Phony Film Critics
Above: Hollow Man with Kevin Bacon was one of several Sony films to receive glowing blurb from a non-existent film critic
The American public was shocked—simply shocked—when they found out in 2001 that Sony Pictures publicity had invented a fictional film critic to praise some of their less praise-worthy films (such as the Rob Schneider comedy, THE ANIMAL and director Paul Verhoeven’ HOLLOW MAN). Well, maybe they weren’t shocked; perhaps “amused” is a better word. After all, what’s more fun than to have your cynical suspicions confirmed by objective evidence?
We all know that Hollywood is a huge hype machine that will stop at nothing to promote its films, so the fact that the studio would stoop to outright deceit (as opposed to exaggeration and spin-doctoring) is not very surprising in and of itself. The real question is why the publicity department felt it was useful to invent a non-existent critic. What was to be gained?
The answer to that question requires a little back-story, which reveals that Sony’s actions were really just the logical extension of a pattern that has been evolving over the course of the last 25 years. Not that this makes their actions excusable, just understandable.
A long time ago (i.e., before there ever was a film about events in a galaxy far, far away), major motion picture studios would premier their films in exclusive or limited engagements, opening them in only a few theatres in major markets, such as New York and Los Angeles (a little bit like what Disney does today with their major animation features each year). A film would open in some luxury theatre downtown, and all the major critics would weigh in with their opinions in print and on TV, while word-of-mouth would spread from those viewers who just had to see a film during its exclusive run instead of waiting for it to move into their neighborhood theatres.
The reactions a film received would then help determine how it would be released to the rest of the nation. Advertising campaigns might be tweaked for different regional markets; a film might be re-edited into a shorter version for mass consumption; sometimes, if a film fared extremely poorly, a national release might even be avoided altogether.
However it worked, the bottom line was that the film was given its chance to generate word-of-mouth and critical buzz before it appeared in the vast majority of theatres around the country. No matter how much hype went into the marketing, the film ultimately had to stand on its own two feet.
Two films in the 1970s changed all that, JAWS (1975) and STAR WARS (1977). Those films proved that you could make a financial killing by opening a summer blockbuster nationwide instead of in limited engagements. With a film playing in hundreds or even thousands of theatres on opening weekend, it could reach a sizable percentage of its audience before word-of-mouth could kick in. Therefore, the pre-release hype became even more important. This did not eliminate the publicists’ relationship with critics, however. Although many potential viewers might not read a complete review before seeing a film, almost inevitably they had to look at an ad, if for no other reason than to check out where the film was playing. And those ads sure looked better when they were full of positive sound bytes lifted from critics. After all, film critics supposedly represented an objective opinion; everyone expected the studio to hype its efforts, but if a dozen critics all said that the film was great, then it must be worth checking out, right? Therefore, the goal for publicists was to find ways of getting the press to say good things about studio product. You could bribe them in subtle ways—invite them to the set, fly them to exotic locations to view filming, give them lots of free food and liquor at gala premiers. How else to explain the way the opening of PEARL HARBOR was treated like a major historical event by network television news outlets—did journalists really expect great things from the movie, or was it that they just couldn’t pass up that trip to Hawaii for the premier?
But those premiers don’t come cheap, and they aren’t always 100% effective. A far cheaper and easier way to get good quotes was simply careful editing: you pulled out the one or two favorable sentences from an otherwise unfavorable review. Technically, you don’t need permission to do this, and presumably the writer cannot object since he did, after all, say what he’s quoted as saying. (Theoretically, permission is supposed to be obtained if the quote is paraphrased or altered in anyway that might be misleading, but there is no official body to enforce this.)
This method is fine; however, there still may be times when you come up empty-handed or, worse yet, embarrassed. After all, there is some risk involved. You don’t want to print “Achieves Greatness!” at the top of the ad, and then have some article come out a week later pointing out that the original review actually said, “The film almost achieves greatness, but ultimately stumbles into awfulness.” So, what’s the next step?
The answer lies in those ratings charts that some newspapers and magazine used to run, which allow all of the regular staff to give numerical ratings (like one to four stars) to each film in release. A glance at any chart like this will reveal that almost any film, no matter how bad, has at least one supporter at each publication or outlet who will give it at least two stars, maybe three, and sometimes even four. If you’re a studio publicist, your tactic is clear: bypass the critic who wrote the printed review, and call up the one critic who gave your film four stars.
This led to the ‘90s phenomenon known as “Quote Whores,” those journalists so eager to see their name in print that they could always find something good to say. The situation was tainted by the fact that writers were no longer required to actually write anything in order to be quoted; they simply said something nice over the phone, and the publicist would tailor it to fit into the ad.
