Scott Rudin vs. The New Yorker

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Critic David Denby incurs the producer's wrath after breaking embargo with an early review of "Dragon Tattoo."

Critics can dish it out, but they can't always take it. That is clear in the wake of The New Yorker critic David Denby's feud with Sony Pictures and producer Scott Rudin over an early review of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

As Denby's fellow writers resorted to vicious recriminations over the violation of an agreed-upon review embargo, the whole affair sounded more like the title of Stieg Larsson's third novel, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest.

The drama began when the New York Film Critics Circle moved the voting date for its awards from December to Nov. 29 in order to be the first group to judge the year's best. Although the David Fincher-directed Dragon isn't scheduled for release until Dec. 21, Sony rushed to make a print available so NYFCC's members could view it Nov. 28; the studio stipulated only that no reviews run until Dec. 13, closer to the movie's release.

But Denby defied the embargo, publishing a review (which was mostly positive) on Dec. 5 online and in The New Yorker's print issue. In a terse e-mail exchange with Rudin, he explained that there were too many serious movies to save them all for later in December, and if he withheld Dragon, what would he include in the current issue? "Certainly not We Bought the Zoo [sic], or whatever it's called," wrote Denby. Rudin, enraged, e-mailed back, calling Denby's betrayal "deeply lousy and immoral" and banning him from his future movie screenings, a threat with little downside for the producer because the tony New Yorker really hasn't driven mass audiences to theaters since Pauline Kael went gaga for Nashville back in the '70s.

Many of Denby's critic colleagues were equally upset, especially because Denby had opposed moving the NYFCC's awards vote ahead to November. "What's so important about being first [to give awards]?" he wrote to the group in October before taking advantage of the early screening. New York Post critic Lou Lumenick tweeted, "Rules don't apply to him," calling Denby "arrogant and pathetic." Blogger David Poland joined in: "His arrogance & being a casual liar makes him an asshole." Asked for comment, Denby referred THR to his editor, David Remnick, who did not respond.

Meanwhile, Sony warned critics in a Dec. 4 e-mail that it "[expects] to take measures to ensure this violation does not occur again." And on Dec. 6 Fincher weighed in, telling The Miami Herald that Rudin's response was "totally correct. … If it were up to me, I wouldn't show movies to anybody before they were released."

The e-mail war has died down, but "the rancor continues," says NYFCC chair John Anderson. Critics and pundits began berating Rudin as well as the studios' strict embargo process, whereby journalists often gain access to films only after agreeing not to write about them until it best fits studio marketing plans. Many believe the digital media landscape has made embargoes silly.

"Controlling when critics see a movie? Fine. Controlling when they write about it? In this era, overreaching and self-defeating," tweeted author and pundit Mark Harris. "Hypocritical for a studio to say critics may express their opinions about a movie by giving it awards, but not in prose."

The fallout is only beginning, say insiders. "Rudin throws his weight around," NYFCC member and ex-chair Armond White tells THR, "intimidating other critics, [and] Denby is left out to dry. Journalists today are under the thumbs of studios."

The real winner in all this? Dragon. "Rudin has gotten a pantload of publicity from us for his movie," says Anderson, "more than he ever would have otherwise."

THR's CRITIC: Why Embargoes Work

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 had ever run a review early was when Pauline Kael famously raved about Nashville months before its 1975 release, and that was because director Robert Altman was a friend. 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 Dec. 13. The bottom line is that Denby gave his word then broke it, explaining it away with mealymouthed excuses. As of two days after the situation exploded, no further reviews had appeared, which would seem to indicate that other critics intend to stick to the deal. Those who have responded to the incident by essentially saying "the hell with embargoes" are both rash and foolish because it's not hard to see what the result would be: The distributors could just say, "Just go see the films when they open -- nice knowing you." Or, more likely, "If you agree to the embargo, you're welcome; if you don't, you're off the list." And then we'd be back to the way things have been for decades: Reviews would run on generally agreed-upon dates, and everyone wouldn't panic that someone else might break them earlier. In other words, a relatively civilized system boring enough that the outside world couldn't care less about it. – Todd McCarthy

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