Movie embargoes: what are they, and why do they matter?

Wondering why that big film review hasn’t landed yet? It might just be because an embargo's in force. Here's more...

On February 13th 2013, 20th Century Fox held its one and only UK press screening for its then-big new release, A Good Day To Die Hard. The film was due in cinemas the following day, so already Fox was leaving it to the last minute to show the film to press. But then, tellingly, it scheduled the start of the press screening for 9.30pm (as opposed to the usual 6.30pm start for most evening press screenings in the UK).

It also put in place an embargo of one minute past midnight.

Now: the film itself finished at just gone 11pm, so that left just an hour before people could post their reviews. Many saw this as damage limitation from Fox, and I’m one of them. How many people, after all, could belt out a review of A Good Day To Die Hard in an hour flat, to have it ready for the exact minute they were able to post their review? The gamble was not many, thus meaning the negative reviews wouldn’t start flowing until people had bought their tickets.

The plan didn’t entirely work (not least because the first review landed at 11.58pm!), as the following day’s internet was flooded with Die Hard disappointment. But also, the strategy wasn’t without merit: A Good Day To Die Hard was a hit in the UK, having struggled elsewhere in the world. That’s not this country’s finest hour, I’d argue.

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Crucially, at least Fox could say – rightly – that it wasn’t hiding the film from the press. Else the headline would have been along the lines of ‘Fox won’t show Die Hard 5 to critics’. It figured that bad reviews were better than stories of it hiding the film.

Not that studios always take that path. It was back in 1998 that Warner Bros scored an undesired first, when it released a film that, apparently for the first time ever, was held back from both UK and US critics.

That movie was The Avengers (no, not that The Avengers), and critics quickly smelt blood. Not every film held back from press screenings is a turkey, but The Avengers was. All the holding back of press screenings achieved was a brief delay in the savaging, and increased takings at the first cinema in London on release day to have a screening, as critics piled in. The absence of a press show generated headlines in itself. After all, if you don’t give film writers the film itself to write about, they’re still likely to file something.

And they did.

The basics of embargoes

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An embargo, then, is generally the trade-off a film reviewer agrees to in order to get early access to a film. But what actually is it, and why does it exist? Glad you asked…

At heart, an embargo is an agreement that something won’t be published until a given time and day. Thus, in the case of a film, a studio may allow an outlet to see a film weeks ahead, so a reviewer can formulate a review and assorted material around it, in exchange for agreeing not to publish their work until an agreed time.

In other areas of news, an embargo may cover a piece of sensitive information that it’s useful for a journalist to know when putting their work together, but also can’t be published (the most commonly cited example here was when reporters were told that Prince Harry was actively on military duty in Afghanistan, where revealing that information early would have led to increased danger for him and the soldiers around him. Conversely, if journalists hadn’t known what he was doing, they may have accidentally reported on something that put his life in danger).

The embargo is also a holdover from print-only journalism, that’s had to change quite a lot to adapt to the rigours of the internet. Historically, say for instance Empire magazine went on a set visit for the original Jurassic Park when it was filming back in 1992 (it did). It would have had to sign an agreement in exchange for access, that meant the coverage of the set visit wouldn’t run until the film was nearly ready for release. Universal, after all, wanted its main explosion of coverage days and weeks before people could see Jurassic Park, not months and years.

It’s only in rare cases that a studio would want set report coverage – or reviews – to run many, many months ahead of a film’s release after all (Justice League being the only notable recent example, as Warner Bros wanted to turn around some of the negativity following Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice). A further exception, though: on smaller films, where any publicity is often gold dust, embargoes rarely apply. We were able to bang the drum about the terrific movie Pride for many months before it made it to the inside of UK cinemas as a consequence of that.

The online problem

In the days of websites, the embargo has become still more prevalent, though. And this year in particular, it seems the issue of embargoes has come to the fore.

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On our Twitter feed, we’re regularly asked when we’re reviewing big blockbusters. Chances are, we’ve already seen the film we’re being asked about, but in exchange for that, we’ve signed an embargo form. One story doing the rounds was that Ghostbusters reviews were being held back and that the film wasn’t being shown, for instance. As it happened, Sony had been screening the film to critics for weeks by the time said story was circling, but a global embargo was in force, for a reason I’m coming to shortly.

I have no problem with embargoes personally, not least because it usually builds in extra thinking time, and helps move away from the rush to have the first review of anything online (first reviews, as a rule, are rarely the best ones). I’ve seen great films under embargo, I’ve seen terrible films under embargo. The early access has, particularly given the job I do, always been a help.

Mark Kermode is one of the UK’s leading film critics, and he’s talked about embargoes several time on the Kermode & Mayo Film Review programme this year (and, indeed, in his excellent book, Hatchet Job). “I don’t have any problem with embargoes per se”, he told me. “The fact is that any distributor is free to show or not show a movie to the press. If they decide they’re going to show it to the press and there’s an embargo as to when they can review it, that’s fine. That is their right, and as critics, we don’t have a right to demand that we see stuff in advance”.

