Opening the Life section of USA Today, I searched for its movie critic's opinion on two new films that started this Easter weekend, "Tyler Perry's Meet the Browns" and "Shutter," two major motion pictures that were opening nationwide.
I searched in vain. I searched in other newspapers. I searched online. I searched as many Web sites as I could, and except for a few bloggers who had posted their reviews after seeing the matinees, no major movie critics reviewed those two new national films.
In fact, the only thing I found was the industry reports in the Los Angeles trade magazines, or else the general synopsis and teasers issued by the movie studios promoting them. I could not find a single professional criticism of these two new movies. Why?
Generally, every Friday, USA Today, as well as the movie critics working for each of the major newspapers and broadcasters publish their reviews and opinions on all the new movie releases, but this Good Friday, these two new films were left out.
There were no professional reviews for "Tyler Perry's Meet the Browns," the black church comedy. Nor were there any for the new Asian horror remake titled "Shutter."
Of course, it wasn't done on purpose, nor was it a mass oversight. The movie critics didn't publish reviews on these two new movies because they weren't allowed.
Here's how it works. Most professional movie critics don't pay for the movies they write about. They see all new movies for free and typically way in advance, sometimes a month or so in advance. The movie studios will sometimes send the critics a DVD screener, just for them, or the critics will be invited to a special showing in a theater.
All the studios participate in this. For many, it's merely a part of their marketing strategy. It used to be the case that there was no such thing as bad publicity. Movie studios capitalized off the writings of movie critics, even if their writings were highly negative, because it still meant media exposure.
Recent movie marketing research would suggest that this is no longer the case, at least not for the core demographic. When it comes to appealing to a more mature crowd, especially during Oscar season, movie critics can provide the life's blood for a motion picture.
Nevertheless, there are some movie studio executives who feel that certain films don't require movie critics' hype, be it good or bad, to help push their film. The film may have a good enough niche constituency that it would succeed without any critical recommendation.
Most summer or holiday movies meet this standard. Most movie studios will still screen them for critics out of tradition, but in no way is it required. Young high school to college-aged kids, who are the core demographic, will gravitate toward whatever big movie is opening that Friday.
Films that appeal to children where families can appropriately go together is also a big demographic that most often is a given in the movie theater world. Those demographic groups are ones that movie studios generally don't have to worry about. They're almost taken for granted because they're easily sucked in.
What becomes tricky is marketing to niche groups. I personally know at least two people who work at WBOC, one a young woman and the other a middle-aged man who, regardless of how great it is, will not go see a war film or a horror film, especially not one like "Shutter."
The majority of people at WBOC are white, so the likelihood that any of them would also rush out to a black church comedy like "Tyler Perry's Meet the Browns" is also slim to none. In fact, I'd be surprised if any plurality of the white people at my station has seen any of Tyler Perry's films or plays.
That's not meant to be a slight. It's just a fact that while most movies strive for universal appeal, a good handful and more have only a core demographic, or a niche group to sustain them. Asian horror film remakes and church-thumping black comedies are among them.
A few movie studio executives recognize this and specifically cater to those niche groups, making films that only suit them. This is something that movie critics tend to hate because those films usually feel formulaic or predictable, like they were churned out on a factory line. To an audience member, this can be satisfying but to a critic it's maddening.
In a TV interview last year, two executives involved with the horror film "Saw" said they did not screen their last movie for critics in advance. They said that's because they knew it would be one of those niche films that critics would most likely trash but to which fans would still flock, and they were right. I was probably the only film critic who actually enjoyed the last "Saw."
Consequently, the same studio behind "Saw" is the one behind "Tyler Perry's Meet the Browns." They know this new film is another niche film that has a built-in core demographic, a constituency that supported Perry's past films, so they figure they don't have to give critics anything.
20th Century Fox, the studio behind "Shutter," which is actually a remake of a 2004 Thailand film, must have felt the same.
This means moviegoers have to go on brand faith. Yes, these niche films are brands at this point, like McDonald's or Calvin Klein. Without a critic's guide, you pretty much know what you're getting yourself into.
However, while I applaud the studios for their confidence and faith in their products. To me, it reeks of a kind of arrogance and a way of thinking that only serves the bottom line. The new thing about movies is the opening weekend. If movies don't make a killing at the box office in the opening weekend, they're considered wastes nowadays.
This is not the way it used to be. Movies were given longer shelf lives than they're given today. The opening weekends are all anyone focuses on and all anyone cares about. Usually the bigger than better! This makes me believe that when the studios deny critics' reviews for the opening weekend, then it is because they know it's a bad movie that will get bad reviews, so to derail any possible loss to opening weekend figures, they refuse critics their jobs.
While this may make good business sense, it only means that the studios want to subject the audience to bad movies without any forewarning, all to get their money. This is not good for ticket buyers. My job as a critic is to help guide people out there, so they don't waste their hard-earned dollars on bad films, or at least provide them with enough information to make a more informed decision.
If a movie studio wants to deny my brethren or me the opportunity to do that, what does that tell you? Not all critics are out to trash movies. Many of us give all new movies a chance. The studios should continue to give us the same.