American Beat: See You At The Movies

Maybe I'm going soft, but last week, I actually found myself feeling sorry for film critics. This is nearly impossible, considering that film critics are a bunch of self-important blowhards whose entire professional careers consist of sitting in private screening rooms (screening rooms with really comfortable chairs, I must add) and sitting in judgement of other people's hard work.

Tough life.

But in the wake of some recent news stories-including the revelation that Sony had been quoting a fake film critic in advertisements and another bombshell that Sony employees posed as real moviegoers in TV ads-I couldn't help but begin to see film critics for what they really are: America's newest oppressed group.

In the case of Sony's fake critic, I sympathized with real film reviewers not merely because Sony invented a guy named David Manning to gush over its lamest summer movies, but because no one noticed for months that he was even fake! Worse, there are probably countless Americans who chose to see movies based on Manning's "reviews."

"Look, honey," a husband must have said to his wife. "Let's go see 'The Animal.' David Manning called it 'Another winner.' And that David Manning is always right on target."

"I'd rather see 'A Knight's Tale,'" the wife may have replied. "David Manning called Heath Ledger 'the year's hottest new star!' and you know how much I respect David Manning's opinion."

No one noticed the deception because Manning's obsequiousness seamlessly blended into the normal cacophony of critics trying to get their names in the papers. (Now that Manning has been unmasked, it's only a matter of time before Glenn Lovett of the Knight-Ridder News Service-who called the unwatchable "Swordfish" "the adrenaline rush of the year!"-is also revealed as a mere figment of a studio executive's imagination.)

Hollywood studios are so desperate to secure your $8.50 every Saturday night that they'll do anything to marginalize film critics-including inventing fake ones, having employees pose as real moviegoers or forging a corporate tie-in with companies like McDonald's or Burger King ("You loved the hamburger, now see the movie!").

"Nothing is left to chance," one studio exec told me, explaining that film studios even show their unfinished commercials to random people in shopping malls to make sure they're reaching their target audience. "We test-market everything, just like Clorox."

The Clorox metaphor is particularly apt in summer, when film critics are whitewashed like dirty laundry. From Memorial Day to Labor Day-a vital period when Hollywood makes almost half its annual income - studios trot out their worst garbage and watch the films effortlessly deflect critical contempt.

No matter how bad a summer movie is-and in a civilized country, the makers of "Swordfish" (and, by extension, Glenn Lovett of the Knight-Ridder News Service) would face a firing squad-no amount of savagery from the critics can dissuade the public from making film producers rich.

Cases in point? Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan echoed almost every critic when he called "Tomb Raider" "leaden, plodding [and] almost completely lacking in genuine thrills." The film made $48 million its opening weekend.

New York Times critic Stephen Holden called "Swordfish" "dumb and incoherent." Well, America apparently has no use for Stephen Holden because the movie still made nearly $20 million its opening weekend.

And critics treated "Pearl Harbor" like the Japanese did back in '41. Washington Post critic Stephen Hunter called it "Hollywood stupidity and callowness writ large across the sky," while New York Times critic A.O. Scott called it "a defiantly, extravagantly average" film.

Any surprise that it made $75 million its opening weekend?

What should also not come as a surprise is that academia has been looking into the hot issue of film critic irrelevance. You may think that diseases such as cancer and AIDS should command every available research dollar, but academics can always find a grant to study important issues as the declining influence of American film critics.

This is some pretty intense research, apparently.

"Our analyses of actual box office data...suggest[s] that the aggregate impact of the critic reviews on actual box office is statistically insignificant," wrote University of Pennsylvania marketing professor Jehoshua Eliashberg and his University of Florida counterpart Steven Shugan in a groundbreaking paper a few years ago. "Our analyses suggest that critics may be less prominent than other factors in motivating movie-goers to attend movies."

The success of these critic-proof cinematic miscarriages convinces me of several things (and I'll list them numerically because it's been a few weeks since I've resorted to this cheap gimmick) about our great nation:

1. We are not a great nation.

2. We are deprived of either high-quality entertainment options or home air-conditioning.

3. We have no taste.

4. We have taste, but we actually enjoy paying $5 for a box of Goobers.

5. University professors are seeing too many movies.

No matter what the answer is (although the $42-million opening weekend for "The Fast and the Furious" convinces me that the answer is number 3), I'm left feeling bad for film critics. Then again, these abused writers seem to be taking their obsolescence lying down.

"What are we supposed to do?" asked Thelma Adams, film critic for US magazine. "We all wrote that 'Tomb Raider' sucked, but everyone is going to go anyway. Instead of feeling bad about it, we [film critics] just thank God that the paycheck is coming at the end of the month."

Adams said she used to take it personally that America disregards her cogent advice when the weather turns warm, but now she just sees summer movies as a metaphor. "Hey, in summer, people want to see things explode, just like fireworks on July 4," Adams said. "They just want to sit back and go 'Ooooh.' You can criticize the fireworks on July 4, but people are still going to want to see them."

Adams probably has a point. Surveys show that the average American decides what movie to see not by any aesthetic consideration but merely by checking the time the movie is screening and whether the theater is conveniently located. If not, they'll pick a different film.

After all, it doesn't really matter-as long as the theater has Goobers and air-conditioning.

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