Keeping the Critics Away

August 30, 2008
A thought by James Berardinelli

This Labor Day weekend has provided the movie-going community with a first: three wide releases not screened for critics. Of the four films newly opening in multiplexes this weekend, only one - Traitor - provided advance screenings. The other three - Babylon A.D., College, Disaster Movie - were kept hidden away until theater box offices opened for business on Friday. But should it matter to the average patron whether critics get to see a movie in advance? In a word, "yes" - if you care about the quality of what you're seeing.

By not screening a movie for critics, distributors are making a statement about the film. They have no faith in its ability to capture the appeal of a discriminating viewer. It's crap and they know it's crap. To maximize first weekend box office revenue, they want to suppress negative word-of-mouth for as long as possible. Keep reviews (which are expected to be uniformly damning) out of newspapers and off websites for as long as possible.

Labor Day weekend is not considered a strong movie weekend. In fact, it may be the weakest of the year. It's not hard to understand why. For many families, it's a time for vacations and out-of-doors activities. For kids, school lurks just around the corner and the desire to spend time with friends in a social setting rather than sitting in a theater has greater appeal. So it's a perfect time for Hollywood to jettison some flotsam to avoid the "direct-to-DVD" tag when the titles make their way to video in a few months.

College is a perfect example of a direct-to-DVD title that features unknowns in front of and behind the cameras. It's hard to figure out why MGM would spend the money to strike all the prints needed to get this onto more than 1000 screens. The theatrical release of College represents a very expensive advertising and marketing strategy for the DVD release. The distributor is probably working with a quote whore at the moment for a blurb to feature prominently on the DVD cover. I wonder if this one will come out in Blu-Ray?

The big competition for College is Disaster Movie, but the latter has the edge because it's PG-13. That means bored teenagers with nothing better to do can spend 90 minutes vegetating in front of the screen. Unlike College, which was directed by unknown Deb Hagen, the men behind Disaster Movie are well known. Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer are the responsible parties for Date Movie, Epic Movie, and Meet the Spartans. The abysmal quality of those three features have allowed Friedberg and Seltzer to usurp Uwe Boll's position at the bottom of the movie-making totem poll. Compared to Frideberg and Seltzer, Boll is Billy Wilder. This raises the question of why people see something like Disaster Movie. It's the concept of familiarity. The movie represents a collection of mocked-up scenes from other movies, and a portion of the population likes seeing this sort of thing even if there's nothing new, fresh, funny, or interesting about the framework. Viewers would probably be just as happy with the movie if it was a disjointed series of clips from those films. It's a way of re-living favorite moments in another context.

Then there's Babylon A.D. As has been widely reported, director Mathieu Kassovitz has ripped this movie for all it's worth. According to him, what's on screen is not his work, but a studio-edited bastardization that has destroyed his vision. It's rare for a filmmaker to be this up-front about a movie so close to its release. The average director will stay mum until long after their words could do any damage. It brings to mind Terry Gilliam and Brazil, although, compared to that epic battle, this is just a minor skirmish. Nevertheless, when a director decrees that his own film is an abomination, it would behoove viewers to pay attention. Having regretfully seen Babylon A.D., I must agree with Kassovitz's assessment. It wasn't worth my $9 and it's hard to believe it's worth anyone else's.

As is traditional, there's not much coming out the weekend after Labor Day. There is one big release: Bangkok Dangerous. Don't expect much in the way of advance word, however. It's not being screened for critics. And that perhaps is all the review that's needed. (Note: Since I will be at the Toronto Film Festival next weekend, I will not be reviewing Bangkok Dangerous when it opens.)