Is there a widening chasm between critics and the moviegoing public? The evidence would seem to suggest there is.
For three weekends running, the box-office champ, the most watched film in America, debuted without being screened in advance for critics - meaning few, if any, reviews appeared on the day the film opened. Last weekend, it was When a Stranger Calls, which earned $21.6 million. Two weekends ago, Big Momma's House 2 topped the list, earning $27.7 million. Three weekends ago, the most popular film was Underworld: Evolution, earning $26.9 million.
The truth is, however, that all three films were essentially critic-proof - movies of a type that are going to draw audiences regardless of how good they are (or aren't). Their target audiences aren't really looking for reviews, or don't care that the movie is opening without being subjected to the slings and arrows of the nation's movie critics.
"I think the studios know what they're doing," says Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations Inc., a Los Angeles-based box-office tracking firm. "They figure that the bad reviews are worse than reporting the fact that it wasn't screened."
Some movies generate all the buzz they need without any extra help, either because their stars have a proven track record (Martin Lawrence in Big Momma's House 2), because they fall into a genre that enjoys a hard-core fan base (horror films such as When a Stranger Calls have always been a big draw), or because their trailers and TV commercials were cool enough to make the film a must-see (Kate Beckinsale in leather was probably all the enticement Underworld: Evolution needed to offer).
Sometimes, of course, movie studios know they've got a certified dud on their hands. So, skip the screening, delay the reviews for a day or so, and at least the movie has a fighting chance of earning back some of its cost before its dreadfulness becomes public knowledge. That's why there were no reviews of Aeon Flux before its December opening.
But more often, it's because the movie falls into a category the critics generally loathe, or at least are believed to loathe.
"Critics rarely like horror movies," says Dergarabedian. "Generally speaking, horror movies do not get good reviews, unless it's the original Exorcist, or The Sixth Sense. If it's your typical horror-slasher-snuff style of movie, these are not critics' favorites. But they are audience favorites.
"Typically, when a movie is not screened for critics, it usually sends up a red [warning] flag. But with a horror movie, it's kind of like a badge of honor."
The same is true of broad, slapstick-style comedies, such as the Big Momma's House films. Dress Martin Lawrence in drag and put him in a fat suit, and audiences howl. Even while most critics moan in agony.
"In many cases, the audience, all they care about is the concept and the trailer and the marketing," Dergarabedian says. "The critics tend to be looking at the more high-brow aspects of a film. Some movies are not high-brow in any way; don't ever try to be."
It's not that simple. There is no binding rulebook for critics, some of whom like horror movies and low-brow comedies. I recently gave Saw II a pretty positive review, for instance, and am quoted on the DVD box of Jeepers Creepers. Broad comedies such as The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Austin Powers and the Barbershop films have all been greeted warmly by critics.
But Hollywood releases an awful lot of quickie horror films and cheap-shot comedies, and most of them are pretty bad. Yes, they're effective enough, getting audiences to jump in their seats or laugh at formulas that have been honed over the decades. But the majority are the cinematic equivalent of junk food. And who really savors that stuff?
So, sure, lots of people are going to see a quickie remake such as When a Stranger Calls, and come out talking about how cool it was and how all those high-falutin' critics just don't get it. But they're also going to go see The Chronicles of Narnia, or King Kong, or Walk the Line, and they're going to like those films, too. There's no disconnect between audiences' tastes and critics', there are simply differences.