Spoiling Everybody's Fun

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For KCRW, this is Nick Madigan of the Baltimore Sun with Minding the Media.

We keep hearing about movies that become huge hits even after they've been panned by critics. The latest examples are The Da Vinci Code and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, both of which have racked up box-office gold around the world, their audiences apparently oblivious to the critical drubbing they've received. Does anyone actually need reviews?

Owen Gleiberman, a critic for Entertainment Weekly, wrote today on the magazine's Web site that the question comes up every few years, "generally in the midst of the summer season, when some mediocre blockbuster that all the reviewers hated becomes a big hit anyway."

"Let's start by dismantling the inaccuracy that even a critic as seismic as Pauline Kael (of the New Yorker) had a profound influence on the box office," Gleiberman says. In the 1970's, the era that Kael is most identified with, Americans were flocking not to independent movies she liked but to The Towering Inferno and Earthquake and Walking Tall, movies that critics generally reviled."

Gleiberman says the notion "that a critic's job begins and ends with our power to help films become hits is a specious one nurtured by marketing executives."

In the Christian Science Monitor, Stephen Humphries argues that the relentless noise of the Internet is drowning out individual critics.

He said film studios are on to this, and in the last year have drastically reduced the number of films they screen for critics before their release.

As far back as 2001, David Markiewicz wrote in American Journalism Review that "even with an artistic flop on its hands, Hollywood's advance publicity machine often is powerful enough to deliver a huge audience on the opening weekend, before critical buzz or moviegoer word-of-mouth can scuttle it.

"By the time the audience realizes it's been fleeced, the dog has been trotted off to the dollar theaters, or shipped out to video stores."

In today's New York Times, critic Tony Scott writes that despite its poor reviews, the second installment in the Pirates series plunders onward, trailing broken records in its wake. Its first-weekend take of $136 million was the highest three-day tally in history, and, by yesterday, 10 days into its run, the movie had brought in $258 million. Audiences reacted in similar fashion to The Da Vinci Code, which in May was greeted by America's finest critics by "a fit of collective grouchiness," Scott writes. "The movie promptly pocketed some of the biggest opening-weekend grosses in the history of its studio, Sony."

Scott says the moviegoing public "persists in paying good money to see bad movies."

"I don't for a minute believe that financial success contradicts negative critical judgment," he writes. "$500 million from now, Dead Man's Chest will still be, in my estimation, occasionally amusing, frequently tedious and entirely too long."

Still, he says, questions remain: "Are we out of touch with the audience? Why do we go sniffing after art where everyone else is looking for fun, and spoiling everybody's fun when it doesn't live up to our notion or art?"

But, Scott says, the job of the critic is not to reflect, predict or influence the public taste. That's the job of the Hollywood studios. "These companies spend tens of millions of dollars to persuade you that the opening of a movie is a public event," and the purchase of tickets "a foregone conclusion by the time the first reviews appear."

"Our love of movies," Scott writes, "is sometimes expressed as a mistrust of the people who make and sell them, and even of the people who see them. We take entertainment very seriously, which is to say that we don't go to the movies for fun. Or for money. We do it for you."

This is Nick Madigan of The Baltimore Sun, Minding the Media on KCRW.



Nick Madigan