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‘Nine Lives’ And Why Not Screening Your Movie For Critics Is Never A Good Idea

Nine Lives, starring Kevin Spacey as a cat named “Mr. Fuzzypants,” is waddling into theaters this weekend, and if you haven’t heard about it, that could be because it never screened for critics. (It could also be because it looks like a 30 Rock parody and the trailer was so absurdly bad you dismissed it as a fever dream, but that’s a different article).

In being kept from critics, or at least from early reviews, Nine Lives joins a handful of other films that likewise didn’t screen for critics this year, an illustrious group that includes Independence Day: ResurgenceMeet The BlacksThe Brothers Grimsby (which did screen for a handful of critics but was largely kept from the press in most of the country), Jane Got a Gun, Dirty Grandpa, and The Perfect Match. What do all these films have in common, besides being released in at least 1,000 theaters on opening weekend and not screening for critics? Negative reviews, for one thing. Grimsby had the best recommended rating on RottenTomatoes of the bunch, at 37%. If Nine Lives ends up rating higher than that I will poop in a litter box.

Which is probably to be expected. At this point, I think we all understand that a wide release movie not screening for critics is just a tacit admission by the studio that it isn’t very good. Or at least, an admission that they know critics will hate it. But… so what? As you, the idiot layman, might be asking right now, “Why would they screen a movie for critics if they know critics will hate it!?”

And that is, of course, the standard studio line. The old “we made this for the fans, man!”† chestnut. As perhaps best exemplified by Rob Moore, then vice chairman of Paramount, explaining Paramount’s decision not to screen G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra for critics back in 2009:

“After the chasm we experienced with `Transformers 2′ between the response of audiences and critics, we chose to forgo opening-day print and broadcast reviews as a strategy to promote `G.I. Joe.’ We want audiences to define this film.” [Variety]

I chose this quote in particular because it’s so patently disingenuous. Moore says he didn’t want a repeat of… Transformers 2? Seriously? Did he say that with a straight face? Transformers 2, aka Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, was the biggest movie of the Transformers franchise (in terms of domestic box office even now, and by any measure at the time), grossing $402 million in the US and $836 million worldwide. For a studio exec in 2009 to say that he didn’t want another Transformers 2, a movie that earned his company almost a billion dollars and secured everyone involved’s jobs for years to come, is an especially blatant load of horsesh*t. Paramount would’ve killed for another Transformers 2. That’s why even now, they’re planning an eighth Transformers film.

Not to mention, the audience/critic divide is largely mythical. Just as none the films I mentioned at the top received better than 37% on RottenTomatoes, neither did any of the ones rated rate above a B from audiences on Cinemascore. Revenge of the Fallen received a B+, worst of the franchise. What was this supposed chasm, again? Ticket sales are not opinions.

The truth is, studios release bad movies every weekend, and they screen most of them for critics. Why? Because they know that reviews are just one facet of a larger promotional campaign, and even bad ones can’t possibly do that much harm. There are so many movies out there that people talking about a particular one at all is good, regardless of what they’re saying. Silence should be the real fear. Besides, do you think popcorn blockbuster audiences care about bad reviews? If people did what media “experts” told them to, Donald Trump wouldn’t have made it past the first primary. People see a movie like Transformers for the same reason they eat a deep-fried Snickers bar at the fair — they know it’s junk, and that’s part of the fun. It’s the fun of doing what your mom (or schoolmarm-y critic in a stuffed suit and fussy ascot) said not to.

In that context, why hide it? Not screening your movie for critics is like deep frying a bunch of Snickers bars and then not putting up a sign. It’s an apology. Actually, it’s worse: It’s a pre-apology. It hurts word of mouth. Just look at this year’s examples. Independence Day: Resurgence is on pace to make less in its entire U.S. run than the original made in its first week. It will end up being saved by its performance in foreign markets (where, guess what, it did screen for critics).

(Independence Day: Resurgence technically did screen for some critics, sort of. New York saw screenings on the Friday after it opened publicly on Thursday night, which seems like a particularly self-defeating half measure. The studio is still making a tacit admission of releasing a bad movie while still giving critics a truncated opportunity to trash it. Double why?)

