Getting Quoted

A movie theater in Portland is quoting me in their ads for a movie I didn’t like. But it’s OK! first, some background.

The age-old question for people promoting bad movies: How do you find critics’ quotes that don’t sound negative?

There are quite a few critics known as “quote whores” who will say basically whatever you want them to just because they like being quoted. Perhaps they think greater name recognition will mean greater career advancement. Or maybe they actually like every movie they see, like my friend Rob, who I think just enjoys the fact that he’s watching recorded images projected against a screen in the dark, regardless of the quality of those images. (I kid Rob. Rob knows I love him, even more than he loves every single movie he sees.)

But sometimes the quote whores aren’t available. If a film is too new, or too small, then maybe the quote whores haven’t seen it. That’s usually when I get quoted.

My first big one was for “My First Mister” (2001), a very pleasant Albert Brooks film. I saw it at Sundance and posted a review. When it was released in theaters later that year, my review was one of only a few in existence, since only a handful of critics actually review everything they see at Sundance. So the marketers had almost no choice but to quote me — which they did, in a full-page ad that ran in the Sunday New York Times.

Fortunately, I actually liked “My First Mister” and therefore didn’t mind being quoted. (I do think it’s amusing how, if you went by movie ads, you’d think film critics ended every sentence with an exclamation point.) That wasn’t the case with “The Singles Ward” (2002), a Mormon comedy that was heavy on the Mormon, light on the comedy. Those guys, local Utah boys, ran ads with quotes from me and two other Utah critics, all pulled from negative reviews and cobbled together using ellipses (…). They claimed it was meant as a joke, but it was a joke only they got. You can read about the whole thing here.

The next really bad Mormon film to come along was “The Work and the Story” (2003), a mockumentary about Mormon filmmaking. I said it was terrible, but had one scene that was “nearly genius.” In the ads, they quoted me as saying, “nearly genius!”

When I raised a fuss about this, I got an e-mail from some kid trying to tell me that filmmakers do this all the time, taking words out of context to make it look like a critic said the opposite of what he actually said. I countered with this argument: No, they don’t. Yes, filmmakers pull positive words from negative reviews — but NOT to suggest the critic liked a movie he didn’t like. They’ll pull a “So-and-so gives a good performance” from “So-and-so gives a good performance in an otherwise bad movie” — but that’s honest praise for So-and-so, and so it’s fair to use it. I’m talking about giving a false impression of the critic’s opinion of the movie OVERALL, and that simply isn’t done by professionals. And on the rare occasions it does happen, the critics usually complain and the offending ad gets dropped.

Here’s how to do it right: Portland’s Cinema 21, an arthouse up there in the Pacific Northwest, is showing “Girls Will be Girls,” a campy comedy that I gave a D+. As with “My First Mister,” this was a Sundance film for which not many reviews have been written. Cinema 21 wanted to use quotes in its promotional materials, so what to do?

They did it exactly right. They quoted me as saying, “The cartoon-colorful sets are a visual treat, and match the film’s attitude.” That’s what I actually said (OK, I said “match WELL the film’s attitude”), and it’s not taken dreadfully out of context.

There, “Singles Ward” and “Work and the Story” guys. That’s how you use negative reviews to your advantage. You find something positive the critic actually said. If he didn’t say anything positive at all, not one word, then maybe next time you shouldn’t make such a crappy film. Have you considered that?