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Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar Voynar@moviecitynews.com

Embargo, Schmembargo

By now you’ve no doubt heard all the brouhaha over the New Yorker‘s David Denby deciding to break embargo on David Fincher’s adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by running his (positive) review eight days ahead of the embargo date he agreed to when he attended the screening. And as I’ve seen from the comments on The Hot Blog and a lot of other sites covering this story, many folks who do not work in the industry (and even some who do) do not seem to get why this is a big deal. It all seems very inside baseball, but hey — MCN is an industry website, so if you don’t want a little inside baseball, why are you here? So let’s break down why Denby breaking embargo actually is a big deal in our world. Because it’s really a pretty simple matter that’s being cluttered up by a lot of superfluous chatter unrelated to the actual issue at hand.

If you work as a critic, you are allowed — not entitled, allowed — to see movies earlier than the general public, for free, to allow you time in which to write your review. This is a courtesy afforded to press by the studio, at the studio’s expense (because it costs money to run a screening). It also benefits the studio to allow press to see a film early so reviews can be published, although if reviews are terrible and the film isn’t a “critic proof” thing like the Fast and Furious franchise, or Transformers, or what have you, it could potentially hurt it.

When you are invited to attend a press screening (or a promo screening to which you’ve been invited as press), you generally get an email from the studio/PR folks that outlines for you the conditions under which the screening is offered to you — specifically, they generally specify the “hold review” date — the date on which you are allowed to run your review of said film — along with an admonition that the screening is for “reviewing press,” meaning if you aren’t assigned to/actually planning to review a film, you aren’t supposed to attend the free screening. Denby attended an early screening of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo for the NYFCC (held super-early to accommodate that group deciding they had to be FIRST! this year with their awards), and that screening had an embargo attached to it. Denby doesn’t dispute this, he openly acknowledges in the email exchange between him and Dragon Tattoo producer Scott Rudin that he is aware he’s violating the embargo by running his review early, but hopes no one will mind, since after all, his review is positive. And he writes for the New Yorker, which needs to run the review ahead of embargo to accommodate their printing schedule. Rudin, for his part, openly acknowledges that he’s pissed. And he has every right to be.

The only thing actually relevant here is this: Denby attended a screening that had an embargo attached. By attending that screening, he implicitly accepted the terms under which it was offered: to hold review until the date specified by the embargo. Period. Everything else — Denby’s protestations that the New Yorker has this big Christmas double issue to run, and he really really really didn’t want to write about We Bought a Zoo, and he really really really liked Dragon Tattoo, none of that matters. Whether David Denby is a Very Important Person or not — even if he was the single most important film critic in the entire history of film criticism, writing for the single most important print publication in the entire history of print publications — is completely irrelevant, too. And yes, whether anyone in the industry thinks Scott Rudin is a stand-up guy or a reprehensible asshole is also completely irrelevant.

So why does this matter? It matters because studios and producers invest many millions of dollars in both getting a film made, and marketing it such that the general public will buy tickets to see it, thus giving them a return on investment that allows them to make the next film, and the next film, and the next. Which, in addition to giving the general public movies to see every weekend, also happens to keep a lot of people who work in the film industry employed and able to pay their bills. Reviews running a week or two ahead of the film’s actual release date to the public DO hurt the film, even if they’re positive, because by the time the film opens, that positive review is old news, and the public’s short attention span has moved on to the next interesting thing. For a film like Dragon Tattoo, which is directed by David Fincher and highly anticipated, this may or may not impact the bottom line, but whether it does or not is also not germane to a discussion of whether Denby has a right to violate the agreement under which he was allowed early access to see this film. He does not have that right without the consent of the studio, no matter how important a critic he is. The studio owns the film, they have the right to determine who sees it, when, and under what conditions. End of line.

Now, we can certainly have an argument about whether or not embargoes are stupid, but that’s a completely separate discussion from the issue. Not only is Scott Rudin in the right in saying he’s going to ban Denby from future screenings of his films, it behooves him to actually DO so, because if he does not stick to his guns on this, he’s effectively telling Every. Single. Film Blogger. that the studio does not take its embargoes seriously, and then it’s just a free-for-all race to be FIRST! to get your review up after a press screening, agreements and embargoes be damned. If you’re going to have a rule that says, “You violate our embargo, we’ll kick your critic ass off our press list and deny you future early access,” that rule has to apply to everyone equally, regardless of the perceived or actual importance of individuals. It’s certainly within a studio’s right as the owner of a film to choose to grant some publications the right to run early reviews (although I could argue against that as well), but that isn’t the case here. Denby was not granted such permission. He didn’t even ask for permission, he just notified the studio that he and his editors had made a decision to just blatantly violate an agreement.

