Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked


September 21, 2007

Don't Quote Me, But…

Their own newspapers regularly carry ads mangling their reviews. But movie critics don't seem to mind much.

Adam Conner-Simons

Michael Phillips, a film critic for the Chicago Tribune, absolutely loved this year's Irish movie-musical Once. Consequently, he was more than happy to field a call from a movie-studio publicist who wanted to quote him for the film's ad campaign. The discussion took a turn for the absurd, however, when the publicist asked him to re-word his original statement. His response? "I said Once ‘may well be the best music film of our generation,' and that isn't strong enough for you?"

Boston Globe reviewer Ty Burr (Photo by Lori Yarvis)
"Publicists look for the positive reviews and try to find what will look good on the posters. We have completely different job descriptions."

Boston Globe reviewer Ty Burr (Photo by Lori Yarvis)

As Gelf documents on a regular basis, in the world of movie blurbs, ad agencies often take creative liberties with the things that critics say.

Ads for Kung Fu Hustle, for example, included the New York Times describing the film as "A thrill ride! Hectic and eclectic! Show stopping fight sequences! 'Kung Fu Hustle' can be watched again and again!" without noting all the anemic praise and criticism between those phrases. Oftentimes, something as simple as an ellipse can turn complex analysis of a specific aspect of a film into an over-reaching generalization. An ad for Live Free or Die Hard quoted the New York Daily News describing the film as "hysterically…entertaining," with an ellipsis that elides the words crucial words "overproduced and surprisingly" between "hysterically" and "entertaining". At their worst, blurbs can completely alter a quote's meaning, for instance by implying a negative comment is a positive one. The Daily Star Certainly didn't mean "Trainspotting meets A Clockwork Orange" as a compliment in its brutal review of 16 Years of Alcohol, but the ad folks turned it into one. As Boston Globe critic Ty Burr tells Gelf, "you can make a negative review positive if you take out the right words."

Other types of misrepresentation include letter capitalization, tagged-on punctuation marks, and one-word adjectives taking the place of lengthy, nuanced descriptions. "I might say that somebody gives a 'fascinating performance,' " says the Seattle Times's Moira Macdonald, "and then they make it 'FASCINATING!'" A Bride and Prejudice ad using Carrie Rickey's review in the Philadelphia Inquirer rearranged her sentences, capitalized words, and even threw in an exclamation point ("It's Pure Pleasure!"). Rickey didn't complain to the studio, partly because of the film's indie status. "I am inclined to support independent movies," she tells Gelf. "I would find what they did more offensive if it was used for a Hollywood movie that didn't need my help."

Holden blurb

See why this quote isn't quite what it seems, and more critics' blurbs placed into context, in Gelf's Blurbs column.

Is there a limit, though, to how much marketers can rework what critics say? According to James Bernardinelli of Reel Views, two ellipses in a quote is the unofficial ceiling number. "Otherwise," he says, "it's going to look like you are hacking the quote." New York Times reviewer Manohla Dargisactually sends out a list of rules to publicity departments with commandments such as, "you have to use ellipses" and "you can't subtract punctuation." Other critics are not quite as proactive but are quick to confront movie studios that misrepresent their reviews.

Critics can also be bypassed by the sneaky practice of quoting from profiles, previews, and other non-reviews. "It's inappropriate," Macdonald says. "Certainly the assumption is that it's from a critic." Berardinelli is more mixed on the issue: "They are not misrepresenting, they are letting the reader imply something that's not there. Is it legal? Yes. Is it ethical? Probably not."

Sometimes ads will quote from news items that don't even refer to the movie. Last year, for instance, an ad for Breaking News quoted The New York Times calling director Johnnie To "a master of the game." This statement appeared not in Dargis's review but in Elvis Mitchell's review of To's PTU three years earlier. Dargis, surprisingly, had little problem with this. "It was a movie review in The New York Times," she says. "Why would you assume that it comes from my review?"

And while critics are at times strict about misleading quotes—"[in] extreme examples, you're misrepresenting someone's point of view," Phillips says—they generally seem to be the ones who are the least concerned with the practice. "[Blurbing] sometimes can annoy me," Hunter says, "but it seems to be such a permanent part of the landscape. It's not something that's consistently on my mind."

In fact, none of the critics interviewed had even heard that the European Union passed a directive taking effect in December banning misleading movie ads. "I can't begin to see something like that happen in America," Hunter says. "The attitude [here] seems to be more benevolent amusement than radical anger."

"I am only trying to be truthful about my experience with the object. If you start to think about how advertisers can fuck with your work, you are self-censoring."—New York Times critic Manohla Dargis
Pragmatically speaking, it's simply too much work for critics to pore over every newspaper in America to make sure they aren't being misquoted. "It can become a full-time job if you're trying to track it down," Berardinelli says. "It's not worth anyone's time unless it's going to damage your reputation."

Many critics question whether blurbing even contributes to films' success. "I'm baffled by [advertisers'] belief that critics' quotes help or hurt movies," Hunter says, arguing that filmgoers don't pay attention to reviews for most major Hollywood movies. Berardinelli agrees. "If it's an art film, it can be important, but…if it's a blockbuster, it doesn't matter," he says.

While these misrepresentations of opinions sometimes lead to hostility, film critics seem to understand the other side's perspective. "It's not like I think that PR people are evil," Dargis says. "They're doing their job." Adds Burr, "They look for the positive reviews and try to find what will look good on the posters. We have completely different job descriptions."

Several of the critics interviewed say that publicists have become more diligent about clearing quotes over the past few years. "We are usually…given the chance to make a squawk before [a quote] gets published," Hunter says. "It does seem that there's a slightly higher ethical standard now." Rickey and others attribute this to the greater level of scrutiny directed toward movie ads ever since the 2001 scandal surrounding invented critic "David Manning," who lent fake quotes to Columbia films like A Knight's Tale and The Animal.

Most of the critics interviewed say they try not to think about being misquoted while writing. "I am only trying to be truthful about my experience with the object," Dargis says. "If you start to think about how advertisers can fuck with your work, you are self-censoring." Rickey often re-reads her pieces in search of excessively "blurbable" superlatives like "the most…" or "near-perfect." "If the red high heel is what hookers use to get attention, then the red high heel of the movie industry is [a statement like] 'the best movie of the year,' " Rickey says.

The critics aren't an easily-offended lot, and stress that there are bigger fish to fry than exclamation-point-wielding movie marketers. "If they quote me—as long as I like the movie—then I don't mind," Rickey says.

Adam Conner-Simons

Adam Conner-Simons is a freelance journalist in Boston.

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Article by Adam Conner-Simons

Adam Conner-Simons is a freelance journalist in Boston.

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