Sense of Wonder: Curse of the Quote Whores and Fictitious Film Critics

HOLLOW MAN - one of several Sony productions to receive favorable blurbs from fictitious critic David Manning
HOLLOW MAN - one of several Sony productions to receive favorable blurbs from fictitious critic David Manning

Note: This is a repost of an article I wrote back in 2001, in response to the scandal that erupted when it was revealed that advertising campaigns from Sony Pictures had included favorable quotes from a critic who did not, in fact, exist. The studio wound up on the receiving end of a class-action lawsuit from angry customers who had been hoodwinked into seeing these movies. In 2005, the Associated Press reported that the company settled the suit for $1.5-million, allowing customers who had purchased tickets to VERTICAL LIMIT, A KNIGHT’S TALE, or THE PATRIOT  to get a $5 refund.
Sony Pictures did not admit any liability, even though two executives were temporarily suspended when the scandal first first erupted. The lawsuit began when two ticket buyers in California claimed that an ad for KNIGHT’S TALE fooled them into seeing the film by quoting “David Manning of the Ridgefield Press” as saying that Heath Ledger, the film’s lead, was “this year’s hottest new star!” The Ridgefield Press, a small weekly newspaper in Connecticut, had no such film reviewer. Other ads to feature phony quotes were for films like THE ANIMAL and HOLLOW MAN.
Although Hollywood studios are no longer attributing quotes to fictitious film critics (as far as we know), they continue to employ other techniques mentioned below, in an attempt to squeeze a few good words out of reviewers who should know better.
The American public was shocked—simply shocked—when they found out in 2001 that Sony Pictures publicity had invented a fictional film critic by the name of David Manning to praise some of their less praise-worthy films (such as the Rob Schneider comedy, THE ANIMAL and director Paul Verhoeven’ HOLLOW MAN). Well, maybe they weren’t shocked; perhaps “amused” is a better word. After all, what’s more fun than to have your cynical suspicions confirmed by objective evidence?
We all know that Hollywood is a huge hype machine that will stop at nothing to promote its films, so the fact that the studio would stoop to outright deceit (as opposed to exaggeration and spin-doctoring) is not very surprising in and of itself. The real question is why the publicity department felt it was useful to invent a non-existent critic. What was to be gained?
The answer to that question requires a little back-story, which reveals that Sony’s actions were really just the logical extension of a pattern that has been evolving over the course of the past 25 years. Not that this makes their actions excusable, just understandable.
A long time ago (i.e., before there ever was a film about events in a galaxy far, far away), major motion picture studios would premier their films in exclusive or limited engagements, opening them in only a few theatres in major markets, such as New York and Los Angeles (a little bit along the lines of what Walt Disney Pictures does today with their major animation features). A film would open in some luxury theatre downtown, and all the major critics would weigh in with their opinions in print and on TV, while word-of-mouth would spread from those viewers who just had to see a film during its exclusive run instead of waiting for it to move into their neighborhood theatres.
The reactions a film received would then help determine how it would be released to the rest of the nation. Advertising campaigns might be tweaked for different regional markets; a film might be re-edited into a shorter version for mass consumption; sometimes, if a film fared extremely poorly, a national release might even be avoided altogether.
However it worked, the bottom line was that the film was given its chance to generate word-of-mouth and critical buzz before it appeared in the vast majority of theatres around the country. No matter how much hype went into the marketing, the film ultimately had to stand on its own two feet.
JAWS: one of the blockbusters that changed the way movies are released
JAWS: one of the blockbusters that changed the way movies are released