Really, what is there to argue about here? Pretty black and white, yes?

14 Responses to “Embargo, Schmembargo”

  1. Cole Smithey says:

    Perfectly said Kim. I couldn’t agree with you more.

    I think it’s interesting that the situation speaks to a clear level of desperation on the part of a high-profile publication such as The New Yorker to illicitly attempt to land an editorial preemptive strike against all other publications and critics.

    At some level, I believe a boycott of The New Yorker magazine is in order. I’ve never been a fan of the publication to begin with, so no one will notice that I don’t buy it or have a subscription. What Denby and his editors have done is reprehensible, and they should be punished for it.

    Thanks for such a comprehensive and concise piece on the subject.

  2. Rman says:

    You sharply nailed it Kim. I support Scott Rudin and the producers of “Dragon Tattoo” on this issue. David Denby should never be allowed to attend press screenings from now on.

  3. Hallick says:

    If it wasn’t Denby’s intention to break the embargo, and he broke it anyway, what do his intentions even matter? This was not an accident. He didn’t leave a laptop on a barstool for some film-review obsessed patron to steal and post on the net. He gave his review to The New Yorker for the magazine to publish, period. There is a point where Denby said to himself “fuck the embargo”, no if’s and’s or but’s about it.

    If Denby had to run his review of Dragon Tattoo because there weren’t any other serious films to review, what happened to that fucking jam-up of important movies littering the month of December?

    And if he thought voting on the best films of the year in November was idiotic, why did he participate as one of the idiots?

    Now, on the other hand, Rudin’s a moron. If you don’t want your movie reviewed this early, don’t show it so friggin’ early. You know what the climate for film critics is like in 2011; you know their jobs are only hanging by the chalk outline of a thread and any little thing they can do for a scoop will be done; and you know if Denby hadn’t had been first, somebody else was DEFINITELY going to fill that bill. And since when has somebody’s word been bond in Hollywood of all places?

    I allow Rudin’s disappointment, but his outrage suggests a level of naivete that needs its diaper changed.

  4. RP says:

    Since when has anyone in Hollywood really been held to any sort of ethical standards? Why was it ethical for Rudin to show a special screening to accomodate New York film critics year-end awards, and not expect that an ’embargo’ would be broken either way? The possibility of them giving early awards before a review went up was ok, but not an actual review as to why the film is deserving? We’re supposed to believe that year-end awards are going to boost box office, but a positive review is going to have a negative impact on the film? The New York film critics would all look pretty stupid if they gave out awards last week to a film that couldn’t be mentioned in print or online for two weeks.

    And why do the critics get dictated to by Rudin or other producers? Sure, he has to pay money to run a screening, but publications like the New Yorker pick and choose which reviews they run, which is essentially making an editorial decision about which films could be helped or harmed by such publication. Denby is allowed to look like a more important critic because he gets to pick and choose which films he reviews moreso than an Ebert or even a Poland, and the Rudin’s of the world give him access to try and gain a favorable review.

  5. RP says:

    I just want to reiterate this point after reading some comments in another post, because I don’t know if I can be clear enough about the insanity of this even being a discussion topic. Rudin attached an ’embargo’ for reviews, to a movie that he was screening for a specific group of critics, at a specific time and place, for the specific reason of having positive awards buzz attached to the film. So Rudin gets to say “You can see my movie if you want to give it awards-otherwise, shut the f*** up about it.” And we’re supposed to esteem all the critics in New York who wanted to see the film first but chose not to post a review after they already gave out their year-end awards? Wouldn’t you say that you pretty much knew the outcomes of the reviews to be written about ‘dragon’ if the majority of New York critics voted it ‘Best Film’? Would Rudin be complaining about that?

  6. Kim Voynar says:

    RP,

    There’s a difference between being allowed to screen a film early for awards consideration, versus writing and publishing a review that violates an embargo. For me, this is just a black-and-white contractual thing: You choose to attend a screening designated beforehand as embargoed, you are agreeing to those terms, period. Had Denby addressed this with Rudin before seeing the film, and gotten consent to run early, this wouldn’t be a discussion at all.

