Monday, December 12, 2011

A Meaningless Film-Critic Embargo From Producer of "Dragon Tattoo"

An interesting, but finally meaningless, debate about movie critics and "promises", caught my attention recently...

A firestorm of negative opinion has erupted over David Denby's review of "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo",  which is scheduled for publication in the New Yorker, in the December 6 issue. 

It is the date of publication, and not the review itself, that has received the roar of disapproval from "fans" of the as-yet unreleased film, produced by Scott Rudin and directed by David Fincher.

It began when the New York Film Critics Circle decided to announce its annual Film Awards (a year-end precursor to the Oscars) earlier than normally scheduled.  For whatever reason, the New York Critics wanted to be the first to have made their official awards announcement (at the end of November rather than the traditional mid-December time frame), when a few high-profile pictures still had not been released in New York. 

One of the unreleased films, "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo", which has high award expectations (at least from the Fincher-ites), was in danger of being unscreened, and therefore, left out of the NYFC voting. So the studio allowed the Critic's Circle a special screening, and then demanded that each critic make a promise not to publish any review before December 13. 

(Another highly-touted major studio release, Stephen Daldry's "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close", was not ready for screening and was left out of the NYFC voting this year.)

Denby published early, citing the glut of year-end movies to review, and limited time to do so, as the reason for the "early" review.

Producer Scott Rudin, infuriated, banned Denby from future advanced screenings for violating the "review embargo".  Fincher, who reasonably expressed his distaste for screenings in advance of the movie's release date, nevertheless blasted Denby for violating his "promise" and supported Rudin's decision to ostracize Denby. (Check this interesting post in Anomalous Material)

That's when the Web heated up with opinion over film critics' honoring their agreements, and a peculiar defense of the film, that seemed designed to protect some fragile Awards fantasy that  Fincher, and this movie, would triumph at the Oscars. The argument was that by publishing an early, potentially negative review, the fan-fiction that "Tattoo" might be an eleventh-hour Oscar game-changer might not hold up. 

And if future reviews prove as lukewarm as Denby's, then there may be little hope for awards-love for the movie.  The venom directed at Denby,  and the support of Fincher and the as yet unseen "Girl With The Dragon Tattoo", went beyond fandom and bordered on the irrational.

(In the final count, in spite of the special screening, NYFC left "Tattoo" empty-handed, and the film has not impressed other critics' groups as of this writing.  The "Social Network"s critical juggernaut will not repeat itself this year.)

If Denby had played the good sport in this instance, then the movie would have had to rise and fall on its own merits, rather than receive the benefit of promotion by manufactured "scandal". 

I hold to the notion, expressed previously on this blog, that movie-making is diminished when films are discussed nearly to death before their release. That includes incessant analysis of everything from the studio-leaked photos, to the trailers, to the poster art.  That, as much as early reviews, can ruin the experience for a potential viewer, except for those who will attend that all-important opening weekend anyway. 

I agree with Fincher in my preference that reviews should be written after a film has been released to theaters.

But I  disagree with the studios setting up advance screenings---for no other purpose than to make a film award-eligible--and then demand that critics not write about it. It's an almost laughable double-standard in which critics are "invited" to screenings, and are free to bestow their honors upon a film, which they are then sworn not to review until later. 

Film critics write film criticism.  If studios didn't do early screenings, then they would prevent "premature" reviews.  (The old activist in me reacts against any demand not to write about something, especially something as benign as a movie review....thoughts of freedom of the press linger..) If the film is that good, and promoted appropriately, the work will stand on its own, awards or no.

Also, if "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" happened to win major awards from the New York Film Critics Circle, the continued enforcement of the "embargo" would have been awkward, if not downright embarrassing. 

I also find a desperate inconsistency in the opinions of some writers on this subject. On the one hand, they put forth the idea that critics don't matter, that the only relevant views on any film come from the average moviegoing audience. On the other hand, the outrage over Denby's early review betrays a fear that critics do in fact matter a great deal, that the opinion of a professional movie critic is potentially damaging, and that it has the ability to plant doubt in the minds of those who would otherwise praise the film to Awards glory.

There are no heroes here.  The New York Film Critics need to chill a little, and wait until they have given each eligible film a fair viewing.  The studios should spread out their releases more evenly thoughout the year, and not effectively censor what and when a writer writes.  Banning Denby from advance screenings serves no purpose. 

 It's all about awards, I guess, and that's not good for the full appreciation of the art of film.


  1. It's there in the last sentence. Rudin & co don't want to risk any spoilers...unless they come in the form of a critics' choice award or what have you. Disappointing.

  2. Ys, Walter, I totally agree with you. It's sort of amusing, now that the film is finally in release. Only time will tell how much damage Denby caused by jumping the gun... I suspect little to none...