Why David Denby Is Right To Criticize Studio Release Policies

Monday, December 5 by
Seriously, Deavid Denby. Look a little more like a film critic for 'The New Yorker'. Jesus.  

Over the weekend, an email exchange between Scott Rudin, producer of the upcoming The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and David Denby, a film critic for The New Yorker found its way into the hands of Playlist (click for the full email exchange), who then put it in the hands of everyone who reads their site.

The issue at hand in the exchange isn’t really important, but it’s worth laying out for the sake of the bigger story. When critics are invited to screen movies early so that they may write a thoughtful review that coincides with the film’s public release, they are usually subject to an embargo, an explicit or understood agreement that they won’t discuss the film’s content until a certain date. If embargoes didn’t exist, reviewers would be racing to beat each other to the presses with their thoughts, which is bad for two reasons. First, they wouldn’t have time to write a thoughtful review, and second, the reviews would come out way before the movie, undermining their utility.

Ok. In this instance, Rudin caught wind that Denby was planning on breaking the embargo, releasing a review earlier than everyone else. Rudin is pissed because these embargos serve a purpose and if one critic doesn’t abide by them, then ultimately no critic will have to, and the scenarios I discussed above will become very real, very quickly.

Denby doesn’t have an ethical leg to stand on. He agreed to something as a condition of his invitation to a screening, then he went back on his word. It’s not complicated, nor is it very interesting. Rudin’s film will do fine, and Denby is something of a dick for choosing to disregard a common practice to which he agreed, all for the sake of his self-interest.

What is interesting is Denby’s rationale for going rogue and publishing his review early. In the exchange he cites the flawed studio system that compresses all of the prestige pictures into the last month of the year so that they may be at the apogee of their buzz going into awards season. His exact words:

Scott, I know Fincher was working on the picture up to the last minute, but the yearly schedule is gauged to have many big movies come out at the end of the year. The system is destructive: Grown-ups are ignored for much of the year, cast out like downsized workers, and then given eight good movies all at once in the last five weeks of the year. A magazine like “The New Yorker” has to cope as best as it can with a nutty release schedule. It was not my intention to break the embargo, and I never would have done it with a negative review. But since I liked the movie, we came reluctantly to the decision to go with early publication for the following reasons, which I have also sent to Seth Fradkoff:

1) The jam-up of important films makes it very hard on magazines. We don’t want to run a bunch of tiny reviews at Christmas. That’s not what “The New Yorker” is about. Anthony and I don’t want to write them that way, and our readers don’t want to read them that way.

2) Like many weeklies, we do a double issue at the end of the year, at this crucial time. This exacerbates the problem.

3) The New York Film Critics Circle, in its wisdom, decided to move up its voting meeting, as you well know, to November 29, something Owen Gleiberman and I furiously opposed, getting nowhere. We thought the early date was idiotic, and we’re in favor of returning it to something like December 8 next year.

In any case, the early vote forced the early screening of “Dragon Tattoo.” So we had a dilemma: What to put in the magazine on December 5? Certainly not “We Bought the Zoo,” or whatever it’s called. If we held everything serious, we would be coming out on Christmas-season movies until mid-January. We had to get something serious in the magazine. So reluctantly, we went early with “Dragon,” which I called “mesmerizing.” I apologize for the breach of the embargo. It won’t happen again. But this was a special case brought on by year-end madness.

This stupid little insider quibble has brought to the attention of the public a standard and frustrating practice that has been in place for decades, but has now become exacerbated given the current climate of the film industry. Children’s films and mindless tentpole releases still generate good money, but more esoteric or niche fare generating lower returns have been culled, and the few that remain are considered awards fodder, saved until just before the Oscar eligibility deadline of December 31.

Scott Rudin is the guy in this picture that isn't the lead singer of Nine Inch Nails.

This practice makes sense to a degree. If edgy, smart films could be released in June to a profit, then I’m sure studios would release them then. But as it stands, the edgy, smart films need the buoy of Oscar buzz and the media attention lavished thereon to help them sell tickets to these films. Since the Oscars deadline is at year’s end, the logical move is to shoehorn the releases in as close to that deadline as soon as possible.

Of course, when ten or so “good” films are all duking it out in the month of December, they will quickly begin to cannibalize each other. No one except film critics go to the theater ten times in a month, so that means quality fare will be overlooked either in the near term or indefinitely by moviegoers.

This studio practice is a self-fulfilling prophecy in that, yes, if ten movies are all trying to steal each other’s thunder in December, then they probably will require that sweet, sweet Oscar buzz to stand out from the pack. But a good film released in July, like last year’s The Kids Are All Right, will manage to prove durable enough to not be forgotten during awards season, and also stand out from the pack of typical mindless summer fare to actually generate some decent cash.

Sure, it didn’t set any records, but it earned $21 million off of a $4 million budget.

While dumping a film in December will pit it against countless others to garner a slice of a relatively small pie, it also lends credibility to a film that might otherwise not be so well-received. “Oh, it’s a December film! The studio must think this is good enough to be in contention for awards,” is a common understanding, as is “Why is this coming out in February? It must really suck.”

One can argue that audiences have the above expectations, and then someone else can argue that they only maintain those expectations because the studios reinforce them. And on and on and on and on and on we would go.

To break this cycle, the studios are the ones that are empowered to effect change. People will begrudgingly scramble to see the year-end films they want to, and critics will dish the lion’s share of their “important” reviews in this small window because, after eleven months of substandard films, both parties are probably excited enough about some decent films that they will go above and beyond to get their fix, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best system.

Studios don’t like to break new ground, so don’t expect anything to change in the near future, but while Denby’s actions are weasel-y and self-serving, his contentions are spot on. There is no reason why decent films can’t come out steadily throughout the year. While premiering immediately before the Oscars probably does offer an advantage, a strong film can and has remained in the collective consciousness for six or seven months. The studios would find that giving audiences a little more credit would improve their bottom line and make life a lot easier for the people that are paying their bills.

Which is why I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if Denby himself was the one who leaked this exchange in order to spark the discussion. And because he’s a jerk.