Censorship By Any Other Name

July 08, 2005
A thought by James Berardinelli

For those of us who write movie reviews, there's a phrase we all know: "review embargo." In layman's terms, this means that reviews are not supposed to appear on a website until the day the movie opens. Studios like to employ embargoes because it limits negative reviews from circulating before the movie has been released. The punishment for breaking an embago can range from a slap on the wrist to being banned from future screening's of a studio's films.

Studios will often turn a blind eye when a critic breaks an embargo with a positive review. Write something glowing about a film, and the studio wants it out there - the earlier, the better. Write something negative, and there will be a nasty-gram sitting in the e-mail in-box.

To me, embargoes are too much like censorship - a studio trying to control information flow. Their argument - and there is some validity to it, is that they have the right to control who sees a review before its release date, and if you don't want to play the game, you have to wait until it opens. Still... information flow control, allowing the good out but not the bad - doesn't sound like freedom of the press, does it?

When I first started writing reviews on-line, there was no such thing as an "embargo." There wasn't a need. Reviewers at that time wrote for dailies, weeklies, or monthlies. They saw a movie, wrote the review, and submitted it to their editor. It was published when it would garner the most attention. Enter the Internet. On-line critics like me would see a movie, write the review, and post it - all within 24 hours, sometimes weeks before a movie was in theaters. As the number of on-liners expanded, the studios went into damage control mode. The embargo was born.

My policy is to tread carefully around embargoes. I am bothered by the concept for two reasons. The first is philosophical. I don't like information flow control. It may not technically be censorship, but a skunk by any other name would smell as rank. [Note: this argument refers to completed versions of films, not pre-release versions. It's unfair to write a review of something that isn't in its final form.] The second reason is practical. "Early" reviews generate more traffic. If I was getting paid by the hit, waiting to post a review until the day of release could cost me valuable revenue.

Part of my dislike comes from having restrictions slapped on me after I had operated for years in total freedom. Embargoes are stifling. Sometimes I play by the rules - if a publicist specifically asks me to hold a review, I will do so out of professional curtesy. Otherwise, I use my own judgment about when to post it. If it's a postive review for a company that has a lenient attitude toward embargos, it goes up immediately. If it's a negative review for a company that's a stickler, it goes up close to (or on) the day of release. Everything else is in between. So, when I say that my review of Wedding Crashers won't be available until 7/13 even though I have already written it, that makes a loud statement about what I think of the movie - and how the studio might react if the review went up earlier.

I have been banned before (although never for breaking embargoes), and it may happen again. It's an annoyance, but it sometimes has to be endured. I'm not brash enough to flagrantly disregard all embargoes. My aim is not to generate as much ill-will within the studios as possible. But there are gray areas to be exploited. So I play the game, but using my interpretation the rules.

So the next time a review is "late," you know what's going on. Either that, or I missed the screening and had to see it on my own. That happens, too.