Thanking the Studios

April 12, 2006
A thought by James Berardinelli

As has been widely publicized recently, studios have decreased the number of films being made available in pre-release screenings for critics. Hardly a week goes by when one or more films is held back from an advance exposure. One might construe that keeping some of these movies in hermetically sealed containers is designed to contain the stench. After all, nothing says "no confidence" louder than hiding a product from those who might have unkind things to say about it.

In my opinion, the whole thing is overblown. Most of the movies that aren't getting advance screenings are critic-proof. It doesn't matter what I or Roger Ebert or anyone else says about them. Benchwarmers won't lose a dollar because critics hate it. And it wouldn't make a dollar more if critics loved it. For films like this, it's word-of-mouth, not reviews, that drives the box office.

So when do critics matter? This has been pondered at length by people who are a lot more perceptive than I am. The films that get helped or hurt the most by reviews are the little movies - the ones that open mainly in art-houses and not on many screens. The patrons who frequent these venues tend to rely on reviews to sort the wheat from the chaff. I have seen 4-star newspaper reviews turn a little-known art-house flick into a local sensation. Word of mouth is important for these movies, as well, but usually good word of mouth starts because "early" movie-goers took a chance on a film based on praise-worthy reviews.

Back to those films not being screened for critics... I have decided to thank the studios for these. Last month, I made a decision no longer to attend movies released without press screenings unless I wanted to see the picture in question. Although I can't outright condemn a movie I haven't seen, I can say that my experience with non-screened movies has not been good. I can't recall giving anything better than **1/2 to one of these, and most of the ratings are a lot worse. In essence, the studios are doing me a favor by not screening a dud. They're telling me I probably won't like it, so they won't force me to sit through it by offering a press screening. So I have more nights at home, I spend less on gas, and I get to watch more good movies on DVD.

Now, if only the studios would take it one step further and stop making bad movies...