Eye on the Oscars: Crix Picks

Our senior film critics opine about blown embargoes, dodgy ethics and how journos and studios want it both ways

Justin Chang: One of the unfortunate truisms of our job as trade critics is that we often spend less time thinking and arguing about the movies than we do thinking and arguing about when the studios will let us see and review their movies. I’m aware of the self-entitlement inherent in such a complaint, and I hasten to add that we appreciate every courtesy — and advance press screenings are just that, a professional courtesy — that enables us to do our job in a timely fashion. But it’s the very issue of timeliness that seems to cause most of our logistical headaches nowadays.

Peter Debruge: As trade critics, we are in the very privileged — and precarious — position of writing the first reviews out of the gate on most films, often days or weeks before movies open. That’s a tradition that goes back decades (owing to Variety’s role in helping exhibitors decide which films to program), back before our reviews were quoted and disseminated by blogs and aggregator sites like Rotten Tomatoes. Meanwhile, the consumer press is expected to hold opinions until opening day. But that seems to be changing lately for all sorts of reasons, nearly all of them tracing back to studios’ attempts to lead with reviews they expect to be positive, and that’s where the headaches you allude to begin.

JC: It seemed to reach a fevered pitch this month, when media watchers were treated to the curious spectacle of New Yorker film critic David Denby facing the collective wrath of Scott Rudin and Sony’s publicity department in response to Denby’s Dec. 5 review of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” breaking an agreed-upon Dec. 13 embargo.

PD: Judging by a private email exchange between Rudin and Denby that appeared on the Playlist blog, the producer was upset that the New Yorker review’s publication would trigger all other critics to follow suit — a very real concern in a consumer marketplace where the thrill of the scoop seems to trump the traditional service of running reviews when they are of most use to the reader.

JC: It’s worth noting that Denby saw the film at a special Nov. 28 screening scheduled to accommodate members of the New York Film Critics Circle on account of the group’s decision to move up its awards-voting date. The incident hints at the sheer number of competing priorities critics and studios are juggling at this time of year. And so, a studio will happily accept praise in the form of awards, embargo-free, but an early review, even a positive one, is a no-no.

PD: Which brings me to the most troubling aspect of the “Dragon Tattoo” situation, which is Denby’s argument that because the review was positive, his decision to jump the gun was justified.

JC: I love Rudin’s response: “The fact that the review is good is immaterial.” Exactly.

PD: Deadline’s Nikke Finke came to Denby’s defense, arguing that “embargoes are dumbass” and “doing what the studios want is a slippery slope,” but what could be more compromised than defending an embargo break by insisting that it contains nothing the studio might object to? Though Variety does not offer “feedback” to publicists on what our reviews will say, many other outlets do, and these days, it’s not uncommon for studios to give permission to critics itching to publish a rave permission to run their review first — essentially rewarding those willing to be shills for their product with a scoop. And it’s not just the wild, wild Web that’s doing it either. In recent years, we’ve seen this practice happen among such estimable outlets as Time magazine (“Munich” comes to mind) and Rolling Stone (where the ever-obliging Peter Travers is routinely treated to long-lead access).

JC: How Finke can argue that observing an embargo constitutes some sort of ethical lapse is beyond me. One of the reasons we comply with embargoes to begin with is that Variety has a strict policy of not letting publicists know the content of its reviews before they run. It’s an eminently reasonable agreement between two sides that have to function civilly in order to do their respective jobs — writing an honest review, in our case, and protecting the film’s interest, in theirs.

PD: And lately, protecting their interests has amounted to bending the rules to favor positive reactions. Back when the Internet was young, studios might fly Harry Knowles to the New York premiere of a film like “Godzilla” and receive a juicy rave in response. Or they flatter writers who are known champions of a given filmmaker by inviting them to the very first screenings, the way Robert Altman did to Pauline Kael with “Nashville” back in the day (which still happens with Clint Eastwood and other directors now). The latest wrinkle has been the rise of special treatment for Oscar bloggers — an embargo-bending practice that Rudin himself instigated last year, when he showed both “The Social Network” and “True Grit” to awards-season pundits first, inviting them to run their (predictably positive) reactions before showing the films to print critics. The practice continues this year, with awards columnists given express permission to gush about “Young Adult,” “Hugo,” and “The Iron Lady” before critics are allowed to weigh in.

JC: If the studios and the Oscar bloggers have decided it’s to their mutual benefit to drum up breathless awards speculation and call it criticism, there’s little you or I — or, for that matter, anyone else who sees movies as more than trophy bins — can really do about it. I’ll end by saying I find it altogether sad that “War Horse,” to single out one example, has not yet opened or been officially reviewed in the U.S., and yet it’s already had its awards prospects dissected to death by bloggers and their commenters. Their conclusions have been startling: It’s either a surefire contender or an also-ran. As for the more interesting questions — is it any good? Is it a sentimental tearjerker, or a work of art? What are its politics? — well, I’d love to get into it, but sorry, I can’t. The embargo still holds. For now.

Justin Chang and Peter Debruge are Variety’s senior film critics.

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