Fox to start being nicer to online film critics

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We have good news to report on the subject of movie studios interacting with online film critics!

I mentioned last week how Fox has been particularly gun-shy lately, inviting print press to early screenings while making onliners wait until the night before a movie opens to see it. Reports among my colleagues across the nation were that the studio was leery of reviews being posted early, which some online critics are notorious for.

I neglected to mention, however, that the Chicago Film Critics Association, tired of the second-class treatment and fed up with being ignored whenever they tried to have a discussion with Fox, recently staged a bit of a protest. They announced that while they would continue to review Fox’s movies, they would not do any other Fox-related articles like interviews or feature stories. Studios count on those stories for extra publicity, and since they’re almost always positive (or at least neutral), they’re less risky than reviews.

Well, Fox blinked and said they’d start being nicer to the Chicago Film Critics Association. (If you’re wondering, Roger Ebert is not a member of that group. He don’t need no group to have clout.) [Edit: The source I read that said that was wrong. Ebert is a member of the group. He still don’t need no group to have clout, though.] The CFCA, for its part, wrote into its bylaws that any CFCA member who violates the no-early-reviews rule is subject to discipline. So now everybody’s happy, sort of.

But there was still the ongoing concern that online critics in general were getting shafted. Last Thursday, I wrote an e-mail to my local Fox publicist. I was hoping just to get her input on it, but she went the extra mile and forwarded it to her Los Angeles contacts, one of whom responded to me with good news.

Here’s what I wrote:

We online critics have noticed that Fox, in particular, has been doing a two-screening system lately: print press invited to one press-only screening a few days before the film opens, and online being invited to a public screening the night before release.

Our understanding is that this is because the studios are wary of online film critics. They’re afraid we’ll post our reviews early.

Now, 95% of us follow the rules and don’t post our reviews until the film opens, but there is that other 5% that gives the rest of us a bad name. We get that.

The thing is, a lot of those print critics post their reviews early, too. Everyone is an “online critic” these days, because even print outlets have websites. And many of them don’t follow the rules about posting reviews early.

For example, on Tuesday print press nationwide had press-only screenings of “The Simpsons Movie.” Onliners have to wait until tonight to see it — again, presumably because Fox was afraid we’d post our reviews early.

But if you look at Rotten Tomatoes — — you can see that as of right this minute, there are already 31 reviews posted online. Among the newspapers that posted theirs early: Seattle Post-Intelligencer, New York Post, San Jose Mercury News, Associated Press, Orlando Sentinel, etc., etc.

So my question is, if everyone’s allowed to post reviews early anyway, why not invite online critics to those early screenings, too?

The reply came from Carol Cundiff in Fox’s publicity and promotions department in L.A. At her request, I’ll paraphrase what she said:

• My point is valid, and it’s something they’ve been discussing.
• It did not go unnoticed that Variety (a print outlet) was the first U.S. publication to post an early review of “The Simpsons Movie” — a mere five hours after the critic saw it at that Tuesday screening.
• The plan from now on is that online critics will be invited to the same screenings as print critics.
• Rather than punishing all critics for the misbehavior of a few of them, only the ones who actually publish reviews early will be punished.

In other words: Common sense might emerge victorious!

Assuming Fox lives up to this more logical approach, it bodes well for the future. We still have to contend with the onliners (and print writers) who break the embargo and give us all a bad name, but at least we won’t be punished for their actions by being denied access to screenings.

(By the way, I’m not claiming that my e-mail had anything to do with it. Ms. Cundiff says they’d been “making some progress” in the matter, and I know the CFCA situation stirred things up a bit. I suspect I just happened to send my letter at the right time to get an answer.)