Major Studio Longs to Meet Quote Whore; Happy Ending at Box Office A Must

When you see a movie poster, do you really read any of the blurbs which might appear on it? I don't mean scanning the brief words that appear, such as "A thrilling ride!" or "Incredible!" I mean do you read the other words? Do you check out who may have said those words? Do you check to see if the review came from the pen of a credentialed and notable reviewer from the likes of The New York Times or Newsweek, or if it actually came from something like the Poughkeepsie Daily Shitbird, where the reviewers are so anxious that they will shill for even the worst piece of crap if it will get them more notice (and perhaps some fringe bennies). I'm not saying it's a form of critical payola -- I'm just saying... Amazingly, if a studio can't get a recognized big-time publication to give their flick a reach-around, they will find some tiny corner of the web or an obscure station in the middle of Ohio to do the dirty work. It's the magic of Hollywood.

There is no such publication as the Shitbird (obviously), but it serves the purpose well here. All the studio cares is that you pick up on the word "Incredible!" and it screws straight back to your brain through your eyes and wedges there, pulsing almost subliminally until the moment that the movie is released and then it pops up in your memory, reminding you that this movie simply can't be missed. But if you were to do an analysis of the actual review from whence the word "Incredible" sprang forth, you might find one of a couple possibilities.

If the word came from a review by a chintzy fly-by-night operation like the Shitbird, then it is likely a hack job by a barely credible individual who is given what credence he has by sole fact that he works for a newspaper... any newspaper. The studio has possibly flown him to a press junket in a major city to gather his most likely insincere endorsement of their film. And the studio doesn't want you to actually realize his newspaper is the Shitbird; they just want you to remember the word from the review that inspires you to slap down your hard-earned $10.50 on the counter at the theatre. However, they do have to put the name of the Shitbird on there to keep things on the up and up; they just put it in incredibly small print in the hopes that you won't notice the source at all. And if the word "Incredible!" actually came from, say, the Times or its ilk, then the studios do want you to remember the paper from which the quote was derived. But, there still exists the chance that they don't really want you to check out the real review, because they may have grabbed "Incredible!" from a statement such as, "An incredible waste of time!" It's the old quote-out-of-context thing, and it happens from time to time.

Or, of pressed and desperate, the studio can simply invent their own critic. Sounds simple enough; I don't know why more studios haven't tried it. Oh! I know why: it can backfire on them, in ways far beyond people realizing in advance they are being duped by a corporate slickster. Columbia Pictures invented their own critic, David Manning, to give good reviews to many of their films in the early '00s. They ended up getting sued and had to give a large, though probably not large enough, sum back to complaining moviegoers who wanted their money back. (Hey, I saw many of the films involved in the suit, and I was never asked to join it! Of course, I did join that CD rebate thing against the music biz a few years back and I never saw my $5... so what's the use? These people, and we the people, will never learn anything. The new boss is the same as the old boss, and we will always get fooled again. Sorry, Pete...)

But, whether it is a real review or not, and no matter how legit the source of the review, it really comes down to this: do you really know any of these reviewers? You might like Ebert and Roeper's show (I do), but do you actually know them? You can get a cursory sense of how they are in real life, but you can read thousands of Ebert's reviews (I have) and still not know a whole lot about him personally. He writes like most reviewers write: from a supposedly centered and professional balance, and only allow the most fleeting glimpses regarding their past experiences into their writing. If you don't know someone personally, can you really trust their opinion on something? For a small selection of people, knowing someone like Ebert is an educated expert on their subject might be enough.

When there is a new movie out about which you are deliberating on going, whose opinion do you trust the most: that of a published critic in your local paper, or that of someone from your inner circle of friends? Or is it perhaps a member of your family? Most people that I know listen more to the opinions of their immediate influences than that gained from a review from a media phantom in a newspaper or on television. And they treasure these opinions most because they have first-hand knowledge of the lives of these people. They know what these persons like and dislike, and even if they hate something in which that person is interested, they might go see it anyway because they understand that person has a particular prejudice against that genre, filmmaker or actor. You use what you know about what they know to determine your next move.

You can do this with critics with whom you have gained some familiarity, but it is a harder act to do. I, too, have gone to films that Ebert has panned, simply because I know he is wishy-washy on certain genres, but more often, I have gone to films he has championed (often smaller films) because he has a very sharp and discerning eye in other genres. This is because I have been reading his words for over twenty years, and have formed at least a basic idea of him as he is as a person in real life. But Ebert is perhaps the most prominently public of film critics; it is easier to form this basis of him than it is of, say, David Edelstein, of whom, until recently (when he has occasionally filled in for Ebert), I only knew as a voice on NPR. I enjoy his reviews, but I don't know him like I do Ebert. Even though I really don't know Ebert...

[To be continued on Sunday...]

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