What Happens When a Movie Opens Cold?

Posted on April 6, 2014 at 8:00 am

It’s not unusual for low-budget horror films, movies based on video games, and Tyler Perry movies to open “cold,” without giving critics a chance to see and review them before they are in theaters.  The usual reason is that the studios do not expect to get even a single good review from a mainstream critic.  Or they are “critic-proof” — a proven record of selling tickets even without reviews to get the word out, or, in the case of Tyler Perry and video games, a strong brand with a loyal following.

It is unusual for a big-budget, big effects studio film with three Oscar-winners and a highly respected writer/director to open cold.  But that was the case in most cities with “Noah,” starring Russell Crowe.  It’s hard to imagine a stronger brand than a Bibical epic with so much talent associated with it.  But some complaints by a small fraction of the “faith-based” audience (most of whom had not seen the film) seemed to spook the studio.  Nevertheless, the film got good reviews, with a respectable 75% recommending the film on Rotten Tomatoes, and sold a more than respectable $44 million in tickets on its opening weekend.

Indiewire asked its critic members how they respond when a movie opens cold.  “Two questions: Does it affect your mindset going into a movie knowing the studio didn’t want critics to see it before it opened? And is there anything wrong with making critics wait to see a movie at the same time the public does?”

All the responses are thoughtful and insightful, but I particularly agree with Rafer Guzman of Newsday.

When studios hold back a release from critics, that only tells me what the studios think. I still go in with an open mind, and often I’m surprised and rewarded. I’ll risk my credibility with a few examples: “R.I.P.D.” was not a total failure. I actually enjoyed “I, Frankenstein.” The studios held “Pompeii” for a Wednesday night screening, usually a bad sign, and that turned out to be one of the best pulp movies I’ve seen in years. I think, or at least I hope, that I can be objective about a movie no matter what the circumstances.

I try to be very clear about who the studios are, and what they owe me. They are private companies and they owe me nothing. They’re not the U.S. government. They’re under no obligation to show me their movie, offer up their stars or treat me any differently from the average moviegoer. And even when they do, I’m still duty-bound to be an honest critic. I was reading Carl Sandburg’s old reviews recently, and I’m pretty sure he just walked into a theater like everybody else and then wrote down his thoughts. I like the purity of that, the total absence of handshake agreements and back-scratching. In an ideal world, things would still be that way!

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Critics Understanding Media and Pop Culture