Culture And Criticism

Honor Among Thumbs: A 'Dragon Tattoo' Spat And An Imperfect System

Rooney Mara stars in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. i i

Rooney Mara stars in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. Sony Pictures hide caption

itoggle caption Sony Pictures
Rooney Mara stars in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.

Rooney Mara stars in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.

Sony Pictures

In the wee small hours of Sunday morning, film critics across the country got a stern e-mail from the PR department at Sony Pictures, chastising New Yorker film critic David Denby for reviewing The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo in the magazine's December 5 issue. Dragon Tattoo doesn't open until December 21, but Denby had seen it early at a screening provided by the studio in return for critics' specific agreement not to run their reviews until at least December 13.

Indiewire.com has now published an e-mail exchange between Denby and the film's producer, Scott Rudin, in which Rudin says Denby won't be invited to any more screenings of his films in the future and Denby blames the broken embargo on magazine space, saying there were too many "important" movies coming out at the end of the year for The New Yorker to fit them into the issues after the embargo, so it ran this one early. Rudin calls this "nonsense." You can read it for yourself; it's a spat, pure and simple.

Not giving a horse's patoot about an argument between David Denby and Scott Rudin is the most understandable human reaction imaginable, short of flinching when punched. It's incredibly disingenuous (and hilariously, cartoonishly snobby) for Denby to argue that he had no choice but to break the embargo because otherwise, he'd have had nothing to review in the Dec. 5 issue except "We Bought The Zoo or whatever it's called." It's equally disingenuous for Rudin to talk in terms of honor and conscience, neither of which is the reason why studios want embargos honored.

Nevertheless, this dust-up — which is petty both apparently and actually — exposes some oddities about the entire system under which film criticism is happening.

In most cases, studios make a limited number of screenings available to critics ahead of time — in D.C., it's most commonly one or two. Sometimes, those are also "promo" screenings (the ones you win free tickets to on the radio, for instance), meaning there's a big audience in the room, and sometimes, they're just for critics. They can vary from very convenient to very inconvenient in time and location, and every time you go, you spin the Wheel Of Paranoia to see how much of your stuff they're going to confiscate on the assumption that you might pirate the movie — sometimes they take your phone, sometimes they take away laptops, and I once had them take a standalone MP3 player, which had absolutely no capacity to do anything except play music. They put this stuff in plastic bags, like a coat-check, and a security dude you know nothing about stands watch over thousands and thousands of dollars worth of electronics during the movie, and at the end, you hope that in the crush of people, you are reunited with your phone. It's a little disconcerting.

There are exceptions. Some movies open cold, meaning critics don't see them ahead of time. That means you often get your review from a critic who drags herself to a regular public midnight screening and then writes the film up bleary-eyed. I'm looking at you, G.I. Joe: The Rise Of COBRA.

At any rate, in return for getting to attend screenings with their dual advantages of seeing movies free and seeing movies early, you're asked to follow some requests — one is that you give in to those obnoxious phone-confiscating policies, but the most common is an embargo date: an agreement not to run your review until a particular day. Studios like embargo dates — which are most commonly the opening date of the movie, which makes Dragon Tattoo unusual — because they cause all the reviews to hit on the same day, which is good for the movie's PR push.

There is, however, some up side for critics in embargo dates as well. Screenings often trickle out over a couple of weeks or even longer, and an embargo date means you don't have to competitively try to get your reviewer to the first possible one. It also means your critic can take some time to write without feeling overwhelming pressure to get her review out there before everyone else on the planet has already reviewed and dissected the movie. And if there weren't embargo dates and there were an advantage in getting the first screenings, you can bet those early screenings would go to the same folks every time, and they wouldn't be in Minneapolis and Santa Fe.

Furthermore, when one outlet decides to break an embargo, the people who are most disadvantaged are the other people who agreed to it, who are often left (as the other NYFCC folks are here) with an unpleasant choice between breaking their word or falling behind the curve. (Sometimes, once an embargo is busted, the studio releases everybody else in order to avoid that dilemma. Sony didn't do that here.)

