Think Airlines Give Bad Service? Try Dealing With Hollywood Publicists

Memo to Michael Hirschorn and Kurt Andersen: You totally missed the story! An item in reports that Sony Pictures won’t let Web critics into advance screenings for its movies because some columnist for wrote about The Patriot before it opened. (Publicists call this “breaking the embargo,” on the premise–which ought to be more insulting than it is–that by allowing critics to see a movie the studio has created the moral obligation not to review it until opening weekend.) 

As if this were news! If wants to live up to the promise implied in its name, here are three angles it should pursue:

1. “The studios do have a certain hypocrisy about embargos,” Roger Ebert e-mailed to Culturebox. “They say no reviews until opening day, and yet cultivate quote whores who supply them with ‘advance quotes.’ … Studios never complain when a critic jumps the gun with a positive review.”2. Hollywood has never treated people who write for the Web as legitimate press. If the point of’s story was that the movie industry is obtuse about the Internet revolution, just ask the critics from the two biggest Webzines, Slate and Salon. Studios such as Warner Brothers and Sony routinely exclude them from so-called critics’ screenings, which are held a week or two in advance. Paramount invites them to the all-media screenings (these are quasi-public sneak previews, a few nights before opening day), thus forcing them to turn around their reviews in a day or two. Then it denies them access to the press seats (hundreds of people attend, and seats are at a premium). Critics from obscure regional publications or print magazines with less than half or one-tenth the circulation of their electronic competitors also have access problems, but once they’re invited, they always get seats. Just the other day, at a screening for Shaft, a theater employee nearly got into a fistfight with Salon critic who had the gall to ask to sit in an empty press seat. Hey, buddy, outta there! The Web isn’t press!3. Lest you think this sounds like whining–oh, poor Web critics!--try this angle: Film critic’s rage = air rage. Culturebox called up movie critics at a leading newspaper (to whom the publicists have a strong incentive to behave nicely), at a prominent weekly (ditto), and at one of the two biggest Webzines (Slate, of course, whose critic is treated like pond scum). The combined circulation of these publications amounts to more than 4 million readers. Describing their job, each of them independently volunteered some variant on the following analogy: It’s like flying coach on Northwest Airlines (the carrier widely considered to have the worst service).For example, you’d think that writing film criticism for New Yorker would entitle Anthony Lane and David Denby to a little respect, right? Wrong. When it comes to covering the large commercial films, they are routinely barred from all but the all-media screenings–which means that their reviews cannot come out until after opening weekend. Their colleagues at Time and Newsweek, however, see the movies weeks in advance. The reason? Newsweeklies do fawning synergistic cover packages. In most cases, the New Yorker doesn’t.Phone calls to publicists to remedy the problem are usually met with outright lies, uttered by people who know their interlocutors know they’re lying but bluster through the words anyway. “There are no screenings of this movie” is the most common untruth. Also, “The print isn’t in town,” “It got lost between Los Angeles and New York,” and “It’s still being cut [or color-coded].” Says one critic, “The good liars rise in the system, the bad ones get disgusted and leave.” Why would the studios do this? Ebert writes: “Critics believe that when studios do not screen a movie, or screen it at the last minute, it’s because they expect bad reviews. When they screen early and often, they think they have a hit. Usually, but not always, the studios are correct in their assessment.”Last but not least, there’s an increasing sense of mean-spiritedness and squalor. At a screening for Paramount’s Mission: Impossible 2 a few weeks ago, critics at two New York dailies–who, unlike their colleagues at Web publications, are issued tickets for reserved press seating–had experiences similar to that of the Salon critic: Young publicists tried to evict them from their seats in order to make room for friends of industry honchos, much screaming ensued, and a fist-fight nearly broke out. “They don’t seem to realize that this is work. This is our job,” says one. “There is a marked absence of professional courtesy.”