    Case in point: The Seattle screening of Young Adult that I attended was embargoed for December 16, when the film opens in Seattle. We did not run my review early here on MCN, in conjunction with this weekend’s limited release, without first clearing it with Paramount that it was fine to do so (and no, they did not know whether my review would be positive or not before granting that consent), and also notifying the Seattle PR folks that my review would run early.

    Bottom line: Yes, there is dishonesty and backstabbing and abundant assholery in our industry. You maintain a reputation as an honest person in an occasionally questionable business climate by holding yourself to a standard of ethics you believe in, regardless of what those around you do.

    Which is, in no small part, why MCN is the outlet for which I’ve written for a long time now. David may have his critics among those who know only his internet persona, but I know David the man, who is my friend and colleague, and I respect the way in which he conducts business in this industry greatly.

  7. Kim Voynar says:

    Also: Whether Scott Rudin is an asshole or not — whether everyone in Hollywood are assholes or not — is absolutely not relevant to a discussion of the specific choice Denby made here. It’s deflecting attention from what’s really a very simple issue. And I am very glad to see other critics and bloggers NOT following suit and running their own reviews early. At the end of the day, Denby pulling this makes it harder for everyone else to do their jobs, in a climate where jobs are fading away and people are struggling to stay afloat. Not. Cool.

  8. RP says:

    No offense to you or your ethical standards, but Denby isn’t tasked with helping you or anyone else keep your job. You can tell all the print critics of the world who lost their jobs due to the internet that you played no part in it by the mere ability to be cheaper and faster (I mean that with no sarcasm)-it’s just the way it is now.

    Denby doesn’t have an excuse for the ‘if it was negative, I wouldn’t have put it in’, but other than that, I still disagree with you:

    “There’s a difference between being allowed to screen a film early for awards consideration, versus writing and publishing a review that violates an embargo.”

    In that Rudin allowed the screening to happen only so he could control awards for marketing purposes. If he didn’t want any reviews (giving it a reward is a form of review either way), he shouldn’t have screened it for critics. Period. And the motive for leaking the e-mails? Obviously a point being made by Rudin that journalists can write whatever they want, as long as it isn’t a review of his film when he doesn’t want it? The answer once again seems to come back to simple psychology-if you don’t want something to happen, don’t allow the possibility.

  9. Kim Voynar says:

    RP, sorry, but your lack of understanding of how these screenings actually work pretty much negates your argument. As aforesaid: When we attend these screenings, there is always a condition attached that we not run reviews before a given date. By attending the screening, you accept that condition, period. And when someone shits in the pool like Denby has here, he threatens access for a lot of other folks.

    If studios didn’t screen early for press, critics could not write their reviews in a timely manner. It’s a mutually beneficial system built on trust, that relies upon people having some degree of responsibility and ethics.

    And, really … “If you don’t want something to happen, don’t allow the possibility” is completely ignorant of how this industry works. To carry your logic forward, do you also think that studios shouldn’t send press awards consideration screeners unless they want and expect their films to be illegally pirated by the critics to whom they send them? Criminy.

    And lastly, no, he did not allow the screening to happen so he could “control awards.” There is no “control” of awards, but if the critics’ group doesn’t SEE your film, they can’t consider it in their voting. Rudin felt, apparently, that the NYFCC was important enough to cave to their earlier deadline, which is fine. That does not make it fine for Denby to turn around and violate the hold date he agreed to by showing up and watching the film.

  10. David Poland says:

    RP – The problem with your argument is that it’s all entitlement and no responsibility.

    Rudin offered to show the film to NYFCC under embargo.

    At that point, either you accept the rules or you don’t.

    If Rudin is manipulating the situation, it’s a simple as saying, “No, thank you.” And the “punishment” for that? Seeing it a week later, like everyone else.

    Getting on your high horse because you, as The John, think the prostitute is a whore anyway, so after you’re done, you decide not to pay her as agreed to… no one is innocent. In that moral bubble, I take the prostitute’s side. They agreed, she delivered, he changed the rules because he felt he could.

    Now, if I were her husband or family member, I might judge her and say she got what she deserved because she’s a whore. (A whole can of worms opens over the intricacies of a family… but let that rest.) But that doesn’t mean The John isn’t a piece of shit.

