Last week, after the advance screening of “Blade Runner 2049” I attended, one of the representatives of the publicity company that conducted the showing read a speech from director Denis Villeneuve asking critics not to reveal a number of things about the movie in our coverage. Some of the requests I probably would have adhered to in an advance review in any case, such as, “Do not reveal the fate of any of the characters.” Others were more finicky: a total blackout of the film’s first establishing scene, for example, and a request that if queried about a specific actor or character, we say, “We meet many striking characters over the course of the film, and she is one of them … I wouldn’t want to single anyone out; you’ll have to see the film for yourself to truly appreciate where everybody fits in.”
“Blade Runner 2049” is the rare movie that I’d say is better seen with as little foreknowledge as possible. Even so, the letter from Villeneuve felt like an extreme version of a trend that I’ve seen accelerating in my past few years as a critic. Increasingly, it seems as if some artists would prefer not to let critics write anything substantive about their work in advance of its release. This has the benefit of preserving plot surprises as much as possible. But it also affects how a work is publicly discussed in a way that I think artists don’t always anticipate.
First, these embargoes by their nature prioritize plot over any other aspect of a production. That might seem counterintuitive: Because my colleagues and I can’t write about any meaningful part of the “Blade Runner 2049” plot, we’ll inevitably focus on the acting, the cinematography and the other aspects of the production that aren’t off-limits to us. At the same time, though, those details don’t mean much to viewers who haven’t seen the movie in the first place. And treating every single plot point of the movie as if it’s seismically important fetishizes the basic details of what happens in a movie. That makes it impossible for critics who can’t discuss those plot points to set the stage for a discussion of the film that readers will find worthwhile before it’s released.
For a critic like me, who isn’t bound to write about pop culture before it’s loose in the world, that’s not much of a problem. But this approach does marginalize a lot of more traditional criticism, which is aimed at helping you decide whether a movie or television show is something you actually want to watch.
The problem can be even more severe in television. Despite the rise of streaming and cord-cutting services, networks that broadcast their shows in preexisting time slots still have strong incentives to get audiences to tune in not just over an opening weekend, but for a single, pre-designated hour. As a critic who writes a lot about “Game of Thrones,” and who recapped it before doing so became practically obligatory, I’ve gotten fairly good at writing a couple thousand words about each episode in the hour after it airs each week, because HBO has stopped providing critics with advance screeners. (This season, HBO held an advance showing of the first episode in Los Angeles. Most of us obviously couldn’t attend.) But I also know that my writing would be better if I could see the episodes in advance and refine my thinking about them over the course of a couple of days, or even 24 hours, before posting the recaps.
HBO benefits from its secrecy, but viewers can lose out. Critics race to get the traffic that comes from being picked up by the Google News algorithm, and then we spend the next week rethinking what we scrambled to write in the first place. That keeps “Game of Thrones” near the top of the entertainment news cycle the entire season it’s on air. But withholding screeners from critics can also encourage hasty thinking about the show’s more complex moments, such as the ambiguous sex scene between Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and his sister Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) after the death of their son Joffrey Baratheon (Jack Gleeson). The heat of the discussion around the show often ends up consuming it rather than illuminating it.
I’m a critic because I really like getting into the guts of a work, whether that means figuring out how it’s made or looking at the accumulated impressions artists have made on us and the ideas they’ve bought into without even necessarily knowing it. Doing that well means taking time with a piece of art and discussing it in detail. If artists and their corporate backers don’t want us to have those conversations, that’s their prerogative, I suppose. I just wish they realized that they are asking us to take their work a little less seriously.