6 Ways Movies Fool You Into Ignoring Bad Reviews
Terrible movies will always exist. They're one of those unavoidable annoyances, like stubbing your toe or getting picked last during an orgy. Unfortunately, even when knowingly faced with a dud, studios still have to pretend they're sitting on the Holy Grail of eye-blasting family entertainment -- at least for the duration of the marketing.
So how does one polish a brawny turd in an age when resources like Rotten Tomatoes have made the average moviegoer hyper-aware of mediocrity? It's not easy. And in a way, the ability to spin a piece of terrible entertainment as the next big Star War is an art in itself. Only instead of ink and light, these modern-day Rembrandts (had Rembrandt gone to Emerson and was nicknamed "The Donk") are painting with beautiful lies.
Shitty Films Have Used "Joke" Reviews In Their Ads
Film studios want nothing more than the power to write their own reviews ... something Sony actually got caught doing back in 2001, when it was revealed that fake quotes from a nonexistent critic named David Manning were used to praise masterpieces like The Animal and Hollow Man -- the latter film featuring invisible gorillas and Kevin Bacon's CGI dick muscles.
As if a clear and compelling ad like that would even need an endorsement.
It was a ruse that would end up costing the studio over a million dollars in lawsuits, and so no other studio attempted such a blatant teabagging of the public's trust. Instead, they did find a way to more gently dab our foreheads with technically-legal jest: They use fake critics under the excuse of "humor."
Take the recent Lynchian abomination that was Nine Lives, a film about a rich and powerful Kevin Spacey being turned into a cat via Christopher Walken voodoo. The movie features all the things we've come to expect from a children's film, such as existential torture, a cat getting drunk, and a fucking suicide fakeout. Needless to say, critics weren't on board with it. And so TV spots opted to sprinkle the feline romp with hilarious joke reviews from places like "Vanity Fur," "Meowsweek," and the "Catfington Post."
C'mon, guys: "Scratchington Post." If you're gonna cheat, at least do the fucking joke well.
It's exactly the kind of incredible wordplay you'd expect from this film about cat possession. And while there's nothing wrong with including bullshit pun reviews as a joke, when you watch the ad in real time, it becomes apparent that chucklefuckery wasn't the only motivation.
That's right, each "review" flashed on screen for a nano-second while the voiceover quoted the fake praise without any context. Meaning that unless you paused your television, most people watching had no idea it wasn't really a quote from Vanity Fair. But if anyone calls them out on their colossal horseshit (like right now), the producers are able to shrug and say it was all in good fun. It must be a coincidence that the only other film to use this technique was the exhausting Vampire's Suck -- a spoof "comedy" which, according to ads, were given standing ovations by such critics as "Hugh Jass" and "Oliver Klozoffe." Jesus, you guys, could you at least think of bad vampire puns for your terrible film, like David Edelstake or Gene Siskill? It would have only taken a minute.
Studios Use (Misquoted) Reviews From Total Randos On The Internet
If incredulously scrolling Rotten Tomatoes fan reviews have taught me anything, it's that audiences tend to be way more forgiving of shitty movies than critics. You could argue that critics are heartless pedants soured by their own career failures, or maybe accept that it's possible to enjoy a film that also happens to be garbage. There are no villains here, but the important takeaway is that critics are hired and respected because most of them are able to judge a film from an objective perspective. This is why studios put their quotes on posters and trailers instead of those of some random jerk on Twitter, right?
They even manage to turn his single tweet into multiple endorsements.
Oh no. Turns out that's no longer the case. It seems anyone can be a prestigious movie critic now, even @zoidberg95 talking about the unbridled joy King Arthur brings him. This isn't an isolated incident by a long shot, as evidenced by the recent pullquote in the trailer for Broken City, a Mark Wahlberg film with a 28 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.
Sure, we can all agree that Mark Wahlberg is "bad ass" in the sense that assaulting a middle-aged Vietnamese man is both "bad" and an "ass" thing to do. And sure, there's nothing technically wrong with giving the man on the street a voice of support. But here's the thing: According to the source of that quote, he hadn't seen the film. The studio used a tweet made about an entirely different Mark Wahlberg performance and used it in their ad. And they are somehow allowed to do this as long as they ask the author of the tweet beforehand. That's it. There are no qualifications or confirmations beyond a polite message and digital contract.
Pictured: professional criticism.
Thanks to the crowdsourcing power of the internet, you can literally find anyone who is into any crazy thing. Studios know this, and are able to make a film seem like it has word-of-mouth appeal by scraping the bottom of the Twitter barrel to find faceless folks saying the right things. Or failing that, they find faceless folks saying the wrong thing and simply make it seem like they said the right thing.
Something definitely "blew."
