The big movie opening this weekend is Men in Black 3, as our nation's multiplexes bring us Josh Brolin channeling Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith asking you to forget that time he committed suicide-by-jellyfish. But there's another movie opening wide today though, that you haven't seen, and I haven't either. That's entirely by design.
The movie is Chernobyl Diaries, and if you've heard about it at all, it's because a Chernobyl survivors charity is outraged by the premise. (Teenagers visit Chernobyl and discover radiation-riddled monster people still haunting the grounds. I can see why someone might be upset about that; I'm imagining in 20 years The Shanksville Chronicles, in which disfigured survivors of Flight 93 terrorize horny teenage hikers.) The movie opens to 2,433 screens today, which, for the sake of comparison, is almost 1,000 more screens than ever showed Pulp Fiction. Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom is opening on four screens this weekend, and suffice it to say, you've read a lot more about that movie than Chernobyl Diaries this week.
And that's because no one has seen it. Warner Bros., which is releasing the film, didn't show the film to critics. Now, any time a critic writes about a film not having been shown to critics, there's a tinge (and sometimes more than a tinge) of resentment to their tone, a "how dare they not show me the movie early, and for free? Outrageous!" (Think Drew's riff on food critics yesterday.) But I hope you'll inoculate me from such abuse, and not just because I'm less "movie critic" than "guy who used to run this site and therefore has accrued enough goodwill to convince current management into allowing him to occasionally indulge himself in a fashion thematically dissonant with the rest of the website." You shouldn't care if a restaurant doesn't let a critic eat for free, but you should care if a studio doesn't show the film to critics first. Because the only films that aren't shown to critics are the ones the studios are trying to hide.
A couple of years ago, Slashfilm attempted to compile all the films not screened for critics that year to determine if they had anything in common. OK, fine: They knew what they had in common, but wanted to prove it. They stank. (Only one of them, the Crank sequel, had a positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes.) So the studios try to avoid any negative pre-publicity and shuffle them into theaters before anyone recognizes anything wrong.
The type of movies not screened for critics vary, in substance if not quality. Sometimes you have the idiotic comedy that one senses is being hidden to save the egos of those involved. (Bucky Larsen being the most recent example.) Sometimes you have the found-footage horror film that's trying to bring in the midnight crowd. (The Paranormal Activity movies, along with Chernobyl.) Sometimes the movie is such an ugly turkey that it comes pre-mocked already. (Taylor Lautner's Abduction, which, I remind you, was directed by John freaking Singleton.) Sometimes the movie is written and directed by Tyler Perry. The most delicious is when a big studio movie is such a disaster at test screenings that the studio is actively trying to hide it. The best recent example of this was Dream House, starring Daniel Craig, Naomi Watts, and Rachel Weisz, and directed by Oscar-nominated director Jim Sheridan. The movie was a mess—the studio reportedly kicked Sheridan off the film and did its own cut with its own ending—and the goal was to sneak in and out of theaters before anybody else got hurt and any more money was lost.
Back at The Projector, Grierson and I called this "The Please Ignore Our Terrible Movie Club," and regularly inducted members. (We even gave good reviews to some of the films after grabbing 10 a.m. screenings and then rushing back to our computers.) But the chairman of this particular club has to be Kevin Smith, who has taken the "don't show films to critics" thing to an extreme, even hosting a Hulu show about it. Smith is pretty much the ultimate hypocrite on this; he loved critics when they were spreading the word of how great Clerks was but turned on them when, well, his movies started to get terrible. That's the one constant: When a film is bad, it's hidden from critics. Remember, nothing is better (and cheaper) publicity than positive reviews, both from the press and from the audience. The Avengers opened huge, but it stayed huge because people loved it. The only reason not to show a film to critics is if you are afraid of what they will say about it. The last resort is hiding it until the day it opens. If Chernobyl Diaries were good, the studio would have been eager for the world to know. There's a reason, after all, that Taco Bell doesn't give food critics free food. If they're gonna get the runs and tell the world about it, dammit, they can pay for it themselves.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.