Two films in the 1970s changed all that: JAWS (1975) and STAR WARS (1977) proved that you could make a financial killing by opening a summer blockbuster nationwide instead of in limited engagements. With a film playing in hundreds or even thousands of theatres on opening weekend, it could reach a sizable percentage of its audience before word-of-mouth could kick in. Therefore, the pre-release hype became even more important.
This did not eliminate the publicists’ relationship with critics, however. Although many potential viewers might not read a complete review before seeing a film, almost inevitably they had to look at an ad, if for no other reason than to check out where the film was playing. And those ads sure looked better when they were full of positive sound bytes lifted from critics. After all, film critics supposedly represented an objective opinion; everyone expected the studio to hype its efforts, but if a dozen critics all said that the film was great, then it must be worth checking out, right?
Therefore, the goal for publicists was to find ways of getting the press to say good things about studio product. You could bribe them in subtle ways—invite them to the set, fly them to exotic locations to view filming, give them lots of free food and liquor at gala premiers. How else to explain the way the opening of PEARL HARBOR was treated like a major historical event by network television news outlets—did journalists really expect great things from the movie, or was it that they just could not pass up that trip to Hawaii for the premier?
But those premiers do not come cheap, and they are not always 100% effective. A far cheaper and easier way to get good quotes was simply careful editing: you pulled out the one or two favorable sentences from an otherwise unfavorable review. Technically, you don’t need permission to do this, and presumably the writer cannot object since he did, after all, say what he’s quoted as saying. (Theoretically, permission is supposed to be obtained if the quote is paraphrased or altered in anyway that might be misleading, but there is no official body to enforce this.)
This method is fine; however, there still may be times when you come up empty-handed or, worse yet, embarrassed. After all, there is some risk involved. You don’t want to print “Achieves Greatness!” at the top of the ad, and then have some article come out a week later pointing out that the original review actually said, “The film almost achieves greatness, but ultimately stumbles into awfulness.” So, what’s the next step?
The answer lies in those ratings charts that some newspapers and magazine used to run, which allow all of the regular staff to give numerical ratings (such as one to four stars) to each film in release. A glance at any chart like this will reveal that almost any film, no matter how bad, has at least one supporter at each publication or outlet who will give it at least two stars, maybe three, and sometimes even four. If you are a studio publicist, your tactic is clear: bypass the critic who wrote the printed review, and call up the one critic who gave your film four stars.
This led to the ‘90s phenomenon known as “Quote Whores,” those journalists so eager to see their name in print that they could always find something good to say. The situation was tainted by the fact that writers were no longer required to actually write anything in order to be quoted; they simply said something nice over the phone, and the publicist would tailor it to fit into the ad.
It’s easy to see why a journalist would fall into this trap. If you’re writing for a publication but your editor asked someone else to review the weekend’s major new release, obviously you’re not at the top of the pecking order. How to increase your cache as a critic? Well, the more your name is seen in advertisements, the more you seem to be the voice of authority. Of course, these so-called writers knew they had to say something favorable, but many rationalized this by telling themselves that there is something good to say about almost any movie, so they were not really lying, just giving an honest opinion that emphasized the positive. If they had been asked to write the review, they would have said the exact same thing, and they would also have pointed out the film’s shortcomings. At least, that was the excuse.
The problem for publicists, of course, was that outside of Roger Ebert and Pauline Kael, there weren’t that many film critics with nationally recognized names, so the only way to lend authority to these quotes was by listing the name of magazine or newspaper after the name of the critic. This led to the bizarre phenomenon of quotes being attributed to publications in which the words never actually appeared.
BARB WIRE: recipient of an undeserved blurb from "Cinefantastique"
BARB WIRE: recipient of an undeserved blurb from "Cinefantastique"

