The Perils of Being a Critic: Bad Movie Review Brings Lawsuit
March 10, 2010

In December, Variety reviewed Iron Cross, a film that opened only in Los Angeles to be eligible for awards season. They panned it, saying it “will be remembered as Roy Scheider’s swan song and little else.” (As they point out, “Scheider died in February 2008, before filming was completed”, which also indicates how long the movie has been on the shelf.)

Late last month, Gawker reported that the review had been removed from the website. (It has since been restored.) Turns out that the movie’s producers had paid Variety $400,000 for ads for an Oscar campaign, and they were upset that the review wasn’t positive. The director, Joshua Newton, was telling people that the reviewer’s “views on the film are not shared by anyone else at that publication” and the review was only published because the critic was able to “sneak it into the publication”. (Neat trick, that.)

This is why accepting funds from those you cover, especially if reviews are involved, is such a tricky minefield. Those who spend money, especially in those amounts, tend to expect things in return. And no matter what you think they understand about “conflict of interest” and “separation of ads and content”, they still seem to believe that enough spending can buy a good review.

The LA Times blog later reported that the review was put back. It was removed because the director complained that the piece contained “factual inaccuracies”, and the paper took it down to investigate. They concluded that they stood by the review and restored it.

But wait! The story isn’t over. Newton has now sued Variety, alleging “contractual breach, negligence, fraud and deceit, and unfair business practices. … He’s asking for general damages, punitive damages, restitution of funds paid, and an injunction to prevent Variety from further comment on the movie but has not specified a monetary amount.” So he wants his ad money back, plus more, because he made a crappy movie and someone reported it as such.

Ironically, Variety just fired its chief film critic (not the guy who wrote the Iron Cross review) to save money. They now plan to use freelancers only. Maybe it’s time for writers to look into liability insurance in case someone else thinks they can use the courts to bully them into having the “right” opinions.

2 Responses  
Thad writes:  

And film’s a respected medium; this kind of thing is even worse when it comes to video game reviews.

Back in ’07, an editor named Jeff Gerstmann got fired from GameSpot, after giving a negative review to a game which was heavily advertised on the site. Four other editors quit. (It’s summarized in Wikipedia’s article on Gerstmann, and there’s a Penny Arcade strip at http://www.penny-arcade.com/comic/2007/11/30/ — standard Penny Arcade language warning applies.)

Despite comics being almost as much a redheaded stepchild of the entertainment world as games, I can’t think of a similar situation in the comics world offhand. Can anyone else?

Thom writes:  

Since when has buying advertising equaled a contract for good press?

Newton is a clear moron.


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