Film Studies: Lights, camera, ads - and no room for the critics

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So here is what seems to have happened: 20th Century Fox declined to mount press screenings for the Steve Martin remake of The Pink Panther in London. So the critics had no chance to write their reviews before the picture had experienced what is known as "its first weekend". This is a technical phrase in the movie business which sometimes translates as "its last weekend".

Given the above information, common opinion would be that Fox had taken a look at The Pink Panther and decided to go public without the benefit of reviews. It would open the picture and scoop up whatever revenue it could on the shaky assumptions that there were some kids intrigued by the idea of The Pink Panther and not yet adjusted to the terrible insouciance with which Mr Martin will do anything. Fox resolved that once the critics had spoken, the prospects for its picture were nil. So take the money and run.

This pattern iscommon in the US (though there have been a few occasions in which determined critics tried to "rescue" a picture after it was in widespread retreat). But the consequences to this kind of decision are many and confusing. First, note that film companies - who often say, "You never know until you know" (i.e. nobody can predict a picture's fate until the audience decides) - are often confident that they have garbage on their hands. Whereas, they're seldom convinced that they have anything good to offer. This attitude grows out of years of experience and it should not be quickly dismissed.

Now, assume that there is wisdom in that attitude - that most pictures are bad. Add to that the demonstrable fact that most movie success is determined by the first weekend's revenue. In other words, the picture's opening is a reliable indicator of how many weeks it will run, the rapidity with which it will go to DVD and the parameters of worldwide income. There are people who can look at the Friday night numbers in New York and Los Angeles on a picture, and give you a number for the income level achieved in 12 months. And they are going to be near-enough right because the business works on reliable sliding scales.

So, why take any risk with those people called critics anyway? Why submit to those showboats dragging your lousy movie through the dirt? Whoever thought this was a business concerned with quality? You may be shocked to think that your paper's critics (and all the others') hardly matter. But it is another principle in the business that the bigger the picture, the more critic-proof it is. It is a strange desperation in the newspaper business that it has hardly ever provided so much "movie coverage", but the business is certain that critics have no influence where it matters. It is only on small, independent pictures (and foreign films) that critics have any chance of being attended to. Remember the great days of the cinema - when everyone went? The critics had no power then, because going was a habit.

The real relationship between the movies and the press consists of advertising and listings - and listings are a hard-core version of advertising. Film distributors have never understood why newspapers run reviews and ads. Isn't it inconsistent? And they are right. For if the papers want to keep on getting movie advertising, they need to subscribe to the overall lie that the movies are worth seeing. In many markets, film critics with high standards have simply lost their jobs because they didn't like enough pictures.

I could say more but this has to be a short column (because of advertising pressures). I know it's not comforting. But as a newspaper reader attached to the movies and to the chance of quality in them, you are already dedicated to two dying forms (for all I know, you follow county cricket, too). It's a large warning, but in few areas of our lives do we belong to a culture that believes in critical thinking. Instead, we are helpless consumers. And we are in a rhythm where, after the sizzle of a new weekend, there is no tomorrow. It is the soccerisation of life. In the US, the "business" is getting ready for theatres to close on midweek nights - because those nights have no glamour anymore. And feeble newspapers are sustained by the bloated income that comes from... movie advertising.