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Sight Unseen: Killers and the Future of Film Criticism…

I remember it was only a few years ago that it was just really unapologetically bad movies with built-in audiences that refused (or simply couldn’t be bothered, knowing the inevitable trashing they’d receive) to be screened for critics. You know the films I’m talking about: horror remakes, horror sequels, horror in general. However, it seems that since G.I. Joe demonstrated that blockbusters can still bust blocks even without advanced critical presence. Perhaps it’s a side effect of the viral age we live in, but you don’t need a review in the Friday papers to put bums in seats. Anyway, apparently it looks like there’s more to come: Killers will not be screened for critics either.

Do we have a hit on our hands?

In case you’re thinking that it is another lowest common denominator horror like a Friday the 13th remake or some such (which you’d be entirely forgiven for, what with the title and all), it’s actually something far darker and more ominous. It’s a Katherine Heigl movie. Which means it will actually be sold to the mainstream as a romantic comedy, a must-see chick flick and an inoffensive date movie. I didn’t say any of these would be true.

The logic, from Hollywood’s perspective, of excluding critics is sound. If your movie is terrible, it’s easier to dupe people into watching it who have heard nothing than people who have heard nothing but negative reviews. Of course, this is typically spun in a sort of nonsense way about reclaiming cinema for the common, working man from those vile elitist snobs, such as when defending the decision not to screen G.I. Joe for critics:

“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.”

It’s practically Marxism, in action, isn’t it – taking back cinema for the masses? But what does this approach actually mean? Well, let’s explore how it impacts the way that I, an average film watcher, will treat Killers.

I’m not a professional critic. I have no vested interest. And I honestly don’t think that any critic complaining about this could be said to have a vested interest. Having seen 27 Dresses and The Ugly Truth, I can assure you that nobody with a legitimate interest in the medium has a desire to sit through a Katherine Heigl film, even for free. I don’t mean that as a slight on the romantic comedy genre, but a slight on Heigl’s choice of material and roles. They are, so far, just terrible.

I know I should be more even-handed. I know it’s unfair to prejudge films. I am well aware that Killers could turn out to be a cult masterpiece, or even a legitimate masterpiece, or even the best movie ever made. That’s part of the reason why you film movies for critics and part of the reason that I – a slightly-more-obsessed-but-still-representative movie goer – give movies like that the benefit of the doubt. If you screen for critics, you get a chance to prove that there’s no need for ill-informed preconceived notions – informed notions and indicators will be provided shortly.

However, you remove that chance for pre-release discussion and input from sources I trust and respect, and you remove any chance I have to determine the quality of your film in a reasonably fair manner (ie by reading the review of someone who has seen it, and has also seen a lot of other movies). Of course, the response to this observation is simple: opinions are subjective, I shouldn’t let anyone else but me shape my conception of a movie, and I really need to see it for myself to judge it. It’s a fair point. Doctors differ and patients die. I respect critics like Roger Ebert or even fellow bloggers, but I won’t pretend that we always see eye-to-eye. It would be boring if I did. I have loved films I have seen nothing but contempt for on-line, and I’ve loathed films that the majority have loved. Such is life.

But there’s a reason that this argument – the notion that everyone must see a movie for themselves before they make a judgement – cannot hold water. Unfortunately, it’s not a lofty theoretical one, but two very simply practical ones: time and money.

There are typically at least two major US releases on a given week (with many more indies and, of course, international films). I wouldn’t be surprised if several films were released everyday. Those are a lot of movies, a lot more than used to be released – Hollywood is accelerating. I have a job, as I imagine most of those reading this have. I have personal commitments. I have interests other than films. It is physically impossible for me to see everything. I could never leave a cinema for the whole of my life and still not see “everything”. So, time is precious. I need to determine how to allocate my time appropriately and for maximum utility. Last thing I want to do is waste two hours being silent and bored (or worse, actively offended) in a room full of strangers. So, I need a way to decide what movies are worth my time.

Money is even more obvious. I am not a professional critic (as those reading my reviews will attest), so I pay to see films. They cost me money. And, while I enjoy being mentally stimulated, I always want to enjoy the experience of going to the cinema – so I plonk out for a drink and some popcorn. That’s a lot of cash for two hours of entertainment. Not as much as theatre, but a lot. I don’t play the lotto – I am simply not comfortable spending my money blind. I have only ever once slapped my cash down on the counter and asked to see the next movie showing without knowing what it was (it turned out to be a movie I had already seen and was very good).

Will Killers have difficulty finding an audience?

So, I need to decide how to allocate my two key movie-going resources. I think critics are a reasonable method to use (undoubtedly counter-balanced by personal taste and preference), and that making a decision based on critical input on a film isn’t unfair or unreasonable. However, if there is no critical input to advise me on whether a movie is worth my time, then I must simply use the other factors and notions I use when balancing a movie – but the largest element of my calculations has been removed, which will inevitably skew my result. And – let’s be honest – the fact that it isn’t being screened for critics will inevitably lead to me to believe that the quality is inferior, of itself.

Which brings us a full circle back to the start of this little article. My experience tells me that – if it’s not Knocked-Up – a Katherine Heigl movie will make me doubt in humanity’s capacity for good and do serious damage to my will to live. My gut instinct is that any combination of Aston Kutchner and Katherine Heigl is but a prelude to some sort of banal and probably quietly sexist holocaust. I couldn’t help getting these feelings when I read about the film, even though I accepted they were possibly unjust. I figured that early notices would either affirm them or disprove them.

