FILM / Look who's talking: Word of mouth can make or break a movie, whatever its critical reception. Now television has replaced pundits with punters. Sheila Johnston reports

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The Independent Culture
Towards the end of last year, The Independent on Sunday ran a small advertisement labelled Situation Vacant. 'Wanted,' it said, 'Film Critic.' Some 200 eager applicants presented themselves (no doubt many more were deterred by the requirement to write a sample column). I wasn't surprised: these pages also regularly get unsolicited letters from people offering their services as reviewers. After all, anyone can do the job: as Johnny Vaughan said on Channel 4 recently, 'the only difference between them (film critics) and us is that they get free tickets and we don't'.

Vaughan was speaking on Moviewatch, a new film review programme. Its gimmick: instead of one regular critic, it fields four ordinary movie-goers, aged between 18 and 26, and chosen each week from a different city. The theory: that their opinions, fresh and untutored, could be just as revealing and influential as those of the 'experts'.

Reaction to the show has been varied. With the exception of one major distributor, which crisply declined to comment (it was rumoured to be not best pleased with some of the reviews), reaction from everyone I canvassed within the film industry has been glowing. 'One of the things we talk about often is the importance of word of mouth,' says Stephen Moore, the Managing Director of 20th Century Fox UK. 'In this programme people are hearing from their peers, with very down- to-earth comments in ordinary English. It's the same principle as using real people in advertising to create credibility.'

Even distributors who have seen their wares throughly trounced have managed to bring themselves to welcome the programme, among them Chrissie Hughes of First Independent, who has seen one of her films (Deep Cover) fulsomely recommended, but two others (Night and the City and Man Trouble) given the thumbs-down. 'I'd hoped Man Trouble would do better here than it had in the States,' she says. 'After all it came from the director, writer and star of Five Easy Pieces (made in 1970). But these kids didn't even know what Five Easy Pieces was. I realised that they have nothing to compare it to.'

And Buena Vista's Daniel Battsek, whose film Honey, I Blew Up the Kid was demolished by the panel last Sunday, says: 'It's good for a mainstream, cinema-going audience. They want the sort of point of view they get from their mates in the pub, rather than a detailed discussion of how the film was produced, or its deep inner meanings. I do think the show could deal with a complicated subject, and do it a little more deeply than a man-in-the-street kind of way.'

This is a reservation voiced more strongly by some film journalists. 'The show treats movie criticism on the lowest level,' says one. 'It isn't a programme, it's the latest form of endorsed publicity.' Others grumble at the bias towards Hollywood: only one non- American film has been featured so far, and certainly nothing with subtitles.

Moviewatch's executive producer, David MacMahon, robustly refutes the accusation that his show is slanted towards the mass market. 'We're fulfilling Channel 4's remit to give different voices airtime,' he says, pointing with some justification to the irreproachable geographical, gender and racial balance in the range of its reviewers. Of the range of films, which is rather narrower, his claim is that the show has started off softly to attract a regular viewership (currently about 2 million) and that it will cast its net more widely later in the scheduled 20-week run.

But how much authority and, indeed, real influence can we attach to vox-pop recommendations? Measuring the relative importance of punter power and professional opinion is an alarmingly inexact science. 'Nobody really knows the answer; it depends on the films,' Battsek says. 'But you could say that critical reaction is sometimes not significant (witness supposedly critic-proof hits like Cocktail, Robin Hood Prince of Thieves or Home Alone II) whereas word of mouth almost always is.'

At 20th Century Fox, according to Moore, 'we distinguish between 'critics' films' and 'non-critics' films' when we plan the publicity process - critics are either hugely important or totally irrelevant.' The former tends to hold true of arthouse or special-interest films, the latter of movies with mass appeal. 'Film 93 is very important for the kinds of films we do,' says Carolyn Taylor of the publicists Corbett and Keane (which handled Dangerous Liaisons and Damage). 'And for the London West End audience, newspaper reviews have a huge impact.'

But even this is not a reliable rule of thumb, as in the case of one of Moore's trickier forthcoming films, Toys, a surreal comedy starring Robin Williams that nosedived in the States. 'We've established it as having two potential audiences: Robin Williams fans, who are slightly older and tend to be male. We have to get to them through interviews, features and editorial because they're not easy to reach through advertising. And younger viewers in the 15 to 21 bracket - a TV review show would be very good for promoting Toys to them.'

One fact militating against the power of word of mouth is the growing pressure on a film to make a big splash at the box-office over the first two days of release. 'The opening weekend is so important,' says Chrissie Hughes. 'By Monday, if the films can't hold their place there's another wave coming up to replace them. If the figures fall off, you get dropped like a hot brick. The competition for screen space is absolutely hair-raising. But there are always films that slip through the cracks.' So by the time you have got round to telling your friends about the great movie you saw last week, it may already have been taken off. (One of Moviewatch's amateur reviewers experienced this with Hudson Hawk).

The annals of film history are littered with the corpses of 'misunderstood' films that got pulled before they had the chance to build their audience - but there are as many survivors, Moore says. 'We have had films that really took off, like Edward Scissorhands and The Commitments, which were written about enormously and from different angles. That's when critics become absolutely invaluable. And reviews are a bit like horoscopes - they're irresistible.' Although (for the benefit of readers still with us) it should be mentioned that he immediately added: 'But I come from an advertising background, where people always say that 95 per cent of all copy is never read.'

(Photograph omitted)