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Film: Oh, it's had very good 'word of mouth'

No critic will be allowed to see The Avengers before its release. Just how bad is it?
WHILE AT the Warner Bros offices a few weeks ago, I happened to ask whether the company were planning any press screenings of The Avengers, given that the picture was scheduled to open in mid-August. "We haven't got a print yet," a press officer told me, which was neither unusual nor suspicious. When I telephoned the distributors last week, I got the full story.

"Warner Bros has taken the decision not to show the film to the press."

Oh. Is it that bad?

"Actually, the film has had extremely good word of mouth."

I laughed - extra hard for emphasis. Although no critic has yet seen the film, anyone could tell you what the various anonymous insiders and rumour-mongers are saying about The Avengers. None of this matters, of course. The trick with blockbuster movies is to plant the idea of them in people's minds as early as possible, and in this respect, the Avengers film has performed spectacularly. Its trailer seems to have been playing in cinemas for decades, and its key images are imprinted on my mind just as intended: a cat-suited Uma Thurman framed inside a glaring red telephone box; Ralph Fiennes duelling with a village bobby and a milkman; Sean Connery sashaying around in a kilt. Whether it will be any good or not is irrelevant. People know about it. People want to see it.

Around the same time that the trailers start appearing, a wave of dissent usually gathers momentum. The Avengers was no exception: there were plenty of rumours about on-set troubles and script hitches, probably passed on from a friend of a cousin of that woman who did Uma's nails.

But it is highly significant and potentially destructive for Warner Bros to take the step of forbidding critics from passing early judgement on a film. And not just any film. The Avengers is Warner Bros' big summer movie - in other words, the company's only chance to compete on a major level with its rivals.

The reasons for this are twofold. The relative failure in blockbuster terms of Godzilla has forced distributors to realise that a film with the backing of both widespread product awareness and merchandising opportunities is not necessarily a surefire hit. Godzilla was panned by critics and suffered from bad word of mouth early on in its release.

The other reason relates directly to Warner Bros. As reported in the US film magazine Premiere, the company had a comparatively bad 1997, and consistently failed to yield a blockbuster success. Conspiracy Theory and Contact were disappointments, but the biggest sting was caused by Batman & Robin, which was such a disaster that the company is rumoured to have ordered a complete makeover of the franchise before another instalment is shot.

Warner Bros has obviously concluded that it would rather have a moderate- to-good opening weekend, then see the takings fall off in the wake of critical responses, than risk an immediate critical assault that could jeopardise initial box-office receipts. The company realises that by removing critics from the equation, it is drawing adverse attention to The Avengers and suggesting an inherent inferiority in it compared with the season's other movies, all of which the country's critics have been free to view in time for release.

This embargo is effectively saying: The Avengers is too weak a product to be able to compete on normal terms. In the light of anything but the most cursory examination, it will wither and die. Or, in the euphemistic words of the press office: "We want the public to see the film first."