Archives for Film industry

Wither the pull quote? On Ratner and Rotten Tomatoes

Brett Ratner hit the news this past week, saying: “The worst thing that we have in today’s movie culture is Rotten Tomatoes, I think it’s the destruction of our business.” He went on to say: “But that number is an aggregate and one that nobody can figure out exactly what it means, and it’s not always correct. I’ve seen some great movies with really abysmal Rotten Tomatoes scores. What’s sad is film criticism has disappeared. It’s really sad.”

Now he’s likely just upset that Batman vs. Superman scores so low on Rotten Tomatoes, which most articles pointed out, but he does raise a valid point about the industry that I’ve been pondering as well, but from a slightly different angle: the disappearance of critical reviews and pull-quotes from the marketing of films to audiences.

Working with Abramorama, I recently released a film I produced called Love & Taxes by Jake Kornbluth and his brother Josh. It’s a little movie, with a small theatrical release, but we’ve gotten amazing reviews. We’re happy to be at 100% for the critic’s scores on Rotten Tomatoes, and have gotten heaps of quotes like this one from the NYT’s Ken Jaworoski:”A Minor Marvel.”

Love & taxes poster

It used to be that distributors would tell you that one of the reasons to show films in theaters was to get the critical reviews, so you can put them as pull quotes on your movie poster and then your DVD case (or way back, your VHS box). And they seemed to work, because everyone did this. And you still see it in advertising for movies in newspapers, etc.

But guess where you don’t see them – online, where most audiences watch these films. Go to iTunes, Amazon or Netflix and look – no pull quotes anywhere. Each of these platforms requires film distributors to remove these quotes from their poster art. Heck, Netflix doesn’t even really show your poster art anymore, mainly using images from your set of film stills. Click on a film on these platforms, and you get some extra synopsis, and some cast and above the line credits, but mostly no reviews or reviewer’s quotes.

Heck, Netflix doesn’t even show the Rotten Tomatoes score anywhere. You have to try hard to even get to a details screen where you can see a few member reviews – and who knows how valid their opinions are anyway. Amazon Prime shows the aggregate IMDB score and customer scores, but you have to link away to even look at IMDB, and there’s no RT link at all.  iTunes does show the RT score and does include the top four critics reviews. But even then, we can see that the majority of the marketing of films on the platforms is very limited.

And that’s a problem for smaller indie movies. If you’re a blockbuster or larger film, you can rely on your own marketing spend to gain awareness for your film. You can run that pull quote thousands of times in print and digital and try to get the word out. But for most indies, the majority of their marketing spend has been around their theatrical release and sometimes the beginning of their digital life. And almost all of this marketing goes into building word of mouth and discovery, so that someone seeks out your film, and perhaps helps it to land on the top ten on iTunes, which makes it get streamed more – because most people look on the home screen for their films.

But we have always hoped people would find our films through browsing as well, and might see the critics reviews, and maybe even a great pull quote and take a chance on our films. But that doesn’t work anymore. And even if they heard about our film from its theatrical release, or elsewhere, they might be further persuaded to take a chance when they read a great pull quote. But that’s not possible if it’s not even there at the buying site. Few people are going to go look it up on your site, or in the NYT or on RT.

Now I’m almost ready to blame the platforms for removing the critics or reducing them to a Tomato score, but… they wouldn’t have done that if it didn’t work. They have more data than any of us can imagine, and if showing pull quotes sold or rented more films, they’d be pressuring us to get more of them, and would be displaying them properly.

Or maybe they do work. iTunes after all needs you to spend money and rent or buy the film, and they make a few of them available. Netflix doesn’t care if you watch a title – it just cares that you keep subscribing. And just by having a good inventory of TV and films, you’ll probably keep subscribing even if you don’t read the reviews or watch my film. You don’t need a conspiracy theory about lessening the role of critics to see why it may not matter to Netflix at all.

