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Are Publishers of Embargoed Reviews Public Enemies?

Damn you, Billy Joel! No I’m stuck humming Leningrad! (Cold War kids are hard to kill, under their desks in an air raid drill!)

Anyway, it looks to be a relatively quiet week, cinema-wise. The calm before the proverbial storm when Transformers 2 arrives at the American Box Office. Us Europeans got it first and trust us – it ain’t that great. The real movie we’re looking forward to next weekend is Michael Mann’s Public Enemies. The king of crime dramas working with both Johnny Depp and Christian Bale on one of the most compelling true-crime stories in American popular history – what’s not to like? We’d tell you, but Universal is taking down all those early reviews, so we best be careful. I guarantee half the people reading this post will be lawyers from Universal.

Universal have a novel approach for dealing with reviewers breaking the embargo...

Universal have a novel approach for dealing with reviewers breaking the embargo...

The New York Post apparently published a not-too-hot review of the film, only to immediately take it down and wipe any trace of it from the internet, ever. Conspiracy theorists worked with incredible haste (really, these guys move quick) to spark fears that Universal was hoping to hide the movie’s sucky-ness from a wider audience and was engaging in blatent press censorship. What worries me is that several outlets have picked up this angle of the story and are running with it. What the focus on the negativity of the New York Post ignores is that several positive reviews – such as a four star review from Total Film – were also taken down.

The fact is that Universal seem to be vigorously enforcing the reviews embargo. It’s a common practice if an outdated one. It allows studios to preview films to critics weeks in advance, but then puts and embargo on the review being published before a certain date. It serves two functions: for bad movies, it prevents the stink of a turkey reaching the nostrils of the public too early (and contains damage for at least the first week); the second purpose that the embargo serves is to prevent buzz from dying out around the film. If newspapers published their reviews weeks before the premiere, new movies would get relatively little publicity upon release. It means that when I flip to the movie section of my local/national paper, most big releases get at least a page on the weekend of release.

If you publish a review, Christian Bale will rant at you...

If you publish a review, Christian Bale will rant at you...

However, we live in strange times. Movie buffs and casual filmgoers are increasingly consulting new media for their film info and reviews (where it’s a lot easier to gauge a quick, consensus opinion). The studios have (in fairness to them) embraced bloggers and reviewers relatively well, but cyberspace is hard to police. There was an unholy furore when an early review of Watchmen broke this February (a month before release). An early review of the most anticipated geek movie of the year is sure to encourage traffic, so a lot of other websphere journalists were understandably ticked. The offending journalist in that case? Though Time Warner blamed an irresponsible blogging community, the article was actually hosted by Time Magazine. Then there’s the slap in the face that Fox received when one of their journalists reviewed the pirated copy of Wolverine. And when he was fired, he blamed those gosh-darn Scientologists. If these multinationals can’t keep their own houses in order, how can minor film journalists hope to?

The point I’m making is that the web is a game changer. In an already hyper-competitive industry, it’s very hard to give news outlets something relatively juicy and then ask them to sit on it for two or even three weeks. They know their competitors have it in the print media. They know that relatively tiny opinionated film fans writing from a shed also have it. They’re just sitting with their finger on the trigger hoping nobody publishes it until the embargo has expired. That requires a lot of good faith from the industry. It was easier to police in the era when print was the dominant media form – you could point to a review and hold the company accountable. Now there’s the chance that early reviews could pop up in comment sections, blogs associated with media, WordPress, message boards, anywhere.

I can’t think of a way to police this easily. I can also sense the major media companies unease. I’ll shamelessly admit that I am reading everything I can get my hands on and am still eagerly awaiting the film. Even if the consensus emerges that the film is terrible, I’ll probably still see it. I think the age of the press embargo has passed – at least de facto. How long it takes the film studios to realise it is another question…

… but such was life in Leningrad!

6 Responses

  1. Interesting article. I am really looking forward to Public Enemies, Michael Mann hasn’t let us down yet, hopefully he wont this time. I don’t have a huge problem with the whole Embargo thing but do find it a bit annoying when it affects print media. I still buy film magazines and find it annoying when I read a review of a film I had seen weeks ago or that has been and gone at the cinema. Equally it can be annoying when you read a great review then have to wait eight weeks to see the film but this is happening less and less these days.

    By the way I am one of the Europeans who have already seen Transformers and it is rubbish. There is nothing really bad about it there is just a lack of good things about it if that makes sense. It is just a rehash of all the things that we had from the first film (that wasn’t up to much either) so if you enjoyed the first one this will keep you amused for a couple of hours. If you didn’t see or didn’t like the first one, don’t bother with this one it has nothing new to say. By the way take a look at the car brands in the film, is it really a film or is a General Motors commercial?

    • Yep, I heard that one of the characters (voiced by Anthony Anderson) was specifically created because they wanted to advertise a particular brand of car.

  2. Nice Post! Thanks!

  3. Take a look at this review:
    http://www.empireonline.com/reviews/reviewcomplete.asp?FID=136004
    I don’t think there is anything to worry about with this film!

  4. […] to see what others have to say on it. And I’ll concede that it might not stop me going. Even if the conspiracy nuts were right and Public Enemies was deemed the worst film ever made, I’m still in line this Friday. When […]

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