And now the Oscar for best movie blurb!
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The holiday season is also the season for Oscar blurbs, the only real difference being that the Oscar blurb season keeps going long after we’ve opened the gifts, celebrated the New Year and tossed out the Christmas tree.
For the past few weeks, as the Oscar race has kicked into high gear, my paper and the N.Y. Times have been festooned with movie ads filled with critical blurbs for every kind of film, from serious Oscar contenders to the homeliest popcorn programmer. The great thing about blurb ads--if you’re a devotee of Hollywood image manipulation and excess--is that they represent the cynical democratization of critical opinion, where everyone including suspender-popping TV celebs like Larry King and gushy Oscar bloggers, like the Envelope’s Tom O’Neil, are given the same lofty buzz-word status as serious critics like the L.A. Times’ Kenny Turan or Time’s Richard Corliss.
Normally, a picture is worth a thousand words. But during blurb season, the laws of nature are reversed. Desperate to position ‘The Reader’ as more than just another dreary Holocaust film, the Weinstein Co. bought full-page ads today in both the LAT and the NYT, with most of the pages given over to a lengthy excerpt from a Roger Ebert essay about the film, which is titled ‘On the Economy, Global Politics and ‘The Reader.’ ' To grab our attention, key sentences are bold-faced, though it’s hard to say exactly what the following musing has to do with ‘The Reader,’ not to mention just how it would encourage us to rush out to the theater to see it: ‘Many figures involved in the recent Wall Street meltdown have used the excuse, ‘I was only doing my job.’ President Bush led us into war on mistaken premises, and now says he was betrayed by faulty intelligence.’
It seems to be a trend. On Thursday, Paramount bought a three-page ad in both papers promoting ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,’ with the lead page entirely given over to reprinting words of praise for the film from the Wall Street Journal’s Joe Morgenstern, figuring that reading him waxing rhapsodic--'the movie is a soul-filling vision'--was just as potent as a gauzy picture of Brad Pitt riding on a motorcycle with Cate Blanchett, which was sandwiched between even more words of praise on the following two pages. In an era where critics are being fired left and right, not to mention largely being ignored by younger audiences, it must be quite a tonic to see your words of wisdom in SUCH BIG TYPE.
Yesterday, the N.Y. Times was so full of blurb ads that it had to print a separate section to hold them all, eight pages crammed with resonant adjectives and powerful nouns. Sometimes the meaning was clear enough: Of ‘Doubt,’ Richard Roeper said ‘Meryl Streep gives the performance of the year,’ as in ‘Come on, people, place your vote for best actress right now.’' Sometimes the meaning was less apparent, with Richard Corliss being quoted as saying of ‘The Reader’ that ‘director Stephen Daldry mines all the sexual and ethical intensity,’ which sounds like something you should save to share with your therapist.
What’s going on here? Keep reading:
I think the problem is that studios have so thoroughly destroyed the credibility of blurb ads by using junket critics (known in my profession as ‘quote whores’ for their willingness to offer blurb-worthy praise for any dreadful new film) and nonprofessionals that when it comes time to attract attention for more serious films, they can’t simply stick a few blurbs at the top of the page from real critics and expect potential moviegoers to notice the difference.
For some time now, blurb ads have had less to do with which critic praised a film and more to do with what adjective best captured the marketing message for the film. ‘Bedtime Stories,’ for example, has two critics at the top of its ad from outlets that you’ve never, ever, heard of--Insight Cable’s Bryan Erdy and Fox-TV Las Vegas’ Rachel Smith. But it’s not who they are that matters, but what they said: Erdy called the film ‘Hysterically Funny!’ and Smith said that it’s ‘Perfect Family Fun!’ Those adjectives perfectly embodied the focus of Disney’s marketing campaign, the message being that ‘Bedtime Stories’ is a comedy you can take your kids to see.
What’s striking though is how even legitimate Oscar contenders now use this same strategy. Universal has scored plenty of good reviews for ‘Frost/Nixon,’ but one of its ads touts BIG TYPE praise not from A-list critics,but from two relative nonentities, the New York Post’s Lou Lumenick and Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers, who is famous for lavishing praise on dozens of cinematic mediocrities. But since the ad is clearly intended to sell Frank Langella’s performance as Nixon to Oscar voters, the studio went with the critics who did the best job of selling the actor (‘Langella knocks it out of the park as Nixon’ is the way Lumenick puts it).
Even though ‘Benjamin Button’ is also viewed as a leading best picture contender, Paramount passed over far more serious critical hosannas to give top position in its two-page Christmas Day ad to the New York Observer’s Rex Reed, a critic who’s almost a parody of a film critic. Why? Because Rex delivered the money quote, not only calling ‘Button’ the best film of the year, but ‘ONE OF THE GREATEST FILMS EVER MADE.’ I mean, how could you resist that piece of hyperbole, even if it came from the same guy who called ‘Good’ a ‘profound, provocative and deeply moving film’ and ‘The Reader’ a ‘MASTERPIECE!’
It used to be that if you had a great blurb from the New Yorker, you’d fly that pennant at the very top of your flagpole. But the Wednesday ad that ran for the opening of ‘Defiance’ offered blurbs from the likes of Larry King, Life and Style’s Dan Jewel and Hollywood.com’s Pete Hammond (the man who called ‘Seven Pounds’ the year’s ‘most profoundly moving love story’) higher in the ad than praise from the New Yorker’s David Denby. All I can say is that moviegoers are smart enough to see through the charade. If you need Larry King to tout your picture, why bother with any blurbs at all?