I first encountered this while working as the West Coast Editor for CINEFANTASTIQUE magazine. I was surprised to open my copy of the LOS ANGELES TIMES one day to see an ad for BARB WIRE with an extremely favorable quote attributed to one of our free-lance writers. Unfortunately, he had not written the review that actually appeared in the magazine, which was overwhelmingly negative. At my instigation, we immediately instituted a policy which prevented free-lancers from handing out quotes with the magazine’s name attached; they could say whatever they wanted over the phone, but the quote could only be attributed to the magazine if it was from a review that had actually been published in its pages.
Now maybe you’re starting to see how this led to a fictional film critic. Most journalists’ names are not that well known. If you can’t get something good from the top critic at the major publications, and if the publications are not letting their other writers hand out the magazine’s name to any publicist who asks, you’re into a situation where you’re increasingly relying on unknown names. It no longer matters who said it; the only important thing is what was said.
This combines with another fact of life: writers should be literate, but they are not necessarily articulate. You can’t always get a great-sounding piece of hyperbole over the phone. So publicists found a method to save these Quote Whores from having to think up their own quotes: they started sending out what looked like a multiple choice quiz. When a film was about to be released, a journalist would get one of these in his fax or e-mail, with the film’s title at the top and a list of perhaps 10 choices, preceded by the question, “Which of these most nearly describes your reaction to the film?” Needless to say, all the options were overwhelmingly positive (e.g., “Best Film This Year!”), so if anybody bothered to check off one and fax it back to the publicist, they had a guaranteed usable quote.
At this point, we get into the science of statistics and probability. If you provide 10 choices and all of them are positive, it’s only a matter of sending out enough faxes until someone gives you the response you want. If you’re diligent enough, it becomes more or less inevitable that you will get a positive hit on one or maybe even all of the choices provided. Human nature being what it is, we like to take short cuts when we know the outcome is inevitable. It is rather like the Jorge Luis Borges short story “The Library of Babel,” in which every book that can be written has been written; it’s just a matter of finding it somewhere in the infinite chambers.
This is probably why the Sony publicists opted to create a ficitonal film critic and put their words into his mouth. Why bother with the time and trouble of faxing out multiple-choice questionaires when you know that, inevitably, someone, somewhere, will say what you want? Having put pre-written words into the mouths of real (if unknown) journalists for years, the publicists decided to skip a step. After all, did the names of these unknown critics carry any weight with the public, or was it simply important to see something good said about the movie? And if the author and outlet are not important, what’s the point of searching for a parrot to repeat what you say, when instead you can have a ventriloquist dummy do the job for you?
After a diatribe such as this, which identifies a problem, typically one is expected to offer up some kind of solution. “Don’t believe everything you read,” is one obvious lesson, but that does not really rectify the situation. I suppose we could call on Hollywood to behave itself a little bit better, but are we really naïve enough to think that that will happen anytime soon?
There are a couple things to do. First, newspapers, magazines, TV shows, and websites that review films should instigate policies like the one we adopted back at CINEFANTASTIQUE: the only time the outlet’s name should be allowed in an ad is when the quote actually appeared in that outlet. Furthermore, all of us webheads should do a better job of policing Hollywood. When you see some hymn of praise for an abysmally bad movie, go online and do a search on the name of the critic and his outlet. If no such person or outlet exists, write to the studio, and let your local newspaper know.
Best of all, maintain a healthy skepticism about the quotes you see in ads, and realize that the Hollywood pre-release hype machine has been at least somewhat undercut by the existence of the Internet. The goal of studio publicists is still to get onto thousands of screens for opening weekend, so that they can make as much money as possible before word-of-mouth warns ticket-buyers, but nowadays that word-of-mouth travels almost instantaneously online. No matter how tightly the studio press machine keeps the lid on a film, no matter how many phony quotes and critics they invent, you can get the real story from outlets you trust, and you can get it in time to save you from wasting your $8.00.

Copyright 2001 Steve Biodrowski

Rio, 007, The Crow: CFQ Round Table Podcast 2:15.1


In this week’s installment of the Cinefantastique Round Table Podcast, Dan Persons, Lawrence French, and Steve Biodrowski analyze the hot topics in the world of horror, fantasy, and science fiction films: Sony Pictures will finance and distribute the new James Bond Film; Barry Cooper may star in THE CROW; Peter Jackson films THE HOBBIT in 3-D and at 48 frames per second; RIO celebrates a box office victory of SCREAM 4; and Lionsgate picks up director Barry Levinson’s docu-style eco-horror film THE BAY (aka ISOPOD). Also, Lawrence French offers a capsule review of RIO and finds it a surprisingly refreshing step up from the ICE AGE sequels.