It’s easy to see why a journalist would fall into this trap. If you’re writing for a publication but your editor asked someone else to review the weekend’s major new release, obviously you’re not at the top of the pecking order. How to increase your cache as a critic? Well, the more your name is seen in advertisements, the more you seem to be the voice of authority. Of course, these so-called writers knew they had to say something nice, but many simply rationalized this by telling themselves that there’s something good to say about almost any movie, so they weren’t really lying, just giving an honest opinion that emphasized the positive. If they had been asked to write the review, they would have said the exact same thing, and they would also have pointed out the film’s shortcomings—at least, that was the excuse.
The problem for publicists, of course, was that outside of Roger Ebert and Pauline Kael, there weren’t that many film critics with nationally recognized names, so the only way to lend authority to these quotes was by listing the name of magazine or newspaper after the name of the critic. This led to the bizarre phenomenon of quotes being attributed to publications in which the words never actually appeared.
I first encountered this while working as the West Coast Editor for CINEFANTASTIQUE magazine. I was surprised to open my copy of the LOS ANGELES TIMES one day to see an ad for BARB WIRE with an extremely favorable quote attributed to one of our free-lance writers. Unfortunately, he had not written the review that actually appeared in the magazine, which was overwhelmingly negative. At my instigation, we immediately instituted a policy which prevented free-lancers from handing out quotes with the magazine’s name attached; they could say whatever they wanted over the phone, but the quote could only be attributed to the magazine if it was from a review that had actually been published in its pages.
Now maybe you’re starting to see how this led to a fictional film critic. Most journalists’ names are not that well known. If you can’t get something good from the top critic at the major publications, and if the publications are not letting their other writers hand out the magazine’s name to any publicist who asks, you’re into a situation where you’re increasingly relying on unknown names. It no longer matters who said it; the only important thing is what was said.
This combines with another fact of life: writers should be literate, but they are not necessarily articulate. You can’t always get a great-sounding piece of hyperbole over the phone. So publicists found a method to save these Quote Whores from having to think up their own quotes: they started sending out what looked like a multiple choice quiz. When a film was about to be released, a journalist would get one of these in his fax or e-mail, with the film’s title at the top and a list of perhaps 10 choices, preceded by the question, “Which of these most nearly describes your reaction to the film?” Needless to say, all the options were overwhelmingly positive (e.g., “Best Film This Year!”), so if anybody bothered to check off one and fax it back to the publicist, they had a guaranteed usable quote.
At this point, we get into the science of statistics and probability. If you provide 10 choices and all of them are positive, it’s only a matter of sending out enough faxes until someone gives you the response you want. If you’re diligent enough, it becomes more or less inevitable that you will get a positive hit on one or maybe even all of the choices provided. Human nature being what it is, we like to take short cuts when we know the outcome is inevitable. It is rather like the Borges short story “The Library of Babel,” in which every book that can be written has been written; it’s just a matter of finding it somewhere in the infinite chambers.
This is probably why the Sony publicists opted to create a ficitonal film critic and put their words into his mouth. Why bother with the time and trouble of faxing out multiple-choice questionaires when you know that, inevitably, someone, somewhere, will say what you want? Having put pre-written words into the mouths of real (if unknown) journalists for years, the publicists decided to skip a step. After all, did the names of these unknown critics carry any weight with the public, or was it simply important to see something good said about the movie? And if the author and outlet are not important, what’s the point of searching for a parrot to repeat what you say, when instead you can have a ventriloquist dummy at hand to do the job for you?
After a diatribe like this that identifies a problem, typically one is expected to offer up some kind of solution. “Don’t believe everything you read,” is one obvious lesson, but that doesn’t really rectify the situation. I suppose we could call on Hollywood to behave itself a little bit better, but are we really naïve enough to think that that will happen anytime soon?
There are a couple things to do. First, newspapers, magazines, TV shows, and websites that review films should instigate policies like the one we adopted back at CINEFANTASTIQUE: the only time the outlet’s name should be allowed in an ad is when the quote actually appeared in that outlet. Furthermore, all of us webheads should do a better job of policing Hollywood. When you see some hymn of praise for an abysmally bad movie, go online and do a search on the name of the critic and his outlet. If no such person or outlet exists, write to the studio, and let your local newspaper know.
Best of all, maintain a healthy skepticism about the quotes you see in ads, and realize that the Hollywood pre-release hype machine has been at least somewhat undercut by the existence of the Internet. The goal of studio publicists is still to get onto thousands of screens for opening weekend, so that they can make as much money as possible before word-of-mouth warns ticket-buyers, but nowadays that word-of-mouth travels almost instantaneously online. No matter how tightly the studio press machine keeps the lid on a film, no matter how many phony quotes and critics they invent, you can get the real story from outlets you trust, and you can get it in time to save you from wasting your $8.00.
Copyright 2001 Steve Biodrowski