Film Critics Can't Ignore the Business of Summer Blockbusters

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At its more-or-less midpoint, the commercial narrative of blockbuster summer 2013 is reasonably clear: despite some "critic-proof" blockbusters doing exactly the kind of business they were supposed to do ("Iron Man 3," "Fast & Furious 6," "Despicable Me 2"), attention is focused on a series of pricey flops and whether they'll signify a paradigm shift in the types of Hollywood productions that are greenlit. (Don't hold your breath; "Pirates of the Caribbean 5" is firmly in the works for 2015.) "White House Down" and "After Earth" are more or less already forgotten, but the underwhelming first-week launch of "The Lone Ranger" (hastily but plausibly estimated by "The Hollywood Reporter" to possibly portend a $190 million loss for Disney) paved the way for nervous armchair quarterback anticipation of whether Friday's "Pacific Rim" will return similarly dismal numbers for Warner Bros.; early tracking numbers suggest a $30-$50 million weekend, a bad start for a $180 million production.

In an angry Facebook post, "Lone Ranger" editor James Haygood contended that "many critics come to a film with a point of view (Bloated blockbuster! Troubled production!) [...] and they don't want to be the dork that liked something when the cool kids are getting their hate on. Cause it's just too uniform, and not aligned to what audiences are saying." He goes on to cite the empirical fact that test screening audiences loved the film, making this a pretty standard rant about elitist critics being out of touch (and apparently very bad at achieving said alignment). There's a potentially provocative idea left unexplored in his angry blast: critics can't see the artistic product because they're too fixated on business rumors, and they should knock it off and stick solely to what's on-screen rather than being influenced by business matters that don't concern them. This isn't a new tune: according to Peter Bogdanovich, when he was in production on his long-reviled, now-evaluated 1975 musical "At Long Last Love," he got a phone call from film critic Judith Crist. "It better be good, she said. "They're waiting for you with the knives out."

What's changed since 1975 is the level of mass public box-office awareness in ways that are often inexplicable (why do local news broadcasts need top 10 weekend rundowns?). What hasn't changed much (Haygood's contention aside) is the segregation of film criticism and journalism. Defining the latter is tricky, since for some sites it can consist of little more than "EXCLUSIVE" casting announcements (which basically means someone's agent or studio found a writer to act as their willing publicist in the name of "journalism"). For years, it was understood that e.g. the trade publication "Variety" mattered less because it contained information and more because it helped use illusions to shape reality. "When 'Variety' reports that Leonardo DiCaprio is in talks to star in a film, for example, savvy readers know chances are good that someone is merely floating DiCaprio’s name," Amy Wallace wrote in 2001. "Why? To turn up the heat on Matt Damon, say, or some other foot-dragging actor the movie studio really wants to sign." But these petty in-production machinations were of little interest to the outside public, whereas big-budget misfires — the kind that devalue studio parent companies' stock values after quarterly reports are issued, or that lead to CEO heads rolling after one too many greenlit flops to their name — require little-to-no insider knowledge to comprehend, forming a larger part of the amorphous daily news cycle.

Haygood is saying film critics are way too focused on material concerns that don't affect their personal lives, a fault from which apparently the public is immune (nope). In a similar way, "Pacific Rim" producer Thomas Tull recently answered a question about his film's poor tracking numbers with open incredulity: "Every weekend, it's so wildly reported on and now even opining about tracking, which is kind of weird to me [...] I don't know what that is." This is a legitimate response, but it ducks a larger point by assuming those reviewing films have a duty to ignore production scuttleboat and fiscal concerns and focus solely on the finished work itself.

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When it comes to summer at the very least, that's dead wrong, but not for the reasons stated: in some cases, the business of film criticism is business. E.g., "The Lone Ranger" has the supplementary duty of helping Kawasaki and Subway sell dirtbikes and sandwiches; if, like me, you walk past umpteen Subway outlets a day, your strongest connotation with the film will be the knowledge that it has something to do with smearing avocado on your lousy sub. "Collaborating with Disney allows us to connect with kids and families in new ways," enthused Subway Director of Marketing Development Michelle Cordial in a smarmy press release. "We are reinforcing to families the importance of healthy eating and the empowerment [!] they get at Subway." "Together we can create a lot of fun and innovative opportunities [read: chances to spend money] for consumers," Disney VP of Promotions Don Gross chimes in.

Am I suggesting critics should prepare to write their reviews by digging through the PR archives and seeing what kind of ancillary garbage they can dig up? Not necessarily, especially since "The Lone Ranger" isn't the worse offender in this cross-promotional department. That'd probably be "Man Of Steel," which racked up $170 million dollars in cross-promotional advertising. The result, as critic Ignatiy Vishnevetsky sniped on Twitter was a new kind of "Classical delineation of space: 'Man of Steel' makes clear where IHOP, Sears, 7-11 and UHaul are in relation to Superman at all times." (He was milder in his proper review, noting in passing "comically insistent product placement for IHOP.")

It's rank intellectual dishonesty for anyone with functional retinas to contemplate a product like "Man Of Steel" as a simple comic-book movie. Sometimes the sum of the not-so-sneaky advertising is greater than the art, and it should be brought to readers' attention that this isn't accidental or unintentional. This isn't just a realistic reflection of big-box reality, it's a reinforcement of that as unchangeable normality. Haygood may be right that critics pay too much attention to business — the inevitable by-product of a media landscape in which hardly any reviewers are just that, but also constantly "encouraged" (by sheer underpaid necessity) to crank out think-pieces and slideshows based on whatever non-critical information they can quickly find. But it's the wrong kind of external information; the real dirt about many expensive movies' intent is lurking on the business pages, and it should be brought into the reviews.