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Networked Over

Film Critics Are Mad As Hell, And They’ll Just Have To Take It

Deanna Staffo

By Ian Grey | Posted 3/1/2006

It’s 1998, a plush Manhattan screening room. The invited audience is culled from the nerdy, newly emerged ranks of the dot-com boom technocrati. The film industry is doing boffo business, thanks in part to the free-PR value of internet pundits—that is, anyone with enough knowledge of HTML to start a web site—while a terrific economy runs a cheerful surplus.

Onto the room’s stage bounds producer Joel Silver, who in his tacky ballooning silk shirt and huckster’s grin looks like a Carl Hiaasen hustler gone Tinseltown. Despite the fact that many of his new movie’s effects are not yet completed, he trusts that this crowd will get it anyway and spread the word. After The Matrix plays, his gamble is paid in full.

Flash forward, late 2005. Another CGI-packed, sci-fi movie aimed at the geek contingency, based on an MTV cartoon. Dot-com is dead, the economy is running a $400 billion deficit, the internet is poised on being privatized by a regime defined by secrecy, spin, and information control. The movie being screened is Paramount Pictures’ $60 million, Charlize Theron-starring Aeon Flux.

Well, actually, it isn’t being screened. For anyone. Flux’s all-important opening weekend passes, unencumbered by critical remark.

The practice of studios hiding their garbage from critical view—what, in homage to director Karyn Kusama’s no-worse-than-usual action spectacle, we suggest be termed “fluxing”—is at present limited to genre movies. Lions Gate’s Hostel, indie-released BloodRayne (DVD release by Universal), and Screen Gems’ Underworld: Evolution and When a Stranger Calls were all recent Baltimore press no-shows. (Niche-market comedies such as Date Movie, Big Momma’s House 2, and Grandma’s Boy were also fluxed.)

The Flux gambit is the logical extension of night-before-release screenings of low-expectation movies—in publicity-speak, “all media” screenings—that make it difficult for daily papers to compose thought-out reviews, and impossible for weekly reviewers to meet deadlines. All of which piss editors off—which, once upon a time, was something studio publicity departments tried not to do.

But Flux was such an in-your-face fuck-off that critics complained in their reviews: see the San Francisco Bay Guardian, Atlanta Journal Constitution, Boston Globe, and even The Hollywood Reporter.

You might be wondering, So what? So what if critics don’t get to see a movie—for free—in time to review it and are forced to watch it with the rest of the riffraff? Two things: 1) Movies are expensive and getting more so. Factor in concessions, parking, and transportation and you’re easily talking about a couple paying $50 for two hours of amusement. 2) That, whether it’s politics or entertainment, incredibly expensive publicity comes between what is and what others want you to know.

And who’s paying for it? You.

As always, what the film industry can get away with mirrors the larger world it operates in. The key word is contempt. According to a Feb. 13 Richard Williamson piece in Adweek magazine, in 2005 the Bush administration charged taxpayers—without bothering to, you know, ask—a staggering $1.6 billion in propaganda, including paid-off journalists and manufactured newscasts. Meanwhile, your hard-earned cash also helps cover a lousy spell for the American film industry.

Over the past three years, box-office gross was down 3.5 percent; attendance over the same period dropped 12 percent. These losses are explained in part by ticket price, up approximately 8 percent since 2003—and rising.

And so the theatrical viewer is also unwittingly subsidizing theatrical distribution for what it is rapidly becoming an advertising platform for a movie’s later DVD, cable, and satellite releases. It’s also reasonable to assume that the purchase of those increasingly pricey theater tickets will help cover the millions added to each movie’s total cost so as to support exciting innovations in studio PR such as online, cell-phone, and in-film ads for other movies.

Meanwhile, film journalists, like the journalism profession in general, have earned public mistrust with their eagerness to praise mediocrity, and paralyzing fear of losing access to all-expenses-paid junkets featuring stars tutored in parroting publicity’s party line. All of which has led to, as New York Press critic Armond White noted in 2003, “The current lunatic notion that film journalists are part of the movie industry, rather than unbiased reporters, commentators, watchdogs. You know, critics.”

If a movie—and nearly 700 of ’em were released to theaters last year—doesn’t clean up in the first weekend, it’s soon yanked to make room for the next contender. Meanwhile, the gap between theatrical and DVD release is shrinking. This situation creates a need in the industry to convince folks that they should shell out $8, $9, or even $11 to see something now when they can wait a few weeks and pay a few bucks to rent it. In rushes publicity and out goes the only factor that might dissuade folks from such foolish behavior: the press.

The sad thing is that it’s working, as attested to the respectable earnings enjoyed by semi- or fully fluxed genre films such as New Line’s Final Destination 3 (which took in $19 million its opening weekend), and the aforementioned Stranger ($21.6 million) and Underworld ($26.8 million).

The situation has become so ridiculously bad that the near-hilarious fact is that sometimes the most reliable way to contact a director or star is to bypass studio publicity entirely, as we were forced to when trying to reach Aeon Flux’s director, Karyn Kusama. One call to the Directors Guild led to an e-mail from her agent saying that she was, indeed, available to talk. (Unfortunately, that response came too late for this story.) All of which brings us to Serenity.

A witty hybrid of western and science-fiction genres with no name stars, Joss Whedon’s Serenity was a hard sell, and so the director globetrotted to comic-book and SF conventions, answered fan questions on web sites, and basically talked to anyone who’d listen.

Except, Universal was micromanaging his availability. Maybe CP’s 450,000 cumulative readership is too trifling a market—who knows? But in the months leading up to Serenity’s Sept. 30 release Universal imperiously demanded signed letters of intent to be granted an interview with the director, at no point evincing an awareness that it was essentially being begged to allow others to do its job for it. Finally reached through his assistant, Whedon eventually called us; weeks later Universal phoned to say that he could, perhaps, spare a few minutes.

Was Universal’s all-thumbs approach with Serenity a way for its publicity department to justify its existence in light of Whedon’s tasteless accessibility? Or was it just a case of Universal—already running press junkets for King Kong at the time—leaving the modestly budgeted Serenity to either catch the zeitgeist or quietly slip onto DVD, where it would pay back Universal’s disinterest in perpetuity?

One can only guess—the many in the industry queried chose silence, which is no surprise, irony No. 1 of corporate publicity being similar to the first rule of Fight Club. Anyway, critics have always been limited in their ability to stop people from seeing crap. The difference it’s now a literal situation. But there is also irony No. 2. Aeon Flux, Serenity and Sony’s soon-to-be-fluxed Ultraviolet are all, essentially, protest movies against corporate governments limiting access to information. Happy viewing, America.

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