This was originally supposed to be a straight-up screener review, but in the days since I've seen the movie, it's developed into something far different. There's an issue that's been weighing heavily on my mind, and it's about time I get it off my chest. Let me explain.
Recently, I was sent a screener DVD for a low-budget, independent horror/thriller called SERIAL: Amoral Uprising. It was sent to me personally by the filmmaker himself, who was looking for the movie to obviously be reviewed on The Vault of Horror. I was more than happy to do so, but after seeing it, I realized that I was faced with an interesting dilemma. Because the movie was not very good.
The acting, for the most part, was uninspired, with the exception of the female lead, who was awful. The editing and camerawork was sub-par, to the point of seriously detracting from the viewing experience. The script was amateur and forced. At just under an hour in length, it was still difficult to get through. Even the opening and closing theme music seemed entirely inappropriate to the material.
However, in researching the film, both before and after viewing, virtually all the reviews and feedback I found regarding it were resoundingly positive. And this has been a situation echoed many times since I began the Vault. This time, I was tired of saying nothing about it.
Now, don't get me wrong, I'm far from an enemy of independent horror filmmaking. Just don't expect me to give you the slow, dramatic applause and gush enthusiastically just because you had the ingenuity and wherewithal to make a movie on your own. That doesn't necessarily mean your movie is good. I'm not going to judge it in the same way I would a big-budget mainstream Hollywood extranaganza, to be sure, but it still has to be good. Many are. But for every Zombie Girl and Chemical 12-D, there are unfortunately a dozen SERIAL: Amoral Uprisings.
Is it a bit awkward? You bet. After all, I was sent this film directly by the guy who made it--a man who obviously was hoping I would like it. And while I greatly appreciate being sent the movie for review, and don't wish ill to the filmmakers in their endeavors, the bottom line is that I didn't think they made a very good movie.
This is an issue faced by bloggers--and also other online writers--all the time. I have spoken to some fellow bloggers who outright refuse to review screeners on their blog because of it. A bizarre dynamic has been set up, which is unique in some ways, and sadly reminiscent of the past in others.
As a blogger, I consider myself a journalist--amateur, alas, but a journalist nonetheless. And maybe it's because I've also worked on the professional end as well that I have such a strong conviction on this matter. But there's something going on here that just doesn't sit right with me.
In the past two-plus years, I've had some DVD screeners sent to me that, quite frankly, would function better as coasters than as movies. And yet, time and again, I will find reviewers online almost unanimously raving about them. And I think there are a few reasons for this. There's issues on both sides here.
On the one hand, I think there are some bloggers and writers who are a bit unaware of how the setup is supposed to work. Some believe that they are somehow expected to write positive reviews, or want to do so in order to stay in the good graces of those who send them, and insure that they continue to receive them. Some have never been in a professional writing environment, and honestly don't, I believe, fully grasp the way it's should ethically work.
We are not beholden to these studios, filmmakers and marketers. When they send in a movie to be reviewed, they take a chance that it may get a good review and may get a bad review. That's the way the game works. There should be no expectation on their part of a good review--and this whole "you scratch my back, I scratch yours" scenario is part of the reason bloggers unfortunately get stigmatized by the mainstream media.
If you don't like a movie, say so. And don't go the route of only reviewing movies you like, either. Long-time followers of Ain't It Cool News know that that doesn't turn out very well. Your first responsibility is to your readers, and they will not respect or trust you if you only review movies you like, or give good reviews to movies they will obviously discover are not very good at all. As I said, bloggers are journalists, and if you're going to make the decision to review movies, you have to man up and review the bad with the good. In the end, your readers will respect and appreciate you for it. And yet, the only way to describe some of what's going on is to dredge up that old word, payola.
A studio or distributor has no right to complain or be upset about a negative review, as long as it is fair, rational and balanced, and not outright libelous or defaming. That's the way it's been done for generations, and there's nor reason that online media should be any different.
But unfortunately, that does happen, and that's the other side of this messy conundrum. It's my belief that some distributors--more so than the individual indie filmmakers--believe they can push around bloggers. They believe they can bully what they perceive as younger, perhaps inexperienced writers into giving them free publicity. I know, because it's happened to me.
I was once invited to a screening of a major horror release in New York City by the distribution studio for the film. I attended, and wrote up a draft review, only to find myself contacted by a marketing person inquiring as to what my review was going to be like. As a professional writer with a dozen years in magazines, I can tell you that this was a MAJOR no-no, and immediately raised a red flag.
When I informed said marketer that my review was going to be mixed, I was sent a strongly worded email letting me know that I may not be able to run the review, and that the marketer would have to inform the distributors and get back to me on the matter. Plain and simple, they were trying to bully me, and it wasn't going to fly.
I immediately fired off an indignant response, asking if it was their intention was to only allow me to run positive reviews as a condition of my being invited to screen their films--and informing them that I was aware of how unethical that was. The person immediately backed down, and explained that all they really meant was that maybe I should wait until the week of the movie's release to run my mixed review--a compromise to which I agreed, although in hindsight, I wish I hadn't. I was then informed point blank that the main reason online writers are invited to the screenings is so the studio can collect positive review blurbs to use on the movie posters and DVDs.
There you have it--the backwards, dysfunctional symbiosis that has arisen in the era of movie blogging. If I had to assign the most blame, it would be on the big-time distributors. After all, the smaller filmmakers who send their stuff out personally are only trying to market themselves when no other options are available to them, even if sending their films directly to critics without a press relations go-between is admittedly a small-time, unprofessional way to go about things. As far as the writers themselves, some seem to think this is what they're supposed to be doing; others feel legitimately intimidated, which is very unfortunate.
The last thing I'm trying to do is alienate indie filmmakers or studio distributors, but if the result is that I receive less screeners after this post, then so be it. I support what they do, particularly filmmakers, but the bottom line is that if I am sent a screener, I'm going to give it an honest review. If I love it, I will say so. If I think it's bad, I'm not going to pretend I like it, and I'm not going to just be silent--I'm going to say I don't like it. Bloggers and other online writers are part of the media--they should be treated as such, and they should also think of themselves that way.
This is not meant as an affront to the makers of SERIAL: Amoral Uprising, and I appreciate that they thought of me when sending out screeners. But this was a "straw that broke the camel's back" kind of thing. I'm tired of bloggers feeling pressured to write reviews a certain way (whether that pressure is intended or not, it's inherent in the system), and I'm tired of those who speak their mind in the negative being afraid of vilification from studio big-shots, and yes, even filmmakers on occasion.
Bottom line, I'm tired of seeing rave reviews for movies that, categories aside, we all know are not very good--independent, mainstream or otherwise. Oscar Wilde once said of books that there are really only two kinds--good and bad. The same can be said of movies.
"QUITE SIMPLY, THE BEST HORROR-THEMED BLOG ON THE NET." -- Joe Maddrey, Nightmares in Red White & Blue
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