‘United 93’ press screening: A comedy of errors

SHARE

“United 93” is a brilliant film (you can read my review when it opens this Friday), but the way it was handled by its publicists was the opposite of brilliant. “Stupid” I think is the word I’m looking for.

Not having heard yet when the press screening would be, I e-mailed my contact at the public relations agency that handles such things a couple weeks ago and asked. I received this reply:

As is to be expected, Universal is being very protective of this film. As such, they have only allowed us a small screening with a very select invite list. Unfortunately, I am not able to accommodate you into this screening.

I hope you understand, and will take the time to see it when it opens on April 28th. I have heard it really is an amazing film.

Now, we’re familiar with the trend of not screening lousy movies for critics. But if the movie is GOOD, why show it to only a handful of reviewers? Wouldn’t you want ALL of them to see it, to flood the marketplace with positive reviews come opening day?

Nonetheless, it happens now and then, usually with “prestige” films. There will be a press-only screening some weeks before it opens, to which only a few members of the press are invited, usually the critics for that market’s daily papers, and no one else. (Yep, the studio spends hundreds of dollars renting the theater, then only lets two or three people attend the screening.) Everyone else has to see it at a nighttime “promo” screening a few days before it opens, packed in with excitable members of the public who got free passes in radio station giveaways — not really the best environment to watch “Brokeback Mountain” or “Pride & Prejudice,” to name two recent films that went this route.

The “United 93” tactic was even more bizarre, though. After the exclusive press-only screening to which only a few people were invited, there wouldn’t BE a nighttime promo screening. All the legitimate newspaper and online critics in Portland who are normally on the invite list would be out of luck for “United 93,” and their outlets wouldn’t be able to run reviews on opening day — unless they were part of the magic, lucky group who got invited, that is.

So who did get invited? Someone from The Oregonian, of course, and someone from Willamette Week. A few TV station people. No radio people. No online writers, of course. The Portland Mercury, a foul-mouthed, snotty weekly paper (but a very entertaining one) that takes nothing seriously, had someone on the invite list. But the Portland Tribune, a respectable twice-weekly paper? Not invited. Weird, huh?

Now, back to that e-mail I got from the publicist. First of all, I want to give her points for honesty. Usually in this situation the publicists say there ISN’T a press screening, just a public promo — they lie, in other words, rather than admit there is a screening and you’re just not invited.

But still, let’s look at the e-mail:

As is to be expected, Universal is being very protective of this film.

What does THAT mean? Protective, as in, they want to shelter it from negative reviews? From reviews in general? From people who won’t take it seriously? Yet you invite the Portland Mercury, which for Easter had a cover drawing of a giant Easter Bunny crapping eggs from which little Jesuses emerged. Those people you trust to treat your 9/11 movie with respect. Gotcha.

As such, they have only allowed us a small screening with a very select invite list.

Again, I question the selectivity of it….

Unfortunately, I am not able to accommodate you into this screening.

Notice she doesn’t indicate what the criteria were. No online people, of course. We’re used to being shut out. But it’s usually because the studio is afraid we’ll go right home and post a review that day, a week before the movie opens, or that we’ll include a lot of “spoilers.” (Thank you Harry Knowles and Ain’t It Cool News for giving legitimate online film critics a bad name.) Spoilers aren’t a worry here — everyone dies at the end; there’s your spoiler — so it must be that they don’t want Internet critics posting reviews early. Of course, the reviews are likely to be really POSITIVE, so I’m not sure what harm it would do, but whatever.

So no Internet critics. Why TV but no radio? Why one newspaper but not another? Did they only invite specific critics whose track record for Universal films suggested they were most likely to write positive reviews?

I hope you understand, and will take the time to see it when it opens on April 28th. I have heard it really is an amazing film.

Ha! “The movie is amazing; we just don’t trust you to write a review that would reflect that fact.”

That gets a big “screw you” from me. If it had turned out that I hadn’t been able to see it at the special-magic-lucky-exclusive screening, I wouldn’t have paid to see it. I’d have bought a ticket to something else and sneaked in to see “United 93.” And I wouldn’t have written a review.

As luck would have it, one of my freelance gigs, the Willamette Week, assigned me to review “United 93,” so I got to go. But it still wasn’t easy. The invitations were not for outlets, but for specific critics. It wasn’t “Willamette Week” on the list; it was “David Walker.” We had to e-mail the publicists and ask for permission to transfer the invitation over to me. AND THEY ALMOST DIDN’T GRANT IT. For real.

So if the movie does well, I have to assume it’s in spite of the way it was handled in the press, not because of it.

SHARE