The Longest Embargo

The Sorry State of Blockbuster Coverage in 2017

2017’s summer blockbuster season recently wrapped up and, to be honest, it was a bit underwhelming. In spite of outstanding highlights like Edgar Wright’s exhilarating Baby Driver and Patty Jenkins’ triumphant Wonder Woman, a lot of summer blockbusters were, at best, painfully average. Then there were the few films that violated the senses to criminal degrees, most notably the omnishambles that was The Emoji Movie.

From the moment the film was announced many assumed the worst – and they were proved absolutely right. Having witnessed it first hand, The Emoji Movie was a cynical, vacuous, redundant and a desperate money generating scheme in every realm conceivable and yet to be conceived. However, the most ominous foreshadowing of the film’s awfulness wasn’t in its advertising and promotion, but rather in its critical coverage, as the review embargo surrounding the film was not lifted until the date of release, meaning most reviewers were denied preview showings to give it the scathing it deserved.

An embargo is, in short, a means of preventing critics and film journalists from publishing their thoughts on the film in question until such date as the embargo lifts. Embargos exist for most media forms which undergo press coverage, such as music, theatre and TV. Yet in the case of press coverage of mainstream film, the embargo and the way studios go about handling them is a stir for controversy – especially those embargos which remain in place until more or less the day a film is officially released.

While strict in approach, there have been times when a long lasting embargo has been understandable or even necessary for audience enjoyment, such as in the case of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The embargo for that film wasn’t lifted until the day before its official release, but since this was the first time in a decade that a new Star Wars film was on the big screen, the late embargo was so as few spoilers as possible got out, allowing fans to enjoy the picture unsullied. This has also been the case for more recent seasons of Game of Thrones. Copies of episodes were originally sent to press bodies for the purpose of review and coverage, but ever since 2015, when four whole episodes of season 5 got leaked, these press releases have been quantifiably stricter. In such cases having such a harsh embargo in place is an arguably necessary tactic.

That said, the case for late embargo lifts has, for the most part, been in the interest of protecting a film’s image prior to release. After all, nobody likes being on the receiving end of bad reviews, least of all when they’re deserved. Unfortunately, by insisting an embargo remain in place, studios find themselves caught between a rock and a hard place, especially if the film ends up being as atrocious as something like The Emoji Movie. Obviously a harsh embargo doesn’t intrinsically mean a bad film but when one remains in place well into a film’s release period it gives off the impression that the studios aren’t confident in their finished product – and, quite bluntly, if they’re not confident why should we be? Some studios even go as far as to refuse press screenings (as was the case with The Emoji Movie) not so much restricting pre-release press coverage as excluding it entirely. So, while embargoes may initially protect the studio’s product, the end result is detrimental, as the film’s image is tarnished by an apparent lack of confidence from studios, rather than protected.

So what’s to be done then? The best course of action for studios to take would most likely be to ensure that an embargo is always lifted at the very least a day or two before a film is due to be released. This takes into account event films like Star Wars where every minute detail is a spoiler, but also ensures that enough distance is placed between the official release and the embargo lift, so that it doesn’t look suspicious on the part of the studio. In cases like The Emoji Movie’s it wouldn’t have made much of a difference, since the film being released was of the same quality regardless of what critics could say. Even when reviews aren’t what studios hoped for, a more sensible embargo period would at least offer some sense of confidence in the industry as a whole. While blockbuster cinema is a predominantly financial enterprise, it remains an artistic endeavour regardless, and sometimes even the tiniest amount of faith in a filmmaker or a concept can lead to unexpected greatness.

[Calum Cooper]

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