Producer Scott Rudin and New Yorker Film Critic David Denby Clash over Breaking THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO Review Embargo

     December 5, 2011

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For those who don’t know the inner workings regarding the relationship between studios and film critics, it’s an illuminating story.  For those that do, it asks interesting questions about what that relationship means.  To begin, the New York Film Critics Circle moved up their voting deadline so they could be first out the gate in trying to steer the awards race (a meaningless endeavor since last year showed that near-universal critical love for The Social Network wasn’t enough to beat out the Academy-friendly The King’s Speech).  To accommodate this new deadline, Sony agreed to provide a last-minute screening of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.  However, this screening was for voting purposes only.  Reviews were embargoed until December 13th.

The New Yorker’s film critic David Denby broke this embargo and his review went online today.  Unsurprisingly, Dragon Tattoo producer Scott Rudin wasn’t too pleased with this development and after the jump you’ll find the e-mail correspondence between the two.

[E-mails via The Playlist]

After Rudin’s initial e-mail chastising Denby for releasing the early review, Denby provided the following response:

Scott, I know Fincher was working on the picture up to the last minute, but the yearly schedule is gauged to have many big movies come out at the end of the year.

The system is destructive: Grown-ups are ignored for much of the year, cast out like downsized workers, and then given eight good movies all at once in the last five weeks of the year. A magazine like “The New Yorker” has to cope as best as it can with a nutty release schedule. It was not my intention to break the embargo, and I never would have done it with a negative review.

Let’s stop right there for a moment.  Denby says it wasn’t his intention to break the embargo, but embargoes don’t break by accident.  Sometimes that happens.  A poorly though-out tweet sometimes qualifies as an unintentional embargo break.  Writing a full review and then publishing it does not.

But here’s the kicker:

I never would have done it with a negative review. [emphasis mine]

That should be irrelevant.  That attitude also speaks to a deep corruption of what being a film critic means.  Some critics, like Denby, want to get out ahead and try to create buzz, and writing for a major publication gives him that power.  However, Denby believes that since he’s creating positive buzz, breaking embargo shouldn’t be a problem.  That decision says (at least to me anyway), “I’m not here to share my honest opinion and inform my readers; I’m here to help the studio sell their movie.” Unless Denby draws a paycheck from Sony, then why should he care if the review is positive or negative?

girl-with-the-dragon-tattoo-movie-image-daniel-craig-01Denby continues:

But since I liked the movie, we came reluctantly to the decision to go with early publication for the following reasons, which I have also sent to Seth Fradkoff:

1) The jam-up of important films makes it very hard on magazines. We don’t want to run a bunch of tiny reviews at Christmas. That’s not what “The New Yorker” is about. Anthony and I don’t want to write them that way, and our readers don’t want to read them that way.

2) Like many weeklies, we do a double issue at the end of the year, at this crucial time. This exacerbates the problem.

3) The New York Film Critics Circle, in its wisdom, decided to move up its voting meeting, as you well know, to November 29, something Owen Gleiberman and I furiously opposed, getting nowhere. We thought the early date was idiotic, and we’re in favor of returning it to something like December 8 next year. In any case, the early vote forced the early screening of “Dragon Tattoo.” So we had a dilemma: What to put in the magazine on December 5? Certainly not “We Bought the Zoo,” or whatever it’s called. If we held everything serious, we would be coming out on Christmas-season movies until mid-January. We had to get something serious in the magazine. So reluctantly, we went early with “Dragon,” which I called “mesmerizing.” I apologize for the breach of the embargo. It won’t happen again. But this was a special case brought on by year-end madness.

This reads like an excuse masquerading as protest.  It’s not Denby’s fault he wrote a review when he said he wouldn’t.  It’s the fault of his magazine’s print deadlines, and the New Yorker is running a double issue and it has to be filled with something!  And the real villains are the New York Film Critics Circle for moving up the date in the first place!

But how is the NYFCC the villain?  Let’s say they had moved the date to December 8th.  Then Sony would feel no obligation to schedule a last-minute screening the day before the NYFCC voted, and Denby and the New Yorker would still be stuck trying to figure out what to put in their December 5th issue.  He refuses to acknowledge “We Bought the Zoo or whatever it’s called” as a “serious movie” (even though the correct title is We Bought a Zoo, and Denby makes himself look ignorant as a result), so what can he do?  He and The New Yorker “reluctantly” went with a Dragon Tattoo review.

But here’s the problem: He broke his word and then he blames a deadline and the NYFCC for forcing him into that position.  Except Denby was never in that position.  Why was it a Girl with the Dragon Tattoo review or nothing?  He’s clearly hit upon an issue that would be interesting to his audience: voting deadlines, print deadlines, screening schedules, and how that affects coverage.  Why not run that story instead of a positive Dragon Tattoo review (and if he had disliked the movie, what would he have done then?)

Rudin replies by calling Denby on his disingenuous excuses and makes the case clear-cut: Denby broke his word, and he won’t be invited to see any of Rudin’s films from now on.  The New Yorker editorial staff, who must also take responsibility for Denby’s actions, should realize that losing the movies of a powerful producer like Rudin is more detrimental to the magazine in the long-run.  Additionally, they could have put the shoe on the other foot and refused to review the movie, which would have been a genuine and thoughtful protest as opposed to what Denby is claiming.

Honest critics do not trade positive reviews for early screenings.  We see movies early so we can review them before the release date and inform readers who are considering buying a ticket.  I also see the merit in declining these screenings, paying to see the movie after it’s released, and then writing about it outside the bounds of a consumer-based deadline.  However, I personally don’t have the funds to accommodate that approach, and our readers would most likely be uninterested in hearing about a movie they’ve already seen unless it’s become a serious cultural touchstone that demands further discussion.

Denby wasn’t making a statement on all embargoes.  He was explaining why he felt justified on breaking this one.  Rudin suggests that this damages his movies because now everyone will feel justified in breaking the embargo date, but I don’t think that will happen.  Who wants to use Denby’s weak motives as cover?

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