For The Brothers Grimsby, Sacha Cohen did a talk show tour where he played a clip of the Kardashians reacting to the film, which was a novel idea. But they learned late night TV wasn’t a substitute for critics arguing over it, even if most of them would’ve hated it. The Brothers Grimsby didn’t screen for most U.S. critics, and barely made a ripple at the box office: $6.87 million over its entire run. That’s even less than Mike Epps’ Meet the Blacks, which managed less than $10 million in its run, despite opening in more than a 1000 theaters.

My question: what, exactly, is the upside of not screening your movie for critics? The entire point of Cohen’s clip of the Kardashians reacting to Brothers Grimsby, it seems, was how grossed out they were by it. Haha, isn’t this movie gross?! If you’re selling it on the gross-out factor, wouldn’t a tidal wave of brutal reviews be exactly what you want? What’s a more perfect badge of tastelessness than withering scorn from supposed arbiters of taste? Think of the thinkpieces!

There is no upside to not screening your movie for critics, because not screening for critics gives your movie something much worse than bad reviews: the stench of shame and obscurity. It’s one thing for a film to be bad, but it’s another for a film to be so bad that the studio people can’t even pretend not to be embarrassed by it.

The other day I was talking to a comedian friend and I said something like, “I bet I could be a better performer and more charismatic onstage if I was doing someone else’s jokes instead of my own.”

You could say that’s because someone else’s jokes would probably be funnier than mine and you wouldn’t necessarily be wrong, but my point is, at some point between conception and distribution, the comedian transitions from joke creator to joke salesman. The bit has already been conceived, so there’s no upside to second-guessing it once you’re onstage, and moreover, who the hell wants to watch some guy get in front of an audience and doubt himself? If you’re going to second guess yourself, do it at home. People aren’t going to suddenly forgive you for a bad joke because you’ve pre-apologized for it. The same goes for movies. You spent millions of dollars making a movie, got it into thousands of theaters across the country, and now you’re going to grow a conscience? If you’re going to release it, screen it.

Not screening for critics is an equivocation. It hampers word of mouth, makes you look pathetic, and, far from preventing bad reviews, it only makes bad reviews worse. If you’ve made a bad movie, either dump it in the trash and light it on fire, or pretend to be proud of it for long enough to finish a press tour. There’s nothing to be gained by backpedaling. That’s how you trip over a root and get devoured by wolves!

In Jon Ronson’s book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, he profiles a number of people who’ve been the victims of online shaming campaigns. Many of the book’s subjects have had their lives drastically altered by online shame campaigns. While I wouldn’t exactly equate bad movie reviews with a shaming campaign, the one Ronson subject who notably came out of his shaming relatively unscathed, Max Mosley, had a take on what made him different that seems instructive here:

“As soon as the victim steps out of the pact by refusing to feel ashamed,” he said, “the whole thing crumbles.”

It should be noted that, as Ronson goes on to point out, being a white male in a sex scandal, as Mosley is, certainly helps. But as it relates to movies, the point still stands. Incidentally, I think it also explains Donald Trump’s entire appeal. He’s gaff proof because he gets caught in a lie about every 30 seconds and just shrugs it off every time. Yeah, so? Maybe I meant to lie. And what’s Michael Bay if not the Donald Trump of filmmaking? (In attitude, at least. Otherwise that analogy is wildly unfair to Bay, who, unlike Donald Trump, is objectively, wildly successful in his chosen profession.) Bay gets savaged by critics every time out, and unlike, say, M. Night Shyamalan, who seems genuinely hurt by negative reviews, Bay’s attitude is, “I don’t change my style for anybody. Pussies do that.”

My point is, Nine Lives is almost certainly going to be terrible. Bet the house on it. That being said, most movies are terrible, and if the studio didn’t think Kevin Spacey-as-a-talking-cat was a bad idea during the scripting, casting, crewing, pre-production, production, post-production, and distribution, then why would they suddenly admit as much NOW, right when they’re finally about to see some return on their investment? That makes even less sense than everything else about this movie.

†This, of course, is a nice bit of circular logic. How can you have made a movie for the “fans,” a group of people who, by definition, don’t even exist yet? This line gets thrown around so often (see: Delevingne, Cara, from yesterday) that you wonder if people have actually started to believe it.

Vince Mancini is a writer, comedian, and podcaster. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.

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