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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Filmgoer beware?

So, previously I mentioned that someone had brought a lawsuit charging movie studios with defrauding consumers (i.e. moviegoers) by planting favorable critical reviews of movies that don’t necessarily merit kind critical treatment. Events (and my reactions to them) delayed this follow-up but, for what it’s worth, here it is. I’ve actually had this written for weeks, and it’s good to finally get it off my chest—not to mention my computer screen.

The alleged planting of favorable reviews takes the form of offering free screenings, travel, gifts, etc. to movie reviewers in an effort to make the critics feel beholden to the studios.

This is another one of those slippery slopes. The suit aims to know what is in the mind of the reviewers. And I’m not just saying that because I’m hoping some studio will provide me with an all-expense paid trip to Los Angeles to watch unreleased movies for free. (But if some studio actually wants to do this, you know how to get a hold of me.)

Don’t get me wrong. The practice attacked in the suit is very real, as I documented from my personal experience in my previous dispatch. And, as I think I made clear, I don’t have any respect for so-called critics who sell their soul in exchange for goodies from the studios and their publicity machines. But, having said that, this suit is extremely insulting to filmgoers. It assumes that most people are so dim that they can’t deal with a public relations campaign.

Okay, people know that ads and celebrity interviews on talk shows are meant to sell movies, but don’t people have a right to expect a movie review in a newspaper, a magazine or on a web site to be independent? Well, maybe, but that’s not the point. People who care about these things decide very efficiently for themselves which reviewers they trust and which ones they don’t. If a reviewer consistently recommends really bad movies, readers will stop paying attention to him or her, except perhaps as a contrarian indicator. (I used to read the critic in The Seattle Post-Intelligencer religiously because I knew I would invariably love any movie he panned. But I finally stopped because it still drove me crazy to read his reviews.) In my experience, most people who read reviews read a lot of them by a lot of different writers until they find one that they agree with most of the time and then they tend to stick to that one.

The bottom line is: film distributors have a ton of money and other resources available to promote certain movies. If a movie is heavily promoted, there will be no escaping the TV ads, the publicity, the planted news reports (remember all those “news” stories that Disney-owned ABC News—not to mention, to a lesser extent, their rival news outlets—coincidentally aired about the attack on Pearl Harbor in the weeks before the movie Pearl Harbor was released?) and newspaper ads touting rave reviews from critics you never heard of before. But the funny thing is: there are lots of cases (Heaven’s Gate, Ishtar and Waterworld come to mind) where movies with budgets of galactic proportions fail miserably with both critics and the public. You can also find movies with small budgets that become surprise hits with critics and audiences. And, even more perplexing, there are lots and lots of movies that have been savaged by most critics but have gone on to make a whole bunch of money. And there are plenty of examples of movies that have been darlings of the critics that have failed completely at the box office. The point is: you can’t buy a hit, at least not for more than about one weekend anyway.

Suing someone, whose job is to try to get me to come see their movie, for trying to do their job just seems strange to me. It’s my job, and the job of every other person, to decide for ourselves what movies we want to go see. Even stranger is the fact that the suit seems to assume that seeing a bad movie is a form of “damage” that needs to be compensated. Personally, my philosophy has always been that seeing a bad movie in a cinema is a better spent evening than staying at home watching most TV programs. But strangest of all is the notion implicit in the suit that people should somehow be protected from seeing bad movies. As someone who has seen more than my share of bad movies in my time, I can attest that a lot of the thrill in an evening of going to the cinema is in the anticipation and uncertainty as to whether you’ll see something wonderful and unexpected or something dreadful. Why would anyone but a lawyer want to remove this element of excitement from film-going? It’s a bit like suing a casino because you the slots didn’t come up with three cherries every time.

-S.L., 27 September 2001

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