Two Thumbs Down on Movie Blurbing

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By: Allan Wolper

This is about The Blurbing of America, where film critics are packaged by the film studios, aided by newspaper advertising departments hungry for the full- page ads that are part of huge movie budgets. The salespeople even send out advance copies of their newspaper’s reviews or feature stories to studios, to give them extra time to prepare promotional or advertising copy. Or perhaps to warn them that their movie might be panned.

For example, The New York Times e-mails its movie reviews to studio publicists three hours before they are posted on the newspaper’s Web site. The Times claims that its editorial integrity is not compromised because the reviews are already locked into the printing process, and can’t be changed. But the message is clear: the alleged firewall between the newspaper’s business and editorial sections has been breached.

The arts sections of many big-city newspapers are replete with advertising blurbs which studio ad agencies surgically remove from the critics’ reviews. There is evidence that many critics and the publications they work for enjoy the notoriety that those blurbs bring to them.

When Rolling Stone interviewed writers for the critic’s job that eventually went to Peter Travers, the magazine made it known that it wanted its reviewer to be featured in newspaper ads, according to numerous journalists. The reasoning was obvious: Rolling Stone saw the blurbs as free advertisements for itself, as well as a selling point with studio ad agencies.

Travers has made it big in Blurb Journalism, second only to Roger Ebert and Richard Roeper, the “Two Thumbs Up” Guys. Newspaper critics allege the dynamic duo of Ebert & Roeper, both of whom work for the Chicago Sun-Times, are studio-friendly because their syndicated television show and annual Film Festival at Sea are both sponsored by Disney.

Those innuendos grate on Ebert. “I’m on the level,” he said. “I won The Pulitzer Prize. If you talk to anyone who knows me, they will tell you I am an honest person.”

He views the criticism of his Disney connection as the reactive rants of writers jealous of his fame and fortune. “We are quoted more than anyone else because we are the most popular movie program in the country,” he said, adding, “If a movie is really shitty, we won’t review it.”

Stephen Holden, a New York Times film critic, said that kind of relationship would not be tolerated by his superiors. “That’s a clear conflict of interest,” Holden told me. “That’s dangerous. But that’s the world we live in today. Our newspaper would never approve that arrangement.”

Roeper said Holden doesn’t understand the needs of a syndicated television program or the ethical constraints involved. “We are Disney employees, but we don’t tout their movies more than anyone else,” he said. “In fact, we go out of our way to show movies of other studios on our cruises. If someone is going to syndicate a television program, they are going to have to find a media conglomerate like Disney to sponsor it.”

The studio publicists, sensitive to the ethical hand-wringing of the critics, routinely call reviewers to get their approval for the blurbs. But that makes those critics part of the promotional process.

The advertising rewrites of the reviews are an effective way of negating bad press. The studios were much more up-front during the old days: “The publicists used to send us cases of fine wine,” recalled Rex Reed, a film critic for The New York Observer. “It was done as courtesy, not a bribe. But they don’t do that anymore.”

It is a fact of consumer life — especially during the latest rise in ticket prices — that readers use the blurbs to help them make their movie decisions. Some readers tend to skip the actual reviews until they’ve seen the movies because they give away too much of the plot. That is why I shut my eyes and stick my fingers in my ears during those endless coming attractions.

The blurbs are so important that three years ago Sony executives created a fake movie critic, known as David Manning, to promote the studio’s worst films.

Rita Kempley, film critic for The Washington Post who retired this month after 25 years, said Allied Advertising once told her that her career would suffer if she didn’t become more quotable. “I guess they couldn’t figure out how to blurb me,” Kempley said.

It is considered an ethical no-no for newspapers to publish reviews before a movie has officially opened. No reviewer wants to be seen publicly as an extension of the studios.

Which is why film festivals have become so important. These festivals, once a haven for low-budget independents looking for a promotional lift, are now routinely used by big studios to harvest positive reviews that can be used three to six months later, right before the movie premieres.

Movie critics argue at length that reviewing a film at a festival before it opens is not the same as reviewing a movie before it opens.

Just as questionable is the practice of film-critic organizations handing out awards that become part of the studio ads in newspapers — an obvious attempt to influence the Academy Award nominations.

“It’s disgraceful,” said Jack Matthews of New York’s Daily News. “Sometimes the awards are handed out before the films are released.”

Two thumbs down to that.

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