After Batman v. Superman's Twitter account told us about the high praises of @raniaresh, someone pointed out that the now-banned account was only an egg icon with the profile: "I did NOT enjoy Batman v Superman." The tweet was then pulled and replaced with yet another rando with the same basic praise.
Truly, @Trianglespidey is the cultural voice of our age.
Notice how it's the same reworded "whoa my mind = blown" quote, only now attributed to someone else? Warner Bros. didn't care where they were getting the quote; they just wanted some vague sentence calling their disjointed film "mind-blowing." Chances are they tasked some hungover intern to scour social media for any kind of evidence of exploding brains and slap that shit on a promo shot, regardless of who said those words or what context they were said in.
But if you think this dirty process is safe from critics, you are not correct ...
Advertising Perpetually Cherry-Picks Critic Quotes To Make Them Seem Positive
Writers write a lot of words, and it's pretty easy to change what those words mean if you only take a few of them. For example, I earlier described the plot of Nine Lives as "rich and powerful," if you ignore everything around those two adjectives. In the way Rock Bottom can turn Homer Simpson into a pervert, so too can studios make terrible reviews seem complimentary. For example, this glowing phrase about Rock Of Ages from a Guardian reporter ...
That PG-13 rating tells a different story.
... was in truth pulled from a one-star review quote: "It's a very peculiar show indeed, with an unvarying and unpleasant tone of careless sexualisation. Rock'n'roll debauchery is presented as the pure and innocent way of dreamers."
Seriously, they fucking did that. And the reviewer in question wasn't too happy about it at all. And amazingly, this isn't the only time The Guardian's deep disdain was twisted into cheerful praise, like a laughing clown puppet made from a child's corpse. Check out this poster for Legend and its collection of four-star reviews:
Except that Guardian review in the middle? It's a two-star review they made to look like four stars that had been obstructed. That's honestly hilarious and brilliant and hard to be mad at, but the act of taking someone's out-of-context words and slapping them on your poster or DVD case can go from cute trolling to downright infuriating very fast.
For example, the movie Accidental Love (which has a flatlining 6 percent on Rotten Tomatoes) underwent a horrendous production which resulted in a cobbled-together shitcircus disowned by its director. When reviewing it, The AV Club noted that the original version probably wasn't all that great either, saying "there's little reason to believe that the ideal, untroubled version of the material would have been a comedic masterstroke."
And then this:
"'Inspired ... comedy! ... Nailed ... it!' rave mid-sentence non-sequiturs."
Yeah, that's the back of Accidental Love's DVD case using The AV Club's unfavorable description of a (still better) hypothetical movie as their review quote. You can imagine how that kind of insidious tangle of bull angered the original writer ... or you can read his response here.
It comes down to this: Never trust a review quoted on a movie's promotional material. Ever. The only information you're getting is that those combination of words were somewhere in the writing, but in no way were they necessarily meant to describe the movie being advertised. Which puts a whole new light on posters like this:
"The popcorn tasted funny. Also the movie sucked."
TV Networks Will Misspell Their Shows' Names To Avoid Bad Ratings
In the age of streaming, being a TV executive has the life expectancy of a docile classroom hamster. Their entire job can be summed up by a picture of a stargazing dinosaur on a suspiciously bright night. It's totally understandable that networks would claw and gouge their way to profit in these uncertain times, and yet their sleazy resourcefulness still manages to surprise even me, an undercover diamond thief working the long con as a internet writer who broadcasts his diabolical intent all across the land.
To quickly set this up, you have to understand the Nielsen ratings. Every show undergoes the same measurement using a sample audience being monitored for what TV shows they watch. That data is calculated into a rating for each show, and the ratings are averaged into monthly or quarterly reports. Advertisers then look at these reports and decide what time slots to buy for their sexy burger or cartoon shitting bear commercials. Therefore, a show with a better average will get more money for advertising. With me still? It's all a big wet fart of intrigue for your average consumer, which means few people pay attention to Nielsen ratings. But once you start to read daily reports on TV industry sites, you'll start to notice something bizarre in the footnotes:
It's like how you can avoid jail by giving a cop the wrong name. R-r-right?
That's right, in what seems like playground-level cheating, television networks can deliberately change or misspell their own shows if they anticipate bad ratings for that night. By doing this, that episode won't be calculated into the shows' overall averages, and their quarterly ratings won't go down. And so shows like NBC Nightly News become "NBC Nitely News," so that marketers don't pull that sweet, sweet commercial dough.
How could such obvious semantic trickery go unchallenged? Well, it turns out you can do all sorts of amazing hogwash with human language. Ever heard of the show Bull? It's a CBS courtroom drama co-created by, and inspired by, the life of Dr. Phil which exists for some unimaginable reason. It also airs something called "encore" episodes every now and then.
