“The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” David Fincher’s highly buzzy movie adaptation of the first installment in Stieg Larsson’s series of thrillers, does not arrive in theaters until Dec. 21.
But the New Yorker has already posted a review by critic David Denby, which led to a feud between Denby and “Dragon Tattoo” producer Scott Rudin and has sparked robust online conversation about whether critics need to honor movie studio embargoes in an age where being the first outlet to express a cinematic opinion is increasingly crucial.
A (relatively) quick summary of what occurred: Last week, Sony screened “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” for members of the New York Film Critics Circle so they could consider the film as part of their annual round of best-of-the-year awards. As part of that early screening agreement, Sony issued am embargo, an embargo also issued to the Washington D.C. Area Film Critics Association, whose members screened the film Friday. It stated: “Please note all reviews are embargoed until Tuesday, December 13th. This includes Twitter, Facebook and blog postings . . . [B]y accepting this invitation, you are confirming that you will honor the embargo.”
Denby and the New Yorker decided to run the review in this week’s issue, breaking the embargo and starting a chain of e-mails between Denby and Rudin that were acquired by Indiewire and have turned this whole affair into the equivalent of Shakespearean drama. It’s an ironic behind-the-scenes plot twist for a film that is, in part, about accessing private information and holding up the standards of rule-breaking journalism.
“You’re going to break the review embargo on Dragon Tattoo? I’m stunned that you of all people would even entertain doing this,” Rudin wrote in his first message to Denby. “It’s a very, very damaging move and a total contravention of what you agreed. You’re an honorable man.”
Denby responded and explained that there are too many “grown-up” movies packed into the last month of the year. With a New Yorker double issue to run in December, there were only so many slots in the magazine where Denby could review “Dragon Tattoo” using all the words it merited. “We had to get something serious in the magazine,” he wrote. “So reluctantly, we went early with ‘Dragon,’ which I called ‘mesmerizing.’ I apologize for the breach of the embargo.”
Rudin responded to that, stating that he can’t “in good conscience” invite Denby to another of his films again. “I’m really not interested in why you did this except that you did — and you must at least own that, purely and simply, you broke your word to us and that that is a deeply lousy and immoral thing to have done,” he added.
Wow. So what does all this mean to you, the average moviegoer and follower of deliciously heightened e-mails between Hollywood insiders and members of the media elite? Let’s break it down, Q-and-A style.
Should Denby have broken the embargo?
No, he shouldn’t have. As silly as the embargo might be — especially given that it’s a movie based on a book that half the free world has read and was already made into a movie once before — that was the understanding Denby tacitly agreed to when he attended the screening. To use another example, when a journalist tells an interview subject he or she will keep something off the record, he or she has to uphold that agreement. While the quality of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” is hardly a matter of national security, the agreement there should have been upheld as well.
Seriously, though, isn’t it ridiculous for studios to issue these embargoes?
Most of the time, yes. In this case, it was slightly more reasonable since the embargo lifts well before the movie’s release date. But in general, embargoes are purely ways for the studios to control buzz and need to change in a couple of key ways in the digital era.
First, if studios want critics and bloggers to uphold the embargoes, they need to issue them consistently. For years now, publications that are deemed “national outlets” have been permitted to run their reviews a few days before a film releases. But “local” publications — including, oddly enough, The Washington Post — are often asked to wait until the day before or day of release to run their critical insights. (Plenty of other outlets hold off until then, but not all of them do, as Rotten Tomatoes regularly proves.) This approach is a way to make sure all the floodgates don’t open at once four days before a movie comes out, thereby dooming its chances for a solid opening weekend.
That made sense before this little thing called the Internet was invented. Now it’s a farce because every outlet is a national outlet. Any review, even one that ran in the Podunk Times (which, by the way, has the best op-ed page in America), can be accessed online by anyone with a WiFi connection. Every media organization and blog deserves to be on the same embargo-lifting playing field at this point.
Also, attempting to police what film journalists say on their personal Facebook or Twitter pages is a fool’s errand. At some point, the studios will have to accept that they can’t lock down comments there, especially when their time could be better spent on other things like, I don’t know, making movies that people will write flattering things about in Facebook status updates.
Is this all some elaborate, Kardashian-style publicity stunt that Sony and the New Yorker dreamed up to get more attention for the movie and the magazine’s review?
I don’t think so. But that may indeed be a byproduct of all this.
What does David Denby have against Cameron Crowe?
In his e-mail to Rudin, Denby writes: “We had a dilemma: What to put in the magazine on December 5? Certainly not ‘We Bought the Zoo,’ or whatever it’s called.”
“We Bought a Zoo” may be considered lighter holiday season fare, since — spoiler alert — no people are murdered or raped in it. But it was written and directed by an Academy Award winner (Cameron Crowe) and stars an Oscar-nominated actor (Matt Damon) and a Tony winner (Scarlett Johansson). It’s not like it’s “Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked.” I love the New Yorker and am a fan of Denby’s work, but this is Exhibit A in the case of “Why Most People Think Film Critics Are Snobs.”
The most shameful part of all is that “We Bought a Zoo” is actually pretty great. (Since it already screened in sneak peeks around the country, I think I can say that without getting a smackdown from the studio. )
Can you please just tell me what I really want to know: Should I see “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” or not?
Since most reviews are not out yet, it may be too early for you to make that call. But if you’re basing your decisions solely on David Denby, the answer is yes.
His review — all three well-written paragraphs of it — is online now and says, “This is a bleak but mesmerizing piece of filmmaking; it offers a glancing, chilled view of a world in which brief moments of loyalty flicker between repeated acts of betrayal.”
It is currently the most read item on the New Yorker’s Web site.
Well, what did you think of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”?
You think I’m telling you before Dec. 13? Please. Lisbeth Salander intimidates me a little, but not nearly as much as Scott Rudin.