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Star Wars: The Force Awakens and the uncertain future of movie critics

Normally when a movie studio decides not to screen a film for critics, it’s a sign of weakness. The film’s not working, so rather than let bad word of mouth hurt the opening weekend, the move is just to hide the problem from the moviegoing public as long as possible. But there’s nothing normal about the upcoming release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which according to recent reports isn’t screening for year-end awards consideration — and likely won’t be shown ahead of time to critics at all.

What’s being hidden this time is the movie itself — and any spoilerific twists J.J. Abrams has cooked up. In an era of oversaturation, where it’s common for nearly every major joke and reveal to be spoiled by a movie’s trailers and marketing campaign, The Force Awakens has been a cinematic anomaly, parcelling out carefully chosen nuggets of information that have generated unprecedented levels of excitement without revealing much about what audiences will be seeing next month. For fans, it’s a welcome change that’s largely kept the notorious internet spoiler machine at bay — but for studios anxious to control how every facet of how a movie is perceived in order to maximize box office and hype, it could be the new blockbuster template.

To get a better idea of just how different the Force Awakens campaign has been, it’s worth jumping back to 1999, when Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace came out. Back then, online spoiler culture was just getting started, and upstart movie sites like Ain’t It Cool News were making their name by publishing leaks and script reviews months before films hit theaters. The lone bastion of discretion was the world of newspaper and magazine movie reviews, but when fan reactions started popping up online, publications threw their embargoes out the window and published their (largely negative) reviews early — to the vocal frustration of 20th Century Fox executives.

The internet broke the 'Phantom Menace' release strategy

The internet broke the Phantom Menace release strategy, and while it didn’t stop the movie from setting records, it no doubt set the narrative much sooner than Fox would have liked. By playing information keepaway — and putting tickets on sale two months ahead of time — The Force Awakens has been able to sidestep all of that, preventing any outside voices from interfering with the nostalgia-laden message that’s been steadily sent over the past two years. In a sense, it’s been the ultimate exploitation of brand goodwill, capitalizing almost entirely on people’s hope that the movie will be good — because the less you show, the less chance that somebody out there will see something they don’t like.

Now, I’m not suggesting it’s all some cynical ploy. Abrams’ love of mystery is well known, and we’re talking about a franchise that’s home to one of the biggest third-act reveals in movie history. Whatever The Force Awakens’ secrets are, keeping them quiet is a herculean task, and removing things like press screenings from the equation are a logical next step. But aside from sidelining spoilers, it has the added advantage of letting the studio own the way the film is perceived all the way up until opening day, and it's all too easy to see why other blockbusters might want to jump on board that bandwagon.

Franchises like Marvel and Star Wars already have their own cultural gravity

Franchises like Star Wars, Marvel, and DC have their own cultural gravity and built-in level of interest; it’s the reason Hollywood is banking on them so heavily in the first place. From a marketing perspective, these kind of movies simply don't need reviews to generate awareness, and while critical takes often don't make an impact (just check out the Transformers franchise), when they do, they usually hurt more than help. Fantastic Four was one of the worst movies of the year, yes — but would it have flopped a little less resoundingly if it hadn’t been preceded by a barrage of reviews pointing out just how incomprehensible it was? We'll never know, but if The Force Awakens does indeed debut without advanced screenings, it will have opened the door to an era in which reviews and critics can be completely left by the wayside, all in the noble-ish name of putting fans and the movie first.

As a moviegoer that loves being surprised in a theater, I admit I’d be intrigued by this kind of change. When I stood in line to see Return of the Jedi with my parents in 1983, I hadn’t had Darth Vader’s fate spoiled for me on Twitter or Facebook; there was a review in the local newspaper on opening day, and that was it. But it’s a tricky dance, because if Captain America: Civil War, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, or Rogue One were to arrive without advanced screenings next year, it wouldn’t simply be about preserving that initial experience; it would be about creating a streamlined blockbuster pipeline straight to the consumer, with the studio controlling the message every step of the way.

Good for fans — but bad for movies

There’s always been an unspoken, often uneasy alliance between film critics and studios: they show us movies early to get free press, and in exchange we say what we think to help readers decide, discuss, and contextualize. But with the glut of well-known, expanded universe films and more emphasis than ever on opening weekend performance, the balance of that dynamic could be changing. Critical coverage is an uncontrollable variable — an unnecessary risk — and in all honestly, forgoing it probably wouldn’t be bad for most big movies. What it would hurt is the smaller films. Every month dozens of limited release and speciality movies arrive in theaters or on VOD services that don’t have the marketing budget of a comic book flick or sci-fi saga, and the way those films break through is through word of mouth and the film press — movies like Tangerine, Ex Machina, and Spotlight, to name just a few that we’ve covered this year. Those films would never take part in a Force Awakens-style strategy, but they do rely on the larger entertainment coverage ecosystem for their survival, and if people get used to not reading reviews about the upcoming blockbusters they know about, they’re likely not going to spend a lot of time reading about the smaller films they've never heard of.

But that kind of film industry dystopia is still several domino falls away. For now, it’s time to look ahead to December, when the culture bomb of Star Wars will finally drop. With all this secrecy, there better be some surprises.

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