Why It Matters When Movies Like ‘Men in Black: International’ and ‘Shaft’ Hide Reviews Until Just Before Showtime

Needless to say, I’m a movie junkie.  You can probably find me waiting in line for whatever the latest movie release is at my local multiplex each and every weekend: usually the “early” screenings on Thursday nights, sometimes even earlier than that.  I love everything from big budget studio blockbusters like Avengers: Endgame (2019) to Oscar favorites like A Star Is Born (2018) and every last little thing in-between.  I love movies.

At the same time, however, I like to know what exactly I’m getting myself into when I slink into my seat, popcorn in hand, and the lights dim ahead of the previews.  It’s why I’ve happily revisited childhood favorites like Men in Black (1997) and have been making my way through overlooked classics like Shaft (1971), Super Fly (1972) and Foxy Brown (1974) leading into this weekend’s double-feature of Men in Black: International (2019) and Shaft (2019).  I’m already sold on the cast and trailers, I just want a better idea of what I’ve signed myself up for opening weekend.

The problem is, though, that studios don’t always want moviegoers to be prepared for the kind of movie that they’re really in for.  It’s why movies like Crimson Peak (2015) will sell themselves on the backs of a more popular genre or Hereditary (2018) will dance around a key plot point that they don’t want you spoiled in going into the movie.  Like the truth behind Iron Man 3 (2013)’s Mandarin or everything about The Blair Witch Project (1999), sometimes movies are simply better when their marketing leave something to the imagination.

Other times, however, deceptive marketing is simply that: a lie used to lure unsuspecting moviegoers into the latest blockbuster misfire.  Sometimes this takes the form of Suicide Squad (2016) trying to sell us on entire narratives that never materialize in the movie itself and other times it takes the form of late review and social media embargo dates: where movie critics who have already seen the movie are under a corporate gag order by studios to not talk about it until right before the movie hits theaters – too late for most opening weekend superfans to realize what kind of a mess they’re actually walking into.  And judging by the behavior of this weekend’s two big releases – the aforementioned Men in Black: International and Shaft, that’s exactly the kind of movie that Hollywood studios don’t want you to know about going into it.

As of this writing, little more than a day out from both movies hitting movie theaters the country over, there hasn’t been so much as a peep from anybody about how good either of these movies are supposed to be.  For the latest Men in Black sequel, the embargo lifts early tomorrow morning.  I haven’t heard a word about the latest Shaft, but I imagine it’s very much the same sort of situation: the studio thinks that they have a critical bomb on their hands that nobody’s going to want to see once they know how (probably) bad it is, so they choke off any criticism of it by those who have already seen it for as long as possible.

The general rule of thumb is that the further out reviews, or at least critical word-of-mouth, starts to trickle in, the more confident that studios are that they have a surefire hit on their hands, because this builds positive word-of-mouth and gets general audiences more and more excited about the amazing movie in store for them when it finally does release in a theater near them.  The closer to the movie’s release that studios keep reviews and reactions from going public, the more confident they are that they’re actually sitting on a dud and the more people know about it, the worse it will be for their financial return on the film.  It doesn’t matter how convincing the advertising for the movie is or how great everything sounds on paper, if studios are actively fighting the press with what they can say about a movie they’ve already seen, the likelihood is that the movie’s actually pretty bad.

So while I am 100% sold on this weekend’s slate of movies, the truth is that I shouldn’t get my hopes up: and neither should you.  Reviews for these movies aren’t being released to the public until the day before they go live the world over.  That’s cutting things pretty close to the wire and history bears out that this doesn’t speak well for those movies’ qualities.  Remember, when it doubt, studios never want you to hear anything but good things about their movies.  So no word on the latest release is probably bad news for that movie, and you might want to approach it with a bit more caution than you would have otherwise.

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