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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

question of the day: Can the year-end awards-baiting movie madness ever be changed (even if David Denby can’t make it happen himself)?

Girl with the Dragon Tattoo poster

I’ve often wondered why there never seems to be any pushback from studios against critics who break review embargoes. And now it’s happening. Sony sent this email to some critics yesterday:

Dear Colleague,

All who attended screenings of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo agreed in writing to withhold reviews until closer to the date of the film’s worldwide release date. Regrettably, one of your colleagues, David Denby of The New Yorker, has decided to break his agreement and will run his review on Monday, December 5th. This embargo violation is completely unacceptable.

By allowing critics to see films early, at different times, embargo dates level the playing field and enable reviews to run within the films’ primary release window, when audiences are most interested. As a matter of principle, the New Yorker’s breach violates a trust and undermines a system designed to help journalists do their job and serve their readers. We have been speaking directly with The New Yorker about this matter and expect to take measures to ensure this kind of violation does not occur again.

In the meantime, we have every intention of maintaining the embargo in place and we want to remind you that reviews may not be published prior to December 13th.

We urge all who have been given the opportunity to see The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo to honor the commitments agreed to as a condition of having early access to the film.

Thank you in advance for your cooperation.

Sincerely,
Andre Caraco, Executive Vice President, Motion Picture Publicity
Sony Pictures Entertainment

(Just an FYI, I won’t see the film till next week.)

Now, the New York Film Critics Circle pushed back their awards voting a day, from November 28th to the 29th, so that they could attend the first screening Sony was able set up for the film… which apparently Sony did precisely in order to accommodate the ridiculously early awards deadline the NYFCC decided to operate under this year. (Denby attended this screening.) This suggests that Sony would have been fine with the NYFCC breaking an embargo by giving an award to the film — after all, there cannot be a more positive “review” than an award. As it turns out, the NYFCC did not give the film any awards. One wonders whether an NYFCC award might have made a difference to Sony’s complaint about Denby and The New Yorker now.

That said: Denby agreed to an embargo, and he broke his word. I have a lot of issues with embargo idiocy, which I’ve written about a few times this year, but when I agree to an embargo, I stick to it. Even when I think it’s idiotic.

Here’s where it gets interesting. The Playlist has posted what it says is an email correspondence between Denby and Dragon Tattoo producer Scott Rudin. Denby’s response to Rudin’s disappointment at the embargo breakage is fascinating:

The system is destructive: Grown-ups are ignored for much of the year, cast out like downsized workers, and then given eight good movies all at once in the last five weeks of the year. A magazine like “The New Yorker” has to cope as best as it can with a nutty release schedule. It was not my intention to break the embargo, and I never would have done it with a negative review. But since I liked the movie, we came reluctantly to the decision to go with early publication for the following reasons, which I have also sent to Seth Fradkoff:

1) The jam-up of important films makes it very hard on magazines. We don’t want to run a bunch of tiny reviews at Christmas. That’s not what “The New Yorker” is about. Anthony and I don’t want to write them that way, and our readers don’t want to read them that way.

2) Like many weeklies, we do a double issue at the end of the year, at this crucial time. This exacerbates the problem.

3) The New York Film Critics Circle, in its wisdom, decided to move up its voting meeting, as you well know, to November 29, something Owen Gleiberman and I furiously opposed, getting nowhere. We thought the early date was idiotic, and we’re in favor of returning it to something like December 8 next year. In any case, the early vote forced the early screening of “Dragon Tattoo.” So we had a dilemma: What to put in the magazine on December 5? Certainly not “We Bought the Zoo,” or whatever it’s called. If we held everything serious, we would be coming out on Christmas-season movies until mid-January. We had to get something serious in the magazine. So reluctantly, we went early with “Dragon,” which I called “mesmerizing.” I apologize for the breach of the embargo. It won’t happen again. But this was a special case brought on by year-end madness.

Denby isn’t wrong about the year-end movie madness. There are too many damn movies all year long, and waaay too many movies smashed up into the last few weeks of the year. And even the really good movies have become disposable: if a movie is really excellent and is an awards contender, then is it really old news in mid January… especially when most potential audience members won’t even be able to see such a film until then anyway? (Many awards contenders get only limited Oscar-qualifying runs in December and won’t open theatrically till into the new year.)

Anyone who really cares about movies should be disappointed that even venerable institutions such as the New York Film Critics Circle and The New Yorker are now engaging in ridiculous fanboy First! shenanigans.

Can the year-end awards-baiting movie madness ever be changed (even if David Denby can’t make it happen himself)? Or are we stuck on a treadmill on which we can only go faster, and never slow down?

(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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