But wait! There's more. This was not a typical critics' screening. This was a special screening that was done extra-early for the New York Film Critics Circle, for the specific reason that the NYFCC wanted to include the film in consideration for its awards, and they wanted to vote on those awards really early — November 29th. So the studio let them see it on November 28th — a special little deal, just for them, in return for agreeing to the embargo date.

So not only does this implicate the weirdly symbiotic relationship between critics and studios in the general availability of screenings, but it implicates the foolishness of the backwards creep of awards that motivated the NYFCC to rush out its awards for the best of 2011 when it wasn't even December. In fact, it voted so early that it wasn't able to screen the upcoming Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close, which is certainly considered a possible awards contender. So they just ... left it out. So it's really the best films of the year that they were able to screen before November 29th.

And — are you keeping up? — one of the people in the NYFCC who most vociferously advocated against moving the voting date up so early was ... David Denby. The Hollywood Reporter published a letter in which he asked the question, "What's so important about being first?"

What indeed.

Mark Harris, a fine writer (read his Pictures At A Revolution, if you never have) tweeted: "Hypocritical for a studio to say critics may express their opinions about a movie by giving it awards, but not in prose." Lest you think Harris is entirely siding with Denby, though, he followed up: "I'm not advocating breaking bad deals. I'm advocating not acceding to them in the first place."

As Harris points out, it seems ridiculous for a studio to screen a film for critics for the specific purpose of having them consider giving it an award on November 29th, but to say that other than giving it an award, nobody can talk about it until December 13th. The strangeness of that is undeniable, and his conclusion that it seems like a "bad deal" is one I agree with.

But as he also points out, you do not make a stand against bad deals by taking the benefit part (early and free access to a hotly anticipated movie that even most other critics haven't seen yet) and then reneging on the obligation part (the embargo date). You make a stand against bad deals by deciding not to take them and refusing their advantages. This is nothing new. Journalists do this all the time. They're offered interviews where they'd have to give the subject editorial approval, they're offered the opportunity to go on cushy junkets that violate the ethics policies at their publications, or they're just flat-out buttered up with gifts that they wind up returning.

Because let's face it: without the pressure to be first, none of this would matter. If, in fact, The New Yorker was worried about magazine space, Denby could easily have simply reviewed the film later instead of earlier and kept to the deal. There will be plenty of dead space in January when normal human beings will still be seeing year-end movies that were rushed out ahead of awards deadlines. But of course, you can't review the movie later. Everybody knows that. You have to review the movie earlier. Why? The importance of being first — or at least not last. Nobody's hands are clean when it comes to the fact that everybody wants to do everything sooner — not critics, not studios, and not audiences, who do in fact tend to read the first reviews to come out more eagerly than the last ones.

So the studio wants the film to drop at the end of the year, which is dysfunctional because it creates a boom-and-bust cycle for quality that means it's often barely worth going to the movies in the first half of the year. And the NYFCC wants its awards to beat everyone else's, which is dysfunctional because hey, if November 29th is good, maybe November 15th would be better. We send Santa out at Halloween now; why not start giving out the best-of awards as soon as studios can ship DVDs to the very special snowflakes who populate critics' groups? And publications want their reviews to run first, and studios want reviews to run at the same time, and critics who are from smaller outlets don't want to endanger their access to screenings, and critics who are from larger outlets sort of know their access is probably not really in danger, and it's frankly kind of a mess, especially at this time of year. (Note, among other things, Denby's odd mention to Rudin that he would, of course, never break the embargo with a negative review. Chew on that one for a while.)

The truth is that none of this is mandatory. Critics could wait and see movies with everybody else. Studios could wait for reviews to come in naturally rather than having them pop on opening day. Awards groups could wait until the end of the year to hand out the year's top honors. Critics could refuse on principle to attend screenings that include embargo dates. It's all the result of more and more pressure to be first in everything, whether it's particularly critical breaking news or not.

Just be glad that we aren't yet in a situation where this year's Oscars can somehow warp time and happen before last year's Oscars. Not that there aren't people who would love to see that happen.

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