But it matters to us indie filmmakers. And it means we have to start re-prioritizing our marketing. Your thumbail images need to be that much better. Your poster design (and its pull quotes) matter less. Your marketing spend, especially on Facebook, should emphasize your best quotes even more. And for some people, they’ll have to debate whether a theatrical run predicated on  getting reviews even matters for their film anymore – perhaps that four-wall or service deal money would be better spent on other marketing. Lots to consider in the digital age.

All that said, I think Rotten Tomatoes is not the problem. If you go to their site, you can access a lot more reviews now. But Ratner is right that our reduction of these reviews down to one score, and even worse – the cutting of pull quotes from online sites – is a problem.

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Edinburgh and the Future of Film Fests

'Edinburgh' photo (c) 2009, Moyan Brenn - license:

For my money, there’s no better reading right now in the film world than David Cairn’s excellent series of interview posts on the Edinburgh Film Festival. You can read the latest one here, and part one and two here. I think this is essential reading for anyone who cares about film fests, the film industry, the state of and future of film going…or about the state of culture generally.

Why are they so great? Well, there’s been a lot of griping about this year’s Edinburgh Int’l Film Fest, but David’s series is going beyond the gripe. He’s interviewing several people involved with the festival, promising to also run an interview with this year’s artistic manager, and he’s not concentrating on the bad. For example, he starts by asking them to talk about their favorite moment’s from their history with the festival. The stories he hears are great, and tell us a lot about what makes a great film fest, as well as why people keep working at them. A few gripes do get shared, but what comes across the most is a great discussion about why festivals matter, what they mean to their local community and the film industry, and how that might evolve. I’m finding them a fascinating and much needed discussion.

What is most striking to me is the fact that I can’t imagine anyone in the US film news/blog scene doing anything remotely as important as this. Seriously. No offense to my friends in the film news space, but what has happened and is happening in Edinburgh is worthy of some serious reporting. Not just from the current perspective of “oh shit, this was a bad year,” but from the perspectives of: there’s great change facing many film festivals, what can we learn here?; Edinburgh has a glorious history, what did it use to do that we can learn from by examining the past?; How is film going changing?; What does it mean to run/be a film festival today?; and yes, Who is at fault and what can be done??!!

On that last note, can I just say publicly, since no one else is doing so:

Give me a f-in break people. Quit blaming artistic director James Mullighan for all the woes of Edinburgh this year. He may be a friend, but even if he was an enemy, I would point out that he only took the job some four months before the festival, he inherited many problems and the buck doesn’t stop with the artistic director. He had no time to do much of anything, and even less budget. As much as I loved Hannah and her predecessors (and am not pinning the blame to them either), I have attended the festival for the last few years, and there was a lot of (less public) griping going on about many of these same issues. The problems didn’t just start this year. He also seems to have experimented with some cool new programming that actually worked, as well. And last, and to my mind most importantly – the problems facing the Edinburgh Film Festival are arguably completely in the realm of the management level, not the artistic one, and I’d be willing to bet that ANY artistic director with less problems on this front could experiment more and honor the past more than was possible here. Let’s face it – if the festival is losing money, bringing in an artistic director too late and losing both big name support and street cred, the buck stops at a higher level. Without having met the CEO or board of the festival I am quite certain that’s where the blame should be placed.

Yep, them’s fighting words, but no one I’ve read yet has convinced me otherwise.

In the meantime, every film festival director and their board chair should make this series of posts a must-read for their entire staff and board. There should be a staff/board retreat dedicated to thinking about what can be learned from this debacle, and if you happen to run a film conference attended by many festival people, or maybe a conference for festivals…ahem…perhaps you should consider a panel about this as well.

In closing, so it doesn’t seem I’m wallowing in anyone’s failures and changes – I have loved the Edinburgh Film Fest since I first attended it. I’ve liked every staff person there that I have met, and think they are doing an excellent, hard job and took too much criticism this year. I think it can and will become an important festival again. Its problems can’t be pinned on any one person, but can be linked to leadership failures. I can’t wait to attend it again in the future.

What do you think?

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