Review Embargoes: What are They, and Do They Help?

You may have read about review embargoes on big movies. But what are they, and how do they actually work?

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

If you’re social media inclined, then you may see ahead of the release of big movies a conversation going on as to when the “review embargo” is going to lift. Furthermore, the timing of a review embargo then has a habit of being translated into an audit of how confident a studio is in a particular production.

But built into this is an inherent assumption about what embargoes are, and what they’re for. Appreciating, therefore, that many of you will know lots of this already, I did think it was worth mapping out the ins and outs of the embargo, and just who it’s for. Because it’s one of those things where one size doesn’t really fit all.

The basics

A review embargo is, at heart, what you likely to suspect it to be. In return for seeing a film early, so that you can assemble your thoughts and get your review and features ready in time, you have to sign a piece of paper promising not to run your coverage until an agreed date and time.

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This is generally something that helps both the reviewer and the film company. Around the release of the last James Bond film, Spectre, there was no embargo in place after the first press screening. It took place in Leicester Square, and immediately after the film finishing, you could see film reviewers bashing out their words on a laptop on benches. There’s still a traffic benefit in being the first review out there, and in the case of Spectre, the film finished around an hour before national press reviewers had to file their copy for the morning papers.

Spectre was finished late, hence the late press screening. But I’d still suggest that such an approach helps nobody. Few people can consider, digest, and pen their best reaction to a film in a hour. Readers, thus, will get more knee-jerk than considered reactions. The studio is gambling that all this works in its favor, of course, but also, the vast majority of film publicists would rather start screening a film earlier.

Embargoes aren’t unique to film. They work increasingly across technology, videogames, cars, theatre, and more. In the case of videogames, more and more outlets have given up trying to get a review together in time for an embargo lifting, as the physical impossibility of playing through a game in the short window they’re afforded makes it a waste of time.

What does an embargo look like?

Sometimes it’s a form that requires you to pop in your name and the outlet you work for. For very early screenings, we’ve had to supply an embargo countersigned by two people, but generally, the norm is you put your own name and sign it on the spot. These forms are commonplace.

What happens if you break the embargo?

The straightforward answer is that the film company is likely to deny you early access to things in the future, knowing that you can’t be trusted. The less simple answer is it depends who you are. If you’re a massive outlet, and you break things early, then there’s pushback, but you’re unlikely to be on the shitlist for long. If you’re representing a smaller blog, the deck is stacked against you, and you’re likely to be blocked.

Are all embargoes created equal?

Lord no.

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Firstly, bizarrely, there’s still some distinction between an embargo for print outlets, and those that are online only. If you ever wonder why the website of a newspaper has printed a review that websites haven’t, it tends to be because they’ve got into an earlier, longer-lead screening by nature of print deadlines, and used that to score an early online review too. Don’t blame ‘em. Would do it myself if I could.

Then there’s the trade press. It rarely happens now, but in past years, the likes of The Hollywood Reporter, Screen International, and Variety – deemed the traditional ‘trade press’ – have been able to work to different embargo times. That gap appears to have been closed, though.

But then there’s the social media embargo, and the full review embargo. I struggle to wrap my head around that. This tends to state that you can put ‘reactions’ but not a full review on social media early. But that you have to hold the full review back to an agreed date.

Or: you can say what you think of the film in a few words, but not in many. It’s a clever trick for film studios to use, as they know they’ll then get two waves of reactions. The initial social media reaction tends to be more positive, with people Tweeting or Facebooking as they leave a screening. If you ever wonder why there’s a disparity between a reviewer’s social media response and their full review, it tends to be time letting things soak in.

Has everyone seen a film by the time an embargo lifts, then?

Nope. Justice League is a good example of this. The main UK press screening actually took place a good 24 hours after the review embargo for the film lifted. The people who were able to see the film ahead of that were involved in the global junket for the movie (the vast majority of the time, if you’re covering a junket, you get an earlier screening of a film), or attending the national press show for generally newspaper reviewers.

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Does a late embargo mean a film is bad?

No. But often yes.

