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January 21, 2009

How They Sell Stupid Crap (in Hollywood)

Paulblart2 I took a break from writing up showtimes for Paul Blart: Mall Cop (which grossed a stunning $32 mil last weekend!) to read this article in The New Yorker. I think it's a must for anyone who's interested in movies and/or marketing tactics.

Tad Friend profiles a Lionsgate marketing exec named Tim Palen (no, not Palin) who basically invented the campaigns for the immensely profitable Saw series, including this poster that blows Burton's controversial Primo boards out of the water (the MPAA made him tone it down). Palen pushes boundaries because he knows that's how you reach his audience. Now he's trying to apply his talents to selling romantic comedies.

I was amused to read that he's the genius responsible for the misleading Good Luck Chuck TV spots that featured Jessica Alba falling down in about 20 ways and showing her underpants, because the guys in the target demo want to see semi-nude Alba, not obnoxious star Dane Cook. And that Palen has no problem admitting the movie was a piece of crap.

Finally, this quote from the piece offers enlightenment to anyone who is forced to contemplate the success of Paul Blart: Mall Cop: "It is often said in Hollywood that no one sets out to make a bad movie, but the truth is that people cheerfully set out to make bad movies all the time. It is more accurate to say that no one sets out to make a movie without having a particular audience in mind."

Or, as a parent might say, "Duh, Paul Blart isn't for snobby critics. It's for kids!"

Can critics offer any useful opinions about a movie when they're way out of its target audience? Of course I think so. Still, I wouldn't rush to review a film that obviously appeals mainly to the under-10 set. And there are some films I consciously avoid because I know there's no chance in hell I would like them, and they have self-selecting audiences — that is, people who like them know they're going to like them (Bride Wars, for instance). I prefer to stick with films I think have at least a slender chance of being good, by my own biased standards. But is that really objective?

Margot, I'm curious. What do you think the primary job of a movie critic is? Is a critic's main job to steer audiences toward good films and away from bad ones -- like a product tester? Or do you think film criticism has more to do with "art" and speaks to something more than mere recommendation?

And you can't say it's both because that's a total cop out! :)

Thanks for indulging me.

Bill definitely has a valid question! I'm interested in your answer as well....

That's a good question, Bill-- I'm not gonna say "both," but I do think it can be either, depending on the reader.

For a critic to work as a "product tester," they have to agree or disagree with your tastes consistently. How often does that happen? I heard someone say that if a certain critic likes a movie, she considers it "safe" to see. That doesn't compute for me. If the Onion AV Club loves a movie and David Denby of The New Yorker hates it, there's a good chance I will like it. But no certainty.

Basically, I think a critic can tell you if a movie is violent, or if it's irredeemably cheesy/shoddy, or if tons of money and talent went into it. But he/she can't tell you if you'll like it. Many fine critics love that Benjamin Button movie. I was bored. And so forth.

As for the other thing, I don't know if "art" is the right word, but it can be highly entertaining, and that's basically the reason I read reviews and always have. I've read most of Pauline Kael's books, even though I haven't seen all the movies she discusses and never will. She totally trashes most of my favorite childhood movies (Star Wars!), but our tastes align in general. So that does play a role.

The more time I spend on the Internet, the more I realize that intelligent people can TOTALLY disagree on certain movies for no other reasons than taste, prior experiences, etc. The most you can do as a critic is show people who you are, and give them some objective info about the film along with your own opinion. (For instance, violence is a deal breaker for some people. They have to know it's violent. And even if you're like me and hate Benjamin Button, you can say it looks nice and is well made.) Readers have to take it from there.

That was way long. Sorry. But I'm interested in what other people think about this question, since readers are the ones who know what they need/want...

I'll jump in here, as someone who reviews theater, classical music and books for a living. "Product tester" may be going a bit far--it presumes an objective set of criteria (a la Consumer Reports' testing labs) against which the media you review can be measured. Which, of course, don't exist.

That said, I think critics sometimes overlook the journalistic basics: Tell the reader what happened. That's why I prefer the term "reviewer" to "critic"--it focuses on the reporting aspects of the job. Reporting accurately on performances then allows you to analyze them. Readers can choose to agree or disagree with your opinion, but the review should be useful to them either way if you've provided meaty info on what actually happened in the film, concert, play or book. Over time, readers might discover whether or not they share your perspective, and use that info to make choices. But for me, the best compliment about a review is not "I agree w/your opinion," but "That's exactly how the show was." In other words, what I wrote reflected what they saw.

An interesting thing happened to me this past year: I saw a handful of highly touted Broadway plays (Tony winners) in their regional premieres, and found myself disagreeing with the effusive, unqualified praise they'd received from the NY critics. Believe me, I was NOT trying to be contrarian. But it made me wonder about critic-groupthink--perhaps more prevalent in the smaller world of theater than film criticism? There seemed to be nagging story issues in each of these plays, and I was surprised that others hadn't called the playwrights out on them before. A little OT, but just thought I'd share.

Bill, on the question of "steering" audiences: I NEVER think about this. I can't think about whether a good review will boost ticket sales, or a bad one will hurt them. I can only be honest with readers.

Sorry for the long post...Like Margot, I'm very interested in what readers want. Do tell!

I'm guessing a theater review can still affect local ticket sales. But I don't think movie reviews do, except for ticket buyers who don't use the Net. All you have to do is go to Metacritic or Rotten Tomatoes, and you have an overview of the critical response to the film. If it's really low, you'll only see the movie if it's in your favorite genre or all your friends are going. (This applies to Paul Blart and the like.) If it's high, that may affect your choice, but no single critic is responsible. If it's split... then individual views and the people who have them start to matter.

Maybe I'm the only one, but I never, ever read reviews until after Ive seen a film. I'll even try to politely shush friends if they start talking in detail about a film I intend to see. I won't even watch previews if I can avoid them.

I just really like to go in fresh and with a minimum of preconceived biases and spoilers. Having any information beforehand can profoundly influence one's viewing. For instance if a critic you like declares that a movie has a pro-war theme, you'll end up keeping an eye out for indications of this and you'll most likely find it - even if was never what the writer and director intended. Human perception is highly suggestible.

I do love to look up reviews after I've had time to think about and digest a film on my own, though. I almost always look to see if a film I'm pondering is one that Margot reviewed. It's like having a pleasant post-movie chat with qualified friends.

I've heard from a lot of people that they won't read reviews before they see a movie. And I think they're right, though it's hard for me to resist. Seeing a film "cold" is totally different. Of course, you do need to know enough about it to know that you WANT to see it.

The Sixth Sense is a movie I probably would have liked better if I'd known nothing about it. I guessed the "twist" way too early and spent the rest of the film mainly wondering if I was right. (I mean, c'mon. Bruce Willis only interacts with the kid!) Would that have happened if I hadn't read the many reviews that mentioned a "shocking twist"?

Not spoiling the plot twists is basic to reviewing movies, but the fact is, anything you say at all will create preconceptions. Some people like having those in their heads; some people don't. Me, I like reading funny, cutting reviews of movies I would never, ever want to see. (The Brits are great at this-- also, the Canadians at the Globe & Mail.)

WHAT? The Sixth Sense has a shocking twist in it? You've ruined it for me now! ;)

I love your movie reviews Margot, they always add that extra spice to an otherwise dull movie. I can't wait to see you award a film 5 stars, I will be first in line for that one.

PS I just reread your review of Benjamin Boring, brilliant as usual. Especially your cutting comparison of whimsical-n-flimsy Benjamin Boring to gut-wrenching and deep Synecdoche, New York. Spot on.

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