Sony to Co-finance & Distribute 'Bond 23'

Sony Pictures has signed a deal with MGM to co-finance and handle theatrical distibution of the next James Bond film, thus far referred to only as BOND 23.
The untitled film, to be directed by Sam Mendes and starQUANTUM OF SOLACE (2008) Daniel Craig as 007, is scheduled to hit  theaters November 9th, 2012.
Sony also distributed CASINO ROYALE and QUANTUM OF SOLACE. 
The deal includes a similar arrangement for 24th James Bond movie, and
The companies will co-finance and distribute the movie, known only as Bond 23, which set for release on Nov. 9, 2012, as well as the next film in the franchise.
Sony Pictures, which released the last two James Bond movies, has struck a deal with MGM to co-finance and distribute worldwide the next Bond, still known only as Bond 23.
With Bond 23 set for release on Nov. 9, 2012, Sony and MGM also plan to join forces for the next film in the ongoing series, Bond 24, under a similar arrangement.
The two studios are reportedly also considering co-financing several of each other’s movies set to be made in the next five years, possibly including the TOTAL RECALL remake/reboot.
in related news, MGM has reached an agreement with Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment to release BOND 23 and other new productions on home video and continue handling MGM’s available film and TV library through 2016.
Via The Hollywood Reporter

Third 'Battle: Los Angles' Trailer

Things get a bit more exciting (and strange) with this latest trailer for BATTLE: LOS ANGELES.

 ” For years, there have been documented cases of UFO sightings around the world — Buenos Aires, Seoul, France, Germany, China. But in 2011, what were once just sightings will become a terrifying reality when Earth is attacked by unknown forces. As people everywhere watch the world’s great cities fall, Los Angeles becomes the last stand for mankind in a battle no one expected. It’s up to a Marine staff sergeant and his new platoon to draw a line in the sand as they take on an enemy unlike any they’ve ever encountered before.”

Directed by Jonathan Liebesman from a screenplay by Christopher Bertolini. Stars Aaron Eckhart, Michelle Rodriguez, Lucas Till.
Due out March 11th from Sony Pictures, Tri-Star/Columbia.

"Spider-Man" Reboot & "Men In Black III" To Film In 2010


SuperHeroHype reports that Marc Webb’s SPIDER-MAN reboot (still being referred to internally as “Untitled Spider-Man Project”) is set to begin shooting in LA this December. Sony/Columbia Pictures has yet to confirm whether they will also film in NYC as they did with the first three films. The film is scheduled for release on July 3, 2012 with Andrew Garfield in the starring role and Laura Ziskin and Avi Arad returning to the producer’s chairs.
Barry Sonnenfeld’s MEN IN BLACK III is scheduled to begin shooting in September in NYC. The May 25, 2012 release will star Will Smith, Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin and Jemaine Clement. The summer of 2012 is already shaping up to be a big year for major film franchises.

G4 TV's 4 MARVEL Anime Shows

It was revealed at Comic Con that the cable channel G4 will be the exclusive American TV network to air Marvel Entertainment’s four new Anime series.
IRON MAN, X-MEN, WOLVERINE, and BLADE will all be getting 12 episode arc, 30 minute length animated programs. The shows will be largely set in Japan and the Far East, and done in an Anime style.
Award-winning comics writer Warren Ellis oversaw the animated productions, produced by Madhouse and Marvel Entertainment in association with Sony Pictures Entertainment Japan.
They will make their exclusive U.S. TV Premiere on G4 in 2011.
Sony Pictures Television will be the distributor.

