Studio denies critics a sneak peek

It’s the biggest movie of the summer that practically no one has seen.

“G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra” opens Friday, but Paramount Pictures isn’t screening the blockbuster for critics beforehand. Only a select few writers from blogs and movie Web sites have seen it for review – such as Harry Knowles, the self-professed “Head Geek” from Ain’t It Cool News – and their opinions have been mostly positive.

Instead, the studio says it’s intentionally aiming the movie at the heartland, at cities and audiences outside the entertainment vortexes of New York and Los Angeles. Paramount held a screening Friday for 1,000 military service members and their families at Andrews Air Force Base; it’s also focusing marketing efforts in places like Kansas City, Charlotte, N.C., and Columbus, Ohio.

While appealing to a sense of patriotism nationwide, the plan also is inspired by the disparity that existed between the critical trashing “Transformers: Rise of the Fallen” received and the massive crowds it drew at the box office.

“`G.I. Joe’ is a big, fun, summer event movie – one that we’ve seen audiences enjoy everywhere from Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland to Phoenix, Ariz.,” said Rob Moore, vice chairman of Paramount Pictures. “After the chasm we experienced with `Transformers 2′ between the response of audiences and critics, we chose to forgo opening-day print and broadcast reviews as a strategy to promote `G.I. Joe.’ We want audiences to define this film.”

With a reported production budget of $175 million and a cast that includes Dennis Quaid, Channing Tatum, Sienna Miller, Marlon Wayans and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, “G.I. Joe” follows the adventures of an elite team using high-tech spy and military equipment to take down a corrupt arms dealer. It comes from director Stephen Sommers, whose previous films include “The Mummy” and “Van Helsing.”

Long before anyone saw the completed product, though, “G.I. Joe” drew mixed buzz at best for its trailer, which premiered during the Super Bowl. Now it’s the final action picture of the summer – and it has a lot in common with the highest-grossing film so far this year, the “Transformers” sequel. Both are effects-laden spectacles based on Hasbro toys and both are Paramount releases from producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura.

“Transformers” has gone on to gross more than $388 million in the United States alone since its opening six weeks ago, despite receiving just 20 percent positive reviews on the Web site Rotten Tomatoes, a critical aggregator. The withholding of “G.I. Joe” from mainstream critics suggests that the studios believe they can succeed at the box office without them.

It’s a tactic normally reserved for horror movies or other genre pictures with built-in fans who don’t necessarily care about reviews – ones based on video games, for example – not summer blockbusters. Still, “G.I. Joe” has been tracking well because it represents the last big bang of the season, said Paul Dergarabedian, box-office analyst for Hollywood.com.

“They don’t need (to screen) it and there’s no upside to negative reviews. The film is going to open well no matter what,” Dergarabedian said. “They’re being very strategic in who they show the movie to. If they can win over their core audience from these reviews, that’s good for the movie.”

Devin Faraci from the film Web site CHUD.com is one of the few writers who have seen it for review purposes, and not just for junket interviews. He’s among the critics who’ve contributed to the movie’s 88-percent positive rating as tabulated by Rotten Tomatoes, saying: “If I was 10 years old, `G.I. Joe’ would be one of the best movies I had ever seen.”

Faraci said he was in Toronto recently when he received a phone call at 8:30 a.m. Los Angeles time, asking if he could come to the Paramount lot that day for a “G.I. Joe” screening. He flew back, got off the plane and headed right over.

“It’s silly. It’s a film that plays on its own terms,” he said. “I don’t think reviews will kill it but I think it’ll get a more positive response than they expect. It’s a big, silly, pulpy, cartoony action film and it makes no apologies for being that way.”

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