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Hollywood's golden rule: 'Nobody knows anything'

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Friday, October 20, 2017 – Page R1

Hollywood has a marketing problem. That's obvious in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, with people tripping over themselves to kick him out of their organizations (the Producers Guild of America and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have booted him), scrub his name from their film and television credits, and disassociate their clients from his soon-to-be-ex-wife's fashion label - partly because he allegedly preyed upon and committed crimes against women for 20plus years, but mostly because he finally got nailed in the media for it.

Because now what?

Are the studios going to fire every executive who ever sexually harassed a woman, the way Amazon Studios suspended executive Roy Price (who resigned on Tuesday in the wake of harassment allegations)?

Is the Directors Guild going to boot Roman Polanski, who (unlike Weinstein, yet) was indicted for a sex crime? Is any agent who advised his/her talent to get a boob job going to quietly resign? If so, there will be a lot of job openings in Los Angeles.

With all the serious shrapnel that's whizzing around, an everyday marketing question - "Does it matter if a critic gets the chance to prescreen a film?" - feels as quaint as asking, "Are seven-button gloves more fashionable than three-button ones?" But it's time to ask it again, because this weekend, three major movies - Geostorm, Tyler Perry's Boo 2! A Madea Halloween and Same Kind of Different as Me - are opening without advance screenings for critics.

These films aren't limping quietly into theatres; they have stars and promotion budgets. The folks releasing them simply think they'll have a better opening weekend - at least a better Friday night - without reviews.

In Geostorm (not to be confused with Geo Storm, the car), Gerard Butler races against the clock because the satellite system he designed to control the Earth's climate is attacking it instead. Andy Garcia plays the U.S. president, and Ed Harris is the secretary of state.

Dean Devlin, who co-wrote it (he also wrote Independence Day and 1998's Godzilla), makes his directorial debut, and it cost $81-million (U.S.). Which is to say, it sounds similar to countless other disaster pics in which world landmarks are burned, blown up, frozen or flooded.

Tyler Perry's Boo 2! A Madea Halloween - if you are thinking, "I bet that's a sequel to last year's Tyler Perry's Boo! A Madea Halloween," you are correct - takes Madea (Perry in drag), Aunt Bam (Cassi Davis) and Hattie (Patrice Lovely) to a haunted campground. In other words, it sounds not unlike Perry's seven other Madea movies, which together have grossed half a billion dollars.

Same Kind of Different as Me stars Greg Kinnear as Ron, an international art dealer who befriends a homeless man (Djimon Hounsou) to save his struggling marriage to Deborah (Renée Zellweger). The poster has the kind of rays-of-golden-lightwith-clouds treatment that often signals a Christian theme, and it's been on the shelf since April, 2016. It sounds - well, it sounds awful; I totally understand why they don't want critics anywhere near this one.

Yet, aside from the fact that all three have epically terrible titles, there's no logic behind why some films screen for critics and others don't. (Example: Last week's release Marshall, starring Chadwick Boseman as the U.S. Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall, was screened for U.S. critics but not Canadian ones.) Not screening puts a stink on a film that's just as bad as a poor review (Perry's an exception here, because he decided early in his career not to press screen any of his films). And what is being protected by not screening for critics? Everyone with an internet connection fancies themselves a critic anyway, and anyone who wants the consensus about a film consults Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic.

A recent poll on confirms the public's ambivalence to reviewers: Fifty per cent of respondents said they don't care if a movie is prescreened or not. Thirtythree per cent said they want reviews. Eleven per cent said they wait until films hit Netflix. And 6 per cent hate film critics because they think critics hate everything.

Based on my cross-checking, there is zero correlation among how a film is reviewed by critics, how it scores on fan/critic sites and how much it earns at the box office. For example, last year's Tyler Perry's Boo! A Madea Halloween did not screen for critics, scored a low 21 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes, yet grossed $73-million anyway, making it the second-best earner in the Madea franchise. Meaning, Tyler Perry knows he's critic-proof, so why go to the bother and expense of prescreening?

Now, let's look at big-budget films akin to Geostorm. The disaster film San Andreas, starring Dwayne Johnson, screened for critics. It scored 49 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes and earned $155-million. G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, starring Channing Tatum, did not screen. It scored 35 per cent and made $150-million. In other words, audiences went in equal numbers, despite what anyone said.

How about an example within a single franchise? Underworld, Kate Beckinsale's monster series, screened for critics in 2003, scored 31 per cent and earned $52-million. Six years later, Underworld: Rise of the Lycans did not prescreen, scored 29 per cent and made $46-million - a small drop akin to many sequels.

Now, let's make a purely random comparison. The Brothers Grimsby, a tongue-in-cheek buddy-spy movie, did not prescreen, scored 36 per cent and earned $6.9-million. Dirty Grandpa, which paired Robert De Niro and Zac Ephron in a foulmouthed road movie, did not prescreen, scored 11 per cent and earned $36-million.

Finally, let's look at remakes.

When it came out last month, Flatliners was not screened for critics, scored a pathetic 5 per cent and earned $15-million. Compare that with The Beguiled, which was prescreened last June, scored a healthy 78 per cent, yet made $10-million.

For films with decent-sized marketing campaigns, bad advance reviews don't seem to matter. The odour that attaches to unreviewed films doesn't seem to matter. Nor does a Rotten Tomatoes score. It's amazing that studios continue to hold critics' screenings at all.

Don't get me wrong, I think they're valuable, and not just because they're part of my job. Discourse is valuable. Contrary to the opinion of the 6 per cent in the poll above, critics aren't trying to tell audiences what to do; we're just trying to have a conversation about what we saw. We believe in the art side of film's art/commerce equation, and even when we go into a screening dreading the worst, we're also hoping for the best. From a purely commerce point of view, we can help you spend your money more wisely.

Studios certainly want us to prescreen sensitive or difficult films that don't have big marketing budgets, that require explaining or touting. And I still believe in the reader/critic relationship, where you find a voice you trust and consider their opinion, whether you agree with it or not. But mostly, studios prescreen their films because that's part of the way things are done in Hollywood. Of course, that's the same argument Weinstein and his ilk have used for years to wave away the harassment and marginalization of women.

So we find ourselves at an odd moment, when all so-called accepted Hollywood practices are in flux.

Critics' screenings are just a small part of that, though they are facing a big conundrum: When everyone's opinion matters, no one's does.

In his 1983 memoir, Adventures in the Screen Trade, screenwriter William Goldman wrote what is now both a cliché and an accepted truth: "Nobody knows anything ... Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what's going to work. Every time out it's a guess."

Nearly 30 years later, whether it's the value of critics, or what to do about abusers like Weinstein, we seem to know even less.

Associated Graphic

Geostorm, in which Gerard Butler races against the clock because a satellite system he designed is attacking Earth's climate, is one of three major movies opening this weekend without advance screenings for critics.

Huh? How did I get here?
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