Beef of the Week: Dragon Tattoo producer vs. New Yorker film critic

Okay, the full email exchange I’m about to post below is a little long, and probably a lot inside baseball, but it’s still an interesting glimpse into how movie studios market themselves during awards season. The exchange was between the New Yorker‘s David Denby and Girl with the Dragon Tattoo producer Scott Rudin. They’re both pictured above, and go ahead, try to guess which one is the New Yorker film critic and which the movie producer. Hmm, is the New Yorker guy the one with the intellectual glasses and affectatious scarf, or the fat, bald Jewish dude with a five o’clock shadow looking uncomfortable in a suit??? OH I BET YOU’LL NEVER BE ABLE TO GUESS! (Seriously though, these guys could be on flash cards that said “NYC Film Critic” and “Movie Producer”).

Anyway, their beef stems from Denby’s decision to break embargo on his Girl with the Dragon Tattoo review. Basically, when films screen for critics, we generally have to agree not to run our reviews before a certain date as a condition of attending. Denby got to attend an early screening (hosted by the NYFCC, the organization Armond White used to chair), and agreed to an embargo date of December 13th (FYI, I still haven’t gotten my screening invite, but my embargo date will most likely be a full week after that). Denby and the New Yorker decided to break the embargo and run the review early, and Sony and Scott Rudin are reportedly “pissed.” The Playlist was able to get a hold of the ensuing email exchange between Rudin and Denby, and what ensues is an online dork fight of the inhaleriest proportions.


From: Scott Rudin
Sent: Sat 12/3/2011 12:08 AM
To: Denby, David
You’re going to break the review embargo on Dragon Tattoo? I’m stunned that you of all people would even entertain doing this. It’s a very, very damaging move and a total contravention of what you agreed. You’re an honorable man.

From: Denby, David
Sent: Saturday, December 03, 2011 11:19 AM
To: Scott Rudin
Subject: RE:
Dear Scott:
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, which I have also sent to Seth Fradkoff:

1) The jam-up of important films makes it very hard on magazines. We don’t want to run a bunch of tiny reviews at Christmas. That’s not what “The New Yorker” is about. Anthony and I don’t want to write them that way, and our readers don’t want to read them that way.

2) Like many weeklies, we do a double issue at the end of the year, at this crucial time. This exacerbates the problem.

3) The New York Film Critics Circle, in its wisdom, decided to move up its voting meeting, as you well know, to November 29, something Owen Gleiberman and I furiously opposed, getting nowhere. We thought the early date was idiotic, and we’re in favor of returning it to something like December 8 next year. In any case, the early vote forced the early screening of “Dragon Tattoo.” So we had a dilemma: What to put in the magazine on December 5? Certainly not “We Bought the Zoo,” or whatever it’s called. If we held everything serious, we would be coming out on Christmas-season movies until mid-January. We had to get something serious in the magazine. So reluctantly, we went early with “Dragon,” which I called “mesmerizing.” I apologize for the breach of the embargo. It won’t happen again. But this was a special case brought on by year-end madness.

In any case, congratulations for producing another good movie. I look forward to the Daldry.
Best, David Denby

From: Scott Rudin
Date: Sat, 3 Dec 2011 13:04:32 -0500
To: David Denby
Subject: Re:
I appreciate all of this, David, but you simply have to be good for your word. Your seeing the movie was conditional on your honoring 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. If you weren’t prepared to honor the embargo, you should have done the honorable thing and said so before you accepted the invitation. The glut of Christmas movies is not news to you, and to pretend otherwise is simply disingenuous. You will now cause ALL of the other reviews to run a month before the release of the movie, and that is a deeply destructive thing to have done simply because you’re disdainful of We Bought a Zoo. Why am I meant to care about that??? Come on…that’s nonsense, and you know it. [ThePlaylist]

The obvious question here is, why would a studio be against early word of mouth if early word of mouth is good? On what planet does a good review “badly damage” a movie? Sony acts like this is the end of the world, and Rudin uses the asinine old slippery-slope argument at the end there to explain why running an early review is such a horrible thing. Yes, Denby broke an agreement. It’s basically a calculated risk — he risks not getting invited back to future screenings in order to better serve his readers. It’s the old access vs. journalistic freedom conflict. But (a big but!), this is a movie, not the Watergate tapes.

Deadline got ahold of the email Sony sent pleading with other critics to respect the embargo, which read in part:

By allowing critics to see films early, at different times, embargo dates level the playing field and enable reviews to run within the films’ primary release window, when audiences are most interested. As a matter of principle, the New Yorker’s breach violates a trust and undermines a system designed to help journalists do their job and serve their readers. We have been speaking directly with The New Yorker about this matter and expect to take measures to ensure this kind of violation does not occur again.

First off, early word of mouth, if it’s good, never hurt anyone. Secondly, one really good step to take to keep this from happening again is to not have every studio release all their actual good movies (what they think are good movies, anyway) during the same two-week period at the end of the year. The last three weeks of December will see the release of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Mission Impossible IV, Sherlock Holmes 2, Young Adult, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Shame, Tintin, War Horse, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and We Bought a Zoo, among others. All those movies will be competing with each other for similar market share. Meanwhile, Fast Five made $86 million in April opening against Prom and Hoodwinked Too!. If you were an adult looking to see a movie at the end of April, those were the films you had to choose from. But go ahead, Sony, keep protecting this brilliant system you’ve created for yourselves. When it fails, I’m sure it will be the good review that came out a week early’s fault.