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Scott Mendelson

Scott Mendelson

Posted: November 7, 2008 04:51 PM

Ebert's Little Rule Book (Plus One of My Own)


Roger Ebert has posted twenty iron clad rules for being a film critic. Many of them are obvious (don't talk, text, or be obnoxious in a theater), but several are genuinely insightful. And, little did I know, but many of them are aimed directly at Ben Lyons, who has been defiling 'the balcony' on a weekly basis as co-host of the new, not-improved At The Movies. Oh, and I was right. He looks far more like his normal self with the trademark glasses.

My favorite entry:

"Do the math. If one week you state, 'Mr. Untouchable makes American Gangster look like a fairy tale,' and the next week you say, 'American Gangster was Goodfellas for "the next generation," then you must conclude that Mr. Untouchable is better than Goodfellas.'

I constantly notice the opposite problem. I can't count the number of critics that pan a movie that becomes a surprise hit. Then, when the star or director's follow-up movie arrives, they pan it too. Fair enough, but they also compare it negatively to the original film, forgetting that they panned that one as well. If you give There's Something About Mary 1 star, you can't then give My, Myself, and Irene 2 stars and then claim that it didn't measure up to There's Something About Mary. Oh, and Ebert did a variation on this back in 2003. If you give The Matrix Reloaded 3.5 stars while giving The Matrix 3 stars, you can't then claim in your Matrix Revolutions review that The Matrix was the best in the trilogy. Of course, Ebert hates the star system so we shouldn't be too hard on him for that.

This brings up a rule of mine, that applies more to general film writing than with criticism.

"Do your homework!!"

I jumped over Dennis Harvey of Variety back in September for lazily assuming that Changing Lanes was a box office disappointment while Crash was a mega-smash (they both made about $95 million worldwide). It's a common phenomenon, especially when dealing with alleged financial success or disaster. But don't just make blanket statements that aren't backed up by the facts. And don't call a movie a critical failure when its failure was merely financial. And don't brand a movie as a financial disaster without actually checking the numbers. This happens most often when writers want to appear snarky and cool by trashing a film or actor. It's amazing how rarely writers make mistakes that prop up a film or filmmaker.

Some common falsehoods corrected --

- Waterworld was not a gigantic flop. It cost $175 million and made $264 million worldwide, plus whatever it made on video. Not a mega-hit, but a solid break-even movie.

- The television show Birds Of Prey was not canceled due to lack of interest. The premiere was the most watched premiere in WB history. Alas, the show was terrible, and the viewers fled in terror.

- King Kong was not a flop and did not fail with critics. It made $218 million in the US and $551 million worldwide on a $207 million budget. As for reviews, it sits with a whopping 84%. In fact, it was the initial wave of 'holy crap, this is great!' reviews that led idiot prognosticators to exclaim that it had a chance at out grossing Titanic, which led to the narrative that it was a financial under performer.

- Ang Lee's The Hulk did not 'fail to entice moviegoers upon release'. It broke the June opening weekend record with $62 million in three days. Alas, it did fail to appeal to said moviegoers and the word of mouth sunk the film in its second weekend.

- While I loathed the picture and its reputation has plummeted since 2002, Die Another Day was warmly received by critics and was the highest grossing James Bond picture of all time. Why they decided to scrap the present continuity and reboot afterward, we can only speculate on the many reasons offered, but it was not because of the poor reception of Die Another Day.

- Batman & Robin and Star Trek Nemesis, respectively, did not fail because moviegoers were tired of the franchises. They failed because the marketing made the movies look terrible, the reviews confirmed that fact, and word of mouth crushed them after respectively solid opening weekends (remember, Batman & Robin still opened to $43 million and Star Trek Nemesis still did $18 million).

And, as far as Star Trek 10, it also failed for the same reason Hellboy II and Mary Shelly's Frankenstein underperformed. All three opened within a week of a hugely anticipated and acclaimed movie that targeted the identical demographic (respectively, The Two Towers, The Dark Knight, and Interview With The Vampire). All three of these films posted solid if not fantastic, openings, only to get slaughtered the next weekend. Whether the poorly received film would have made it to the customary $70 million Star Trek gross with a different release date is open to debate.
If you want to say that Jim Carrey 'needs a comeback' with Yes Man, best to check and make sure that his last five mainstream comedies didn't all gross over $110 million domestically (whoops).

If you want to criticize Tom Cruise's offscreen antics for the financial performance of War Of The Worlds, make sure that the film isn't his highest grossing film ever (whoops).

And if you want to rag on the general reception of Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull (as opposed to your own feelings on the film), maybe it's best to remember that A) the film got solid reviews, albeit many of the B or B- variety and B) the film is Steven Spielberg's third highest grossing film of all time, behind only Jurassic Park and ET.

If you're a film writer, Box Office Mojo and Rotten Tomatoes should be your constant proofreading pit-stops. Don't get caught selling the lazy company line.

-- Scott Mendelson

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