Sunday, October 12, 2008

Free Tip - Don't withhold critic screenings if your movie is actually GOOD!

With Quarantine now sitting at number 2 at the weekend box office, this would seem to be another case of a critic-proof genre picture that was not screened for critics and scored based on the aggressive and intense marketing. Fair enough, but waltz on over to Rotten Tomatoes. You'll notice that the film has a shockingly positive 65% fresh rating. Granted, it's only 26 reviews thus far, but that's still a surprisingly high average for A) a horror film and B) a film that wasn't screened for critics.

As more and more studios opt out of the pre-screening biz, especially for genre entries, we may have to redefine what it means when a film isn't screened for critics. In the olden days (like three years ago even), only the very worst movies were withheld from critical scorn, and it was a sign of the studio's absolute lack of faith in the quality of the film. For example, The Avengers sealed its bad-buzzed fate in August 1998 when it was hacked to bits (from 135 minutes to 89 minutes) and then withheld from critics. The film flopped hard and the reviews that did seep out were nothing short of ghastly.

Nowadays, studios almost routinely negate critics screenings from their marketing strategy, or often times set them up so late in the week that the reviews will appear after opening weekend for many print publications (Fox is allegedly doing this with Max Payne next weekend). In early 2006, Sony had a whole slate of crap (among others, The Benchwarmers, When A Stranger Calls) that they withheld from critics and most of the movies were financially successful anyway. Sometimes its because the movie is truly terrible, sometimes its because it's a movie that they know only appeals to a specific demographic so why bother (re - Tyler Perry movies). What used to be the film equivalent of the 'walk of shame' (you usually got worse press for your movie by not screening it than by screening it and getting bad reviews) is now brushed off with 'eh'.

So, in this world of instant word of mouth, it can perhaps be more harmful to have pre-screenings, but what about when your movie is, I dunno, good? Don't you want the red badge of critical approval in your corner on opening weekend? Sure horror films, sequels, and genre pictures are often critic proof, but positive notices can't possibly hurt a movie, right? There has been an odd trend over the last few years of withholding movies from critical scrutiny, movies that turn out to be pretty darn good after all. Surely these movies would have benefited from the box office dollars of the few film goers left who do read and trust critics?

So just why did Fox wait till two days before opening day to screen Live Free Or Die Hard, the Die Hard sequel that was riding a wave of bad buzz due to its PG-13 rating? That buzz turned around almost immediately once people, including myself, actually saw the film, and the reviews were overwhelmingly positive (it now sits at 81%). I remember writing and sending off my positive review and thinking I was going to be in the slim minority, only to check on Rotten Tomatoes and discover that everyone else liked it too, many more so than myself. The movie did $48.2 million in five days. Wouldn't it have done a little more if the opening was proceeded by a week or so of positive reviews and word of mouth?

Arguably the dumbest 'no screenings' movie was Snakes On A Plane. After spending goodness knows how much extra money to geek up the movie and try to market it as the mother of cult films, New Line Cinema withheld any and all screenings until the Thursday at 9pm national paid sneak. So the film went into opening weekend with the label of being a geek-cult film that was so goofily bad as to be entertaining. Needless to say, very few people showed up, since most people prefer not to pay for movies that they have been told is going to be lousy. So imagine the surprise when the film ended up with majority positive reviews (with 150 reviews total, it now sits at 70%).

While the film certainly had a glass ceiling due to its genre and quirkiness, I can't imagine that the movie would have not opened to more than $13.5 million with the benefit of positive reviews to go along with its geek trappings. I'm sure Roger Ebert would have adored this movie (although he was on medical leave at the time), and I know of several other critics who would have too.

Now Quarantine has made $14.2 million for a solid second place finish. I can't imagine having a bevy of positive reviews, many of the 'I'm shocked at how good it was' variety, would have done anything other than boost that number. I'll be seeing the movie this afternoon. Because of my wife's affection for any and all horror films, I really don't have a choice. But, because of the reviews, I am actually looking forward to it.

Scott Mendelson

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