by Paul T. Riddell
Well, summer is fading, and this means only one thing: we have three months until the beginning of the Christmas shopping season. Yep, three months until all of the big summer releases hit video and all of the action figures and movie novelizations hit the remainder bins. As the people of my land are fond of saying, "Yeeee-HAW!"
The beginning of September is generally a time to recuperate in the movie industry, so no reviews this time around. Most of the big films have already hit (or are threatening to hit) the second-run circuit in the States, with their distribution studios hoping to squeeze a few more pennies from people who couldn't justify paying $7.50 to see Wild Wild West but figure that losing a dollar won't put them too far behind. In the civilized world, on the other hand, many of the later US releases won't be available until later, but that's okay as well. Now is a perfect time to get caught up on the newspaper, television schedule, and that pile of magazines that kept building up over the last four months.
It's not as if the film industry has stopped: far from it. Besides preparing for the Christmas season, now is the time for the studios to release the art films and quirky experiments that weren't commercial to justify distributing in the summer. The next three months promises some joys, but generally nobody outside of big cities will get a chance to see any of them. Instead, this column will focus on a few trends, reveal some dirty secrets, and (as usual) point fingers and laugh at those who deserve derision. You need a break, I need a break, poor Rodger Turner needs a break: besides, we never talk any more.
We start out with the obligatory overview of the summer movie season, which helps explain why we're all so tired. 1999 managed to break 1998's record for ticket sales, which is so surprising considering the paucity of entries: audiences wanted to see movies, all right, but they were pretty fickle about it. With the exception of The Blair Witch Project and Star Wars: Episode One, no film really brought out any vibes from the audience: sure, Austin Powers 2 and South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut did well, but nobody would have cared if these films had never been made. Episode One did phenomenally well, but when one considers that most of the ticket sales in the first week were made by scalpers planning to sell tickets to the opening night screenings, the only reason it lasted as long as it did was due to the lack of competition. (I still regret that Paramount didn't release Beavis and Butt-Head II the same weekend as Episode One: I know audiences were craving a film with better dialogue, more realistic situations, and more three-dimensional characters.)
Interlude One: Picture George Lucas sitting at home at Skywalker Ranch, glass of wine in hand, looking over profit statements for the merchandising of Star Wars: Episode One merchandise. Most of it is still rotting in stores worldwide, but since George convinced the manufacturers to pay their royalties in advance, he made out while Toys 'R' Us stockholders weep and wail and gnash their teeth. ("How ever are we going to get rid of all of these talking Jar Jar Binks dolls?' they exclaim, as a bonfire is out of the question for environmental reasons.) Giggling to himself, he goes back to his office to start penning Episode Two: after hearing about diehard fanatics allegedly starting to camp out to buy tickets for Episode Two, he figures that they won't keep the faith in those shanty-towns for more than five years, so he'd best start cracking. He knows that everything that he writes is genius, because crowds of maladjusted thirty-something Visual Basic programmers who never heard of Stanley Weinbaum, E.E. "Doc" Smith, and Frank Herbert tell him that it is. Besides, whatever flaws appear in the script can be varnished with more special effects: George has never heard of the phrase "polishing a turd," but that's because he surrounds himself with toadies who keep phrases like that away from him.
While George is struggling with the name for a new action figure (grabbing a handful of Scrabble tiles, tossing them to the floor, and seeing if the assemblage makes any words that sound alien), he hears a pounding on the door, and he leaves his typing chair to investigate. Strangely, all of the denizens of the Ranch, hired for their unwavering loyalty even in the wake of Howard the Duck and Radioland Murders, are all gone, and he only sees their crumpled and eviscerated bodies in a pile in the entryway as he reaches the door. The door crashes open, and the slowly rotting corpses of Ed Wood and William Castle slowly lumber in. George shrieks in panic, mostly in the realization that Wood and Castle even in death are better directors, screenwriters, and promoters than he'll ever be, and tries to run, only to be clotheslined by an angora sweater and dashed to the ground. Search crews later find only a set of drag marks (possibly from Wood), but no other evidence of Lucas on this planet. That night, though, witnesses at Hollywood and Vine hear agonized screams coming from the storm sewers, and some swear they got the impression that Stanley Kubrick also rose from the grave that night. In the mind's eye, they could see Kubrick strapping Lucas into the apparatus used to restrain Malcolm McDowall in Clockwork Orange and forcing him to watch Return of the Jedi over and over until his brain exploded from the stress. And a great evil was lifted from the world.
