Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Ad Watch | Film | Media

March 20, 2005

The Blurb Racket

In the critically acclaimed premiere of a Gelf feature, we look behind critic quotes from this week's movie ads, and find misquotes, blurb whores, and more.

Carl Bialik

The arts section of Friday's New York Times is chock full of movie ads that feature positive blurbs from critics. Leafing through the ads, I found quotes out of context, lousy reviewers, and faint praise.

Like other long-discredited ad techniques that endure—calling food "light," or using fake doctors to tout supplements—these blurbs survive because they work enough of the time. Maybe busy moviegoers scanning ads are swayed by word that Ice Princess is "perfect for the whole family." Maybe kids old enough to understand the ads but too young to doubt them, pressure their parents to buy tickets.

Also, these misleading ads are running in reputable newspapers. People complain to the press when they're misquoted; when newspapers are themselves quoted out of context by advertisers, they should tell them to get lost—or get more-scrupulous copy writers.

Studios were even more brazen in the past, according to Salon's Charles Taylor, who wrote in 2003, "it was once common practice for studio publicity departments to concoct quotes that they would then attempt to get real critics to put their names to."

Perhaps because the Internet makes it easier to check out reviewers, we'll never have a repeat of such manipulation, nor of the 2001 David Manning case (the invented reviewer, named for the son of a studio employee's friend, touted otherwise-panned Sony films. Sony paid Connecticut $326,000 to settle fraud charges (Associated Press, via Editor & Publisher), and reportedly settled a case brought by filmgoers who said they were misled by the ad for $1.5 million (Reuters, via MSNBC.com).) But current ad practices, while more-subtle, don't serve the public any better.

Some critics are victims of selective quoting. But others appear to be willing accomplices, consciously or unconsciously biased toward praising films because of the potential for career advancement, as Net-Monster notes: "Let's face it, the only way out of obscurity is to get your name seen by as many people as possible, and if you're Edgar Gnurdstone of WLSR in Kalamazoo Falls, a good way to achieve this is to write a glowing review of a movie you've seen. Better yet, write glowing reviews of absolutely awful films, and you increase your chances further since there won't be many good reviews for the ads to choose from."

I'm hardly the first to write about misleading movie ads, and I don't expect the practice to disappear. But tracking this weekly will at least provide a record of the practice, and it should be an "entertaining thrill ride," as Los Angeles Daily News critic Glenn Whipp said about Constantine. (Or at least, that's what the ad said he said; that exact quote never appeared in the review I found online.)

16 Years of Alcohol

Daily Star: "Trainspotting meets A Clockwork Orange!"
Actual line: "This glum, violent drama about a Scottish thug ruined by drink is written and pretentiously directed by Richard Jobson whose approach—Trainspotting meets A Clockwork Orange—is bad enough to drive you to drink in no time."
Never trust "Movie 1 meets Movie 2" quotes. (By the way, what Daily Star is this? Lebanon's? Oneonta's? No, England's. I found the full text on Nexis.)

Melinda and Melinda
Richard Corliss, Time: "...part comic, part tragic, all magic."
Lines they don't quote: "Allen has assembled an attractive cast and given most of them clichés to inhabit. He has also stinted on inventiveness."
Despite the caveats, Corliss is favorably disposed towards the Woody Allen film, unlike most other reviewers.
Peter Travers, Rolling Stone: "Woody's back in fighting form... Will Ferrell is a hoot. And Radha Mitchell works wonders. 'Melinda and Melinda' is a bracing ride. You'll laugh till it hurts."
Line they don't quote: "you may feel jerked around."
Ellipsis foul: That first ellipsis might make you think the ad writers were conscientious about quoting. But these lines are from all over the review—the first words of the review are the first ones quoted, and the review ends with the last words quoted. "Will Ferrell" appears almost 300 words before "it's a hoot."
Travers Watch: The Rolling Stone critic with the sunny disposition and quotable writing style—No. 1 in the 2002 quote-whore rankings at criticdoctor.com—appears in seven Times ads this week, those for: Off the Map, Melinda and Melinda, Upside of Anger, Don't Move, Dear Frankie, Mail Order Wife, and Constantine.

