Critics' opinions don't matter much when studio marketing is the topliner


Paramount dissed the nation's critics last week, walling off all but a handful of geek-oriented Web sites from an advance look at its blow-'em-up actioner "G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra." When mainstream reviews did trickle in during the weekend, they were predictably withering: "The only collateral damage is in the audience, where, as you sit through the movie, you can feel your IQ drop minute by minute," Time's Richard Corliss sniped.

By contrast, Sony took a more conventional approach and welcomed critics to sample its food-centric "Julie & Julia." Although many had reservations about the contemporary Amy Adams story line, they swooned over Meryl Streep's reincarnation of Julia Child, relishing one tasty metaphor after another. "Meryl Streep -- at her brilliant, beguiling best -- is the spice that does the trick for the yummy 'Julie & Julia,' " Rolling Stone's Peter Travers wrote, virtually smacking his lips.

By the time the weekend boxoffice results were totaled, "Joe" stood atop the heap, grossing $56.2 million on the strength of its appeal to younger males. "Julia" boasted a solid second-place showing with $20.1 million and the promise of more to come because its core audience of older females likely will turn out during subsequent weeks to support a leggy run.

The studios' divergent paths through the critics minefield appeared to have been vindicated, but I'd argue that if the studios had swapped strategies -- if Paramount had prescreened "Joe" for critics and Sony had restricted "Julia" to a few food bloggers -- the results probably wouldn't have been all that much different.

The young men who volunteered for "Joe" weren't about to take marching orders from middle-aged film critics, and though there's evidence the larger audience didn't like what they found once inside the multiplex -- the movie's daily gross fell by 16% from Friday to Saturday -- the under-18 crowd still generously rewarded the movie with an A- from CinemaScore.

Women who flocked to "Julia," on the other hand, didn't need critics to give them a push. They trust Streep will deliver the goods in light, summer entertainment: Last year, the audience handed "Mamma Mia!" an even bigger $27.8 million opening despite attempts by many critics to throw a damper on their fun. Plus, "Julia" received so much free publicity -- from a New Yorker profile on director Nora Ephron to a Julia Child-inspired episode of Food Network's "The Next Food Network Star" -- that the reviews simply were icing on the cake.

Most moviegoers these days don't wait to be told whether a movie is "good" or "bad." They've already figured out what it's about and who stars in it thanks to relentless trailers, TV spots and online clips; "Joe" first teased its money effects shot, the destruction of the Eiffel Tower, during the Super Bowl broadcast in February.

Truth is, at least when it comes to wide releases backed by multimillion-dollar marketing campaigns, critics don't exert much, if any, real clout.

That's hard for the critical community to accept. Earlier in the summer, when auterist Andrew Sarris was booted from the New York Observer staff, critics, already under siege at embattled newspapers nationwide, bowed their heads as if to mark the passing of an era.

In fact, the days when Sarris battled arch rival Pauline Kael over the significance of the latest European import or the relative merit of older American masters is long past. In the 1960s, when movies rolled out across the country much more slowly, a coterie of high-profile, New York-based critics -- including more populist voices like Judith Christ, who pioneered on-air reviews with her appearances on NBC's "Today" -- functioned as an early warning system, reporting on movies long before they began to make appearances in small-town America. If you wanted the early word, they were the only game in town.

No longer. Critics have been elbowed aside by marketers and now, with the arrival of such social media as Facebook and Twitter, the public. A new site, SkinniPopcorn, even collates tweets on the latest movies, becoming a sort of short-attention-span review site. No wonder critics are having a hard time being heard through the din.

A few situations remain where critics retain their former status. When it comes to film festivals from Sundance to Cannes, new films are unveiled sight-unseen. Critics get the first word, and, for real cinema lovers, their reports carry weight and even can influence distributors' decisions to acquire smaller films meant for more limited, discerning audiences.

But when it comes to mass-marketed movies, film reviewers might well take a cue from TV writers who have begun churning out series episode guides. Working like sports reporters who assume readers already have watched a game when they sit down to write up how that game went down, recappers are able to engage audiences with detailed play-by-play analyses of shows viewers already have seen.

Instead of rushing to proclaim a movie dead upon arrival, critics might be able to reconnect with audiences if, instead, they turned to performing autopsies after the fact.