(One aside here. One insider who spoke to me, who works in the marketing department of a major studio, does counter that slightly. She told me of the abuse she receives on the phone from a very small minority of journalists, when they can’t get into an early screening of the film. I may return to this in a future article).

This has all come into focus this year particularly with the UK release of Duncan Jones’ Warcraft movie. Kermode was one of the many critics baffled by the fact that the original review embargo date for the film turned out to be actually after the release of the film in some parts of the world. Thus, a critic who had attended a preview screening wasn’t allowed to review the film, whereas a critic who flew across the planet to a cinema where the movie was playing was. The embargo was swiftly abandoned altogether one morning, which in turn wrong footed those writing their reviews to a given deadline.

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Warcraft woud not go on to get great reviews, and Mark Kermode suggested on the Kermode & Mayo Film Review show that the muddle over embargoes didn’t help that at all. “My feeling is – and I may be wrong about this – at least some of the hostility that was directed at Warcraft… not all of it, because some people genuinely didn’t like the film … but some of it was engendered by the fact that the embargo firstly didn’t make sense, and secondly, was broken. It put peoples’ noses out of joint. I do think when you look at the reviews is that they do demonstrate that the embargo didn’t help”, Kermode told me.

Warcraft’s embargo muddle was the exception rather than the proverbial rule, though. Most of the time, embargoes are put clearly in place, and the majority of reviewers like it, because it levels the playing field, and the world continues to spin.

Readers

Yet what about the people who film reviews are intended for: those looking for genuine guidance on whether a film is good or not? As many of you have told us, when you see an absence of reviews and the film is out in a few days, you begin to sense trouble. Yet actually, the tightening of embargoes to move them closer to release date is a consequence of the increasingly global nature of a movie marketing campaign. That’s what happened with Ghostbusters, for example.

“Sometimes, we do it to protect spoilers”, one film marketing insider told us. But I put to her that actually, sometimes it’s because studios are trying to bury negativity around a film until the last possible moment.

“But that’s a double-edged sword”, she quickly countered. “If you don’t screen the film, then it’s harder to get journalists to write about the film at all, and then fewer people know about it”. And whilst she notes that some journalists are going into certain releases with a hatchet job already written in their heads, she says that only in the very small minority of cases, a late screening is down to the quality of the film.

”Don’t forget too we’re in the era of digital filmmaking”, she pointed out. “Oftentimes we can’t screen the film because we just don’t have the print – 80 to 90 percent of the time, we just don’t have the print in fact”. She told of us of instances where filmmakers were still tinkering with their edit, less than a month until final release. In the case of Spectre last year – a movie she wasn’t involved with, I should add – Sam Mendes locked his cut the weekend before the first press screening the following Wednesday.

There is a further factor, too, and this is of far greater sway when it comes to huge films: that America is often no longer the territory where a big blockbuster will open first. Yet it remains American publicity departments who have ultimate say on the embargo for a film review.

This summer alone, in the case of Warcraft, Ghostbusters, Independence Day: Resurgence, Star Trek Beyond and X-Men: Apocalypse, the UK was or is getting those films ahead of the US. “With a staggered release, you’re at the mercy of the US publicity team”, another studio marketing insider told us. And the current strategy, be it Star Wars: The Force Awakens or Terminator: Genisys, is to get reviews landing as close to release day as possible. Often, publicists want to get reviews out, but their hands are tied by the demands of a global marketing campaign, one that was presumably devised before the quality of the film in question could be ascertained.

There’s the odd exception – Marvel was not short of confidence with Captain America: Civil War, clearly – but even then, there was a controlled embargo in place. There’s still the odd attempt to impose a country-specific embargo, but in the era of the internet, most admit that the game is up there.

Final thoughts

Embargoes on movie reviews continue to evolve, but I suspect that – for the foreseeable future – the vast majority of blockbuster movie reviews will be held back to the week of release, or just before. Because, coldly, it works. A studio knows that they’ll be a sudden explosion in pieces about their film, and landing all the reviews at pretty much the same time guarantees social media traction, guarantees interest, and guarantees that people will be talking about the movie in question.

The trade off is that questions will continue to be asked about whether a studio is burying reviews, but the truth is more likely that they’re sticking to a firm strategy. It’s worth noting that some embargoes don’t even allow journalists to say they’ve seen the film at all, yet alone review it.

Are embargoes a good thing? Well, when it comes to film reviews they do more good than bad, I’d argue, and ultimately, they have no bearing on the quality of the film in question. But it does seem right that you know about them.

With that, I’ll leave you with the fact that I’ve seen the final cut of [Embargoed] and that it’s [Embargoed], and the bit where [Embargoed] does [Embargoed] to [Embargoed] is brilliant…

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