Editorial: The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo‘s Embargo and Why It Should Have Worked, But Didn’t

For the uninformed, let me get you up to speed so you have an idea of where this editorial came from.

David Denby is a film critic for The New Yorker, and his review for Sony Pictures’ upcoming release The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo will go live on Monday, Dec. 5 for all the world to read. The problem is that Sony placed an embargo on all reviews prior to Dec. 13. Yet here is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle breaking embargo citing a log jam of “important films” at the end of the year as being detrimental, as well as the publication of a double issue at the end of the year. But he was also left with the dilemma of what review to publish in the magazine for the upcoming week. In an e-mail written to Dragon Tattoo producer Scott Rudin (to which was obtained by The Playlist), Denby states that they went with the Dragon Tattoo review because if “we [The New Yorker] held everything serious, we would be coming out on Christmas-season movies until mid-January.”

But why be serious the first full week of December? Denby acknowledges they have a review of We Bought the Zoo, or “whatever it’s called” (clearly not a winning endorsement) ready to go, but instead went with a review for a film that is being marketed as the “feel bad movie of Christmas.” Though Denby does apologize to Rudin for his breach of the embargo, his actions are inexcusable. Not even his positive stance on the film, which he remarked with the easy-to-quote “mesmerizing”, is enough to quell the matter.

The fact remains that David Denby agreed to adhere to an embargo and breached it.

Nikki Finke of Deadline disputes the validity of embargoes, believing that “no film reviewer should ever agree to embargoes because doing what the studios want is a slippery slope. It’s just a short hop to becoming part of Hollywood’s publicity machine.” As someone who has had the privilege of seeing numerous films at critics only and public screenings, I’ve had to adhere to embargoes set forth by the studios. Studios aren’t obligated to screen their movies early for the critics, their major concern is appeasing theatergoers in the hope that they’ll try to help their bottom line with word of mouth. However, there is some validity in the debate that reviewers and critics set the tone of how the larger public perceives a movie.

For instance, talking to someone who loves movies, he typically brings up a certain movie’s rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The aggregator is the equivalent of giving a movie a thumbs up or a thumbs down. If the movie has a tomato rating of 60% or more it’s considered fresh. But fresh doesn’t always equate to dollars and cents. The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1, which has reigned supreme at the box office for the past three weeks, has a 26% rating. Yet, it’s earned $558 million worldwide thus far. Strong support from its built-in audience and a lack of major competition has helped it be a box office juggernaut. Unlike the films Hugo and Arthur Christmas, which are listed at 92% and 94%, respectively.

Like Denby, I had the pleasure of seeing The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo at an early critics screening, and I learned how serious Sony Pictures was with the embargo. When it comes to attending screenings one must first submit an RSVP informing the publicist in charge that you’ll be in attendance. So I did, only to get a reply back that I had failed to include a written declaration (which I had overlooked in the original e-mail) that I would not break the film’s Dec. 13 embargo date. That was a first for me.

I’m sure Denby, along with the rest of the New York Film Critics Circle, had to agree to the same conditions. But Denby’s blatant breach is a disservice. Regardless of his favorable review, he’s going back on his word. And if you go back on your word what else do you have to fall back on – good looks, effervescent charm?

Frankly, I think in a perfect world embargoes are ideal, as it allows members of the press to see a film and then later disseminate their positive or negative reviews in print, electronically or on radio/TV. But this isn’t a perfect world. Critics and journalists are all wanting to be first at something no matter the consequence. An early review for a film that doesn’t see its release until Dec. 21 is not an earth-shattering moment. It’s not as if Denby’s critique of David Fincher’s English-language adaptation of Stieg Larrson’s international bestseller is akin to the investigative work of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. It’s just a review.

Still, one has to wonder the validity of embargoes. If a film plays on the festival circuit and then is screened to critics prior to its theatrical bow, should an embargo exist? The reviews are already out there. But because the screenings are booked on part of the studios they hold all the cards in dictating the date as to when film reviews can go live. My reviews of We Bought a Zoo and The Artist were able to go live weeks prior to their releases because they were seen either as part of a national sneak preview or at a film festival free from studio embargoes.

Sony Pictures is deeply upset that Denby violated a written agreement that all members of the New York Film Critics Circle had signed. Now the question remains the lengths the studio would go to punish Denby, if not the entire group. So far they have offered this written statement.

Dear Colleague,

All who attended screenings of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo agreed in writing to withhold reviews until closer to the date of the film’s worldwide release date. Regrettably, one of your colleagues, David Denby of The New Yorker, has decided to break his agreement and will run his review on Monday, December 5th. This embargo violation is completely unacceptable.

By allowing critics to see films early, at different times, embargo dates level the playing field and enable reviews to run within the films’ primary release window, when audiences are most interested. As a matter of principle, the New Yorker’s breach violates a trust and undermines a system designed to help journalists do their job and serve their readers. We have been speaking directly with The New Yorker about this matter and expect to take measures to ensure this kind of violation does not occur again.

In the meantime, we have every intention of maintaining the embargo in place and we want to remind you that reviews may not be published prior to December 13th.

We urge all who have been given the opportunity to see The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo to honor the commitments agreed to as a condition of having early access to the film.

Thank you in advance for your cooperation.

Sincerely,
Andre Caraco, Executive Vice President, Motion Picture Publicity
Sony Pictures Entertainment

It was recently debated among my critics group if we would be willing to gain early access to word-of-mouth screenings strictly meant for public viewing only. The catch is that we would have to adhere to withhold our reviews until the proposed embargo dates. If any of the members breached the embargo it would result in all members of the critics group being unable to attend screenings for that studio for a period of one year.

Would the heads of Sony Pictures be just as stern and attempt a similar decree to the New York Film Critics Circle? Imagine the headaches that would cause the New York press from being unable to see such upcoming Sony titles as The Amazing Spider-Man, the latest James Bond adventure Skyfall and the still untitled Kathryn Bigelow Seal Team Six project.

So what happens next? David Denby will probably kiss some ass while The New Yorker‘s editors will get a slap on the wrist for moving ahead with the review. The management will no doubt be pleased by the amount of traffic the review drives to the site.

As for my review of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo you can expect it on Dec. 6.

Only kidding.

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