Film has changed a lot over the past five or six years in particular, and one by-product of the digital age is that final cuts are being locked down a lot closer to a release date. As such, there are times when publicists have little time to see the film, react to it, plan screenings (often globally), book screening rooms and such like. It can run things to the wire. Given that marketing departments tend to want star ratings for posters, and quotes too, that causes them hassle as well, even before they have to field umpteen phone calls from movie hacks wondering when a certain screening is, and why that person got in to see it and they didn’t.

On the flipside, there’s nothing like a social media explosion erupting at just the right time to help a film, assuming the film in question is good. Wonder Woman had a review embargo two days before release. The reviews were hugely positive, and not only did they spread like wildfire across the likes of Twitter and Facebook so did conversations about them. Two days later, Wonder Woman was trending worldwide, box office projections were duly revised upwards.

Against that, there’s A Good Day To Die Hard. Fox was in a quandary with this one. It presumably knew how bad the film was, but also wanted to avoid the ‘Fox refuses to press screen new Die Hard movie’ headlines.

As such, the UK press screening took place at 9:30pm the night before the film’s release. The embargo lifted at midnight. The film ran for just over an hour and a half. The first shitty review off the back of that press screening landed slap bang on time. And yet, bizarrely, the strategy sort of worked. For a terrible movie, Die Hard 5, as nobody calls it, still grossed over $300 million worldwide. Had the review embargo lifted a week earlier, and word of how bad the film was spread? It’s not hard to see that the number – even appreciating in-built affection for Die Hard movies – would have likely been lower.

Do embargoes change?

Yes. It happens a bit. But they only tend to lift earlier, very rarely later.

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More often than not now, a global embargo is enforced, that means wherever you are in the world, you’ll still be tied to the same minute as everyone else. But that can quickly change.

When you leave an early screening, oftentimes, there’s an email waiting for you from a publicist asking for a few lines of reaction. This is, as a rule, so a publicity team can get a measure of the response the film in question is likely to get. Occasionally, if you like a film a lot, you then get asked if you can supply a star rating, and perhaps some lines that can be used for publicity. I’ve written about that before.

In the case of, for instance, Blade Runner 2049 – a film split across two studios worldwide – it quickly became apparent that critics adored the film. The response that Sony in the UK was getting was ecstatic, and conversations soon accelerated about getting the word out about the movie early. The embargo was duly moved from a Monday to the preceding Friday. A weekend of five star reviews for the movie followed. Behind the scenes, a lot of writers were scrambling to get their copy filed in time…

Are embargoes just for big movies?

No. But they tend to be of less use to a smaller, independent movie that’s looking for any oxygen of publicity it can get. Marvel, for instance, will set a global embargo and know that on that given day, its film will be the talk of the movie world as a consequence. In the case of 2015’s wonderful Pride, reviews started running a couple of months before. As such, it allowed sites such as this very organ to bang the drum for it as early as possible. Without a massive marketing budget, and against tough competition, it’s the kind of film that needed that kind of support.

Bottom line: are embargoes a good thing?

It depends, but personally I’d suggest we all win more than we lose.

For those who make their living writing about film, then yes. It’s a trade off that doesn’t in any way ask you to compromise what you say or think about a movie, but instead when you get to see it.

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Conversely, I’ve seen the accusation from some people that it’s making a pact with the film company, and that everyone should just pay to see a film when it comes out, and not be beholden to a piece of paper. The flipside of that is reviews won’t be available in advance of films coming out, and that tends to be of less service to a reader at the end of it all.

Personally, what I value about an embargo is the thinking time they usually afford. That it constrains the need to be first, the desire to get 800 words online and a star rating in double quick time. That, used properly, they tend to result in more thought out reviews.

As a method of control, I’m less comfortable, but it’s rarely an actual problem. Still, the embargo for Geostorm, hilariously, lifted at 1pm on its release date – technically, 13 hours after the film was on general release. I had to weigh up whether it was quicker to see an embargoed preview screening and go by that timeslot, or pick the earliest wide release screening on said Friday morning to try and turn a review around. The former won out, as I realized it’d end up with words arriving at roughly the same time. But it still felt a bit odd. 

It’s still a lot better than my previous job, writing the news for a computer magazine. An embargoed press release arrived, that I wasn’t permitted to run until 12.01am on a given day. The revelation? They’d done a survey that said people spill drinks on computer keyboards. That, chums, was what the delete key was invented for.