It used to be, the big difference separating movie critics, film journalists and whatever the hell it is I do from the movie-going public was that the professionals would generally be aware of things happening on the production side of what they were watching and would then have to decide how much – if any – of that information should inform their reporting.
Like it or not, knowing about difficulties and issues surrounding the making of a film can color one’s perception of the final product, and in the old days, most mainstream audiences were not concerned about the making of films or the goings-on of any filmmakers other than movie stars. So while a celebrity scandal could potentially derail a release (“I’m not seeing that! Did you know she stole him from his wife while they were shooting overseas?”), stories of budget overruns or unhappy producers rarely would.
This began to change with the advent of fanzines in the mid-20th century, but even then it was mostly contained to the realms of technology and genre-fandom. An article about a new creature creator in Famous Monsters could raise the profile of this or that B-movie with a certain demographic of fans, but it still wouldn’t make major news, and producers of big movies still wielded incredible power to keep the press out of their business.
All that changed, permanently, with the advent of the internet and fateful bit of PR spin by Warner Bros. When Batman & Robin turned into a then-surprising box office disappointment, some elements of Warners’ publicity made headlines by pinning a portion of the blame not on the movie itself but on Harry Knowles’ Ain’t It Cool News website for posting “leaked” stories about budget, script and production problems that had plagued the film prior to its release. The story put AICN and other film geek gossip sites on the pop culture map, and soon enough “pre-production” watching leapt from being a burgeoning movie-nerd pastime to a full-blown national sport. Tracking numbers, test-screening results, box office prognostication and other movie biz minutiae that had once been the exclusive province of film journos and the hardest of hardcore industry watchers was now being reported in the same manner as football scores and lottery numbers.
All of which means that, like it or not, more and more people wind up walking into movies with questions and baggage both beyond and removed from “Will I enjoy this?”. We’ll know about actors not getting along, about scenes being hastily re-shot, about directors and writers being replaced/fired, about ballooning budgets and studio worries … and it’s hard not to feel like it’s starting to get in the way of just watching the damn movie.
Some films, to be fair, have learned how to cannily turn this situation to their advantage. Avatar practically dared audiences to show up and see if James Cameron really had gone mad with power or if his unprecedented money/tech expenses were worth it. More recently, Joss Whedon’s script for The Avengers ingeniously turned the worrying question mark of the film’s production – “Is putting guys from 5 disparate movies onto one team actually going to work?” – into the central conflict of the story; hence why the film’s iconic “We did it!” victorious money-shot isn’t the destruction of the villain(s) but rather the assembled heroes standing in costume on the same street.
But more often than not, audience pre-knowledge of production issues seems to become a hindrance. John Carter was far from a perfect film, but it’s unquestionable that nearly a year of embarrassing studio “leaks” about a problematic script, infighting between the producers and director, title changes and breathless reporting about excessive spending created a negative view of the film so pervasive that it poisoned the entire rollout. It certainly colored the initial reviews, with “Was this worth the fortune they spent?” often being a more prominent question than “Is the movie any good?”.
Meanwhile, Sony is marketing The Amazing Spider-Man as though it were a sequel instead of a reboot of the franchise (its new tagline is “The untold story!”), and you kind of have to extrapolate that they’re trying to dissuade mainstream audiences from fixating on the infamy of its production and the perceived “screwing-over” of previous series-helmer Sam Raimi like the fanboy press and film journos thus far have. Even surefire blockbusters like The Dark Knight Rises aren’t immune – it’s a virtual certainty that, however successful the film is artistically or commercially, the mainstream entertainment press will be less concerned with Batman’s defeat of Bane than they are with whether or not he can beat The Avengers‘ record-breaking box office.
It also seems to be effecting the way movies get made. Just last week, Paramount Pictures set off an industry-wide earthquake when it yanked the heavily-promoted sequel G.I. Joe: Retaliation from its summer schedule a mere five weeks before release (tickets were already being sold!) allegedly to “post-convert it into 3D” for a new fall release date. Film reporters smelled a rat in that explanation, and now the “truth” begins to look like the new film had apparently been plotted largely around fixing/apologizing to fans for the most commonly vocalized complaints about the first film (see: Cobra Commander in his proper uniform, the presence of more traditional action stars like The Rock and Bruce Willis), a setup whose chore list was alleged to have included writing Channing Tatum’s “Duke” out of the series. (Tatum having been resting on the “handsome actors male film geeks feel obligated to despise” list at the time of the original film.)
But a funny thing happened on the way to the sequel: In between wrapping the first G.I. Joe and shooting his (supposed) farewell cameo in the sequel, Tatum went and earned himself box office clout with The Vow and a fresh acceptance by finicky film geeks via 21 Jump Street. With his stock expected to rise even further with the release of Steven Soderberg’s male stripper movie Magic Mike, it’s now widely believed that Paramount – having axed him for the series in response to hype – is now re-shooting parts of the film in order to bring him back in response to new hype.
It’s entirely possible that there’s no going back from here – that we’re stuck with the foreknowledge of production woes being an omnipresent part of the movie-going narrative from here on out. Maybe that’s not a big deal, but I can’t help but feel like a certain amount of focus is being lost in gaining all that perspective.