'Spider-Man' Reboot Lead Cast reports that Andrew Garfield has been cast as Peter Parker/Spider-Man in Sony/Columbia Pictures’ as-yet-untitled SPIDER-MAN re-boot.

After a comprehensive worldwide casting search, Andrew Garfield has been chosen to portray Peter Parker when Spider-Man swings back onto the screen in 3D on July 3, 2012.
The new film will begin production in early December directed by Marc Webb from a screenplay by James Vanderbilt. Laura Ziskin and Avi Arad will produce the film from Columbia Pictures and Marvel Studios.
Today’s confirmation culminates what has been one of the most eagerly anticipated casting announcements in recent memory. Bloggers, pop culture speculators, and everyday fans have pored over and analyzed every conceivable online rumor in an attempt to discover the identity of the next actor to play Peter Parker. Garfield will immediately begin preparing for the coveted role.
On selecting Garfield, director Marc Webb said, “Though his name may be new to many, those who know this young actor’s work understand his extraordinary talents. He has a rare combination of intelligence, wit, and humanity. Mark my words, you will love Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker.”
The selection of Garfield was revealed at a press event in Cancun, Mexico for international journalists attending a media tour promoting upcoming films from Sony Pictures Entertainment.

Andrew Garfield has previously appeared in genre titles THE IMAGINARIUM OF DR. PARNASSUS and NEVER LET ME GO. He won a British BAFTA Award for Best Actor in 2008, for the Channel 4 drama BOY A, playing an American student. Born in Los Angles, he was raised from the age of three in England.

Green Hornet Delayed

GHLOGO_CFQAccording to an article at Sony Pictures is moving THE GREEN HORNET from this year’s Christmas holiday slot of December 22nd to January 14th, 2011—the Martin Luther King Jr. weekend.
Rumors had been circulating before the announcement, which might suggest studio doubts about the film’s box office viability during the competitive Christmas season. However, Sony claims the decision is due to their desire to release THE GREEN HORNET in 3-D.
The studio’s marketing department says the shift will allow time to complete the digital conversion and also that assure more 3-D equipped theaters will be available, as a number of other 3-D films will be competing for screens in December.
THE GREEN HORNET (based on the radio series created by Fran Striker & George W. Trendle that hit the airwaves in 1936 – and more directly from the 1966 20th Century Fox TV series) has been controversial with genre fans from the beginning.
Fans on websites such as Superherohype have expressed concern over Seth Rogen’s scripting the project with his SUPERBAD and PINEAPPLE EXPRESS collaborator Evan Goldberg, fearing that undue comedy would intrude on the fairly grim and semi-realistic adventures of Britt Reid and Kato.
Additionally Rogen’s casting as the traditionally dynamic and heroic young newspaper publisher, given his usual on-screen persona as an amusing but chubby and ineffective pot-head, seemed a questionable choice to many (including this writer), but the actor slimmed down dramatically.
After all, the first screen Hornet was the amiable Gordon Jones (THE GREEN HORNET, 1940), best known to most modern audiences as comic foil Mike the Cop on TV’s ABBOTT & COSTELLO—and he did a creditable job in the 13-Chapter serial.
Rogen, a professed superhero fan, assured interviewers that he intended to make a balanced action-comedy, and the selection of director Michel Gondry (ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND) soothed fears somewhat.
Production started last year with a target release of July 2010. When that date was pushed back to December, Rogen noted “We got the same date that movies like I AM LEGEND and AVATAR are getting, so we’re thrilled to be there.” Now, with the Martin Luther King weekend, GREEN HORNET will have the same date as PAUL BLART: MALL COP.
Only time will tell if THE GREEN HORNET will make a box office sting — or just create more negative buzz.
Note: The Green Hornet spawned two multiple-chapter serials from Universal Studios, the second being THE GREEN HORNET STRIKES AGAIN, as well as various comic book adaptations in the 40’s, 60’s, and late `80’s. Two “Better Little Books”  tied to the radio show were published, as were two paperbacks based on the Television version.