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.

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, 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.

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