David Fincher vs. Film Critics

His remake of ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ hasn’t even opened yet, and already David Fincher is battling with film critics. While it’s not unusual for a director to get defensive about his work, the odd thing in this case is that the object of his scorn actually gave the movie a positive review.

What are Fincher and his producer Scott Rudin so upset about, then? To get the scoop on his competition, New Yorker film critic David Denby broke the studio-imposed embargo date and published his review of ‘Dragon Tattoo’ early, on December 5th. Reviews for the movie are supposed to be withheld until December 13th. Outraged, Rudin called Denby “lousy and immoral,” and has banned him from screenings of any movies he produces in the future. (Rudin is a very powerful and extremely prolific film producer. Some of the major movies he’s produced recently include ‘The Social Network’, ‘True Grit’, ‘Moneyball’ and the soon-to-be-released ‘Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close’.) David Fincher not only agrees with his producer, he has advocated banning all film critics from early screenings altogether.

Embargoes… look, if it were up to me, I wouldn’t show movies to anybody before they were released. I wouldn’t give clips to talk shows. I would do one trailer and three television spots and let the chips fall where they may. That’s how far in the other direction I am. If I had my way, the New York Film Critics Circle would not have seen this movie and then we would not be in this situation. I would be opening this movie on Wednesday Dec. 21 and I would have three screenings on Tuesday Dec. 20 and that would be it.

You may ask what the big deal is. First off, let me say that Denby (or his publisher – I’m not sure who made the decision) is in the wrong here. If the critic agreed to the studio’s embargo date as a condition of seeing the movie early, he is obligated to delay publication of the review. Breaking the embargo date is a shameless plea for attention and one-upsmanship over other critics. It’s unprofessional, and he (they) shouldn’t have done it.

With that said, I don’t particularly agree with the policy of studio embargoes in the first place. The point of an embargo is the studio’s attempt to control the flow of information about a movie, and the buzz surrounding it. Studios want reviews published in close proximity to the movie’s release so that they’ll be fresh in the public’s mind when the movie opens. If a review is published too far in advance, readers may forget about it and shift their attention to other things by the time of the film’s opening weekend. Fincher explains:

It’s a hard thing for people outside our business to understand. It is a bit of a tempest in a teapot. But as silly as this may all look from the outside – privileged people bickering – I think it’s important. Film critics are part of the business of getting movies made. You swim in the same water we swim in. And there is a business to letting people know your movie is coming out. It is not a charity business. It is a business-business.

This is not about controlling the media. If people realized how much thought goes into deciding at what point can we allow our movie to be seen, they would understand. There are so many other things constantly screaming for people’s attention. I started shooting this movie 25 days after I turned in The Social Network. We have been working really hard to make this release date. And when you’re trying to orchestrate a build-up of anticipation, it is extremely frustrating to have someone agree to something and then upturn the apple cart and change the rules – for everybody.

From his perspective, that’s not an unreasonable argument. Here’s the problem with his reasoning, though: Film critics do not work for the movie studios (except in those unethical cases where studios invent them or pay shill writers for enthusiastic quotes). Film critics are not “part of the business of getting movies made,” as Fincher claims. They are, at least in principle, supposed to stand apart from those business considerations and evaluate the work on its own merits. It’s not the film critic’s job to build anticipation for a movie. That’s the job of the studio’s promotional department. It’s the critic’s job to inform his (or her) readers about his opinion of the movie and whether he thinks the movie is worth paying to see. Sometimes, that’s going to be at odds with what the studio wants.

For better or worse, film criticism (and journalism in general) is also a business – a “business-business.” And the reality of that business is that publishing an article first and getting a scoop draws readers, which in turn generates revenue. Film critics should not be beholden to a Hollywood studio’s business interests to the exclusion of their own.

Again, I agree that Denby and the New Yorker did the wrong thing here. Denby gave his word (and may have even had to sign a contract) that he wouldn’t publish a review until December 13th, and then broke that promise. His actions are unprofessional and make all film critics in general look bad. However, the review embargo process is an antiquated business model that, with each passing day, becomes less and less relevant or realistic in the Information Age of the internet.

[via Miami Herald]


  1. M. Enois Duarte

    When I first read that glowing review last week, I thought it seemed incredibly early.

    Although I agree the whole embargo concept is ridiculous, Denby should have kept to his promises of waiting until the 13th.

  2. Yeah, I’m beholden to embargoes and that’s just the name of the game. They allow you to see the movie early so you have time to write about it. They have all the leverage because they have the movie and the critic has nothing until it’s shown to them.

    I’ve seen ‘Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ now, but can’t talk about it because I agreed not to. That’s just the way it goes.

  3. Luke Hickman

    I understand and don’t mind embargoes at all. Why would the studio want you to pump or bash their movie a month before it’s even opened. People may read your review, but they will forgotten about it one month later when the movie actually opens.

    It’s just odd to me that Fincher doesn’t want them at all, yet The Social Network was screened LIKE CRAZY for several weeks before it opened. As great a filmmaker as he may be, it looks like he doesn’t have the pull the studios yet.

  4. JM

    I agree that critics are a part of the business of getting movies made.

    Without critics, Darren Aronofsky wouldn’t have a career.

    David Fincher, on the other hand, doesn’t need reviews. His trailers do the work of a thousand marketing whores. This is studio desperation.

    This “story” reeks of reality tv. If I was Charlie Sheen I’d say that Rudin encouraged him to break embargo, to drum up a bullshit media conflict. Just like the previous American censorship of the nippletastic international poster. The two-minutes-isn’t-long enough four-minute trailer. And next week, exclusively on TMZ, guess which three sex acts Rooney Mara performed with a banana to win the role of Lisbeth.

    • Luke Hickman

      Anytime a lame story gets blown out of proportion, it’s usually because of Hollywood whores trying to boost their next project. Kevin Smith booted off a flight for being too fat a week before the release of shitty ‘Cop Out.’ Smith again opening a distribution bidding war for also shitty ‘Red State’ despite planning all along to distribute it himself. Ashley Greene nude photos hitting the web just days before the release of one of the shitty shitty ‘Twilight’ flicks. This crap is always connected. Why are Sony and Fincher freaking out over a guy releasing a positive review one week before embargoes lift? Since I’m under embargo, I can’t say yet – but I’ll tell you really soon!

  5. I’m with Fincher – in a perfect world, critics would just have to go see the movie with a regular audience. Have any of you ever BEEN to one of these critics-press-only screenings? Half the people aren’t even WATCHING the movie – I think some of them must go on IMDB afterwards and make up their reviews!

    Granted, small indy films probably still need reviewers to get word-of-mouth out about their movie…but something like DRAGON TATTOO? The only people its reviews will impact are those on the border about seeing the movie AT ALL. And those reviews can wait until opening weekend (or afterwards).

    • We do see them with regular audiences. The majority of the screenings we attend as press are put on as promotional tools by radio stations and other businesses that give away tickets to customers/listeners. Only a handful of films are ever screened to just critics in our market.

    • Luke Hickman

      I’ve never been to a press screening where “Half the people aren’t even WATCHING the movie.” I think that you’re forgetting that most film critics actively seek out this dream job because we love it. I have yet to meet a critic who stumbled into the profession, doesn’t like it and can’t get out. Speaking for the critics that I am surrounded by, none of us fall into that category. We watch the films more intently than most audience members do, how else would we be able to give multiple reviews for the multiple outlets we work for?