“A great American movie,” raves Peter Travers of Rolling Stone (about “Lincoln”).
“Hopkins and Mirren are acting giants,” raves Peter Travers of Rolling Stone (of Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren in “Hitchcock”).
And so on, ads infinitum. Travers’s quips (and Rolling Stone’s logo) appear all over ads for the season’s biggest films, much as they have throughout the year. It’s rare, in fact, for Travers to like a film without a comment from him appearing atop an ad.
Why is Travers the film industry’s go-to endorsement machine out of literally hundreds of critics who opine on movies in print, on air or online?
The man himself wouldn’t answer that question, not even pithily, despite repeated attempts to reach him. Rolling Stone senior editor Monica Herrera referred calls to the magazine’s spokesman, who did not respond.
Travers has no peer, at least as measured by the number of times he’s cited to sell a movie. The movie review site eFilmcritic.com, which relentlessly tracks such things, says Travers’s comments have been blurbed in national ads 61 times so far this year, or almost six times a month. That’s more than twice the rate of the next most-reliable blurbster, Pete Hammond of Deadline.com.
Travers is so blurb-worthy and ubiquitous that he has his own subsection on eFilmcritic called Traverswatch that obsessively chronicles his blurbs. “Saturday Night Live” has paid backhanded tribute by putting fake Travers quotes on two of its movie commercial parodies.
Travers has been Rolling Stone’s film critic for the past 23 years. He also hosts a celebrity interview show distributed by ABC called “Popcorn.” As such, he and his publication are well-known commodities.
Though Travers posts a monthly “Worst Movies” list, he’s an “easy” reviewer, says Traverswatch writer Erik Childress of eFilmcritic.
But only somewhat.
Metacritic.com, a site that aggregates reviews, says that Travers has given positive reviews to 1,342 of the 2,050 films in its database, a 65 percent “positive” rate. That’s not that far off from Washington Post movie critic Ann Hornaday (62 percent of her reviews have been positive) and A.O. Scott of the New York Times (50 percent). Hammond, meanwhile, is Mr. Sunshine; he’s given only five negative reviews out of the 171 tracked by Metacritic.
Timing may also help to explain why movie studios so often turn to Travers. Rolling Stone is a bimonthly magazine, which means that Travers previews movies well in advance of those with more immediate deadlines and is often the first out with his pronouncements.
“I look at this as pure laziness on the part of the studios,” says Childress, a board member of the Chicago Film Critics Association. “There are a wealth of critics out there, but they tend to take the first words out of Peter Travers’s mouth.”
Sometimes literally. Childress says reviewers often offer comments to film publicists after screenings that they don’t offer to their readers. He also notes that some blurbs attributed to Travers don’t exactly square with his published opinions. “Pixar has outdone itself!” read a blurb attributed to Travers in ads for the animated film “Brave” over the summer. But that was a somewhat distorted impression of Travers’s review. Travers actually wrote, “Pixar has outdone itself in visual magic and vivid storytelling.” In a video review of the film, he added that “Brave” wasn’t as good as other Pixar films, including “The Incredibles,” “Finding Nemo” and “Wall-E.”
Nevertheless, Travers plays an important role in the blurb industrial complex, says Tim Gray, editor of the Hollywood trade paper Variety. Decades ago, he says, film criticism was a fairly esoteric field with few well-known critics. So the studios tended to manufacture their own hype (“The greatest story ever told!”). But that changed in the 1980s when critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert created their popular review TV show, “At the Movies,” and their thumbs-up reviews began appearing in ads and video packaging.
Eventually, “every filmmaker wanted a positive review on [ads for] his film,” Gray says. “There was a kind of fear factor. The publicists and studio marketing people were afraid of offending the filmmakers and the filmmakers’ friends if they didn’t promote the movie as a critical success.” At the same time, critics liked seeing their names and publications featured in the ads “so the whole thing became kind of self-perpetuating.”
The larger question is whether blurbs really persuade anyone to see a movie these days. Many young moviegoers don’t read newspapers, so they’re unlikely to see published movie ads or reviews (besides, many newspapers have gotten rid of in-house movie critics). They’re also unlikely to recognize a critic’s name when it flashes by in a TV ad.
So outside of stroking a few egos, what’s the point of quoting anyone, let alone the ubiquitous Peter Travers?
“That’s one of the mysteries of the universe,” answers Gray.