What Is Fair Game For Critics? p.9

By: Dorothy Giobbe

Kevin Costner’s Waterworld was a media event long before
the general public got to see it; but journalists defend
their coverage of pre-release, off-screen movie news sp.

REPORTS OF SCANDAL on the set always pump up a movie premiere, but at what point do they prevent a film from being fairly judged by critics?
Waterworld, the new Universal Pictures release starring Kevin Costner, was a media event long before the first fan plunked down $7.50 to see the film.
For well over a year, reports of Waterworld’s ever-mounting budget were played up in the pages of entertainment magazines and newspapers. Costner’s mid-production marital separation and his very public rift with
Waterworld’s director poured fuel
on the media fire.
By the time the film actually premiered, Costner spent most of his interviews spinning damage control. Instead of hyping Waterworld as the best thing ever to hit the box office, Costner was reduced to defensively attacking the press.
Some critics, Costner insisted, had unfairly prejudged the film based on issues that had nothing to do with the quality of the finished product. He criticized the media for playing up Waterworld’s staggering $200 million cost. His movie was held to an unfair standard, Costner maintained, one that no movie could meet.
Not surprisingly, many film critics don’t see it that way.
“Critics would be remiss if they didn’t acknowledge off-screen news,” said Bob Denerstein, film critic for the Rocky Mountain News. “I think it’s fair to acknowledge the climate into which Waterworld is being released. And it is legitimate to ask whether people are seeing a $200 million movie or not.”
Scandal and intrigue make great copy. So does triumph of the underdog. Some critics believe that all of the negative advance publicity may actually have helped Waterworld.
“I think critics went an extra distance to be fair to Waterworld because of all the publicity,” said Rene Rod-riguez, film critic for the Miami Herald. “They were almost sheepish in their praise because everyone expected it to be so bad.”
The same goes for movie fans, said Michael Janusonis, critic for the Providence Journal-Bulletin.
“I think all of the publicity made people really curious,” Janusonis said. “Then, when the reviews came out, some were fairly good, and some were mixed, but it wasn’t the disaster that everyone thought it would be.”
And there are those who subscribe to the say-anything-you-want-just-spell-my-name-right theory. All publicity is good, they argue, just as long as the movie gets in the public’s mind and stays there.
“It’s not possible to write about Waterworld and not make a connection between the money that was spent and the quality of the picture,” said Gary Thompson, critic for the Philadelphia Daily News. “And I don’t think that Waterworld has been anything other than helped by all of this.”
If Waterworld was helped by the intense media scrutiny, it may have been at the expense of Costner’s nice-guy image. Henry Sheehan, critic for the Orange County Register, said that women are “turned off” by the seamy details of Costner’s marital split.
“I think Costner really screwed it up,” Sheehan said. “Women are disillusioned with him as a star.”
“The mentality is to go and get that sexy story and sexy is often very dirty,” said Eleanor Ringel, film critic for the Atlanta Journal and Constitution.
Though Ringel has a file stuffed full of accounts of Waterworld’s setbacks, she vowed that she wouldn’t look at them until after she saw the film. Even so, she acknowledged, enough information “filtered through” so that she knew all about Costner’s divorce and Waterworld’s production problems.
Skeptical media reports don’t always mean trouble at the box office. When the critically acclaimed and commercially successful Schindler’s List was being filmed, some critics doubted that Steven Spielberg ? the man who directed ET and Close Encounters of the Third Kind ? could make a serious film.
“If someone like Sidney Pollack had directed Schindler’s List, I wonder if the same kind of publicity would have accrued,” said Ringel.
Others remember media criticism over the comparatively large budgets of Jaws and Apocalypse Now, both of which went on to make money.
As for Waterworld, whatever the tone of the pre-release publicity, most critics say that the film ultimately will succeed or fail as a moderately entertaining, occasionally exciting, vaguely familiar action flick.
“People aren’t ruled as much by the entertainment media as some think they are,” Rodriguez said, suggesting that word-of-mouth plays a more substantial role in a film’s box office showing. “People equate a price tag with a certain kind of spectacle, but Waterworld was set up to deliver something it was never intended to.”
According to entertainment industry analysts, Waterworld needed to gross at least $40 million during its opening weekend in order to have a chance at breaking even. But box office receipts fell far short. The movie made just $21.6 million the first week and dropped off to $12.6 million for the second.
In public, Universal Pictures executives remain upbeat, projecting that the film will post healthy numbers in the U.S. and overseas, where Costner currently is promoting the film.
At a recent press conference in Sydney, Australia, Costner told journalists that making the world’s most expensive film, which led to his feud with director Kevin Reynolds and coincided with his marital problems, was not worth the personal pain.
But despite Costner’s distress, and regardless of Waterworld’s fate, critics maintain they’re just doing their job.
“Critics are just like everyone else,” Denerstein said. “When they sit down and the lights go out, they’re just watching a movie.”
?(Questions about Waterworld began surfacing over a year ago, and continued up until movie’s release. The Record of Bergen County, N.J., was among those highlighting the controversies surrounding the film in its entertainment guide the weekend the movie openened.) [Photo]
?(Kevin Costner answers media questions about Waterworld during a press conference in Sydney, Australia) [Photo & Caption]

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