In what appears to be a first in Oscar campaigning, Universal Studios has enlisted real-life film critics to appear in radio ads for its Oscar hopeful, United 93 -- Paul Greengrass' film about the 9/11 flight that crashed in Pennsylvania. Hence, instead of the ubiquitous voice of Mr. Moviefone invoking the film's merits or snippets of dialogue over a pop song (tacky, given the film's subject matter), the studio has opted for Rolling Stone's Peter Travers solemnly declaring United 93 to be "a monumental achievement."
Travers wasn't paid for his efforts and, in fact, he's merely reading words he wrote in the magazine. According to Universal's co-president of marketing, Eddie Egan, a number of film critics who also praised the movie were asked to participate. Some declined. Others besides Travers were recorded, but Egan refuses to say if their words will be used.
In the world of criticism, Travers' actions have raised questions about the blurring between review and advocacy. "They didn't ask me, but I wouldn't have done it," said Peter Rainer, president of the National Society of Film Critics and a critic for the Christian Science Monitor. There is a difference, he said, between passively allowing one's words to be used and "actually stepping into a studio and recording the same comment for the publicity campaign."
In an e-mail, Travers wrote that although he too has concerns about studio manipulation, he "jumped into the mosh pit because of the film in question. We're not talking Big Momma's House 2. This is United 93, a film I rank among the best of 2006. United 93 has faced resistance from audiences who find the subject of what transpired on September 11th, 2001 too painful and way too soon for a movie to tackle. I disagree."
Universal has had to be extra aggressive to bring attention to the film that may be too daunting for some -- Academy Awards voters among them -- to see.