In thinking of what kind of strange changes could be made to drastically alter the movie industry, I tried to think about how different things would be if we simply changed the time at which movie reviews were allowed to be published. Obviously most of them are written and published before the movies they judge are released into theaters, but some studios decide every so often to not hold critic screenings for some of their films. When this happens it is usually taken to be an indicator that the studio is not confident in its product and therefore wants to spare the film in question any bad publicity for as long as it can, which is up until the end of its first weekend.
What if, though, there were no preview screenings for critics period? Some might say this would completely change what most people take to be the function of a movie critic, which is to act as a sort of consumer reporter that evaluates the quality of a product and relays its findings and opinions to the public. No one wants to go to a “bad” movie for obvious reasons – it’s a waste of time and money. Right? So if there were no advanced critic screenings then how would people know which movies are worth their time and money, and which ones aren’t? Moviegoers would be forced to rely more on their friends, family, and general word of mouth. This may seem hugely inconvenient, but some studies show that people already put more stock into word of mouth than in movie reviews (this Variety article proves very enlightening on this topic).
What exactly makes movie reviews secondary to word of mouth? For starters, people trust their friends’ opinions more than a stranger’s. Friends often share common interests and tastes, therefore they would logically be a more dependable barometer than any critical consensus that may or may not arise. There are people, though, that do have their favorite critics to follow because they’ve found them to share very similar tastes. Others strongly consider a consensus of opinion instead of any single one, which is why websites like RottenTomatoes.com and MetaCritic.com exist and are very successful. What identifying all these tendencies and habits is good for is recognizing how different varieties of moviegoers would be affected if no more reviews could be published before a film’s opening weekend.
Those who rely most on word of mouth and peer reviews wouldn’t be much affected because they A) don’t really consider the opinions of critics, and B) they’re used to waiting until after a film’s release to hear about how “good” or “bad” it is anyway. So, their timetable would not be at all affected by the change and their moviegoing habits and selections would not be influenced one way or another. Those who rely on any one or few trusted critics or critical consensus, however, would be forced to change their timetables. If they are used to making their decisions based from these sources sooner rather than later, it makes the time period between the film’s opening day and when they’re sources are able to get back to them a potentially very confusing interlude.
Why It Could Work
There are some movies that are deemed “critic-proof,” meaning that the topic/subject of the movie is so attractive, or predictably attractive to a particular audience, that no matter what critics say those audiences will pay to see those movies regardless. Some examples that come to mind are The Dark Knight, any Transformers, Harry Potter, or Twilight sequels, and the upcoming Iron Man 2. In these cases, having no reviews to rely on will have little if any affect on a film’s opening weekend grosses. But what about films that aren’t “critic-proof”? Well, because there would be no reviews before these films’ releases, there would be far less potentially bad press to steer audiences away from seeing them if they were indeed interested in doing so. What would result is that most of these films’ first weekend grosses would markedly increase. Also, say that you saw a trailer or commercial for a film and decided that you would be interested in seeing it. You would be able to satisfy your curiosity without anyone pressuring you not to (critics, friends, etc.). This could lead to a liberation of sorts, with no one having real cause to tell you what you ought to see (on opening weekends). Taking this logic further, one might be more inclined to try and expand their tastes more readily, comfortable with relying on the excuse that they couldn’t have known any better if they ended up not liking what they saw. And if they did like what they saw, they could tell their friends about it and promote a positive word of mouth. Of course, this situation would benefit smaller films most, such as those which are independently financed.
Why It Wouldn’t Work
Getting rid of critic screenings would nullify many reviewing positions because anymore word of mouth is spread on the internet, which means that audience members who would blog their own reviews would get a jump on those who are being paid for a living to do essentially the same thing. This would make many reviewing positions for small websites much more expendable, and that goes double for small print publications. So, a loss of jobs would be the big drawback, and nobody is in favor of that at this point in time. Secondly, the idea could backfire, leading to smaller total grosses. Studios spend so much money on advertising because studies have shown that consumer interest is at its peak on opening weekends. Depending on the movie (and whether audiences end up liking it or not) its opening weekend revenue might not be as high because the people who would normally rely on a specific critic or critical consensus would opt to wait until they receive that information, which would rob many of those readers of a convenience factor that’s based on timeliness. The more people wait, the less money goes into the studios’ pockets at the most important time in a movie’s theatrical run. Those movies’ second weeks could get a boost from these same audience members, but if studies that say interest is at its peak on the opening weekend are true then even that crowd would be reduced at least somewhat due to that fact. Positive word of mouth counts for a lot, and so does the level of interest in potential audiences, but there is no way to say for sure that those audience members taking more chances on movies they want to see but haven’t heard anything about, or those who waited for reviews and remained interested past the first weekend would make up for the gap between what a movie would have made otherwise and what it ended up actually making. Because of these financial reasons, studios are likely to stay smart and provide critics with preview screenings.
What parts of these arguments do you agree or disagree with? What important things were not considered? Tell us what you think!