When I was much more active in the freelance film critic game (a rewarding, highly lucrative period in my life), I remember arriving early to a preview screening, and quickly finding my friend Mike Russell, a freelancer for the Oregonian. I took the seat next to him, as I did for most of the movies I've reviewed, and as the screening filled up with cud-chewing passholes and scurrying screening rats - a tiny smattering of actual people mixed in among them - I leaned over to Mike, and I asked, "All the money they're spending renting these theaters, partnering with radio stations and newspapers to distribute passes, hiring some goob to chuck t-shirts into the crowd while angry, phone-confiscating men with night vision goggles patrol the aisles; how long before studios realize they're completely wasting their fucking money?"
That day might be coming a lot sooner than expected. In fact, with Star Trek Into Darkness, it might already be here.
1) It's oh-so satisfying to watch a quality heel put in work, and
2) Paramount isn't screening Star Trek Into Darkness for critics, at least, not in time for most publication's press deadlines.
The movie's been out for weeks worldwide; the only person qualified to review the film for our fine publication left the paper years ago, and he only saw it because he's British.
Conventional wisdom (such as it is) suggests that a studio choosing not to preview their film has something to hide; they'd rather rely solely on the marketing to get those opening weekend dollars, otherwise they're risking bad buzz and scathing reviews.
But Star Trek isn't a half-assed slasher movie that's going to get its automatic 15-20 million from loyal gorehounds. It isn't a pat romantic comedy starring pretty teenagers, aimed at a demographic that doesn't give a shit about pre-release buzz via early reviews. Star Trek is Paramount's only real shot at a bonafide hit this summer, especially since World War Z looks to follow in the box-office footsteps of last year's John Carter and Battleship.
I don't think Paramount is trying to hide the film from angry critics, or from screening crowds who spill out of the theater shedding candy wrappers and shitty opinions as they stumble towards their cars. The movie is being reviewed pretty well, actually, based on the few that have sneaked out. I think Paramount might be testing the theory I tossed at Mike a few years ago in that theater: That the money that funds these preview screenings could be better spent somewhere else.
Not to say studios don't need film critics anymore; smaller movies and Oscar bait absolutely depend on buzz-building blurbs from the brightest minds in our slowly dying branch of arts journalism. The kind of advocacy that the best criticism provides can still be useful to the producers, writers, and directors of films trying to get at emotional truths without shaking the contents of a Marvel comic over the script like Allison from Breakfast Club illustrating her detention art.
But I think it was kind of a foregone conclusion that with budgets getting higher, and risks getting riskier, studios were bound to look at how they spend their promotional dollar and ask "How much return on investment are we actually getting from these goddamned touring zoos we keep underwriting?"
Because screening rats don't recommend movies to friends. They don't. They don't log online and blow up Twitter or Facebook with their opinions. And they make up about half the line outside any screening. Always the front half, too. And since those screenings are always overbooked, guess which half of the line is getting in? So if you're a studio, you're essentially subsidizing a tiny subculture's weird obsession with getting free shit, and getting no promotional benefit out of it in return.
As far as the critics go? There's a reason "review-proof" has entered the film-goer's lexicon, and not necessarily as a negative. Ebert was thoroughly mourned, partially because something like Ebert won't ever happen again. Film criticism got democratized by the internet, transforming it from a smaller number of deep, still pools of knowledge and thought, into something more like a running hose carelessly tossed on a hot blacktop. Film criticism has been devalued, or at least, the idea of film criticism as a means of consumer aid; actually reading reviews is unneccessary now that Rottentomatoes has helpfully volunteered to be the film equivalent of an Xbox Live leaderboard. Why think about what you watched when you can just yawp like a buffoon while pointing at the score?
So if Star Trek opens huge, and the word of mouth is good, I can't imagine Paramount and other studios won't look at what happened and take notice of the negligible impact a lack of screenings provided, and how the "conventional wisdom" that's kept them going is really wobbly.
And if that day is zooming towards us at warp speed, towed by J.J. Abrams' sleek new Enterprise, what happens to film criticism? I suggest maybe it shift away from how most people look at it (consumer advocacy) and more towards the role of conversation starter; something to be read after you've already seen the film, not before. Something closer to the exhaustive and insightful recaps for groundbreaking shows like Mad Men or Game of Thrones, being written by people like Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz. If critics are no longer useful to the people who make movies (especially the blockbuster variety) they can still be useful to the people who watch them. Maybe the priority should shift from telling people what they should watch this coming weekend, and instead helping to break down the ways what we did watch either succeeded or failed.
If losing press screenings to Blockbuster Explodoganza #42 is what we critics gotta pay for our trade to regain some semblance of larger relevance, well... it'll suck for me, because seeing big movies early for free is pretty awesome. But it's not that steep a price, considering.