Be Cool

Kevin Thomas, Los Angeles Times: "...Travolta is as smooth as ever..."
Actual line: "[John Travolta's character Chili] Palmer is back in 'Be Cool,' and although Travolta is as smooth as ever, the picture is a bust, a grimly unfunny comedy with no connection to reality, and worst of all, running on and on for two dismal hours."
Thomas Watch: This pan comes from the reviewer who competes with Peter Travers for most-cited awards. Thomas appears in two reviews in this week's New York Times; the other is Hostage.

The Pacifier

Jim Svejda, KNX, CBS Radio: "Vin Diesel's best movie ever! A funny, warm-hearted surprise."
That first line is a paragon of faint praise. That's one of several signs in this ad's blurbs that there is something very bad about this movie (there are other clues in the ad itself, namely that Vin Diesel appears in the movie and that he's surrounded by movie-cute kids): Six of seven reviewers are from TV, including the famous Guy Farris (mentioned in the squib above about Ice Princess). One of them, Clay Smith of Access Hollywood, says, "It's James Bond meets Mary Poppins," which is apparently supposed to be a good thing. The seventh is Paul Fischer of the website Dark Horizons, but I couldn't find his "hugely entertaining" quote anywhere on the site. In fact, no review is listed for the Pacifier on Dark Horizons.

Hitch

Shawn Edwards, Fox-TV: "Hitch is the comedy of the year. Highly entertaining and laugh-out-loud funny!"
Like The Pacifier, Hitch doesn't include a single rave from the print media. Edwards is one of four TV reviewers quoted. And in March, he's called off the search for the rest of the year: he's found 2005's best comedy. Premature ejaculation (an abrupt emphatic exclamation expressing emotion) is nothing new for Edwards: As Variety noted, he named three different movies the best comedy of one sort or another last year, all by August 1. These hilarious flicks could give Hitch a run for its money: Barbershop 2, White Chicks, and Little Black Book.

Ice Princess

Guy Farris, WB-TV/Las Vegas: "Perfect for the whole family."
The review, the only one featured in the ad for this critically panned flick, isn't online. But it's a safe bet both that the rest of Farris's review was positive, and that it should be taken with a grain of salt. The local TV reporter has made a name for himself with positive reviews, landing quotes from three of them in ad copy through the first edition of efilmcritic.com's 2005 whore rankings. His photo, and the three quotes, are here; he apparently liked the critically panned "Hide and Seek."

Hostage

Wireless Magazine: "Bruce Willis has never been better! More electrifying than 'Die Hard'!"
Why does a publication that sounds like it should report on cellphone technology review Bruce Willis flicks? And why can't I find Wireless Magazine on the Web? Turns out I was far from the first to wonder about Wireless Magazine. It's a fixture of the movie-ad junket, with the blurbs often appearing under the name "Earl Dittman." In 2003, eFilmCritic ran a thorough takedown of Dittman, pointing out that his magazine is very hard to find and that he always seems to like the worst movies. Movie Poop Shoot also took down Earl two years ago, and CNN.com tracked him down later in 2003; he sounds like a nice guy with horrible taste in movies. Yet the studios keep quoting Wireless Magazine two years later. dirtynerdluv recently rounded up Dittman quotes and suggested that perhaps Dittman was being subversive—since only bad movies resort to using his raves, if you spot Dittman or Wireless Magazine, you should know to avoid the film.

Cursed

Premiere: "A little bit of 'Lost Boys' & a whole lot of 'Scream'!"
Is this supposed to be a good combination? I don't know, because I can't find the review online. But having such an ambiguous blurb atop your ad isn't a good sign. The second sign this Christina Ricci bomb is cursed: The second review comes from the aforementioned Earl Dittman: "A breathtaking supernatural thriller!"

