Saturday, November 24, 2012

Lesser Miserables - The Wonderful World Of Movie Embargoes And Advance Screenings

Kudos to the wise wizards over at Universal Pictures for controlling the flow of information regarding Friday’s premiere of “Les Miserables.” Studio rules have not evolved up to modern culture’s 24/7 journalism world, so studios request embargoes on critical opinion until it is closer to a film’s release in order to properly utilize critical response as a commercial tool, turning critics into walking billboards. It’s an insulting practice, one that becomes even more ludicrous when an embargo is broken. If the embargo is broken for a positive review, then the “buzz” swarms over the film, and everybody wins -- extra exposure to the journalists who were “FIRST!” and a solid bit of publicity for the film. If embargo is broken and the review is negative, more often than not the publisher will find punishment at the hands of the film’s publicist, who will then limit their access to future screenings of other films. It’s all political, and it’s all in service of critics’ function in this day and age -- as soon as they begin writing a word, they must realize their prose is promotion first, criticism second. I'm doing it right now.

“Les Miserables” is one of the very last “prestige” films premiering to audiences this year, and as such, few knew what to expect before Friday‘s screenings. Fortunately, Universal has gamed the system expertly. Their embargo limits actual reviews, but it allows for “impressions” to be posted. It’s fascinating, distinguishing between “reviews” and “impressions,” as the word “impression” suggests an inarticulate, primitive response. We’re allowing you to print your unthinking reaction, is what Universal is saying, knowing they have a big, bombastic, expensive star-filled movie designed to bowl you over, for better or worse.

This reaction was further tweaked by the company shared by the critics in Alice Tully Hall this past Friday. The specifics are not completely thorough to me, but this was some sort of theater group of actors and performers, some of whom knew “Les Miserables” by heart. It was like attending a midnight screening of the latest superhero film, or a “Twilight” picture. They knew the words, they knew the act breaks, they knew the characters. And, Pavlovian to a tee, they knew to applaud rapturously at the end of each song as if it were performed live. One Jean Valjean song ends with Hugh Jackman flinging a torn-up letter into the sky, a fragment becoming CGI and sailing over the mountains like Forrest Gump’s feathers, and the tackiness of this was immediately swarmed by the hooting and hollering of the theater geeks in the crowd. Scrutiny is not welcomed here.

The screening was also followed with a Q+A, where the audience was allowed to genuflect in the presence of director Tom Hooper, and actors Anne Hathaway, Samantha Barks, Eddie Redmayne (who, it must be said, has the voice of an angel) and Amanda Seyfried. Because so what if our “impressions” are dotted with starfuckery? When the audience was given the floor, professional “journalist” Jeanne Wolf was given the first question: “Hi, this is Jeanne Wolf, friend of the cast! My question is, were you expecting this type of applause?” The second question was an actor who claimed to have starred in a play with Hathaway years ago, who wanted to say hi again (she didn’t seem to recognize him, but played it off well).

Moreover, many of the “critics” allowed to this screening also write about films in other aspects. A review isn’t enough -- their inarticulation has to take into account several outside factors, because discussing the film (even in “impression” form) is an impossibility. These critics go into overdrive near the end of the year, for one reason: OSCAR. That being, these men and women have so little professional pride in their own opinions that they have to instead discuss the collective “impressions” of an outdated, outmoded voting bloc that usually makes inappropriate artistic judgments that lack merit years, or even minutes, after they’re announced.

And those discussing Oscars at this point are in search of a narrative: with only a few potential Oscar films already screened, there had been no “front runner,” no home run Oscar pick just yet. “Les Miserables” being enthusiastically received by an audience of homers suddenly changes that for these people, in a grotesque chicken-or-the-egg situation: these writers say that the Oscar bloc will love this film, and the Oscar bloc catches wind of the buzz before they even see the film. And because these are the saps that will grant awards to the likes of “Crash” and “The Artist,” the buzz will work on them immediately before they even see “Les Miserables,” creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. And this all easily plays into the hand of the studio, who begin to count the opening weekend grosses with a big fat smile on their faces.

So… the embargo only exists for negative reactions. Therefore I cannot disclose my feelings about “Les Miserables.” I can’t say that it’s a loud, obnoxious, gauche mess with absolutely zero nuance. I can’t talk about how the orchestration is tinny, how the transitions are graceless, and how the visual effects are clumsy. I am embargoed, so you’ll never know if I thought the movie was worthwhile or not. Pity.


