Media embargoes: Talk about buzzkill

In a landscape of instant insights, old rules stifle crucial advocacy

When it comes to embargoed reactions to early movie screenings in the social age, the film festival model is by far superior: The rules are, there are no rules. You introduce the world to the movie at the same moment you introduce the movie to the world — clean, simple, fair to all.

In a few short weeks we’ll be streaming out of Sundance screenings, walking hesitantly with heads down and mittens off, thumbing out our initial feelings on this movie or that. Reaction tweets will be retweeted and replied to hundreds of times over, Facebook posts will be commented on and liked, and for better or worse, the movie will have its moment.

Think it’s just so much chatter? Think again.

Social-listening services will collect those reactions, put them through an algorithmic workout and, in a matter of minutes, present filmmakers, sales agents and buyers with an array of insights into the film’s artistic and commercial prospects. This swarm of micro-critics will be closely monitored for the duration of the festival and beyond, influencing a sentiment graph that will help make some deals and, as is the harsh reality of our times, break others.

Next comes a wave of reviews from professional critics, who rightly take a beat to digest and break down the film in a measured and meaningful way. They’re hustling, but they don’t necessarily consider themselves in a competitive footrace, which is probably better for everyone involved (and if you’re wondering whether trade reviews still matter, let’s ask the first sales rep who calls Variety HQ in Park City next month desperate to know when that review goes up on our website).

But outside the blissful festival bubble exists a film-by-film hodgepodge of Rube Goldbergian embargo rules, meant to dribble out the message, build buzz, favor some outlets and media over others and delicately “time” reviews to release dates and ad campaigns. The foundation for this system is as old as pulp and ink, born of newspapers’ need to run reviews the day the films open in their cities.

The Internet age did not bring the clean break from old ways that one might have expected. Instead, that legacy lives on in a flaming ball of confusion, anxiety and absurdity that exists solely because the studios, in their obsession over precision message control, are still doing everything in their power to offset our newfound ability to self-express points of view in real time.

That’s like digging a ditch ahead of a tsunami: It doesn’t matter how deep or wide you make it … the water’s coming over.

These ditch-digging exercises take many forms.

Prior to an early screening of “The Master” in September, invitees were asked to sign a form stating that they agreed to “hold any and all reviews and/or personal opinions of the movie until our review embargo date. … We do consider Twitter & Facebook like any other mediums.” On the other end of the spectrum, an invite to multiple “Zero Dark Thirty” screenings put forth “no embargo on reactions posted on social media … but we ask that you hold reviews until December 5th.”

And with “Cabin in the Woods” at last year’s Austin-based Butt-Numb-a-Thon, full reviews were considered kosher but social-media reactions were not.

Bloggers and junketeers are rewarded for their participation in the hype machine by getting to see screenings well ahead of critics, but are made to hold their opinions for an embargo that is often lifted by surprise; more than one grumbled to me about how studios will set an embargo for blogs, only to have the trades or an international outlet run a review, whereupon the embargo disappears “and no one gets in trouble. This happens almost weekly.”

That’s great for us trades, I suppose, if not so great for blogger relations — but is it good for the movie? A cursory look at sentiment patterns shows that might not be the case.

“Around awards season, the reviews that come out early tend to be positive (for prestige films),” writes Kristen Longfield, director of Fanthropology at the Cimarron Group. “Honestly, I think people like discovering and advocating for awards films — it makes complete sense that writers would be interested in getting out their more exciting positive reviews as fast as possible.”

Ben Carlson at Fizziology, meanwhile, notes that movies start to “drift” toward a collective point of view based on first reactions, which increasingly debut on Twitter.

Put those two ideas together and it only makes sense for studios to screen their movies for the most influential audiences at the most influential moment — the first one — and then let ’em have at it.

That may fly in the face of studios’ painstaking strategies meant to build awareness at an optimal moment, to which I would suggest this option: Screen your movies to those who you want reviewing/discussing your films when you want it, and not before.

Because these embargo shenanigans? They’re just making people feel some combination of grouchy, cheated, entitled, left out, anxious, greedy and antagonized — not the optimal frame of mind for spreading your gospel.