Why aren’t filmmakers allowed to respond to online critics?

Is there an unwritten rule that filmmakers aren't allowed to reply to their online critics, Simon wonders...

You don’t need us to tell you that Star Trek Into Darkness is a bit of a divisive film. Whilst some regard it as hugely entertaining, others really struggled with it, and a section of hardened Star Trek fans in particular had particular issues with it.

It’s a film that achieves much of what it sets out to do, and across two films, JJ Abrams and his team have re-energised the Star Trek cinematic franchise, and made the two most successful films in the series at the box office. Paramount, unsurprisingly, is pursuing a third, and JJ Abrams has landed the Star Wars directorial job partly as a consequence of his work on the Trek movies.

That said, there’s no reason why paying customers shouldn’t be allowed to voice their constructive opinions on a film. We used to do it before the internet, only it was more likely gathered in a pokey pub, or just chatting with a few friends. There’s no law that correlates box office success to a good film, as has been proven time and time again, and Star Trek Into Darkness is not without critics.

Personally, I liked it a lot. It was a fun, fast, entertaining and exciting at times. It had logic gaps, it didn’t cut enough of an identity of its own in places, and the pants remain bizarre, but I’ve watched the film twice now, and enjoyed it twice. 

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But the criticism has been pronounced in places. Attendees at one Star Trek convention last month voted Star Trek Into Darkness the worst of the 12 Star Trek movies to date. Simon Pegg, when asked about this, responded with a simple “fuck off”, before clarifying that he was doorstepped with the question early in the morning. He explained in a Huffington Post interview that “Star Trek Into Darkness is the most successful Star Trek movie ever made. It is, in terms of what it took at the box office and how many people went to see it. More people saw that film than any iteration of Star Trek that existed before. That is probably slightly annoying to some Star Trek fans – which I totally understand”. 

Staying on Star Trek Into Darkness, more recently one of the film’s writers and producers, Roberto Orci, responded to an article over at the excellent TrekMovie, where one writer suggested ways to fix the problems that he saw with the Star Trek franchise. Orci, as you probably well know by now, headed to the comments section to have his say, and the fact that he responded – along with the content of his response – became headline news.

It didn’t always go particularly well (he threw in his off “fuck off” half way through), but much of his post was a passionate – if not always constructive – defence of his film. He did, in the midst of it, touch something of a nerve, arguing “you are the most listened to fans ever. That doesn’t mean you will get is to do what you want, just means what I said: I listened. Then we decided, having heard as many opinions as possible”.

Orci subsequently apologised for his comments, and at the time of writing, has also shut down his Twitter account.

But why isn’t he allowed to defend his work? We saw this before, when Rhett Rheese responded to the criticism of the Zombieland TV pilot, arguing that it had been “hated out of existence”. And he broke the invisible ranks and said so, again generating headline news. Part of the reason for the headlines was that it’s so unusual for those behind film and TV shows to bite back. But why shouldn’t they, and why should it be a big deal when they do?

It’s said time and time again that the internet, social networking, and comments sections, have brought down the barrier – in some places at least – between filmmakers and their audience. So, whilst that pub talk of days of old would have been just that, now there’s a chance that those behind the film being discussed will be in virtual hearing distance. 

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Orci, and Simon Pegg before him, found himself in the proverbial damned if you do, damned if you don’t position. He could sit there and take it, working to the old unsaid agreement that the customer can say whatever they like once they’d handed over their cash, no matter how wronged that may leave him feeling (we’re far from holier than thou on this, incidentally, having run material in the past that we’d since rescinded, given that it veered too close to destructive rather than constructive). Or he could engage with it. Speak to most movie fans, and the chance to have a chat with someone behind a film about it is one they wouldn’t want to pass up. And so the fact that Orci is both reading feedback and commenting on it is surely a good thing. Isn’t it?

But just because the barriers are down, that doesn’t mean there’s not still a line. Do a search for any high profile filmmaker on Twitter, and you get a flavour of just what they have to put up with. Sure, it comes with the job, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that all of it should (Michelle Pfeiffer once infamously said that she would act for free, she takes a salary for all the hassle that comes with it). Just search for some of the vitriol aimed directly at Ben Affleck’s Twitter account over the past month. Why should he take that, whether you think he’s the right man for Batman or not?

Furthermore, the other line is that we, as customers, don’t get to make key decisions on a film, and nor should we. Armchair experts are prevalent in all walks of life, but there’s a reason why some of us are this side of the screen, and a select few are. I love Doctor Who, and I have strong opinions on some of the episodes that I watch, but that doesn’t mean I should choose what’s best.

Bob Orci may not be the best example, but it does strike me that whilst some of the ire being aimed at him is in regards to the tone he took, another section of it is because he fired back at all. I think it’s useful, interesting, and really quite positive that he did. He’s a human being, and didn’t try to pretend not to be.

Maybe the reason it’s blown up so much over the past few days is that also he’s one of the few to actively respond to a piece of criticism (although Samuel L Jackson is good value too). That it’s not seen as the done thing, and that he’s broken some invisible rule that says he’s not allowed to. Movies aren’t democracy, certainly, and the idea of a crowd of voices making creative decisions is a slightly scary one. But if we shoot down those who do try and engage, whether you liked their film or not, that keeps an old-fashioned status quo in place that might just be ripe for a change, whether you like Bob Orci, and Star Trek Into Darkness, or not.

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