'Dragon Tattoo' Feud: THR Critic Todd McCarthy on Why Review Embargoes Make Sense

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo Stitches - H 2011
Sony Pictures

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo Stitches - H 2011

As producer Scott Rudin slams The New Yorker critic David Denby for breaking an agreed-upon embargo, McCarthy defends the "civilized" system that allows critics to see movies in advance in exchange for waiting to publish their opinions.

Of all the publications to become involved in a controversy about breaking an embargo, you never expected it to be The New Yorker. The only time the magazine has ever run a film review before anyone else did was when Pauline Kael famously raved about Nashville months before its release, and that was because the director Robert Altman was a friend, had welcomed her to the location shoot and invited her to a private screening of an unfinished print.

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Kael's rave didn't get her in any trouble with the film's distributor, Paramount—in fact, she went to work for the company a few years later—but now her former acolyte and successor, David Denby, is on Sony's and producer Scott Rudin's blacklists for breaking his agreement to hold his review of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo until December 13.

The bottom line, of course, is that Denby gave his word, then broke it, explaining it away with mealy-mouthed excuses about the seasonal pile-up of serious films and the limited amount of space to deal with them all in the year's remaining issues. So what else is new? You're only as good as your word; either you live up to it or suffer the consequences for not doing so.

Because of the film's high profile, the intensity of awards-season scrutiny and the unusual clarity of the terms of Sony's invitation to advance screenings, which plainly articulated that attendance signified agreement to abide by the embargo, the Denby incident has attracted far more attention than it normally would have. As of two days after the situation exploded, no further reviews have appeared, which would seem to indicate that other critics and publications intend by stick to the deal. In recent times, once one major publication has broken a so-called embargo or review date, the floodgates have opened, with everyone else following suit. This is because studios and publicists seemed to accept that, in the Internet world, they were helpless to stop it, that the old rules were finished.

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What's new with l'affaire Dragon Tattoo, however, is that Sony and Rudin have seen fit to put teeth into their clearly stated policy. In one of the private memos that magically appeared online over the weekend, Rudin specifically stated that Denby would not be invited to screenings of his other year-end release, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which is being distributed by Warner Bros. What's vague is whether Denby alone is being targeted or The New Yorker at large is to be held accountable for the breach, as editors such as David Remnick and Richard Brody knew perfectly well the extra attention an early review of David Fincher's film would attract.

Of course, it's true that the game has changed a great deal since the advent of the internet, that the old gentlemen's agreements about holding stories and playing ball and all that are gone with the wind. The situation has been fluid and relatively ambiguous for a few years now due to various moving parts: How distributors and publicists regard, court and obstruct different sorts of movie writers, including critics; how honorable (or not) those writers are about when they run their pieces; the seriousness with which lone wolf bloggers are taken versus more establishment writers; the competitive pressure all journalists feel because of the enormity and speed of the internet, and the general attitude that, due to lack of serious repercussions, anything goes.

For quite some time, film companies and publications have been fumbling and groping trying to adjust to ever-changing realities but, as the world of screenings and set review dates is an insular and arcane one pertinent only to a small circle of participants, a quick history might be in order. As a general practice, for as long as anyone would care to remember, film reviews have run in newspapers on the day a movie opened. This has been possible only because the distributors would, as a courtesy, provide screenings of the films a few days beforehand, in the logical hope that good reviews would spark increased attendance. National reviews in major magazines would coincide with or shortly follow the daily paper notices.

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The so-called industry trade publications—The Hollywood Reporter, Variety, Boxoffice, Motion Picture Herald and some others in the earlier years—in the 1930s began reviewing many films earlier than their release dates for the benefit of exhibitors, which often had to bid on films they wished to show and might want to take into account the views of critics with some knowledge of the business, whether reliable and wise or not. Thus began the practice of early “trade screenings,” normally held on the studio lots with just a few people in attendance. Critics were increasingly invited to premieres and, eventually, to what became known as “all-media screenings,” which, again, were generally held within a week or so of a film's opening. It thus became common practice that the trade press would generally run its film reviews earlier than anyone else, but on dates agreed upon in advance. Still, these publications were generally read only by industry insiders in Hollywood and New York; they were hardly known to, and never seen by, the general public, so the reviews, pro or con, never impacted the world at large.

Over the decades, then, advance screenings of all but the most embarrassing films became the norm, an arrangement that made various professionals' lives more manageable, a courtesy there was no reason to abuse; critics got to see the films a bit early and reviews would appear on an accepted date. It was no different than receiving an advance copy of a book or record album, or an automotive writer getting an early look at and test-drive of a new car.

The first signs of this fabric starting to tear, at least in my view, came with the advent of Ain't It Cool News and other fanboy sites that began receiving preferential treatment on certain kinds of films, being allowed very early looks and, if they liked what they saw, free rein to gush. Since there was no other recourse, more established publications reacted with condescension, regarding Harry Knowles and his ilk as freeloaders beneath serious consideration and therefore not to be regarded as equals. As the years went by, other upstarts and renegades received more or less the same treatment, as little brush fires that could be disregarded.

Eventually, of course, the mainstream began to feel its foundations wobble beneath it until, in what seemed like overnight, the whole landscape had changed. As far as film reviews were concerned, the trades continued to do what they've always done, but the web was suddenly full of writers--many of them very knowledgeable ones with experience on well-known publications, others smart newcomers—doing the same sorts of things but not so cognizant or respectful of the rules of the game. “Review dates” became vague; not quite irrelevant, but more fluid, less absolute.

All the same, in the wake of the Dragon Tattoo incident, those who have responded by essentially saying “the hell with embargoes” are both rash and foolish, because it's not hard to see what the reducto ad absurdum result of this would be: The distributors could then just say, "No more screenings, just go see the films when they open, nice knowing you, so long." Or, more likely, they would propose, "If you agree to the embargo, you're welcome, but if you don't, you're off the list." But by that point, we'd be back around full-circle to the way things have been for decades, to where reviews would run on generally agreed-upon dates and everyone isn't panicking that someone else might break earlier. In other words, a relatively civilized system boring enough that the outside world could care less about it.

Email: Todd.McCarthy@thr.com

Twitter: @ToddMcCarthy