In what was unanimously acknowledged as a sign of the end times in cinematic circles, “The Emoji Movie” came in second at the box office last weekend, the latest app-centric spinoff earning $24.5 million in theaters throughout the country. Glass-half-full types were eager to note that “Dunkirk,” Christopher Nolan’s ambitious historical drama, held steady at No. 1, indicating that Americans haven’t completely lost our minds (or collective taste). But the fact that a cynical cash grab could find even the slightest purchase with audiences sent a chill of revulsion down the spine of anyone who still considers film, if not an art form, at least subject to such old-fashioned notions of purpose, integrity and craft.
At Sony Pictures, the studio behind “The Emoji Movie,” the lesson was a dubious one: As Pamela McClintock wrote in the Hollywood Reporter on Wednesday, the company knew it had a dog on its hands, so withheld it from most critics before it opened; the few who went to Wednesday night previews weren’t allowed to post their pans until midday on Thursday, hours before “The Emoji Movie” began rolling into theaters.
“What other wide release with a [Tomatometer] score under 8 percent has opened north of $20 million? I don’t think there is one,” said Josh Greenstein, president of worldwide marketing and distribution at Sony, when McClintock interviewed him. He sounded as proud as a farmer who had just sold a poke full of pigs to an unsuspecting butcher.
Greenstein may not have taken into full account the hair-tearing desperation of parents eager to distract kids whose last PG-rated animated movie was “Despicable Me 3” in late June. And he might find that his enthusiasm has dropped just as vertiginously as “The Emoji Movie’s” box office numbers, which by Monday had already plunged by more than 50 percent, indicating cataclysmic word of mouth. No matter: Sony’s following a similar playbook this week with another late-screener, “The Dark Tower,” hoping to beat discouraging reviews to the punch with the brand names of Stephen King, Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey. (As of this writing, with 20 critics reporting, the sci-fi fantasy had earned a 20 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, along with a prominent green splat.)
Studios have been trying to outrun bad reviews since the inception of the medium, most recently by organizing their business model around “critic-proof” adaptations of comic books, toys, games and now iPhone apps, certain that the core audiences for those properties would turn out in droves, whether the movies were any good or not. But no sooner had Hollywood doubled down on that strategy than — unsurprisingly — it started to fail, with such high-profile bombs as “John Carter,” “Battleship” and “The Lone Ranger” or, this summer alone, “Baywatch,” “The Mummy” and the latest “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Transformers” movies. (Tellingly, all have made up for poor stateside performance in foreign markets.)
Did bad reviews — or, more to the point, their cumulative throw-weight on such aggregation sites as Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic — sink those movies? Studio marketers can do all they can to blame their failures on snooty critics, bypassing the “fake news” of poor notices with carpet-bombing TV ad campaigns. But it’s more likely that audiences simply saw dreck for what it was and ratified the critics’ opinions among their peers.
The days of Olympian critics delivering wisdom from high are long gone: Today, reviewing is a companionate enterprise, with critics and “civilians” engaging in a dialogue rather one-way pronouncements. (In fact, where reviews carry the most weight is with small, art-house movies, whose core audiences tend to be readers, and who are especially prone not to see a film if their favorite critic pans it. If they’re already inclined to see something, they’re more likely to give it a shot.)
As tempting as it is for studios to perpetuate the tired stereotype of out-of-touch critics, the truth is that they usually reach a loose consensus with their readers: On Metacritic, some of the best-reviewed movies of the summer, including “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” “War for the Planet of the Apes” and “Baby Driver,” have received user ratings commensurate with those of the professionals.
Today, of course, everyone’s a critic, whether they’re commenting on a review site, weighing in on Twitter or opining by way of their own blog or YouTube channel. And as garden-variety viewers have transformed into shrewder, more sophisticated consumers, Hollywood has come around to the fact that almost nothing is truly critic-proof and that everything — to borrow a term of art from the industry — is execution dependent.
Last summer, Warner Bros. took a drubbing (including from yours truly) for fobbing off not one but two dreary, incoherent movies as “event” pictures in the form of the dreadful “Batman v. Superman” and even more dreadful “Suicide Squad.” Neither film was an unqualified disaster financially. But Warner executives clearly realized that they left money on the table when they accepted shoddy work as baseline acceptable. This summer, we saw the results of lessons learned when “Wonder Woman,” Patty Jenkins’s stunner of a superheroine flick, outpaced both its predecessors by tens of millions of dollars (and counting).
The scuttlebutt on the lot is that more studios are considering delaying critics’ screenings or withholding films from them altogether — which means we can devote our energy to the films that truly live or die by reviews. But the new hostile stance is weirdly paradoxical at a time when big summer blockbusters — the kinds of movies critics are often accused of pooh-poohing — are receiving some of the year’s strongest notices. In addition to “Wonder Woman,” the season has been graced with a number of smart, beautifully made mainstream movies, from “Apes” and “Spider-Man” to “Dunkirk” and the similarly sophisticated “Detroit.”
Add such sleeper hits as “The Big Sick,” “Girls Trip” and the aforementioned “Baby Driver,” and it all adds up to the kind of novel, well-executed, thoroughly entertaining movies that, with any luck, audiences will increasingly demand and reward with their box office dollars. Every filmgoer deserves a healthy, well-balanced, thoughtfully prepared movie diet — no one can survive on overripe tomatoes and pigs from a poke alone.