Per the Hollywood Reporter and other outlets, the weekend's big movie isn't screening for critics. While this isn't a surprise to the critics themselves -- we were informed about this over a week ago -- it is an unusual step for a studio to take when they've got a $175 million tentpole ready to unveil. Is "G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra" really that bad? And does it matter?
Yes and no. Paramount spokespeople are saying they want to protect their new action extravaganza from the kind of nuclear reviews "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" received. "We want audiences to define this film," in the words of studio vice chairman Rob Moore.
Who is he kidding? "Transformers: ROTF" is the definition of "critic proof." The slings and arrows of the reviewing community gave bloggers a few days of link-worthy schadenfreude, but the movie itself has rolled up almost $400 million in the US alone and is currently at No. 9 on the all-time box office list. "G.I. Joe" should be as unlucky.
The difference is that the "Transformers" sequel was pre-sold -- audiences knew what they were going to get and didn't need input from other sources, print, online, whatever. "G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra," on the other hand, is an expensive and, for the studio, risky attempt to establish a new franchise, one based on a toy that has never really had the cool-factor of Optimus Prime and his pals. So in that sense they're right to be wary.
Still, can bad reviews bring down a blockbuster? I don't think anyone but my most devoted readers (hi, mom) really care what I think about a summer explode-o-rama, even if I happen to love it (as I did, say, "Star Trek"). Movie critics are put on earth first to alert you to good movies you might otherwise miss, then to cut through the PR fog and consider the actual worth of a given film (depending on what, exactly, it hopes to achieve). With certain types of movie -- typically smaller, more ambitious fare attended by people who regularly read reviews -- a critic can mean the difference between a successful run and an early DVD release. But blockbusters? In most cases, we're BBs bouncing off the hide of an elephant.
I can think of a few critical pile-ons that helped speed a big studio movie's demise -- "Gigli," for one, and "Dr. Seuss' The Cat in the Hat." But the former arrived in theaters awash in weeks of lethal pop-culture buzz, and the latter's crassness was so dissonant with the tone of the original book that family audiences were repelled. The negative reviews, in both cases, were an entertaining sideshow and little more.
Paramount, it seems, doesn't even want the sideshow. But that's running true to form for studio marketing departments in general and this one in particular: These are the same people who went ballistic when my editor decided to run my four-star rave for "Star Trek" a few days early. From a business standpoint, it makes sense: They're paid to be the control freaks who ensure that the investment risk -- in the case of "G.I. Joe," a sizable and untested one -- is minimized and that the dominant message will be the PR party line: It's all good, so get in line and shut up. Reviewers to them aren't a necessary evil, we're just an occasionally useful annoyance at best and a dent in the bottom line at worst. (To readers, we're more than that, I hope: Taken together, we can comprise a fog of truthful opinion that counterbalances studio spin. Word-of-mouth and internet user reviews serve the same function, of course, but may not connect as many dots or provide as much context. Operative word: May.)
That said, I don't think it was the critical slagging "Transformers: ROTF" received but rather its massive box office that made Paramount decide to keep "G.I. Joe" under wraps. If all the Anton Egos hate your movie and it still makes millions, who needs reviews? I'll still be at the first public screening Friday morning, and my review will post later that day -- and who knows? I may even like the movie. But Paramount, I guess, can congratulate itself for not having knowingly harmed the property. And there's the difference, right there. You and I see a movie. The suits see a brand.