This week some of my colleagues finally saw Ghost Rider; I should have been there, but family business kept me in New York. I haven’t heard back from anyone yet, but I imagine that responses will fall into two categories: “That was shit” or “That wasn’t the ball-pounding experience I feared.” That second one is film criticism of low expectations, wherein a movie gets a decent review because, while it was bad, it wasn’t as bad as you had been led to believe.
The rest of the critical establishment is going to have to wait a week to chime in, despite what Mark Steven Johnson posted on the Superhero Hype message boards – which, by the way, was the only site (or publication of any sort, as far as I know) to see the movie. Oh, and they gave it a good review. More on that in a second.
The story that Ghost Rider wouldn’t screen for critics broke last week; the hook here is that Ghost Rider will possibly be the most expensive movie to ever go out without screenings. Sony has been pretty big on the no-screening thing lately, and they really don’t need the screenings because the movie is tracking for a 35 million dollar opening. And they know that many of you reading this will go out and see the damn thing anyway, even though you know that no screenings almost always means “junk”*.
Here’s where it gets good. Director Mark Steven Johnson, seeing the news that his movie would open cold spreading around the web and in traditional media, posted a response of the Superhero Hype message boards, where he denied this. He said the movie was screening at the end of the week (which it did, for press covering the junket in Los Angeles, but not for anyone else in the United States. And many junket press do not do reviews, it’s worth noting), and would then screen the morning before the official opening, giving websites a day to get their reviews up.
Only problem is that this is not true, and Johnson’s post on the site has been edited to remove that bit. Here in New York City – as far as I know, as no one has told me otherwise – the only screening for critics is FRIDAY MORNING. It’s a courtesy screening at 10 am, about an hour before the first paid screenings start. This means that the daily papers, which are read by the majority of ordinary people when they’re choosing what movies to see, won’t be able to have a review until Saturday. Which gives Sony a Friday almost totally free of bad reviews to open their movie.
Interestingly, website CanMag.com claims to have been banned from the junket and all screenings of Ghost Rider because they covered the “no press screenings” story – which ended up being truer than not. If this is true, this seems like a weird thing to do, as that story was everywhere – including the New York Times. It’s a very troubling thing, as CanMag didn’t write anything insane or break any trust – they just linked to another story and made their opinion clear. It’s a bullying tactic by the studio or the filmmakers to shut them out now.
There’s another thing that annoys me here, and that’s a general lack of truthfulness going on. Besides falsely stating there would be critic screenings (which would have still been too late for more than half the critical establishment to run anything, but whatever), Johnson’s original post on Superhero Hype claimed that the movie wasn’t being screened because it just wasn’t done. Yet it was done enough for Superhero Hype – a site where Johnson posts regularly and who have a positive relationship with him – to see it and review it without mentioning unfinished FX. In fact, they go on and on about how great the FX are. The site had to see the movie before February 5th, when the review was posted –why couldn’t other critics have seen it as well? Probably because the movie stinks and Johnson hasn’t been chummy with other websites or newspapers.
Look, the way the industry is shaking out – especially with genre pictures – it’s inevitable that sites and filmmakers will find affinities. I don’t hold it against Superhero Hype for buddying up with a filmmaker (although for the love of God, you should have picked a GOOD one), but I am very bothered by how this has gone down. Full disclosure: in the past this site has been dealt favorites by studios when it comes to breaking embargo. But this was always with films that other people had seen, films whose buzz was already underway. We have never run a review of a film that was not screened for anyone else, and I don’t know that we would – or at least that we would run it as a standard review. By giving SHH a week’s head start, Sony was looking to mold the early word before spy reviews could show up on Aint It Cool, since there were no other screenings for those spies to attend (now that the junket screening has happened, reviews are showing up). The studio has an investment to protect, and I completely understand that. If they can get away with not showing the movie to critics and still open well, then I understand why they would. I don’t like it, but I understand it. But if that’s what you’re doing, do it – don’t try to tamp out the bad buzz created by that move through false messages to fans or by bullying sites for just repeating public information.
As of now, I am planning on going to the Friday morning courtesy screening and posting my thoughts here ASAP. We’ll see what happens in the days ahead.
*One major exception to this was Crank. At first it wasn’t going to screen at all, then Lionsgate made everyone promise to hold their reviews until Saturday – the day after the movie came out! I refused, based on two things: it’s bullshit to create an embargo that invalidates everything I do, and I really, really liked the movie. In this case I think the studio didn’t quite know what they had, or how to deal with it.