July 20, 2007

Thoughts on the Chicago Fire

Who really loses in the war between critics and studios?

By S.T. VanAirsdale

(Photo illustration: D. Fith)

The Chicago Film Critics Association has attracted scads of attention and even more sympathy this week for its boycott of films released by 20th Century Fox. The notoriously press-hating studio pushed back its previews of The Simpsons Movie to all-media screenings a few nights before the July 27 release; this was the last straw for the group led by Chicago Daily Herald critic Dann Gire, who sent word to Fox publicists that he and his colleagues would no longer contribute features or profiles about Fox films. Reviews, evidently, are exempt. The Los Angeles Times and Radar Online, among others, laid out the "problem" over the last few days: Fox's hostility to online media, where coverage and reviews leak at a rate that studio reps feel compromise their control, is no longer acceptable, particularly when that hostility extends to print critics, whose convenient sense of outrage defers only to their enduring sense of entitlement.

But one thing at a time. As a professional journalist who has experienced ambivalence (at best) in 99 percent of my dealings with Fox, I admire any peers with the stones to essentially tell the studio, "Eat shit." If only it were that simple. What this episode proves above all is that Dann Gire is, at this moment, a better publicist than anyone at Fox; the reality of the CFCA message is critics' desperate dependence on studio publicists -- not the other way around. The organization has already undermined its indignance with the reviews exemption, which, in the case of The Simpsons Movie (or Live Free or Die Hard, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer or the upcoming Hitman), is an illuminating qualification. No amount of solidarity trumps a publication's obligation to its readers.

Readers who, it should be noted, couldn't care less about this squabbling. Nor could they care less about reviews, profiles or anything else critics legislate in their relationships with Fox. It's not that people don't read coverage; it's that the anticipation of blockbusters is an emotional response driven by brands, not individuals. If Fox's marketing and publicity apparatus were a football team, critics would be the punter. This is not necessarily the case for all studios; Warner Bros. actively involved the press in seeding the buzz for 300, and Universal has upheld a fair-minded merit system for online film writers who bring something to the discussion of its own releases. Sony, too, is at last coming around to recognizing the value of keeping the press close.

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So what's different about Fox? Why the bald-faced antipathy -- the "clinging to this old model of business," as Gire told the LA Times? I guess it depends on how you define the "old model of business." Is your parent company owning MySpace and pushing The Simpsons Movie to more than 120 million accounts internationally the "old model of business"? Is remodeling a dozen 7-11 stores as Kwik-E-Marts "the old model of business"? Is holding a contest for the the Springfield world premiere "the old model of business"? Is capitalizing on the built-in appeal of a 17-year-old television franchise (and thus saving millions of dollars in screening set-ups and other publicity expenditures) "the old model of business"? Whose gun is to whose head, again?

OK, that's a little dramatic. Almost as dramatic as critics around the country waving the banner on their colleagues' behalf with their promised boycott of Sunshine -- an unfortunate, almost illiterate act considering that Fox's astoundingly press-friendly sister company Fox Searchlight is the distributor here, as it was with Once, Little Miss Sunshine, The Last King of Scotland and any number of other respected indies whose talent and screenings it made available to reporters both online and in print. Paramount Vantage, a sibling of the infamous critic haters at Paramount, warmed up to journalists on prestige titles like An Inconvenient Truth and Babel (and a little less so with A Mighty Heart, but that wasn't the studio's fault). Other mini-majors like Focus Features, Sony Classics and Picturehouse have done the same with titles like Brokeback Mountain, Volver and A Prairie Home Companion, respectively. Critics never complained of exploitation while sitting across from Heath Ledger, Penelope Cruz or Meryl Streep, whose names alone were not enough to generate the momentum the distributors required to bump up their projects' marketshares.

The politics were clear, the roles were laid out as they've always been. There were (and are) just more of us. No disrespect to Alan Arkin, but it was not his fine performance that was superior to Eddie Murphy's Dreamgirls work last February at the Oscars. Rather, it was Fox Searchlight's media goodwill and marketing savvy that vanquished the crusty, aloof elite at DreamWorks/Paramount. The "old model of business" paid off in prestige -- for everyone.

And now, in the flimsy summer, how do we measure prestige? Not by introspective features about thoughtful adult cinema, but rather by who gets the first review of confections like Spider-Man 3, Harry Potter 5 and The Simpsons Movie. Or by deducing why Fox pulled its forthcoming projects from ComicCon. The critical establishment recoils in horror, as if it is owed something for all that time it devoted to carrying Borat's water, as if its contribution to the industry isn't purely situational, as if the "old model of business" -- pullquotes, blurbs and thumbs up or down -- didn't apply to its own practices. It knows the kind of disposability its audience craves this time of year, its only obligation in this entire equation.

Hence this half-assed boycott -- with an exception for reviews. I know Fox must be impressed, and News Corp. is absolutely tremulous with nerves over who will write authoritatively this December about Alvin and the Chipmunks. Don't look at me; I've got my hands full with great new indies, a few studio releases and lots of strong local cinema. You know -- actual stories. What will you be up to, Chicago?

Comments (1)

Another great piece, Stu! As a member of NYFCO, I've found Fox to be very accomodating to our members, even inviting us to an earlier screening of Simpsons next weekend. We can't bring a guest, which might annoy some, but I'm guessing that the reason is more about spoilers in early reviews than negative reviews. I think the issue is more about making it clear to all journalists/critics when reviews need to be held until and then enforcing it, especially with the trades like Variety and nY papers who like jumping the gun.

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