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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3 Replies to “What Happens When a Movie Opens Cold?”

  1. I liked what Mr. Guzman had to say. It contradicts what I believe about most movie critics. I had often wondered why I would watch a movie and almost always come out with a completely different opinion than one of my trusted reviewers. I eventually have come to believe it comes down to the idea of preconceptions.

    John and Jane Q. Public go into a movie saying to themselves, “I hope this movie is good. I *want* to be entertained.” After reading so many scathing reviews, I believe most critics enter the cinema saying to themselves, “I *dare you* to be good. I *dare you* to entertain me.”

    And, then, most of them go home disappointed. And that shows in their reviews. If more critics treated their subject matter with Mr. Guzman’s open mind and hopeful expectations, I would read more of what they had to say.

    1. I’m glad you like Mr. Guzman’s comments. I can assure you that movie critics become critics because we love movies and want to watch as many of them as possible. We have to see a far greater quantity and variety of films than anyone else. Jane and John Q. Public have the luxury of seeing only films that they think they will like because they enjoy that genre or those actors. And behavioral economics shows that once they have bought a ticket and paid for parking and babysitters or if their friends like the movie they are more inclined to be enthusiastic about it. Paying audiences may just want to be entertained. Critics come in with a different perspective, more analytical and, yes, critical. And it isn’t the job of the critic to be agreed with by readers. It is our job to help readers understand what does and does not work in a film more deeply. Sometimes we do that best by inspiring you to think about where you disagree. I welcome your disagreement with my thoughts on a movie any time and hope you will return to tell me when you think I’m wrong.

      1. You make excellent points, Nell, especially about the public having much more freedom to choose only the films they are already eagerly anticipating. Movie Critics (and I capitalize the word because I do believe it is an important role) must, perforce, become inured to the charms, plot devices, soundtracks, camera angles, etc. simply by being exposed to it on a daily or, at least, routine basis.

        I would not disagree with you, necessarily, as you clearly have much more experience and authority in this field, but I would suggest that one further job of the critic is to help us understand why a particular film is important or, putting it another way, why we should (or at least want to) see it.

        As a general rule, I do not read movie reviews *after* I’ve seen the movie, except on that occasion where I disagreed with the review so thoroughly I had to speak up. So “inspiring me to think about where I disagree” is – while noble and indeed, valuable – not something I’m likely to go back and catch, except in passing. (Above disclaimer in place.)

        And, of course, what the Critic believes “does and does not work in a film” is mostly a quite subjective matter, which is what drives people to seek out those reviewers with whom they find themselves agreeing with more often than not. When I find a Critic who appears to have the same sense and sensibilities of myself, I do so not to find one who will agree with me or because I don’t want to be challenged, but because I want one whom I can trust to review a movie with roughly my same perspective, thus increasing the chance that I will enjoy the experience and not feel that my consumer dollars were wasted and I’ll never get those three hours of my life back.

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