Those following the world of cinema today are most likely aware of a slap-fight that broke out between Sony Pictures and New Yorker film critic David Denby, who broke the agreed-upon embargo for his review of the highly anticipated film The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. He and other critics were allowed to view the film well in advance of its December 21st release date, and in exchange agreed to hold their reviews until a date much closer to the film's release.
Denby's review, however, will run in tomorrow's issue of the New Yorker, and while it sounds like a positive review, the folks at Sony Pictures were not pleased that he broke their embargo. This kind of conflict is a regular issue in the world of video game criticism, too, and is reflective of the at-times congenial, at-times bizarre and stressed relationship between publishers, PR, and journalists.
Apparently, film critics received a sternly worded email this morning from Sony about respecting the agreed-upon embargo in spite of the actions of The New Yorker. As various writers began to weigh in on the situation, the website indiewire.com published an email exchange between Denby and Scott Rudin,one of the film's producers. (We're assuming that the emails are real, of course.)
The full exchange is worth a read, even though it's… well, it's kind of two guys hollering at each other.
Here's Denby explaining himself:
Scott, I know Fincher was working on the picture up to the last minute, but the yearly schedule is gauged to have many big movies come out at the end of the year.
The system is destructive: Grown-ups are ignored for much of the year, cast out like downsized workers, and then given eight good movies all at once in the last five weeks of the year. A magazine like "The New Yorker" has to cope as best as it can with a nutty release schedule. It was not my intention to break the embargo, and I never would have done it with a negative review. But since I liked the movie, we came reluctantly to the decision to go with early publication for the following reasons…
He then goes on to outline the reasons for breaking the embargo: There are too many important films this time of year, this issue of The New Yorker is a double-issue and therefore needed a big review, and the New York Critics' Circle awards bumped up its voting schedule, forcing Denby to share his opinion of the film with them but not with his readers.
Here's the film's producer, Rudin, reacting:
I appreciate all of this, David, but you simply have to be good for your word. Your seeing the movie was conditional on your honouring the embargo, which you agreed to do. The needs of the magazine cannot trump your word. The fact that the review is good is immaterial, as I suspect you know. You've very badly damaged the movie by doing this, and I could not in good conscience invite you to see another movie of mine again, Daldry or otherwise. I can't ignore this, and I expect that you wouldn't either if the situation were reversed. I'm really not interested in why you did this except that you did — and you must at least own that, purely and simply, you broke your word to us and that that is a deeply lousy and immoral thing to have done.
The stated reasoning by both sides is a bit hinky here. Rudin's talk of honour sounds well and good, but when it comes down to it, he's interested in his movie's bottom line. Denby's talk about the overwhelming glut of awards-season movies certainly rings true for me, since the same thing happens to games journalists this time of year. However, as far as I'm concerned, the more overwhelmed a critic gets, the more welcome embargoes can be — having a bit of breathing room to chew over a game makes it easier to do a good job of writing about it, which in turn does a better service for readers.
By breaking the embargo, Denby has put all of the other critics who have seen the film in a tough spot. These days, entertainment media thrives on being fast and being first, and the moment a review is out there, everyone else is at a disadvantage and must play catch-up.
Denby's line about how they decided to run the review partly because it was positive ties into the kind of exclusive deals that PR can offer to journalists in all fields. This is particularly common in video games — a publication that is known to be friendly, or to have liked similar games in the past is given an earlier embargo-lift, guaranteeing that they'll have the only review in town in exchange for a presumed positive review. We at Kotaku get the odd exclusive as well, and even without exclusives, every time we get something out ahead of everyone else it certainly helps our traffic. So when Denby talks about how the review was positive, it's almost as though he's attempting to enact a retroactive exclusive: It's a positive review! So… let's pretend it was just an exclusive from the start?
It seems to me that when you agree to an embargo date, whether verbally, with a handshake, or with full-on written non-disclosure agreement (which we in the games press are frequently asked to sign), you're agreeing to play by the publisher's rules. It's not an ideal situation, and the entire embargo/exclusive situation is prone to all sorts of exploitation. But them's the breaks.
So yes, this is all profoundly tedious. It's a conflict that most of us weren't interested in watching in the first place, and you'd be forgiven for not giving a flying frack about either of these guys. But all the same, the whole story provides some rare illumination of the at-times chummy, at-times rocky relationship between PR and the press.
Speaking of all this, I guess I should probably finally read The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, huh? If only so I can complain about how much worse the movie was than the book.