< Blurbs


Friday, August 18, 2006

BOB GARFIELD: Film marketing, of course, doesn't end with junkets. What comes next in the process is the ad campaign, but journalists figure in them, too. Almost every ad for almost every movie includes a few endorsements attributed to one or more film critics, a process often requiring as much imagination and editing as the movie itself. A few years back, we examined the phenomenon. Fair warning, by few, I mean five, so some of the details are a bit dated, but otherwise, absolutely nothing has changed. A few months back, New York Times film critic Elvis Mitchell screened the movie "Fifteen Minutes" for which he wrote a complex, ambivalent review. He credited the film for storytelling impact, but ultimately dismissed it for trading in the very cynical manipulation it purports to expose. Curiously, considering his generally negative tone, the movie ads for "Fifteen Minutes" quoted Mitchell – not the part of his review that said, big turnoff, but the part that said, fleet-footed, merciless entertainment. Mitchell was a little surprised.

ELVIS MITCHELL: I never thought of merciless as being a compliment, unless you were Genghis Khan, but, you know, I don't work for a movie studio.

BOB GARFIELD: That was not exactly an isolated incident. Andrew Johnston, writing about the flop "Baby Geniuses" in US Weekly, compared the film unfavorably to "101 Dalmatians." The "101 Dalmatians" part made it to the cover of the video box. The "unfavorably," needless to say, did not. And the Sacramento Bee's Joe Baltake saw a movie called "Next Friday" that provoked him to use the word "shameless" in his review – not masterful, not transcendent – shameless. It showed up in the ads as if it were a superlative. Welcome to the world of movie marketing, a fifth dimension of context wherein critics' words or phrases are cut, pasted, trimmed, rearranged and generally defiled in the name of suggesting journalist endorsement, whether real or imagined. Elvis Mitchell.

ELVIS MITCHELL: They're put together like ransom notes, you know, a word at a time.

BOB GARFIELD: Aris Christofides operates the website critics.com.

ARIS CHRISTOFIDES: Studio P.R. people, they seem to be the masters of the ellipsis. The best one this year, it's from a DVD of a movie called "Immortality," and the quote in the bag is, in quotation marks, "Jude Law… ellipsis - terrific" – Film.com. Now, I went to film.com and tried to find if there was a review of "Immortality," and there isn't. What they did was simply to take the name Jude Law and take the "terrific" out of a review of a movie that Jude Law was involved in and simply put it on the DVD box, and there you have it.

BOB GARFIELD: So yeah, when you see extremely brief bursts of apparent gusto attributed to name brand critics, it's safe to assume they've been printed out of context, almost always with one or more exclamation points appended to suggest even more critical enthusiasm! Exclamations, Mitchell assures, never show up in actual reviews, unless meant ironically.

ELVIS MITCHELL: Outside of the Marvel Comics of the 1960s when Spiderman – even his thoughts had exclamation points at the end of them – no, I don't know anybody who uses exclamation points.

BOB GARFIELD: Of course, most often, if you read the fine print, you're apt to discover that the critics quoted are not from The New York Times' of the world. They're from the - [PAPERS RUSTLING] - KMAX-TV Channel 31 Sacramentos of the world. Andrew Johnston of US calls them "quote machines," seduced by free junkets to studio events where they get to briefly interview stars in exchange for fulsome blurb material. But the movie ads print the raves in big type and the source in fine print, elevating the obscure to Ebertian status. Andrew Johnston.

ANDREW JOHNSTON: There are, you know, people from, you know, small market TV stations who are willing to just like basically say whatever the studio wants them to say to get their name in the paper.

BOB GARFIELD: And if just the right words don't spring to mind, no worries. The studios apparently are happy to provide those, as well. Tim Gray follows the blurb wars for Daily Variety.

TIM GRAY: The funny thing is the quotes keep staying the same. The names keep changing. But you'll always see, you know, "Funny, funny, funny," "You will never forget" – fill in the name of the movie, you know, "The most fun you'll have this summer." You know, all those quotes, they keep reappearing every year.

