen the movie are all based on the West coast. If your inviting Kirk Honeycutt, IGN, CHUD, AICN, and Empire Magazine to your screenings or hitting all different sorts of media markets. The one that is questionable right now is Predators where every major critic was delayed until today with there reviews, allowing fanboy sites to generate buzz for a movie that had a 50/50 shot of obtaining a fresh rating. Nolan on the otherhand doesnt have a bad movie in his filmography, and the studio shouldnt think this will be any different. My guess is that Warners is trying to make sure that this original movie that will have no loyal fanbase backing it in droves, regardless of the film’s critical merits, gets as much of a push as possible in terms of box office receipts. The best way to do that is good advertising and having a large number of legitmate critics backing your film along with the sci-fi community.

  • Mo

    When people started talking about Inception, I had no clue about it’s existence at all. I very quickly got a vibe about it that I didn’t want to- that this could actually be one rare movie where I would enjoy being a blank slate, and that I trust Nolan enough to try it. I’ve been trying my best to avoid any spoilers ever since, even blurbs (with varying success) in spite of the local press fawning over Ellen Page (as usual…she’s the Sidney Crosby of acting, don’t you know). This almost never happens to me- when I get excited about a movie, I like to be spoiled (within reason, don’t tell me the end.)

    So no, I’m not suspicious. I genuinely do think this might be something different, and I’m glad to see they’re smart enough to treat it that way. It could be all marketing, but I’ve never seen marketing produce the exact sort of thing that this is, and frankly, I think we’re all so desperate for something different that it wouldn’t matter at this point if it was just marketing. People want something worth getting excited about so much that they would buy it all right to the end of the movie, and frankly, I need to too.

  • JoshDM

    I’m also more annoyed than intrigued by marketing campaigns based on “mystery of what it’s even about.”

    Would you rather the trailers spell out everything for you and ruin the surprise?

    Why did NBC or ABC or whomever name the next FlashForward-esque show “The Event”?

    It shows a completely horrible lack of giving a shit.

  • Boingo

    Since you mentioned the details, I’m “suspicious” as
    movies have been the most increasingly hyped “commodity”
    that comes to mind, and I keep biting (addicted to the theater air conditioning).

    A couple I knew delegated me to select an after dinner
    DVD. Like a pompous asshole, I selected a DVD with a
    slew of those tiny award stickers from “who-knows-
    where decal shop?” I was embarrassed as the self-touted
    knowledgeable “film expert,”when this
    “Highly Acclaimed, Best of the Fido,Co Film Festival,
    Rated Best Movie of the Year (by voters of the
    Kaneohe, HI Seniors Retirement Center[in smaller print]), was a 1st class stinker.

    There were long silences as my friends tried to “save my face.” How ’bout another beer Boingo?

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