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December 11, 1997
Why the media aren’t welcome, why the distributors are nervous, and why it matters. Andrew L. Urban reports.

Extraordinary public awareness – and extraordinary friction - precedes the release next week on over 200 screens of Titanic, the year’s biggest, most expensive, most anticipated movie. The film opens here on December 18, 43 hours ahead of cinemas in the US. This release ‘tightness’ has contributed to an absurd and hysterical decision: that most Australian film critics be barred from seeing the film until the night before its release – and then as late as possible, starting at 7.30pm; 90 minutes later than most previews, and for a film that runs 3 hours and 14 minutes.

There are indications of corporate confusion here, and confusion is a polite word for this misguided policy decision.


I was not so much invited but allowed to attend the morning preview of Titanic on Thursday, December 11, but neither Louise Keller nor Paul Fischer from Urban Cinefile were, despite assurances that all our reviews would appear – as usual – on the day of the film’s release and not before. (Urban Cinefile publishes several opinions on each film, as does The Movie Show, from different critics - in a discussive manner.)

Fox managing director Robert Slaviero would not give a reason why our two other critics would not be admitted, except to say it was not personal, and that it was following ‘guidelines.’

It took several requests before the Sydney Morning Herald's critic, Sandra Hall, was told that there would, after all, be a screening to accommodate her deadline. Other journalists were barred on the basis of a hurriedly summoned policy that only one writer from each outlet be admitted. But The Movie Show's David Stratton and Margaret Pomeranz were both at the screening. A film writer for a major daily newspaper had his invitation revoked late on the day before the December 11 screening, because one of his colleagues was going, in a face-saving attempt to enforce the new-found policy.

According to executives at 20th Century Fox and other sources, the film's American distributor, Paramount, doesn’t want early Australian media breaks leaking into the US – in case they are negative - and Fox has agreed to delay media previews, especially for internet media.
But this buddy-buddy agreement may backfire: the degree of nerves exhibited by both distributors is sending the wrong signals. It is suggesting there is something weak about the film, something to fear from reviews.
Especially if they appear on the world wide web.

Ironically, bad reviews are already on the internet: Time’s Richard Corliss (Dec. 8) has some good things to say about several aspects, but his regretful verdict is that the film is "Dead in the water." And this not from some ‘foreign’ territory, but from within the heart of US media.

A lone New York critic has also posted a review of the film that gives it a bit of a drubbing, although he closes on a positive note and thinks Titanic will go down with lots of awards on its decks. The internet has suddenly become a more democratic form of global publishing– and thus not just more powerful, but less controllable.

But on Sunday December 7, Siskel & Ebert gave the film two very enthusiastic thumbs up on ABC TV in the US, the highest praise from arguably the most powerful movie review show on US television. In Variety, Todd McCarthy wrote positively (but also had to argue his way in to see it – see later.)

Potentially damaging reviews aside, the hard commercial facts of life for the Titanic camp is that at a cost of US$250 million, its 3 hours 14 minutes running time is a serious disadvantage at the box office. "Firstly, MGM is opening Tomorrow Never Dies on the same day," says Chris Pickard, the Los Angeles based Editor in Chief of film trade paper, Moving Pictures International. "MGM didn’t blink when Paramount slotted Titanic against it. They stayed with the date. This means that Titanic will probably NOT open as the top film at the US box office, because the Bond will film will have two more sessions a day." In other words, it will take more cash because of its greater capacity to. *

That will hurt perceptions in a country where box office results are as much part of a film’s overall appeal as its content. And that is why it is imperative for all concerned that Titanic get as good a launch as it can, with the enormous investment at stake. (Apart from the production cost, the marketing costs are horrendous.)

This may explain – if not excuse – distributors’ behaviour. And it’s not just here in Australia: Variety’s chief movie critic Todd McCarthy was moved to strong arm tactics when faced with a denial of a preview: Variety was prepared to fly him to Tokyo for the film’s special screening at the film festival there on November 1, if he could not review it in Los Angeles. It was Paramount which recognised that those circumstances would not help McCarthy’s frame of mind, and put on a screening for him. His review appeared in the November 3-9 edition of the weekly Variety: "A spectacular demonstration of what modern technology can contribute to dramatic story-telling," said McCarthy in a largely positive review.

* (In Australia, other major movies have been moved away from December 18, and Titanic’s only competition for its first week on release will be the French arthouse film Irma Vep, and the toddlers’ movie, The Wiggles.)
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The commercial agenda of film distributors is legitimate and valid: they do all they can to maximise returns on their investments, to present their films in the best possible light. The media’s agenda is to inform, & this happens to coincide at some points with the commercial agenda to promote. But they should never be confused; film writers can’t be simply promotional extensions of the distributors, ‘used’ or ‘not used’ at will. In the case of Titanic, a professional briefing to the relevant media on distribution marketing policy, coupled with appropriate embargo undertakings, would have done the job better.

Film critics do not exist in a vacuum: they serve their readers, the cinema consumers. If distributors treat critics cynically, they are treating readers cynically. When preview screenings are furtively arranged for some of our peers while the screenings are denied to exist to others, it looks silly and unprofessional.

See the on-set interview with director

Previews and media coverage aside, Slaviero says this particular film is bound to engage a huge audience, no matter what the reviews say. Ironically enough. "I think quite frankly the film will have huge appeal, and will probably play from 8 to 80," meaning anyone will enjoy it. "It’s definitely the must see film at the moment, with our research showing awareness at levels around 78% of people interviewed coming out of cinemas – and that was two weeks before opening. That’s the sort of awareness level films normally reach only in opening week."

With a running time of over 3 hours, Titanic will be difficult to schedule for more than five or six sessions, even in multiplexes and this will reflect in box office takings. Slaviero thinks it could take more in its second week, "but come Boxing Day the other new releases will have to sort themselves out," he says confident of Titanic’s supreme pulling power.

"Everybody should make a lot of money with Titanic," he says optimistically, "it’s such a good film and has such potential." Indeed; after its cinema run it will pick up handsome revenues in video and tv rights.


Slaviero is right about one thing - Titanic is very good indeed. As I came out of the screening on December 11, moved and entertained, I felt that the marvellous spirit of the film had been somehow besmirched by the antics of its distributors.


An edited version of this article was published in the Sydney Morning Herald on Friday December 12, 1997, under the headline
"Panic on the Titanic."

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