There have been a rake of fundamentally changes to the way that Hollywood operates over the past few years, many driven by the economic slump and many designed to streamline the industry (more efficient theatre-to-home-media windows, the presence of 3D, even more remakes), so cutting out the critics may seem a prudent business move – especially if it has no fiscal impact. Many have caused many critics to doubt their profession – and I won’t pretend it isn’t an issue which absolutely fascinates me. However, despite how much fun it is to argue in an abstract sense, what would the exclusion of the critic mean to regular joe sixpacks like me? G.I. Joe demonstrated that – by selling itself directly to middle America – it could still rake in tonnes of money. So it probably won’t harm the films themselves in the long run, because audiences will still turn out. I’d make the case, though, that these will be ready-made audiences. The people who will see a romantic comedy no matter what (my mother included) will flock to Killers, just as action junkies swarmed to G.I. Joe. In a way, these are the films that The Guardian recently described as “critic-proof movies”, with built-in audiences that don’t care what the reviews have to saw.

What suffers (and this is, as ever, my humble opinion here) is the capacity of a film to escape its genre audience. Perhaps that’s the most wonderful things about reviews. They point you to films that you might like, more than they dissuade you away from films you’d dislike (because I’m going to Predators and Machete come hell or high water). Films I might have dismissed been dismissed within their particular genre – The Mist within the modern horror genre, for example, or (500) Days of Summer amidst the clutter of the modern rom-com. I think that these are the films that will suffer from lack of advanced critical word. Good “buzz” draws in large audiences. And you could make a case that this approach is increasingly irrelevant in the age of viral marketing, but I’d respond by saying that those of us constantly impressed by viral marketing are a relatively vocal minority.

I don’t know. The tendency is to be glib and smirk that at least critics won’t have to endure the agony of watching Killers, but I think it’s perhaps an indication of a more basic underlying shift within the industry. It’s a shift that doesn’t make me particularly comfortable.

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12 Responses

  1. Most critics will still watch The Killers, just at the same time as everyone else :) Let’s face it, there is absolutely no novelty factor or hype for this type of movie, everyone who has seen the trailer knows exactly what to expect: A cheap, formulaic, sexist, fluffy and brainless movie with two forgettable leads and a ridiculous premise.

    There will always be people flocking to these kind of movies and it will most likely make a lot more than it should ($0) although it probably won’t take the box office by storm. I don’t think critics really have that much of an influence on that crowd anyways.

    • Yep. GI Joe proved you could easily sell a movie around the critics and make a boatload of cash. I don’t think The Killers will change the attitude of studios to critics over night, I just find it interesting that more-and-more films are going to the box office without being screened for critics.

  2. Great piece, but you had me thinking this would be on the excellent 1946 Ava Gardner film “The Killers”. I’m pretty sure this monstrosity is just ‘Killers’. You can tell because it features Ashton Kutcher shrugging like a douche and Katharine Heigl smiling a shit-eating smile, that of a crazy person. You know what this reminded me of? Nia Vardalos on the poster for ‘I Hate Valentine’s Day’.

  3. Ava Gardner… ah. what a star.
    if people are dumb enough to go see this movie then let em go ahead. having sat through The Ugly Truth for review purposes i can say that i will not be watching Miss Heigl in anything off my own steam ever again

    • I hope you learned your lesson. It takes a whole load of family/peer pressure to get me to cave on such things.

  4. Heigl generated so much good will for herself in the days when people cared for her presence on Grey’s and she was coming fresh off of a totally unexpectedly awesome performance in Knocked Up, and she’s burned all of it off like so much cooking wine in the interim.

    Deciding what movies matter seems simple, but the process is truthfully quite deceptive and even when you do prioritize what films you want to check out versus the ones you’d rather avoid like the plague, you sometimes can’t get away from seeing a “B-list” movie. Case in point, I wouldn’t have been upset missing the newest Shrek movie, but I caught it Saturday night anyways. That’s just the way that the world works when your time is at a premium and you are at the mercy of theater showtimes.

    Frankly, though, I find it useful to view movies I’m naturally inclined to skip. For one, writing negative criticism, to paraphrase Anton Ego, is fun. For another, you might end up being surprised. Full disclosure here– I had no expectations at all for Forgetting Sarah Marshall two years ago, and today I still love, love, love that movie. The converse happens on occasion, and nothing sucks more than being let down by a movie you thought you’d like; on that note, sometimes it’s nice to allow the chance for the reverse to happen, because being taken off guard by a movie you thought you’d hate is one of the most pure pleasures one can experience at a multiplex these days.

    • I think you make a good point, but I think that there really isn’t enough time to play Russian roulette with movies like that (though I would love to). If (god forbid) this avoiding press screening becomes the norm rather than the exception, I worry I might miss a genre-busting amazing piece of cinema because all I have to go on are my preconceptions of the genre.

  5. “…it’s actually something far darker and more ominous. It’s a Katherine Heigl movie. ”

    Spot-on, pal, spot-on.

    But I think the negative connotation involved with not screening a movie only reads with us blogger and avid moviegoer types. The average moviegoer will have no idea that it means a movie is THAT bad. Only we do. But there’s no use trying to hide a stinker anyways.

    The quick fix for this problem: STOP MAKING BAD MOVIES.

    • And by the way, this is an awesome post. Just percolating with intelligence. Thanks for the comment you left on my blog a little while back; I’m adding you to my blogroll as we speak.

    • Yep, but that would involve effort. They can just churn out the same old crap and people will lap it up. I agree entirely that the general public don’t grasp just how bad “not screened for critics” generally indicates a film is.

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