The Ring Two
Bill Bregoli, Westwood One: "Better, Scarier, More Intense Than The First."
It's apparently the only positive quote DreamWorks could dig up about this otherwise critically mauled horror sequel. Bregoli is known for his undeserved raves; he's on Critical Hyperbole's Hall of Shame for gushing about The Replacements: "A gridiron dirty dozen—full of body slams and belly laughs."

Constantine

Richard Corliss, Time Magazine: "It's a smart ride. There's both eye and mind candy in this cleverly berzerk spawn of 'Blade Runner.' "
Actual line: "And until it goes irrevocably goofy at the end, it's a smart ride—and smart-looking too, with rich browns predominant. ... There's both eye and mind candy in this cleverly berserk spawn of Blade Runner."

Bride and Prejudice

Carrie Rickey, Philadelphia Inquirer: "It's Pure Pleasure! I watched it with an ear-to-ear grin throughout."
Actual line: "Bride very well may be the first not-so-great film since Viva Las Vegas that I watched with an ear-to-ear grin throughout. It's pure pleasure."

Robots
Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times: "Like 'Finding Nemo,' this is a movie that is ... a joy to behold."
The ellipsis is misplaced. Here's the actual line:
"Like 'Finding Nemo,' this is a movie that is a joy to behold entirely apart from what it is about."
This review is a rave, and yet the quote is tepid, ellipsis-ized, and made me suspicioius that Ebert thought the movie wasn't such a joy, beyond its visual look. Then again, he's a hard reviewer to sound-bite-ize. No other line leapt out as quotable.

The Rider Named Death

Michael Atkinson, Village Voice: "A rough hewn Russian epic ... contemplates the chilling seductions of 20th century violence."
Not quoted: "curiously anemic"
The other quote here is from a review that isn't online, in Time Out, but what it praises raises the question of what the reviewer said about other, more-important aspects of the film: "Excellent performances ... stunning production design."

Related on the Web

•The indispensable metacritic.com compiles and quantifies film reviews from reputable critics. Math and film geeks will enjoy the lenghty explanation about scoring.

• The Criticwatch 2005 forum at Hollywood Bitchslap keeps tabs on critics and ad blurbs.

• Citizens for Truth in Movie Advertising, a group formed to sue studios over misleading ads, appears to no longer have a Web home, but you can see its site as it looked in 2001, via the Internet Archive's WayBack Machine.

• Variety's awards for most-hilarious ad blurbs of 2005.

• In 2003, Wired Mesh created an "All-Too-Honest Movie Ad" for Gigli, featuring quotes from among all the atrocious reviews.

• Satire or serious guide? Unclear, but either way eHow's tips for How to Interpret Critics' Movie Ad Blurbs are entertaining.

Carl Bialik

Carl Bialik is a co-founder, contributing editor, and Varsity Letters editor of Gelf. Bialik currently writes the Numbers Guy column for the Wall Street Journal and plays no role in Gelf's day-to-day editorial decisions.







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Comments

- Film
- posted on Mar 25, 05
Jason Scott

One merely has to recall that name, that magical name: Walter Monheit.

And by the way, there WERE cases of Walter Monheit being used in movie ads. It did happen. Spy Magazine was beside themselves.

- Film
- posted on Feb 13, 07
joe

i can't find white chicks!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
i need quotes for a report! HELP!!!!!!!!!

- Film
- posted on Mar 13, 08
Smooth Johnny S

Dittman is a real person and Wireless is a real business. It is located in Houston, where an Earl Dittman, Jr. is registered as it's owner.

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Article by Carl Bialik

Carl Bialik is a co-founder, contributing editor, and Varsity Letters editor of Gelf. Bialik currently writes the Numbers Guy column for the Wall Street Journal and plays no role in Gelf's day-to-day editorial decisions.

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