The titans of the summer are dead, but this isn't to say that we won't see any genre releases until Christmas. Our problem is that the period between July 31 and October 1 is generally considered a dumping ground for films that wouldn't stand a chance during the two main movie seasons. Some of the films may not be bad (as witnessed by Mystery Men), and some are nearly unwatchable, but most are just mediocre. They get dumped into the twin Sargassos of August and January because of a lack of competition, and the studios hope to make at least a few bucks from them before consigning them to video or cable.
One of the more interesting dumpings is Universal Soldier: The Return, and I'm going to use this beauty to illustrate a secret of the movie industry and reviewers in general. Most accredited film critics (accreditation meaning that the critic in question actually writes for some publication or another, and doesn't claim to do so for purposes of scamming free movies or publicity material) receive press screening passes for soon-to-be-released films about a week or two before they hit the theaters. The basic idea here is that if the critics get enough time, they can write a review and get it into print right about the time the general public gets a chance to see it. The big critics, mostly those individuals who work for daily newspapers and TV stations, also get invites to private screenings where nobody but the press is admitted. Most others, present company included, get preview passes to promotional screenings, where the critics share the theater with winners of radio promotions, giveaways, and other lucky folk from the general public.
These preview screenings serve two purposes: they allow word-of-mouth to get out about upcoming movies among the rank and file, and they allow publicists for the studios to assess future ad campaigns. (Some others are designed to let the studio test various cuts of a film, in order to fine-tune editing and pacing, but since these rarely happen outside of Los Angeles, we can skip these.) They also allow critics to experience the film with something approximating an average audience, although one sometimes has to wonder who thought of the venues in which the preview passes were distributed. (The Dallas screening of last spring's Idle Hands held an audience mostly collected from viewers of a local morning news program, and the general effect of this film on the seniors watching it can best be simulated by giving out Marilyn Manson tickets at the Southern Baptist Convention. In so many words, it wasn't pretty.)
Now, some critics are notorious for neglecting to review films that they feel are beneath them (the reason why so many horror films appear as "Horror flick" and nothing else in the movie listings in the local paper), and some studios are notorious for scheduling previews to conflict with other screenings (given a choice between The Blair Witch Project and South Park, I finally settled for uncontrollable weeping and swore to pay to see South Park). However, a great way to spot a real stinker is to look for a lack of screenings whatsoever.
(The other trick for spotting a dud is to listen to the response to preview trailers for upcoming films at normal screenings: the best assessment of the Bruce Willis thriller Mercury Rising I ever heard was in response to a preview trailer, when someone in the theater quoted one of the great philosophers of the Twentieth Century and yelled "AAAAH! This sucks! Change it, Butt-Head! Change it! AAAAAH!")
Here's how it works: say that Studio C has a film that's damn near unreleasable, but it's spent too much money on making/obtaining/promoting it to throw all that work in the garbage. One tactic to recoup the money is to re-edit it or to resell it as something else and hope nobody realizes the switch (1985's Return of the Living Dead became a comedy only in post-production, when the studio realized that preview audiences were laughing their fool heads off at dialogue and situations that director Dan O'Bannon thought were terrifying). Another tactic that's become more common is to skip out on preview screenings: most critics refuse to pay to see a movie, and if they don't see it, they (generally) can't write about it. Even if a critic bucks that trend and plunks down real money to see a film during its Friday night premiere, that review generally won't appear in the newspaper until the subsequent Monday morning, if not later. (Due to the vagaries of newspaper printing, a Saturday morning paper generally has a deadline for nonessential stories on Friday afternoon, and most Sunday papers have everything but the front page and the sports section printed earlier in the week.) This means that no matter how bad the film may be, it stands a chance of at least one weekend to bilk the rubes before they tell their friends and co-workers how they had to lick the theater's toilets clean to get the taste out of their mouths. With really bad movies, the studio will delay sending press kits: the folders full of publicity stills and production information sent by the studio so the critic doesn't have to scribble notes about the production crew and cast. (Some publicity reps get upset if critics don't quote all of the great bulldada included in those kits as well, and one can spot the fanboy critic based on how much of that gets quoted in the final review, but that's another story.) Even if said critic manages to make the Friday afternoon deadline, the paper generally won't run the review without at least one press still from the movie, so it again gives an extra weekend before the box office draws go to Antarctica for the winter.
