Movie critics of the world unite! The Man is out to silence you. But hear this — we will not be muzzled. The people will have their say! And make no mistake: G.I. Joe, the motion picture, will pay the price.
Earlier this week, Paramount Pictures confirmed that there would be no advance screenings of G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, their big, noisy, deluxe late-summer action-adventure-toy commercial. The infamy of it! The outrage! How dare a major movie studio decide not to screen a film for reviewers? Between this and the current embattled state of the Obama health-care initiative, this country is truly headed for trouble.
I kid, of course; I also beg your indulgence as I rattle on about this inside-media-baseball topic. The truth is that the marketing executives at Paramount have every right, if they so choose, not to screen one of their movies. It may be a boneheaded move, but it’s their prerogative to make it. Yet listening to movie critics, such as Peter Travers of Rolling Stone, work themselves up into a fulminating froth of indignation over this particular corporate decision, you’d think that something truly important was at stake.
Look, we critics do depend on screenings — it’s the only way we can review movies in a timely fashion. And it’s no secret that when a studio decides not to screen a picture in advance (as happens all the time these days, especially with horror films), it means, almost by definition, that the studio is not expecting the movie to get good reviews. But I have to wonder if we in the entertainment press have begun to react to this situation in a way that basically turns us into enablers.
What goes on now is that the movies that don’t get screened are, in effect, pre-judged. The thinking goes: The studio didn’t show it, so it has to be bad. And while the vast majority of these movies, I can say from experience, are bad, where that prejudice tends to reveal itself is in the tone of the reviews: that extra helping of contempt that gets heaped onto a movie – like, maybe, G.I. Joe — because its studio committed the unpardonable crime of not screening it. It’s become a vicious cycle: The non-screening leads to a presumption of junkiness, which leads to extra-nasty reviews, which leads to studios becoming ever-more-sheepish about screening certain films. In an odd way, the critics, by pulling out the long knives for movies that don’t get shown in advance, end up playing into the very role the studio has chosen for us. We’re the nasty, sneering highbrows, beating up on mass-market popcorn that “regular folks” may still show up for and enjoy.
The truth is, the whole no-screening ploy has become more and more toothless and irrelevant in the Internet era anyway. Critics can now catch a movie as soon as it opens on Friday morning and have a review filed on-line by later that afternoon. We can still get the word out — good, bad, or indifferent. But the prospect that it will, in fact, be bad has never seemed more like a self-fulfilling, virtually preordained judgment.
So did Paramount make the smart play? Will the studio, by avoiding lousy reviews for G.I. Joe — at least, in the print versions of newspapers and magazines — on opening day, lure that many more people into the theater than might have gone otherwise? Or is a decision like this one now destined to backfire, because the studio is basically inviting reviewers to take potshots at a movie as a way of punishing it? Is it shrewder for the Man to muzzle the people, or to let them speak?