    I don’t disrespect Rudin as you do. I get your point though. This is why NYFCC should never have lowered its standards to have a vote in November. It’s all part of the same cesspool. But as I have said a million times… it is Rudin’s job to protect and sell his movies. The critics’ job is only to offer an opinion to the public. Denby and NYFCC both went well out of bounds in their actions while Rudin did nothing but to do as he is expected to do.

  11. chris says:

    P.S. If Rudin were “controlling awards,” wouldn’t he have actually gotten some?

  12. RP says:

    Chris-the real question is, would he have been pissed about Denby’s review if he had? Certainly the e-mails might not have been released.

  13. Keil Shults says:

    People are blaming Rudin and Denby, when each were only doing what the NYFCC and The New Yorker would let them get away with, respectfully. NYFCC could have refused to postpone their obviously flexible (and now laughable) deadline, just as they could have refused to screen a movie that came with an embargo attached to it. And while I don’t pretend to know the inner workings of a major newspaper, I would assume that someone (or some people) at The New Yorker is required to green-light each article before it goes to publication. I would assume that same person or committee would be aware of the embargo, decide whether or not to obey it, and be prepared to deal with any legal or ethical issues their decision may drudge to the surface.

    So don’t gripe at Rudin for doing what any smart and aggressive producer would do. His actions, in my mind, are less suspect than Denby’s, but even he was just doing what his bosses would let him get away with. I personally think that agreeing to do something, so far as to sign a contract, and then going back on it for petty, personal reasons, is a pathetic move worthy of mockery and disdain, no matter how the person tries to justify it. It’s not like a person’s life was at stake here.

    P.S. I’m not backing Rudin’s maneuvers merely because he’s helped deliver so many great movies to the masses, but it probably didn’t hurt

  14. TC Kirkham says:

    I’d like to ask a question. I’ve run Popcorn N Roses/Subject:CINEMA for over five years now and even though we have limited press access to early screenings, as a matter of courtesy to the full-time critics in Boston and around the country, when we do manage to have access, or are fortunate enough to receive a screener for a forthcoming film, it has always been PNR/SC policy to hold reviews until the weekend the film is released in NY and LA. We broke that only once, and it was unintentional.

    So why do the two major trades, THR and Variety – still get a pass on embargoes? I frequenly see reviews for upcoming films at least two weeks earlier than I should for a lot of titles. This was understandable back when they were mostly exhibitor trade magazines, but today, they are not, and there is no reason to grant them permission to publish earlier reviews than everyone else. So as a semi-outsider, this embargo double standard seems confusing to me.

    I’m curious on everyone else’s take on this question because they frequently seem so out of step timewise with everyone else when publishing reviews.

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“Well, actually, of that whole group that I call the post-60s anti-authority auteurs, a lot of them came from television. Peckinpah’s the only one whose television work represents his feature work. I mean, like the only one. Mark Rydell can direct a really good episode of ‘Gunsmoke’ and Michael Ritchie can direct a really good episode of ‘The Big Valley,’ but they don’t necessarily look like The Candidate. But Peckinpah’s stuff, even the scripts he wrote that he didn’t even direct, have a Peckinpah feel – the way I think there’s a Corbucci West – suggest a Peckinpah West. That even in his random episodes that he wrote for ‘Gunsmoke’ – it’s right there.”
~ Quentin Tarantino

“The thought is interrupted by an odd interlude. We are speaking in the side room of Casita, a swish and fairly busy Italian bistro in Aoyama – a district of Tokyo usually so replete with celebrities that they spark minimal fuss. Kojima’s fame, however, exceeds normal limits and adoring staff have worked out who their guest is. He stops mid-sentence and points up towards the speakers, delighted. The soft jazz that had been playing discreetly across the restaurant’s dark, hardwood interior has suddenly been replaced with the theme music from some of Kojima’s hit games. Harry Gregson-Williams’ music is sublime in its context but ‘Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots’ is not, Kojima acknowledges, terribly restauranty. He pauses, adjusting a pair of large, blue-framed glasses of his own design, and returns to the way in which games have not only influenced films, but have also changed the way in which people watch them. “There are stories being told [in cinema] that my generation may find surprising but which the gamer generation doesn’t find weird at all,” he says.
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