A few movies get unfairly beaten with the preview stunt: Clive Barker's Nightbreed never received critic previews because, as one Twentieth Century Fox allegedly told Barker, "The sort of audience who will go to see this movie is not the sort to read critic's previews, if they can read at all." (I'm still proud of the fact that I was one of the two film critics in Dallas who reviewed it regardless, even though it hasn't aged all that well; the other critic was Joe Bob Briggs.) Otherwise, it's a reasonably fair assessment that a film without a preview is a dog. Cool as Ice, Cool World, The Avengers... somebody wanted to dodge a bullet.
I would also like to interject that we can't blame the publicity departments for the studios, or the independent publicity companies hired to pitch movies in such desolate hellpits as Show Low, Kaukauna, Tigard, and Houston. They're just doing their jobs: while they're not exactly advancing the state of human development here, at least they're not lobbying for tobacco lobbies or pitching Windows 2000. We should wonder why the hell anybody thought we needed a sequel to a film that wasn't all that good in the first place. I know, I know: it did relatively well on cable, which was also the excuse used for Return of Swamp Thing and Eddie and the Cruisers II: Eddie Lives, but just humor me. Why didn't someone take the money intended for a sequel to a lousy movie and do something a bit more constructive with it, like blowing it all on booze, hookers, and bets on the Dallas Mavericks making the NBA playoffs? (Sorry: that's a Dallas joke. The Mavericks basketball team is so horrendously bad that I expect to buy ski-lift tickets in Hell or hear Dennis Miller tell a poopoo joke before the Mavericks manage to do anything but lose. Imagine being glued to a rosebush and strapped down to view a 48-hour marathon of Battlestar Galactica reruns, with the only refreshments being scouring pads and glasses of soy sauce, and you understand the unique thrill of catching a Mavericks game.)
Hence, without seeing it, I would like to report that Universal Soldier: The Return was released without any critic's or other promotional screenings whatsoever. In a year where even the new The Haunting remake and Inspector Gadget received previews, that should say something.
Interlude Two: And lest ye think that the life of a film critic is easy, just try attending a preview for a kid's film, especially in summer. Screenings for any film in Dallas already make me call for the mandatory spaying and neutering of every MBA on the planet, thanks to the rude gits who think nothing of conducting conversations on their cell phones during a movie, but the recent preview of Inspector Gadget made me wonder who was worse: the tantrum-throwing, food-flinging, whiny, petulant, narcissistic brats running all over the place... or their children. Actually, that's unfair: aside from the kid with the projectile vomiting problem toward the front of the theater, who managed to spray a good third of the audience with predigested nachos, the kids were pretty well-behaved. The parents, though, were a good argument for mandatory sterilization, as most of them used their children as catalysts: "My son can't see the screen"... "My daughter needs an aisle seat"... " I know we arrived ten minutes after the movie started, and the theater's packed, but you can't expect the parents and kids to sit separately"... "Well, I know that the preview pass says "Admit Two", but all eighteen of the neighbor kids want to see it, too, and you don't want them to wait around in the theater while we see the movie... "
With that in mind, enjoy the vacation: I promise to be funny and informative next time. I really will...
Paul T. Riddell is a Michigan-born, Texas-raised essayist currently residing in a fortified ranch on Mount Briscoe overlooking downtown Dallas. Those seeking further abuse are directed to his website, The Healing Power of Obnoxiousness at http://www.hpoo.com.
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