The Cost of a Bad Review
Illustration: Alanna Rizza
A hand fills in stars for a review
Illustration: Alanna Rizza

“Jude Law is more handsome than you even think he is,” says Vicky Sparks three days into her first year as an accredited journalist at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). The film–and–pop–culture critic for Morning Show on Global is figuring out how to navigate the festival. She is also learning more about how to talk to celebrities, while discovering how to stay on the good side of those who provide access to them, their publicists.

It’s a challenge of ongoing interest to movie fans. Last year, for example, the RRJ looked at how not to talk to celebrities. And just last week, Jon Caramanica wrote about the death of the traditional celebrity profile for the New York Times.

Caramanica points to Vogue’s September issue—which features “Beyoncé in her Own Words”—as emblematic of how the nature of celebrity journalism has changed. “Anna Wintour refers to the story in her editor’s letter as a ‘powerful essay’ that ‘Beyoncé herself writes,’ as if that were an asset, not a liability.” When the role of the journalist in celebrity journalism is diminished, he suggests, the subjects—the celebrities themselves—can begin to control the narrative, especially through social media.

Film criticism and celebrity journalism are closely linked, and often the people reviewing films are the same ones who interview the stars. This work requires balancing the ego of whichever star is of-the-moment while often critiquing the work of that same person.

“If there is information beyond what you can find out on your own, beyond what’s publicly available, [publicists are] the gatekeepers of the information, of the access of everything,” Sparks says. She reports on the parties and also reviews films, so she needs to talk about celebrities from a pop-culture perspective as well as breaking down their work. Sparks says she needs to be able to “absolutely publicly hate their movie, and keep them your friend, because you really need them to be.”

For critics, making sure their audience gets the most accurate review is at the heart of what they do, but that job is contingent on the access they are able to get, both to the film itself and to the talent.

According to Barry Hertz, deputy arts editor and film editor at The Globe and Mail, this work begins when local film distributors pre-screen their films for Toronto critics during the last two weeks of August.

“It really helps to be able to see as many films as you can ahead of time,” Hertz says, “before the festival begins, so that you can spend the duration of the fest talking with the talent that’s coming into town.”

Those all-important interviews, he says, have become harder to schedule over his 12 years covering the festival. “From what used to be 15 minutes, has kind of winnowed down to 10 minutes, 12 minutes, sometimes seven minutes; now it’s like you’re lucky to get time with a star at all,” Hertz adds. “It’s indicative of an access culture that is more and more restrictive as time has gone on.”

TIFF-watchers vying for a photo. (Photo: Michal Stein)

That access can become all the more difficult to secure when talent reacts to negative reviews. When director Robert Zemeckis was in Toronto in 2012 doing promotion for Flight, he hosted a wine and cheese party for the members of the Toronto Film Critics Association. Peter Howell, president of the association and The Toronto Star’s movie critic, says he was explicitly told by a representative of Paramount Pictures that he was not welcome at this event. When Howell reached out to try to find out why, no one would answer him outright.

“I was sort of told sotto voce that he didn’t like what I had said about his motion capture movies, The Polar Express and A Christmas Carol, that seemed to be his beef,” he says. Howell was still able to write about Flight—it starred Denzel Washington, and Howell says he quite liked it—but adds he was disappointed by Zemeckis’ “childish” response.

While Hertz says he hasn’t had trouble getting access to talent even after a negative review (his two-star review of Assassination Nation didn’t affect his interview with the director during this year’s TIFF), he’s still had to deal with the consequences of a harsh review.

On September 11, Hertz tweeted out:

https://twitter.com/HertzBarry/status/1039532382163009536

And the next day, he heard the same thing from someone else:

https://twitter.com/HertzBarry/status/1039944498309160962

In an email, Hertz says: “I’ve given the guy’s movies in the past bad reviews, and he’s expressed his anger to mutual acquaintances. I’m not actually worried about it.”

Now that TIFF is over, the filmmakers have gone home, and the reviews that critics banked during the fest will start to come out as the films get theatrical releases. “My producer said to me, you’re going to need a vacation at the end of this, and I said, this is a vacation,” Sparks says. “What vacation could I go on where I would have more fun than this? This is a dream for me,” she concludes, leaving intact the reputations of any tempestuous stars and the publicists who protect them.  

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