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WHEN STUDIOS SMELL TROUBLE, THEY SCREEN OUT THE CRITICS : For MGM’s ‘Shanghai Surprise,’ It’s Bombs Away!

Bad news travels fast. And there’s a growing tendency in Hollywood to protect certain films . . . especially those that the critics are likely to bludgeon.

To avoid the bloodshed, studios won’t even schedule advance looks for the reviewers.

“To be honest, nine out of 10 times, the screening ban doesn’t work anyway,” said one studio exec. “If a picture’s a dog, it’ll go barking everywhere.”

The current example is “Shanghai Surprise,” the new Sean Penn and Madonna film. It casts Sean Penn as a fortune hunter stranded in China, who teams up with Madonna, a missionary, who needs help finding a cache of opium. MGM’s ads call it “a romantic adventure for the dangerous at heart.”

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But the real adventure is finding any good reviews of the movie, which opened last weekend in 401 theaters in the Northeast and Midwest (and across Canada) to a resounding chorus of critical booooooooooos.

(The film was a box-office loser too, earning only $730,000.)

MGM not only refused to screen the picture before it opened, but it opened it way out of town, especially far away considering the magnitude of the stars in the film.

That didn’t stop those far-away critics from having their say--with other critics probably saying more as their turns come.

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Lynn Voedisch, Chicago Sun-Times: “This movie has taken the dazzling, marketable and decidedly sleazy personality of Madonna and turned her into bland mush. . . . As a do-gooder, Madonna is about as moving as Imelda Marcos pleading for a pair of new shoes.”

Jay Scott, Toronto Globe and Mail: “Under the Cherry Blossom Moon, or Desperately Seeking Sean.”

Jeff Simon, the Buffalo News: “The Prince Charles and Lady Di of the Noxzema set strike out here completely.”

The bad reviews really don’t come as a big surprise. For months, the show biz columns have been reporting that “Shanghai Surprise’s” release had been delayed while the film makers reshot some scenes--which is an early indication of a troubled picture. The film originally was scheduled for an October release; then it was pushed up to an August 29 regional release, with L.A. and New York dates now planned for Sept. 19.

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An MGM spokesman said the film will open in other markets as well, though no exact number has been set. The studio said it has taken out “spot” TV ads in markets where the film is now playing, as well as some “regional” MTV advertising. But the studio hasn’t taken out any magazine ads or made a video, promotional aids considered routine for major films these days.

It also came as no surprise that MGM chose not to screen the film for critics. As an MGM spokesman put it, in what might amount to a major understatement of the season, “Screenings for the press didn’t fit into our marketing campaign for the film.”

But why keep a film away from the critics, who would review such hideaway pictures anyway, usually on the Mondays following Friday releases?

“It is sort of a scam,” explained one studio executive, who preferred anonymity. “But it gives you the opening weekend, which is a crucial time for the film. It’s almost always your best weekend, with the highest percentage of revenue. And it can also determine how the film will fare during the following weeks, plus have a big impact on successive release patterns around the country.”

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“Born American,” a film distributed by the Cinema Group, also opened last weekend without critic screenings (though reviews blasting the movie appeared earlier this week).

“We just felt there was no upside to screening the picture,” said veteran Hollywood publicist Dale Olson, who handled the film. “It was made for an action-adventure audience, not for critics. But we had what we thought were wonderful trailers for the film. So why should I take a chance on having Gary Franklin go on TV and say the movie is terrible, when we could get a big first weekend of business without having reviews temper the reaction.”

Whether its because this has been a banner year for action-adventure films or just plain bad movies, this non-screening strategy has become a popular studio tactic. In a six-month period beginning this March, 21 films have opened without screenings (four from Warner Bros. alone), including “Highlander” (20th Century Fox), “Band of the Hand” (Tri-Star), “Cobra” (Warner Bros.), “Pirates” (Cannon), “Howard the Duck” (Universal) and “Friday the 13th Part VI” (Paramount).

Of course, you’d have to be a pretty slow-witted critic not to detect a pattern here. If a studio thinks it has a bomb ticking on its hands, it certainly isn’t going to screen it for a pack of ravenous reviewers.

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“I think, by not having a screening, that it does telegraph a message,” said Olson. “But the media isn’t the only party that’s gotten shrewd about these things today. The whole movie-going audience have become critics now. And they smell a bad picture a mile away.”

On the other hand, two Warner Bros. movies, “Cobra” and “Police Academy III,” opened well at the box-office, despite a screening black-out. Would it have really made a difference if the critics had received any early peek? All Warners publicity chief Rob Friedman would say: “The strategy that we employed seemed to be very effective for us.”

However, other studio execs insist that its impossible to gauge the outcome of a non-screening policy. “It (not screening a film) is sort of a dead give-away, isn’t it?” said one studio advertising exec. “But it could conceivably work either way. It might inspire some critics to champion a little film that’s been thrown away or hasn’t gotten its due.”

Asked if the executive could recall any examples of this, he replied: “No. But it could happen someday, couldn’t it?”

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Sometimes the toughest part of the non-screening battle is convincing the film makers themselves. “Every movie director thinks that he’s produced a great work of art,” explained a studio publicity chief. “At best, we try to get some advance notices which we can use to discourage them from screening a film.”

The studio exec laughed. “It’s not a pretty job. Sometimes it can break their hearts.”

A veteran Hollywood publicist recalled a similar problem with the director of “The Wild Life,” Universal’s unofficial 1984 sequel to the lauded “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.”

“The studio’s initial recommendation was to not screen the film, but the director insisted on having the press see it, because he really felt that the film worked and that it would be bad for the perception of the film if it wasn’t screened,” the publicist recalled. “In the end, the director won the battle. The movie didn’t get such good reviews, but it had a decent opening weekend, so it’s hard to say whether the press screenings really mattered or not.”

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Would it have made a difference if “Shanghai Surprise” had been screened for the press?

An MGM spokesman insisted that screenings would have made “no difference” at all.

Other Hollywood observers agreed. “The movie’s a dog, and when a movie’s a dog, no matter how terrific your marketing campaign is, it’s still going to be a dog,” said a former studio marketing exec. “I assume MGM assessed the situation and figured that after the first weekend--when word got out--that their box-office grosses would plummet. So rather than spend a fortune by opening it nationwide, they hedged their bets.

“If it does terrible, as it apparently has, then they can say, ‘let’s bury this thing.’ And if had done well, and their instincts were wrong, then they’ve gone to the trouble to test it out.”

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But how does a studio handle a film like “Shanghai Surprise,” which stars two high-profile media luminaries like Sean Penn and Madonna. Neither star has done any interviews to support the film. “Well, if the movie’s so bad that the studio hasn’t shown the film to the press,” said one studio exec. “You have to wonder--maybe they haven’t shown it to them either.”

John Voland also contributed to this article.


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