Review Embargoes: A Catch-22 for All Involved

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To embargo or not to embargo? That is the question. Whether gagging journalists’ criticisms pre-release or simply not showing anyone your product before the big day, it’s a major concern for film studios and their flagship blockbuster products, not to mention their audiences.

Let’s not mince words here, an embargo is rarely a sign of something glorious. Josh Trank’s FANTASTIC FOUR had a review embargo, for all the good it did. With Fox bafflingly gutting the movie before abandoning it by the wayside late in the day, their only real hope for a decent return was to dupe enough viewers into the cinema before word spread. The majority of JJ Abrams projects – CLOVERFIELD, STAR TREK, SUPER 8 – consciously do the same and you can put money on him clinging to the same strategy for STAR WARS, whether it’s turned out good or bad. Most horror films aren’t screened for critics prior to release, though this is arguably more to do with the perceived critical disdain for the modern genre as a whole. Marvel, on the other hand, don’t seem to mind if word gets out early, which either indicates unshakable confidence in their product or a certain arrogance. Marvel do have the small matter of most of their films being released in Europe before they are stateside due to Disney’s distribution deals, so you can’t imagine even the world’s most powerful studio could silence or sue every critic across the pond until the home release comes around.

While prominent figures in the industry like Abrams have argued for a “mystery box” approach to film marketing (the admirable aim of preserving the surprise of viewing the film for the first time by revealing as little as possible ore-release), you’ve also got to understand that journalists have a job to do. Yes, they shouldn’t say in their early review that *sigh* SPOILER Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father or that Kevin Spacey is Keyser Soze, or more recently and less relevant that Benedict Cumberbatch is actually Khan, but they should be able to inform their readers/viewers and, since they often see films earlier than most, they should be free to write a detailed and well-argued review prior to public release.

The theory behind review embargoes is to get bums on seats before bad word of mouth spreads, to recoup as much of your failed movie as possible in a short space of time. But surely you’re shooting yourself in the foot if an embargo is nearly always the sign that a film studio has no faith in a movie, that it is unable to survive on its own merits. Just releasing a bad movie, especially one part of an established franchise with a built-in audience would probably still result in breaking even. After all, there are plenty of audience members out there who say, “who cares what the critics think?”

Personally, I try not to read too many reviews of films before I see them simply because I write my own and don’t want my opinion too coloured. As I’m not a professional, I’m seeing movies at the same time as everyone else. The vast majority of viewers have no such restrictions and should actively seek out as many different reviews as possible to make an informed choice of which film to pay to see. If they are unable to access any information beyond studio-sanctioned PR before they’re buying a ticket, how fair is that?

I know we don’t live in an ideal world and dirty marketing tricks are very much part of the Hollywood film business, but film studios really need to stop trying to blind-side their audiences and just make good movies. That way the futile act of having review embargoes will die all by itself. To embargo or not embargo? It’s not a question really. SSP

About Sam Sewell-Peterson

I'm not paid to write about film - I do it because I love it. Favourites include Sam Mendes, Guillermo del Toro, Bong Joon-ho, Steven Spielberg, Danny Boyle, Edgar Wright, Taika Waititi and the Coen Brothers. All reviews and articles are original works owned by me. They represent one man's opinion, and I'm more than happy to engage in civilised debate if you disagree.
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