After I exited a theater showing of Gravity, a nice man handed me a flyer for a movie, a test screening for The Monuments Men. Excited, I grabbed one and signed up on their website fully planning to attend. Unlike some people who go to test screenings, I would not report publicly on it. At the very least, I would show the filmmakers that much respect but I was curious to see it and if the studio wasn’t inviting people yet, well, why not. But I changed my mind after thinking about it. It was a test screening, not meant to be a fully presented film to audiences. Sure, it could turn out really well – the audience stands at the end and applauds wildly. But test screenings are like reading screenplays.
They only tell you a fraction of what to expect from the finished film. Trusting someone to know the difference between a test screening and final version is tricky business. Now that everyone has access not just to their own blog space, but their own blogger, reactions to test screenings pretending to be actual reviews will become more and more prevalent. I hope that the studios know this because all of their careful planning can be dismantled by one person who really really really wants to be the first voice — for whatever reason. Getting out the truth, getting attention, doing someone a favor — I’m not sure the motivations behind such things but they are a modern reality.
I was sent two of such test screening reviews by the same person who put them up on a Tumblr, which I won’t link to. You’ll find it eventually if you want to go looking, or if you care about some person’s opinion. Me, I pucker in places you don’t talk about in public when people start talking about Oscar under those circumstances. Give your impressions of a film, fine. But any time someone says, “will be an Oscar contender” or “will change the game” or “it won’t be a Best Picture winner” I immediately write off the review. The Oscar race is not presented in a vacuum. Perception matters. The timing of a film release, the news happening at the same time a film is released, box office, star power, critics reactions — all of that helps to shape what will and what won’t be an Oscar contender. I also learned an important lesson once seeing The Kite Runner. That movie seemed to me like it could not only be nominated but could win Best Picture. I couldn’t have been more wrong. What one person thinks NEVER matters when it comes to a broad consensus vote.
It is also an asshole move, I think. That’s the reason I decided not to go. I’m giving the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt that they will show the film when it’s ready to be seen. Movies cost millions to make, are getting harder and harder to get off the ground, they involve time and effort put in by an entire crew, not to mention the publicity team hired to give the film its best chance to succeed. And here comes Joe Anybody who is like “I know a famous blogger! I’m going to send him a review because he’ll post it!” And guess what? It did get posted or parts of it. If it were me, I’d take it with a huge grain of salt. I declined both of those early reviews, as I always do when people try to email me with similar “reactions.” It doesn’t matter what one guy in a test screening thinks, or I don’t think it does.
It’s incredibly difficult to adhere to any sort of ethics in an age when anyone can say anything at any time. I’ve had my own struggles with this and have failed greatly many times. We have outlets breaking embargoes because they need to be first, and we have, all the way at the other end of the spectrum, any old person attending a test screening and suddenly being taken as seriously as any film critic in the business.
We bloggers don’t have editors or publishers to oversee what we do. We have to decide for ourselves what is right and wrong. To me, publishing a “review” from a test screening is wrong. Clearly, to some bloggers, it is not. That review will turn into “I heard that it was [fill in the blank]” and then that will turn into a lack of enthusiasm, or in the case of some film, false enthusiasm.
All I know is that the first audiences were mostly wrong when Hugo and Life of Pi rolled out at the New York Film Festival. Those experiences reminded me how little people really know when it comes to what will and what won’t become an Oscar contender. Food for thought.