Criticism for Critics

Mute Filters

At exactly 10pm CDT this past Monday, the review embargo for Man of Steel was lifted, allowing any site to publish articles about the film a full 73 hours before the public at large would be able to see it. This feels a bit early to me, 1 though certainly not the earliest of late.2

Most of the people I follow on Twitter (or on any network) are critics. I love reading their snap reactions to films, following the links to interesting things they share and generally basking in the wash of cinematic writings available to us at this unique moment in the history of information. But by 10:05pm on Monday I’d had enough. The moment the embargo lifted a number of people I follow unleashed their reviews and the conversation amongst those who had seen the film began. At 10:17pm I switched Twitter clients to Tweetbot (from my preferred Twitterrific) so I could set up search filters to excise Man of Steel tweets from my timeline.

I feel confident saying that today, in the US at least, there are more self-identifying (and duly credentialed) film critics and journalists than at any point in the history of the movies. Criticism isn’t dying by any stretch, in fact it’s flourishing. Yet it feels like, as a community, we are insulating ourselves from the rest of the world. A lot of the criticism I see feels as though it is aimed at the same crowd that produces it. Critics writing for critics; the rest of the world can watch if they like.

When the Man of Steel embargo lifted, suddenly hundreds (thousands?) of people privy to advance screenings were all in the same place (Twitter) at the same time, ready to discuss it. Personally, I’m not worried about spotting a spoiler. I just don’t like being on the outside of a conversation of a film I won’t be seeing the film until it opens. I could barely make it 5 minutes on Twitter without getting burned out of hearing about it. And I’m part of this community. I can only imagine what it’s like for someone else, on the outside looking in.

Is it any wonder that film critics have less sway on audiences than ever before, that binary watchdogs like Rotten Tomatoes have become the barometers of quality for the masses? The more critics write for themselves the more they cut themselves off from the rest of the world. But the community is so big now, who cares? Who needs non-critics in a world where your closest friends have already seen the movie you want to talk about 73 hours before the plebes even can?

A word on embargoes. Press screenings come with a caveat: journalists can’t write about the film they’ve seen until a set date a time. Publicists and marketers set when the embargo will lift. The consequence for publishing early is burning the bridge with the studio and/or publicist that set the embargo. In general they’re a mostly reasonable thing that allows all outlets to operate on an even playing field, but make no mistake: embargoes are a marketing tool devised to ensure maximum press saturation.

Back in 2011, when New Yorker critic David Denby broke an embargo by publishing his The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo review two weeks early, producer Scott Rudin told him in an email he “very badly damaged” the film. What he meant was that Denby upended Sony’s carefully timed marketing campaign. An embargo is set so that no one is talking about your film before the studio wants them to, but there is nothing that says you have to publish the moment the embargo lifts.

Which brings us to 10pm CDT, Monday June 10, 2013, when my feed was firebombed with Man of Steel reviews.3 As of this writing (61 hours after the embargo lifted), the New York Times, which in my opinion retains one of the steadiest hands in the business of film criticism, is yet to publish a review of the film. I doubt it’s because one of their critics hasn’t written one. They publish reviews the night before a film’s New York or nationwide release; a studio’s preference doesn’t change the schedule.

Of course, the Times doesn’t need to elbow for page-views; the readers actually come for the criticism. Perhaps there’s a lesson there.

  1. I grew up reading reviews in the newspaper on Fridays, then later at 9pm sharp Thursday evenings on the Web. This always felt like enough lead time for me, but times change. ↩︎

  2. Star Trek Into Darkness reviews came out some two weeks before its US release because it opened earlier overseas. ↩︎

  3. And the awkward touting of the word count of some folks’ reviews. ↩︎