Beware of Those Gushing One-Liners
Movie ads that swim in superlatives from lesser-known critics may be hiding something
"The Roller-Coaster Ride of Your Life!" exclaimed the opening-weekend ad for the action extravaganza "Con Air." While the enthusiastic endorsement, printed in screaming letters, was hard to miss, few readers probably noticed the quote's fine print attribution: Maria Salas, CBS Telenoticias.
In the past, movie studios relied on lesser-known authorities, like Ms. Salas, for praise only when the major critics rebuked a new release. Today, over-the-top blurbs from never-heard-of reviewers - people like Ron Brewington of the American Urban Radio Syndicate, Don Stotter of the Entertainment Time Out Syndicate, and Howard Benjamin of the Interview Factory Entertainment Network - are regularly featured in TV and newspaper ads.
"It used to be that quotes came from respectable sources," says Judith Crist, the former critic for New York magazine and the "Today" show. "Now many of the quotes come from people who never met a movie they didn't like."
When films like "The Godfather," "Star Wars," and "Annie Hall" opened in the 1970s, first-day ads ran without critical praise. The studios had to wait for the reviews to be published. Today, some reviewers offer studios advance quotes several weeks before the movies are released.
"Many of these critics are well known for consistently supplying positive quotes," says one major studio publicist, who declined to be identified. "Of course we're going to use them."
Few restrictions regulate the quoting business. Studios are legally permitted to quote anyone they want, as long as there is a source attached to the blurb.
No critic gets paid to provide over-the-top one-liners. So why do they do it? The host of one radio show, whose program usually airs in the middle of the night, explains: "It's nice to see your name in print." He insists, however, that his name not be used in this article.
To many smaller media outlets, quotes translate into valuable publicity.
"One writer told me that his editor urged him to get quoted in the ads to get the name of the magazine out there," says Timothy Gray, a columnist for Daily Variety who twice a year gives out the "Gary Awards" - named after little-known critic and legendary blurbmeister Gary Franklin - to the most outrageous quotes.
Bill Carlson of a CBS affiliate (nobody knows where) recently won for his enthusiastic approval of "Fly Away Home": "If I had four thumbs, they'd all be up," Mr. Carlson declares.
While all major critics regularly attend advance screenings, many do not accept invitations to junkets, where studios show coming releases and offer interviews with movie stars. Many lesser-known media personalities routinely attend these events, accepting free hotel stays and dinners.
Hollywood insiders say studios even supply some reviewers with a list of quotes, asking them to attach their name to the one superlative phrase that best fits their view. Critics who do so are more likely to receive invitations to the next junket, the insiders say.
Respected reviewers are, of course, less amused at the deluge of sensational quotes.
"It's starting to look sillier and sillier," says Janet Maslin, the head critic for The New York Times. "It could put the credibility of legitimate critics at risk."
Studios are not allowed to take quotes out of context by, for example, lifting the word "funny" from a review that describes a film as "not funny." But the lines are blurry. Studios often use positive quotes that praise a particular aspect of a film, such as an actor's performance, even if the overall review is negative. While some reviewers make it easy for studios to extract superlatives from their reviews, critics such as Ms. Maslin say they have learned to write defensively.
"I may insert a word that makes it hard for the studio to lift a positive quote for a movie that I don't like," she explains.
Most legitimate critics say the general public probably does not notice the attribution of quotes. TV ads sometimes claim "critics agree" that a film is a "masterpiece" when in fact only a minority of reviewers endorsed it.
"It's all become a big blur," says Joe Baltake, a seasoned critic for The Sacramento Bee, a 300,000-circulation California daily.
Some movie buffs, meanwhile, say they do not trust ads without quotes from mainstream critics.
"An ad with no important critics praising the film is a sure sign it's a stinker," says David Hoag, an aspiring screenwriter who watches as many as eight films in theaters a month. "Orphan verbiage like 'awesome' or 'fabulous' or 'terrific' means nothing to me."
Mr. Hoag says he follows the recommendations of Siskel & Ebert, veteran film critics and hosts of a long-running television show.
Roger Ebert, one part of the popular duo, and the only person ever to win the Pulitzer Prize for film criticism, explains the success of the TV show on his World Wide Web home page: "We are both experienced journalists and critics who take the job seriously, not as showbiz gossip, but as responsible commentary on the movies."
Pundits, however, argue that the Siskel & Ebert "thumbs up" (and star-rating systems) exemplifies how movie reviews have been reduced to "brilliant" quotes that can be punctuated by exclamation marks in ads across the country.
"It's all shorthand," Ms. Crist says. "It's a sign of the times. People don't read reviews anymore, because most people don't read newspapers at all."
Of course, there are movies that virtually no one can possibly like. When "Showgirls" opened two years ago to some of the worst reviews in history, the studio had little choice but to run a quote from The New York Times. "With fearless investigative zeal, [the filmmakers] decided to blow the lid off Las Vegas lap dancing and everything it stands for," the ad read. It failed to mention that Maslin's review went on to describe the film as a bore.
"In the end, quotes don't mean much," says Maslin. "A good film will sell itself."