BOB GARFIELD: A lot of them are attributed to a particularly ubiquitous blurbographer by the name of Jeff Craig, of a mysterious media outlet called "Sixty Second Preview." Craig is quoted everywhere, and he is always deliriously excited about the movie. He loved Cheryl Ladd in "Permanent Midnight." "Free Willy III" was breathtaking. The Kevin Pollack/Sheryl Lee Ralph vehicle, titled "Deterrence," wasn't one of the top ten of the year, it was one of the most important films of our time. Now, there's a movie lover. So we naturally wanted to speak to him, but we couldn't find "Sixty Second Preview" –- not any trace of it anywhere we looked. We don't even know what medium it is.

ARIS CHRISTOFIDES: I have no idea who he is. I have no idea what he does. I have no idea where he's published, if he's published somewhere. It's, it's a great mystery.

BOB GARFIELD: Critic.com's Aris Cristofides.

ARIS CHRISTOFIDES: He's very enthusiastic. There is no doubt about that. Anybody that enthusiastic has to be alive.

BOB GARFIELD: We had the same difficulty finding a movie studio interested in discussing this topic. We called six of them, and they all declined to answer questions about blurbation. But if the studios have created this parallel universe of irrational exuberance, that doesn't mean there are no natural forces working in their favor. Between the grotesquely twisted ellipses-filled, exclamation-appended cut-and-paste blurb and the bought-and-paid-for quid pro quo of blurb whoredom, there is the just plain friendly practitioner. Variety's Tim Gray.

TIM GRAY: There's a guy named Lou Lumenick at the New York Post who last year in March called "What Planet Are You From" the funniest movie of the year, and then a few months later called "Best in Show" the year's funniest movie. You figure, all right, six months have passed. It's like, yeah, that's enough. That counts as a year.

BOB GARFIELD: Lou Lumenick, are you a soft touch?

LOU LUMENICK: Not to my knowledge. I mean, I basically like movies. You know, there are different kinds of critics. I mean, there are critics who are basically focused on nitpicking and tearing movies apart. I mean, I'm working for a tabloid. I'm basically doing a consumer guide. I mean, is the film worth going to see or not?

BOB GARFIELD: Lumenick also acknowledges sometimes getting a kick out of seeing himself quoted here and there. To him it's a minor bonus. To Owen Gleiberman, who reviews films for Entertainment Weekly, that little thrill is quite sinister, a sort of ego payola pervading the trade, fundamentally skewing the judgment of even the most established critics.

OWEN GLEIBERMAN: It's vanity. When you see a quote of yours in a movie ad, it could -- it can make you feel important. It shouldn't, because it doesn't make you important, but there are [LAUGHS] people who really get off on it, and it gets really – [OVERTALK]

BOB GARFIELD: Well, how about you, Owen Gleiberman? Have you ever gotten a little charge or even a big one -


BOB GARFIELD: - out of that?

OWEN GLEIBERMAN: Yes, I've gotten the charge. I'll admit it.

BOB GARFIELD: For the record, Elvis Mitchell of The New York Times unequivocally denies any ego satisfaction out of being cited, which he sees as merely a byproduct of his labors.

ELVIS MITCHELL: The blurb is just, well, what's the negative of gravy? Whatever that would be, that's what a blurb is.

BOB GARFIELD: In any event, next time you plunk down eight bucks to see the feel-good hit of the summer, make sure you've read the fine print, extrapolated to account for the ellipses, and, most of all, considered the source. You might also want to make sure it isn't still June. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]

BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Megan Ryan, Tony Field, Jamie York, Mike Vuolo and Mark Phillips, and edited this week pretty much by committee. Dylan Keefe is our technical director and Jennifer Munson our engineer. We had more help from Noah Kumin. Our webmaster is Amy Pearl. Katya Rogers is our senior producer and John Keefe our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. You can listen to the program and find free transcripts, MP3 downloads and our podcast at onthemedia.org and e-mail us at onthemedia@wync.org. This is On the Media from WNYC. Brooke Gladstone will be back next week. I'm Bob Garfield. [MUSIC TAG] (FUNDING CREDITS)