Editorials, Everything Else — December 22, 2012 at 4:36 am

SELF-FULFILLING PROPHECIES: WHERE MOVIE NEWS AND REVIEWS COLLIDE

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Today, we broach a topic I myself struggle with.

See, we live in an era of constant film news. It’s seems there are thousands of websites churning out information on various aspects of a film’s development. If you are excited about a film that’s coming out next year, chances are you can find pages strewn across the Internet detailing everything from choosing the director, script development, greenlighting, casting, spy set photos, official production stills, set visits and post-production diaries, all available months before the film is released.

I’m the type of guy who eats this kind of information up. I love following the various steps my favorite flicks take on their way to the big screen. I can still remember gleefully hopping on the Internet at my college over a decade ago and following the casting of Ewan MacGregor and Natalie Portman in Star Wars: Episode I more than a decade ago. Being in the know is a fun, film-geeky thing to do, right?

Well, I’m becoming less certain.

It started for me last year with the release of Green Lantern. That character and the Flash are my favorite DC Universe characters so I was excited to see ring-slinging on the big screen. Martin Campbell? Good choice. Ryan Reynolds? Perfect for the heroic bravura of Hal Jordan. Mark Strong as Sinestro? Good god yes.

Then the first trailer came out. And sites started reporting that the special effects were a problem and they were releasing things before they should. And the script has problems. And the studio is interfering.

Finally, the film is released and the consensus? It sucked. Mark Strong is great. Ryan Reynolds does his best, but… The effects are terrible and the script needed work.

Now, the reality for me was I thought it was okay. It wasn’t great, but it wasn’t the crime against humanity that some made it out to be.

My bigger concern though was I was starting to see the narrative of how good or bad a film was months before it was released. And the reviews seemed to confirm all of the things people were hearing.

I feel like we are seeing this more and more. Earlier this year, the Wachowski siblings and Tom Tykwer released a longform trailer for their ambitious time–spanning drama Cloud Atlas. While some seemed to like it, the general consensus was it seemed too long and Tom Hanks looked weird in parts.

Lo and behold, when the film was released, it received a similar criticism. Most cited its length as a problem, while the similarly long The Dark Knight Rises seemed immune to that criticism (we’ll have to see about Django Unchained next week).

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey followed a similar pattern as Green Lantern. Excitement over casting. Mixed reaction to Peter Jackson stepping back into Middle Earth after Guillermo del Toro dropped out. Early complaints about 48 frames per second presentations. Concern about stretching one book and the Tolkien appendices into not two, but three films.

Then the reviews follow that. Martin Freeman is a perfect Bilbo. Jackson is not doing anything new. High frame rate projection is distracting. It’s bloated and stretched out.

The questions I struggle with are: when does the review start for writers? Does it begin when they walk into a theater? Are they carrying expectations into a theater based on the word of mouth and looking for the moments that justify what they’ve heard going in? Or is it more the case that the early reporting, the excitement or trepidation, is accurate and the film ultimately reflects that.

What say you readers? You follow this and a number of other blogs. How much do marketing and film culture shape the narrative of what a film is before the release? How much of a review is written either consciously or subconsciously before the writer ever sets foot in a theater?  Are news and reviews inextricably linked at this point?  And does it even matter?

6 Comments

  • There’s not a single person who doesn’t walk into a theater carrying some sort of pre-conceived notion as to the quality of what they’re about to see. Save perhaps going to watch an indie film because your friend and/or significant other wants to but you’ve not heard of it and didn’t bother to google it.

    That said, I think you have to try and seek out reviews that don’t put so much emphasis on ‘proving their pre-conceived opinion’ right. That goes for both the reader and the writer.

    • I don’t know that I think it’s about going in knowing nothing or not. It seems like there was a time when you’d hear news of casting for example, but only superficial analysis of whether that was good or bad. Now sites use every bit of news to weave a narrative about what the film is and whether the decisions made along the way are good or bad. Where my antennae go up is where those reviews so closely track what the reviews were presupposing the film would be. Take The Hobbit as an example. If Jackson were still only making two movies and the first film came out the same, would people still complain about it being overstuffed? I don’t know. Maybe it doesn’t even matter. I just hope sites are reviewing each film on its own terms.

  • Interesting post. Like Univarn says, it’s so difficult (especially in the Internet age) to not go into a movie expecting a certain thing. The challenge is being able to enjoy when it goes in a different direction. I’m not seeing this is always good, but it’s tiring when the main complaint about a film is that it’s different than the trailer or marketing presented it. That isn’t the fault of the movie itself, but it often gets blamed.

    In terms of what to do, I think the key is keeping an open mind and trying to read more nuanced writers who try to get at the heart of what a movie is trying to say. The issues can fall on both mainstream reviewers (the few that are left) and bloggers, and we’re all victims of the hype to a point. Even knowing that a movie was nominated for an Oscar can change what we expect and set up unreal expectations.

    • Yeah, the marketing thing can be a post in and of itself. That said, the thing that I’m really just openly wondering about now is do all the marketing, set visit reports and the critical analysis of those color the film in a broader way. The Hobbit is what inspired the post so I’ll keep coming back to that. There was consensus about 48fps, Peter Jackson taking it back from del Toro and splitting the book into three movies that feels oddly pervasive throughout many of the negative reviews. Not pretending to have the answer. Just wondering how many writers are reviewing a film versus justifying their previous takes.

  • I think the last question is the most important. Does it matter? Not really. Everyone walks into a movie with baggage and expectations by default– if you’re not building expectations based on web hype, you’re building expectations based on past experience with the people involved or with the genre or with the material it’s potentially adapted from or or or. At the very least you’re expecting it to be good or bad, but that’s kind of over the edge of logical argumentation, so we’ll leave that alone.

    The thing is, you can expose yourself to the Internet buzz machine as much as you want, but it’s up to you whether any of that means anything to you. It’s logical to assume good things about a movie you haven’t seen when critics you respect go nuts over it in their early reviews, but their word isn’t law and everything is subjective (mostly). Similarly, you can judge the quality of a viral marketing campaign, but you can’t use a viral marketing campaign to judge the quality of the movie it’s pimping.

    All of this is coming from the guy who wrote 2000+ words defending The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey from prerelease negative backlash without having seen it himself, and based exactly on that aforementioned Internet buzz machine. So you may want to take this lightly (especially given how much I liked that movie, though I did walk into it with reservations and I was well-prepared to dislike it). But if movie news is shaping your perspective on anything in advance of seeing it, it’s definitely because you’re letting it– and I’m willing to admit it’s hard not to.

    • As you say, perhaps it doesn’t matter. It seems like the bigger releases that get the most scrutiny see the most overlap between reviews and news. Maybe that’s simply practiced eyes picking up on issues before they have a chance to manifest themselves on the screen.

      I did love your article and had many of the same thoughts myself. Unlike you, I only really came to Tolkien because of the movies but love the books now and the original trilogy. For me it comes down to faith in Jackson. I can still remember seeing Dead Alive for the first time and have followed him and all his films since. I do wonder if he’d be getting more benefit of the doubt if we didn’t get King Kong and The Lovely Bones in the intervening years.

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