Pop Culture

Studios trying to keep critics from bad movies

Critics are being shut out of more films as studios forgo advance screenings on flicks they expect reviewers to trash, figuring the movies stand a better chance of box-office success with no reviews rather than bad ones.

So far this year, 11 movies have not screened for critics before opening day, including the Rob Schneider-David Spade sports comedy "The Benchwarmers" and Mo'Nique's fashion comedy "Phat Girlz," both opening Friday.

During the same period last year, just two movies did not screen in advance for reviewers.

The practice does not sit well with critics, who either must do without or scramble to catch the movie on opening day and dash something off if their outlets want to have a review over opening weekend.

But it makes business sense for studios, which may presume the drawbacks outweigh the benefits if critics are likely to hate a movie.

"If we think screenings for the press will help open the movie, we'll do it," said Dennis Rice, publicity chief for Disney, which did not show its fright flick "Stay Alive" to critics before it opened in March. "If we don't think it'll help open the movie or if the target audience is different than the critics' sensibilities, then it may make sense not to screen the movie."

Movies that do not screen ahead of time generally are genre flicks such as horror stories or youth comedies whose audiences pay little heed to critics.

"Like `Benchwarmers,' if some kid really wants to see that, I don't know that bad reviews are going to stop them from going," said Paul Dergarabedian, president of box-office tracker Exhibitor Relations.

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Television's "Ebert and Roeper and the Movies," added a jab at Hollywood whenever a studio did not screen a flick for critics. Along with their "thumbs-up, thumbs-down," Roger Ebert and Richard Roeper included a "wagging finger of shame" for films they were not shown.

They have discontinued that. Ebert got tired of it, and Roeper said too many movies were not screening in advance.

Ebert said he is puzzled by Hollywood's notion that negative reviews would damage a movie's box-office potential. He recalled a conversation he had about five years ago with a studio executive who told him he loved it when the show trashed movies, particularly horror flicks.

"The target audience didn't care that we hated those movies because they just expected us to hate them," Ebert said. "If we reviewed them and showed clips and said they're stupid and awful and violent, that's a selling review for that audience. So the studio head told me, `Publicity like that can only help us.'"

Of the films that have not screened for critics this year, three debuted as the weekend's top movies: The vampire sequel "Underworld Evolution," the fright flick "When a Stranger Calls" and the domestic comic drama "Tyler Perry's Madea's Family Reunion."

Results have been so-so for other movies that did not screen, including the action thriller "Ultraviolet," the animated tale "Doogal" and the comedies "Grandma's Boy" and "Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector."

Steve Bunnell — head of distribution for the Weinstein Co., which released "Doogal" — said that movie was not screened for critics because it was "literally being edited up until the last minute."

Sony, the studio behind "The Benchwarmers" and three other films not screened for critics this year, declined to comment. Executives at other distributors that decided against critic screenings — 20th Century Fox, Lions Gate and Fox Searchlight — either declined to comment or did not return phone calls.

"It's telling that most of them won't even comment about it, because it's obviously something they're not proud of," Roeper said. "But audiences are smart. They know if a movie isn't being reviewed, it's not because the studio thinks it's great. Studios are trying to separate a moviegoer from his or her money before not only critical word but word of mouth comes down on it."

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