Critics are raving about ”Get Carter”! The gangster-noir flick has been described as ”gritty,” ”stylishly directed,” even ”visionary!”
At least that’s what they said about the 1970 British ”Get Carter” starring Michael Caine. Oh, you want the reviews for Sylvester Stallone’s remake opening this weekend? Sorry, buster. Warner Bros. – at the request of producers Franchise Pictures – didn’t offer advance screenings for critics, deliberately postponing any potential Sly bashing till after the debut.
This on the heels of two other high-profile films – the Winona Ryder - Richard Gere weeper ”Autumn in New York” (MGM) and Christopher Lambert’s ”Highlander: Endgame” (Dimension) – that gave the Fourth Estate the same stiff arm treatment. Or take Kim Basinger’s ”Bless the Child” (Paramount), which screened at the 11th hour, making it impossible for most weekly and monthly magazines to review it in time. Throw in the spate of albums being held back from music critics, and you’ve got to wonder, what in the name of Rex Reed is going on?
In the case of movies, the recent critic free zone is disturbing but not altogether unprecedented. Studios prevented reviewers from taking early swipes at 1998’s ”The Avengers” and 1999’s ”House on Haunted Hill.” ”It means only one thing,” says noted thumb wielder Roger Ebert. ”The studio has concluded that the film is not good and will receive negative reviews. All other explanations are diplomatic lies.”
The strategy goes like this: With star power and ad muscle, the studio can score a big opening before the noxious reviews scare off John Q. Theatergoer. And that’s just what happened with ”Autumn in New York,” which snagged a sweeter than expected $11 million in its August opening weekend. ”Get Carter”’s producers didn’t comment, but you can bet your ticket stub they took note of ”Autumn”’s windfall.
Which raises the question: Is this critic dissing phenom reaching critical mass? Not necessarily. Studios can’t afford to alienate big time reviewers, even if buzz generating Internet sites like aint-it-cool.com are nibbling away at critics’ tastemaking power. Instead, some are blaming the recent spate of problems on the lame film season. ”August and September are some of the weakest months,” says Gitesh Pandya of BoxOfficeGuru.com. ”Kids go back to school, the new TV season starts. So it’s not much of a coincidence that films which are not screened for the press happen at the same time.”
After all, press shunning is a gamble. You can anger the actors involved, as MGM did with ”Autumn,” inciting Richard Gere to lash out: ”Winona and I are very proud of this film and disagree with the decision not to preview it.” Says independent publicist Tony Angellotti, ”Frankly, nobody thinks their child is ugly.”
If the movie situation is pesky, the music one is more, well, critical. Big labels are making it harder and harder for frustrated reviewers to get their hands on key releases. ”[Labels] seem to be getting stingier,” confirms Chuck Eddy, music editor of New York’s Village Voice. The problem? Not fear of being panned so much as fear of piracy: Review copies can leak on to Napster and get downloaded for free, as happened with the new Wallflowers album (featuring Jakob Dylan). ”I think the labels are freaking out that they’re gonna lose control over the product they paid a lot of money for,” says Blink 182’s manager, Rick DeVoe. ”They’re just scared and they don’t know what to do.”
But they’re certainly trying to figure it out. At least one album, Wu-Tang Clan’s, isn’t being sent to reviewers at all. Others, including Limp Bizkit’s, are being delayed until the last possible minute. Then there are the increasing number of labels forcing reviewers to schlepp to their New York or L.A. offices to listen to albums (like Blink 182’s).
Other anti-Napster strategies are also cropping up: When Reprise sent out its Green Day album recently, the label put a secret digital stamp on each CD, allowing Internet leaks to be traced. And Capitol released Radiohead’s new ”Kid A” to just a few lucky reviewers – in the form of a bizarre little pen-shaped gizmo that could play MP3s but couldn’t be hooked up to any computer. Alas, the music still wound up on the Net. Sighs the band’s publicist, Shelby Meade, ”We were happy we kept the Radiohead album a secret as long as we did.” Give them an ”E” for Effort.
(Additional reporting by Rob Brunner and Rossiter Drake)