That's not the only bull I'm sensing here.
That's not just the wording of the article, but the official CBS classification of a repeat episode of Bull. You see, a show's ratings are calculated based not only on their first run, but also on (typically lower) rerun ratings. But if you call your rerun an "encore" episode, then it doesn't get categorized with the original episode, thus avoiding a lower score. Yep, apparently you can change the words of things to completely redefine their importance, like calling bags of Funyuns under a co-worker's desk "diamonds" and then telling everyone you're a "jewel thief."
When In Doubt, Simply Block Critics From Reviewing It Ahead Of Time
It's the perfect crime. Critics can't say your game or movie sucks if they can't see it. So studios will simply prevent critics from seeing their work before it comes out. It's like throwing bleach in your date's eyes so they won't know how ugly you are. And while sounding excruciatingly transparent, this technique works way more often than you think. It's called an embargo, and it's what Ubisoft did before Assassin's Creed Unity, which ultimately received lukewarm reviews for being breathtakingly glitch-filled. Like, so glitchy it was a work of sinister art -- like something the Joker would conjure up.
"How am I supposed to enjoy a carefree romp of clandestine murder after THIS?!"
Unfortunately for gamers, those reviews only came in after the midnight release -- as ordered by Ubisoft when they first sent their early copies out. But it could be worse. You could go a step further, like Wild Games Studios did when they trolled through YouTube sticking copyright violations on any video which spoke badly of their new release. Or Sega, which used the same tactic to shut down bad YouTube reviews that didn't even contain footage from their games.
In the end, this technique usually causes a huge and understandable backlash, on account of YouTubers being wicked blabbermouths about such injustices. But critic embargoes are so common that they're considered normal. And most often, this isn't nefarious at all, but rather a measure against premature spoilers or judgments before a film is locked down in post. Only every once in a while is this tool used to cover up true garbage. Pungent, salty garbage -- the kind you can taste through your nose. Like, I'm talking alien-chasing-a-school-bus-driven-by-Judd-Hirsch level of garbage here.
Let's pick one of the many examples at random.
Independence Day: Resurgence is a film I happen to enjoy that is also objectively terrible. And 20th Century Fox knew it was terrible, hence their American critic embargo lasted up until the day it was released -- causing most audiences to buy a ticket without knowing its quality. Similar measures, which include completely skipping press screenings altogether, have happened for similarly bad work like Alien Vs. Predator and the G.I. Joe films.
Yes, you could argue that these films "weren't meant for critics," as a lot of executives often say. But that's kind of like saying an apartment complex "isn't meant for safety inspectors" or that your basement "isn't meant for homicide detectives." People deserve to know in advance if something sucks. But that doesn't mean we won't still enjoy it or flock to see it. And if all else fails, you can always do what China does and completely circumvent the pesky audience altogether ...
China Will Hold "Ghost Screenings" To Make Films Look More Popular
As previously mentioned, China is quickly becoming the dominating money-maker for blockbusters. So it stands to reason that the country would also become the industry leader for blatantly fudging a movie's popularity. But instead of relying on embargoes or misleading ads, Chinese studios have taken a much more direct approach: just buying tickets to the movie they made.
"'Best thing to ever happen to movies!' raved one translucent women in a bloodstained Victorian wedding dress."
It's as brilliant as it is illegal. Instead of pouring money into television spots and bus stop posters, simply use that marketing money to buy out theater showings, and watch the popularity snowball. And to ensure profit, those purchased tickets can then be resold online to discount ticket retailers. It's like stealing your own car for the insurance, and then selling that stolen car for a second profit.
Unfortunately for those cheating marketers, I wouldn't be writing about this if people didn't figure out it was happening. Ghost screenings were recently brought to light thanks to the film Ip Man 3, a martial arts biopic which bafflingly includes Mike Tyson playing an evil property developer who ends up fighting the hero in an epic battle of kung-fu vs. boxing vs. child endangerment.
Why this movie felt the need to artificially inflate its popularity is beyond me.
After the film's release, a local news site posted screenshots of theater websites claiming to have sold-out screenings for showings that started within ten minutes of each other ... in the same auditorium. Meaning that, save for some kind of multiple-dimension scenario caused by Mike Tyson punching time itself, someone was brazenly cheating in the laziest way possible.
When The Wall Street Journal dug deeper, they found it to be a regular (albeit short-term) strategy for film distributors to buy out fake screenings in the hope that sold-out shows would encourage audiences to assume the film is popular and therefore go see it themselves. It's not very imaginative, but if studios were more creative, they wouldn't need to do all the bullshit on this list to begin with.
David is a writer and editor for this very website that you currently read. You can follow him on Twitter.
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