  1. I think I'll keep my eye toward Killing Them Softly and Django Unchained instead.

  2. Maybe this year we should, in a sense, throw our attention away from the Oscars, and have an anti-Oscars discussion, of the like where two or three "big, prestige" films are discussed in depth...where thorough aesthetic and moral impressions are exchanged, and that way we can proudly wear our opinions in our chest. I still want to speak to you much more about THE MASTER, and LINCOLN, which I just saw last week.

    1. Anti Oscar indeed. anybody see the campaigning strategy for the film?

      "Tonight is a special night, and I am going to sing one song. And this is a song I am not going to sing alone, because it is the birthday of Amanda Seyfried," he said getting up in front of members of the Academy and Hollywood Foreign Press."

      Pretty much says it all.

  3. I share your distaste for the studio Oscar hype and the game. I can't say the same about the negative feelings you have for the film. My husband, a lowly A.D., and I saw the movie at one of those advanced industry screenings they held here in L.A. the day after the New York screening you saw. We saw it at the Aero, in Santa Monica. Tom Hooper, Eddie Redmayne, Amanda Seyfried and Samatha Barks came for the Q&A after the film was over.
    In my experience the folks at these screenings usually like to affect a blase, been- there, done-that attitude. They are not usually rapturous. And as much as Universal may be playing with and using those feelings of rapture, the feelings, the emotional reaction many people will have to seeing Les Miserables
    is no less real.
    I'm not a critic, I'm a film buff, but I disagree with your 'it’s a loud, obnoxious, gauche mess with absolutely zero nuance.' I would say instead that it's a strong, stirring, glorious achievement with the power to make grown men weep. Hooper's method of having the actors 'sing' vs lip synch later is a ridiculously overdue advancement of the art. And that one simple step is what makes Les Miserables so spectacular. And not just to an audience like the one you watched the film with, which you seem both surprised and dismissive to find full of theater people.
    In New York? Really? I'm surprised you're surprised! Les Miz has been seen by over 60 million people - or some crazy huge number or other like that. And yes, many of them know the words to the songs by heart. This shouldn't be news to you. It certainly isn't news to the makers of the movie. I'm sorry you didn't like the film. I found it incredibly moving; Anne Hathaway's I Had A Dream had our audience applauding through sniffles ... something I've never seen at a screening. The applause, not the sniffles. We cheered and clapped a mere handful of times in comparison to your audience's 'Pavlovian response' of "knowing" to applaud rapturously.
    The thing is that while the audience you saw it with may have been theater fans, (I'd heard Hathaway's mother was in the audience) call them Les Miz Geeks if you will, but is it not possible they didn't "know" to applaud? Isn't it possible that, unlike you, they were moved to applaud? Can you imagine the hollow sound of disappointment had Hooper's vision not met with the approval of the Les Miz fans? Had Hooper blown this royally? That would have been a mess.
    At one point during the movie, determined to keep any outward signs of sobbing in check so I didn't embarrass my husband, I glanced over to see how my action-loving man was responding. I was shocked - and thrilled - to see him wiping away tears! He has NEVER seen Les Miz. If you asked him to go to the movies, he would opt for Skyfall and Zero Dark Thirty any day of the week.
    His immediate response was that it was the most profoundly moving film he's seen since seeing The Ghost and Mrs. Muir as a kid!
    I guess we'll have to wait and see what the real audiences have to say. Note that I didn't say we'll have to wait for the critics when they lift the embargo on the 11th. The critics have weighed in by ignoring Les Miserables - at least the NYFCC did. I assume they agree with you but I wonder if that's not in part punishment for the embargo, in part a distaste for the uncool quality of 'musical theater'? Would love to know what you think now that the NYFCC has spoken!
    I have a blog where I blah blah about movies based on books and yes, where I've gone on and on and on about how much I love the movie. I imagine you would say I've played the studio's game like a good little monkey. What can I say? When it comes to Les Miz, I'm a fan. And I predict there will be millions of us. Here's a link to my response to the screening if you're interested.

    1. It's great that you liked it however I disagree with some of your comments.

      Premier nights are generally charged, enthusiastic audiences. This would be the case for Hangover 2 and X-Men Origins as well as artistic juggernauts like "There Will Be Blood." Especially when you consider the "celebrities in attendance" factor. And even mediocre "made for tv" movies can be tear jerking, however I have no doubt Anne Hathaway was as extraordinary as she appeared to be in the trailer and clips.

      Did you question at all why they put an embargo on reviews?