Premature adulation

The early word catches the buzz. That turned phrase is particularly true on the Internet, where short observations and fuller reviews sometimes appear months before a pic’s bow.

First word is generally from test screenings set up by the studios, and what comes out of them doesn’t show much middle ground.

“The people who write the early reviews online are either sort of like, ‘Yeah, it was great,’ or, ‘That was terrible and they can’t do anything to save it.’ They tend to be the extremes,” says Harry Knowles, the self-billed “head geek” at AintItCool.com. “Every now and again you get people writing reviews who actually get the idea that when filmmakers and studios are testing these films, what they’re really looking for is feedback because everyone associated with the film is too close to the process.”

While Knowles says his efforts have earned him pats on the back from filmmakers, at least one veteran film critic says he doesn’t find many useful observations in the early reviews.

“With the film critics that I read, I’ve sort of established a relationship with them and know their sensibilities and know where they’re coming from,” says Steven Rea at the Philadelphia Inquirer. “There are so many bloggers out there that are just sort of eager to get their review online early and announce the fact that they got into a sneak preview or a test screening.

“At the same time, there are a few bloggers and online critics that are really good and care a lot about the films they’re writing about and bring a lot of knowledge to the table,” he adds. “But I think they’re in the minority.”

Rea, who also opines about the film biz on his own blog, doesn’t believe it’s fair to evaluate movies during test screenings. Filmmakers sometimes use the process to tweak a scene or two, and at other times they’ll perform major overhauls. Either way, what’s being shown is different from the final product.

OK or not, the accuracy of that early buzz can be all over the map. Sometimes it’s wrong (some said “Titanic” was supposed to sink), sometimes it’s overblown (“Snakes on a Plane” got tons of buzz but little box office), but sometimes it hits the bull’s-eye. Remember “Gigli”?

“There were early reviews from test screenings saying how horrible it was,” recalls Jeff Bock, a box office analyst at Exhibitor Relations, about the Ben Affleck/Jennifer Lopez disaster. “And when it came out to be true, the movie probably did worse than it would have otherwise. But a bad movie is still not going to do well, regardless. A rotten tomato really is a rotten tomato no matter what.”

And sometimes, when one early reviewer slams a movie, everybody piles on.

“If there’s anything that cynical bloggers love, it would be bad reviews. They jump all over them,” Bock says. “You don’t really see them jump on the good reviews. Buzz definitely builds faster with a bad review.”

David Poland, editor of MovieCityNews.com, agrees.

“When people say, ‘I hear it’s good,’ that doesn’t mean they’re going to go, but when they say, ‘I hear it’s bad,’ that usually means they’re not going to go,” he says. “It’s like anything in your life; it’s not just the media, and it’s not just the movie business. When you go to a restaurant and somebody says, ‘I had that and it was bad,’ it doesn’t matter that their taste may be off or that you really don’t know what they like to eat — it could have been 20 different things.”

Starting early

Besides the buzz, the Internet’s early word trend has rippled out to other media, prompting an increasing number of outlets to bolt from the starting gates in advance of various pics. Entertainment Weekly, for example, published a seven-page cover story on “Dreamgirls” that hit newsstands five weeks before the musical’s Dec. 15 limited bow.

“If you ask the studios, they always want the cover the week the movie opens because that’s when they want the awareness to be the highest,” says Poland, who also writes the Hot Blog at MCN. “Entertainment Weekly ran ‘Dreamgirls’ the weekend before the first major press screening. The only way they could be first was to put it out before everybody else saw it. It became this thing where a major magazine — with one of the biggest readerships in this part of the business — was chasing a deadline based on when Internet critics and the trades were going to run their reviews of the movie.”

OTHER STORIES FROM THIS REPORT:

As papers consolidate, readers receive less-varied opinions

Critics in U.S., Europe take the craft seriously

Box office equals coverage

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