We’re bound by hands and feet because the Devil of Capital knows how to manifest itself under harmless disguises. But not for having a more frivolous o benign appearance is it less deadly for the air we breathe. What is a review embargo? A paper by which a journalist agrees on not publishing anything about the film he has seen in the press screening until the week of the premiere (days may vary). Ask any film informer, today, and he’ll probably think that lack of oxygen is something inherent to his profession. When one of us signs an embargo note written by a diligent Communication boss or Marketing department member, is signing a silence agreement, and selling a (very small but significant) piece of his deontological code. The word ‘embargo’ has this implicit in its DNA: the tax office can embargo your fortune, a bank embargoes your money, a film studio or distributor might embargo your opinion on a movie until they consider it useful or inevitable. It’s the old and fearful game of power over the individual: sign because if you want to keep on playing I’m going to keep your stuff. Some rule, others obey.
I’m telling you this as someone who has wasted many pens (if possible, the distributor’s) obeying the rules of the game. Before, embargos were only a thing of big studios, majors, franchises and super productions. Now, things have changed: in order to have the dubious privilege of watching Bad Moms a week in advance, we had to fulfil the classic ritual. There were two options: either the film was so horrible that the people responsible wanted to stop bad press in social media (during festivals, some twit during projections, turning the cinema room into a galaxy of luminous three dots) or they were trying not to disappoint the expectations of all those who were waiting as July waters a film directed by the scriptwriters of The Hangover or, rather, feared the angry reactions of parent associations in half of the country. It’s clear that with real-time viralization, any opinion, be it by a critic or a fan, has made the control paranoia of studios increase in geometric progression and even films that wouldn’t deserve that kind of control have fallen into the trap of believing they’re bigger than they really are.
Embargos are gargantuan when we deal with a franchise, a saga with a legion of admirers or a film that can lose its edge through spoilers. It’s understandable that Alfred Hitchcock, the great marketing pioneer, banned Psycho press screenings and also the entrance of spectators to cinemas once the projection had begun. It was a way of guaranteeing expectations on two of the most radical and innovative script turns in the history of film. It’s funny that the promotion department of Pedro Almodóvar’s films, should we believe the rumorology, suggested embargoing the opinion of journalists on Julieta for two days so we could calmly reflect on the film, directing thus the rhythms of critics’ thinking and writing processes from their offices. Embargoes, in any case, are far from democratic. In many instances, they are only there to satisfy agreements, tacit or explicit, between studios and the country’s most-read newspaper. The medium in question can decide whether the information it publishes, be it in the shape of an interview or an “I saw it first” review, cannot wait to be published because that means lowering itself to the level (see this in high angle) of other media that can’t compare to it. I remember with a chill an unpleasant argument regarding the premiere in Cannes of Vicky Cristina Barcelona, in which the embargo of an interview with Woody Allen set on fire the waiting time of one of those round tables in which journalists ask what is expected of us. Sometimes, embargoes do not exactly arise the most solidary side of the job and the threat of a high-level medium (no need for names here) skipping the embargo unleashed a chain of mutual reproach.
If in Spain some media (one or two at the most) can dodge embargoes, at least when it comes to M size films, risking only to receive a minor punishment, in the US they don’t beat around the bush with such things. Well publicised was the anger of producer Scott Rudin and director David Fincher when David Denby, a critic of The New Yorker, published a review of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo a week before the premiere, violating the embargo he had signed during a previous screening organised for the New York Critic Association. Rudin deleted Denby from the guest list of press screenings of any of his films and publically accused him of being dishonest and not very professional. Obviously, Fincher, not well-known for his sympathy for critics, sided with the producer, affirming that if it were down to him, he wouldn’t even show the film or would do it only the day before the premiere. “The most valuable critics –he declared back then to The Miami Herald- are those who go to see the film Blackberry in hand and when they come out of the cinema text: ‘It’s a piece of shit’ or ‘It’s cool.’” The way in which Denby chose to defend himself was a cause for worry: after blaming the little editorial space his magazine devoted to showing the avalanche of criticism during Christmas, he said that he would have never skipped the embargo should he not have liked the film.
Something from which we can deduce several things: the first one, that the press doesn’t need an embargo to present the other cheek, or, in its defect, to show that freedom of expression is, now, a form of self-censorship. The second one, that Rudin’s obsession about Denby, or any other critic of his status, publishing his review on the day of the premiere was, of course, a marketing issue: that day, no one would have cared about the review being negative or positive, because the thunder provoked by the artillery of TV and press ads supporting the film would have turned it into a mere background noise, a footnote, another leg of the caterpillar animated by the misnamed “rules of the game” that should be respected. Thus, talking about embargoes means talking about the serious condition of our profession, so keen on satisfying alien interests that it ends up completely forgetting about its raison d’être: informing, giving an opinion, giving a view of the world.