If technology has in some respects put movies and television on convergent paths — with people frequently opting to conveniently consume both in their homes — the two continue to operate under divergent philosophies when it comes to controlling critical reaction to their product.
Despite the hard-to-wrangle realm of social media, movie studios have largely sought to maintain tight guidelines about what is written, and when, regarding major releases. Review embargoes are set, almost down to the minute, and enforced on penalty of lost access. Many studios confiscate cellphones at advance media screenings, not just to avoid piracy (although that’s a principal concern) but to prevent texting or tweeting about films.
Demonstrating how seriously all this is taken, when New Yorker critic David Denby broke an embargo last December to publish an early review of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” producer Scott Rudin — in an email exchange that became public — called the decision “lousy and immoral,” writing, “You’ve very badly damaged the movie by doing this, and I could not in good conscience invite you to see another movie of mine again.”
Television, by contrast, exhibits a much more loosey-goosey attitude. Few networks impose strict embargoes when DVDs go out, relying on a tradition in which critics generally hold their fire until the day the show actually premieres. When writers jump the gun early — as many do now, eager to gain get-there-first advantage any way they can — there’s seldom a complaint.
Yes, networks send out pilots previewing the fall TV season in June — months before their scheduled premiere — with “not for review” labels. Yet none of that addresses the current age of social media, where scribes tweet knee-jerk reactions like giddy children, for the most part without facing any repercussions.
A clear sign of the film-TV disconnect can be witnessed at Comic-Con, where it’s become standard practice to display full pilots of upcoming series, such as ABC’s macabre soap “666 Park Avenue” and the CW’s comicbook-inspired “Arrow.” The clear goal is to generate buzz among the convention’s pop-culture-savvy attendees, enlisting them as marketing ambassadors on behalf of the programs.
In movie circles, such public exhibition of a film normally would break agreed-to embargo dates by reviewers — whose job, after all, is to evaluate titles before people see them — prompting a trade like Variety to go ahead and publish its review. (Avoiding prerelease pans is why many movies now dispense with screenings entirely, forcing critics to see them along with opening-day crowds to blunt any negative impact from anticipated swipes.)
Networks, by contrast, haven’t imposed strict protocols as to what these early screenings mean, convinced the viral benefits of potential Web-driven word of mouth outweigh the risk of diluting critical response.
The only surefire way to elicit a network’s wrath involves publishing plot spoilers, primarily because that’s one sin producers of serialized shows take seriously.
Press concerns about being bypassed in the process surfaced several years ago, when some members of the TV Critics Assn. tour pitched a fit because the producers of “Lost” planned to withhold a casting announcement until it could be presented to fans at Comic-Con. “Are we not important enough for you?” one critic asked huffily, but since then the San Diego confab has become a forum few entertainment-oriented outlets feel they can afford to ignore.
The network shift also reflects practical considerations, since their own airtime — once deemed the best medium to peddle their wares — is no longer a sufficient platform by itself to spread the word. That means an early start is necessary to make promotional dollars go farther, whatever the tradeoffs in timing and control.
Which approach is smarter? Nobody really knows, but the question has implications for entertainment marketers and media alike.
In keeping with its posture as the most populist of media even amid dwindling ratings, TV is largely operating under a belief that any publicity has value. And while it’s easy to admire movie marketers’ grudging determination to hold the line on dictating the terms of engagement, they appear to be fighting an uphill battle.
Because in an age where screens of one size or another occupy every desktop and pocket, their screen might still be the biggest, but it’s not the only game in town.