Cinema Thoughts

Knowing when to screen a film for critics

Nicolas Cage in Knowing

Last night I went a long to my local cinema to catch Knowing , a new film starring Nicolas Cage as a scientist who comes across a set of numbers that appear to predict disasters.

Directed by Alex Proyas, it mixes drama, action and sci-fi whilst sprinkling them with well-worn clichรฉs.

That said there are some highly effective moments that stand out from the routine nature of the overall story.

It also marks another entry into the puzzling career of Cage, still an A-list star who in recent years has mixed quality projects (Adaptation., Lord of War) with some real junk (The Wicker Man, Next) and the blockbuster success of the National Treasure franchise.

However, I have to confess I was intrigued to see Knowing, not because of its star but because it was (in the UK at least) one of those films that was ‘shielded’ from critics before its release.

What happens with most releases is that the distributor arranges for different types of critics to see it at different times.

Print, TV, radio and online outlets all get invited to preview screenings in advance of running their review or feature on the film.

The last screening is is usually for the national press in the week of release, although if a film company is wary of critics not liking a film, they will not even screen it for them.

For example, in recent years the Saw films have not been screened at all before their UK release, partly because the distributors know that critics will hate them and they don’t want bad reviews affecting the opening weekend gross.

As far as I understand, the UK distributor (E1 Films) of Knowing wasn’t keen on screening it before the national press show and I can see why as it is the sort of film that most critics here will dislike (I may be wrong but check the national papers tomorrow and see if I was right or not).

As E1 didn’t respond to my emails about it, I was thinking of just leaving it out of my regular weekly radio review.

However, they actually released it nationwide yesterday on a Wednesday so I decided to go along and check it out with a paying audience.

Some critics, who have the privilege of seeing films for free (lest we forget), resent this but I usually get a kick out of paying to see a film in a cinema that isn’t one of the London screening rooms I spend a lot of time in.

The thing I like most is that you get to see how a film actually plays with a paying audience, who probably see 2 or 3 films a month rather than critics who often squeeze in about 5 or 6 a week.

My excitement though, was tempered a little bit by one of my pet hates with mutiplex cinemas – poor projection.

It was a little blurry and although not bad enough for people to complain, was still not up to scratch.

Generally speaking screenings for critics have a dedicated projectionist who knows what he is doing whilst multiplexes (in trying to cut costs) have the opposite.

I remember seeing Oceans Thirteen in the multiplex cinema at the 02 arena complex in Greenwich and being shocked at how bad the image on screen was.

Sadly, cinemas get away with this because I’m guessing most audiences can’t tell when it is bad enough to complain.

On my way in I took a glance at the poster in the foyer and was struck by how closely it resembled the artwork for Steven Spielberg’s 2005 War of the Worlds remake:

Knowing and WOTW

I’m tempted here to mention more similarites but I’ll hold back for now.

Anyway, the film started and most of it consists of Cage (playing a recently widowed scientist) and his young son trying to figure out what a set of numbers scribbled down on a piece of paper 50 years ago actually mean.

A lot of the time Cage wears the perpetual frown that has become a hallmark of his recent performances and the whole thing mostly plays like a vintage X-Files episode on steroids.

There were some ironic laughs from the audience at some of the lamer moments, especially the pedestrian dialogue, but I think they were mostly in to it.

Despite a plodding narrative, the set pieces – especially ones involving various forms of transport – and the epic climax are very well handled indeed.

Overall, it doesn’t really work but there are some interesting themes and some strong visual ideas that you might not expect in a film like this.

That said, the lead actors (Cage and Rose Byrne) are let down by a script that seems to see dialogue as incidental to the bigger issues of the film.

So, you may ask, why were E1 Films reluctant to screen to most UK critics?

I think that they felt by opening it on a Wednesday they could not only bump up the opening week’s gross by getting in two extra day’s business (and the cinema I was in was surprisingly busy) but also steal a march on the anticipated weak reviews.

It is a strategy that Fox recently adopted for Marley and Me, another film critics reviled but still proved a hit with audiences. Does this mean that critics don’t matter?

My take is that critics do matter to varying degrees, but it also depends on the film.

Major studio blockbusters are almost critic proof as they have enormous marketing budgets but films on a slightly smaller scale like Knowing, with an estimated budget of $50 million, are vulnerable to bad word of mouth.

If critics universally pan a movie at this level then it will, generally speaking, affect the opening and overall box office prospects. For films released during Oscar season, decent reviews and buzz are almost essential to launching them successfully.

Then of course, there are films that got great reviews (The Insider and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) and still struggle to make an impact at the box office.

There is a much quoted maxim in Hollywood coined by writer William Goldman that says:

“Nobody knows anything”

But I don’t think that’s quite true.

After all, if you know that nobody knows anything, then you actually do know something (even if it is just the fact that nobody else knows anything).

In the case of films like Knowing, studios get wary of screening them for critics precisely because they do ‘know’ how it will go down.

> Knowing at the IMDb
> Reviews for Knowing at Metacritic

[Image copyright ยฉ Summit Entertainment / E1 Films]