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More Than You Embargoed For: Thoughts on Review Embargoes…

I know I’m a bit late on this one, but I’ve been thinking a bit about movie review embargoes of late. For those unaware, embargoes are those restrictions on when a reviewer can publish a review. They’re normally enforced by studios, limiting the publication of reviews to within a one week window of the movie’s release. I’ve had the fortune over the past few months to be invited to screenings of The Avengers and Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists long before the window, and have held my review until it’s okay to publish. Still, I can’t help but feel a little uneasy at the prospect.

Nothing to get too Fury-ous about…

Don’t worry. Any distributors reading this don’t have to fear the thought of me breaking an embargo. After all, I’ve typically agreed to it in order to see the movie. I have given my word, in exchange for seeing the film in advance, not to talk about it until the designated date.It’s an agreement that I consented to. I really despise critics like David Denby who feel they don’t have to adhere to agreements they signed. If you feel that strongly about it, don’t agree to the embargo; the distributors won’t let you see the film, but your freedom of speech won’t have been (voluntarily) restricted.

After all, an embargo doesn’t dictate what you can or can’t say. It has no impact on content, and thus can’t really impact a film writer’s objectivity. It just dictates when you can talk about it. It isn’t an attempt to control the discussion about a particular film, but simply to manage when it might occur. Coupled with the fact that such embargoes are entirely voluntary (don’t like ’em? don’t see the film!) I have no real principled objection to them, although I do sometimes feel uneasy about their practical applications.

I can see the point…

On the odd cases where I wasn’t informed of the embargo going into the screening, I’ve been quite happy to adhere to it upon being informed. Part of this is down to simple etiquette. One of the few things I kinda like about the idea of embargoes is that they put critics on a relatively level playing field. In theory, at least, they put me on the same level as The Irish Times or Variety or The Hollywood Reporter. (In practice, however, it seems they get a much shorter embargo, which kinda removes that perk.) In theory, an embargo could serve to synchronise debate and discussion of a particular film.

As a guy who talks about movies, I like the idea of everybody contributing all at once, laying down their cards on the table synchronously.  There’s no temptation to look at a broad critical consensus on a film, because it hasn’t been formed yet, so I think you’re more likely to see a broad range of honest and thoughtful opinions than if a select few publications go live first. There’s no bandwagon to jump on, so to speak. So, even if I don’t explicitly agree to an embargo, I’ll generally adhere to it out of respect for my fellow film writers.

You’d have to be a Muppet to break your word like that…

That said, however, I’d be lying if I said I was entirely comfortable with the notion of embargoes. I understand the reasoning typically given by studios. In the old days, most people would have read newspapers for reviews, and they would have been published on the day of release. The internet has changed that, and the distributors want to keep the public focused on the next big things. They don’t want to release a review of a film months before it’s released, lest that momentum expire long before the film arrives in cinemas. It seems to make sense, in theory.

However, I am less convinced. Film release dates are still staggered. I live in Ireland, so we are typically weeks behind the United States in the release of certain films. We haven’t had The Five-Year Engagement yet, and Albert Nobbs was only recently released here, while we only got The Muppets in 2012. Because of the Olympics and other Summer scheduling, the trend might be reversed. We had The Avengers before the Americans, and we’ll have Prometheus before the United States as well.

Some Nobb breaks an embargo and it’s all ruined…

In this digital age, more and more people get their information on-line, and more and more Irish people will be reading reviews from the New York Times and more and more Americans will be reading their reviews from The Guardian. The notion of a one-week window for reviews falls apart if Americans can simply browse to the Irish Times review of The Cold Light of Day months before it’s released in America.

More than that, however, it ignores the fact that movie distributors tend to encourage this sort of hype and discussion with some films, but restrict it with others. I had been reading reviews of Shame for almost a year before it was eventually released. Film festivals like The Toronto International Film Festival or Cannes encourage press to come along, hoping to get journalists to write rave reviews of films that won’t see release for a long time. The logic here is just as clear – the goal is to raise awareness of particular films, so that distributors will buy them based on feedback and audiences will hopefully seek them out on eventual release.

It’s a shame different rules apply to different films…

I actually love the logic in this approach – these reviews serve as red lights for audiences. They allow film-goers to catch hints about upcoming films, encouraging them to seek out quality movies months before actual release. There’s nothing stopping outlets publishing the review again in the week of release. After all, the film shouldn’t have changed too much. If it has been edited, there’s no reason why the reviewers can’t watch it and review it again. Think of how long we had been hearing that The Artist was the film to watch. I’d been hearing it for over half a year before I eventually saw it.

The problem is that this logic should, in theory, be just as sound for major releases as well. Imagine, for example, if critics were able to point to particular films in the upcoming onslaught of releases, that were worthy of a viewer’s time or attention? If, at the start of May, a critic could say, “If you see anything this summer, see 21 Jump Street, The Dictator, Prometheus and The Dark Knight Rises.” The reason this doesn’t happen, of course, is that it could potentially backfire. Your film could end up omitted from that list of “must see”– or worse, actively demolished before it was even released.

Jump on board the hype train!

Of course, studios have been known to exploit the potential for generating hype around blockbusters by trying to excite fans. It’s quite common to hear about fan-screenings held weeks before the embargo expires, and for those fans of the particular property to flood on-line with effusive praise for the film. It’s hard not to feel like the studios are trying to preempt a negative critical response, by trying to drown out the more level criticism by unleashing a wave of fanboy-ish enthusiasm beforehand.

The reason that studios might screen earlier for fans, and not hold them to embargoes, is obvious. Critics are more likely to be skeptical and objective of a property they haven’t massively emotional invested in.  And that’s why I am inherently skeptical of such embargoes. Indeed, while no embargo restricts the content of the review, there’s no denying that there’s an inherent damage-control element to restricting how long reviews can talk about a film before release.

Made for average Joes?

For example, I have an embargo of a film I haven’t seen at the point of writing this article – so there’s no bias, even if you can guess what it was – that I can’t publish until release day. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I was a little uneasy at that. A more cynical mind might construe it as an attempt to restrict the damage that a critical backlash could cause – much like the claim that studios “want audiences to define this film.”

It’s this inherent contradiction that makes me feel a bit uneasy – the suggestion that the advanced word of mouth from film critics can really help smaller and deserving films by bringing them to the public attention months or years before they manage to find a release date, and yet the same logic doesn’t apply to big blockbusters. It does feel just a little bit cynical, as if the embargo for major releases exists purely to limit the potential damage that critics could do to them.

It’s a hairy situation…

Still, I sign the agreement and I watch the film – my opinion is as valid two weeks before release as it is two weeks after release. I have no principled object to the idea of a press embargo, but I’d be lying I didn’t confess that sometimes the practical applications make me a little uneasy. But I still give me word, and I still adhere to it.

2 Responses

  1. Another great piece! I have to say I don’t agree at all with embargoes. I think they are unnecessarily restrictive. But on the other hand I do agree with you that if you sign something, you should stick to your word.

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