Imaginary Critics

Most critics trashed The Animal, but not David Manning of The Ridgefield Press. Manning wrote that "the producing team of Big Daddy has produced another winner." A few months ago Manning was one of the few critics with kind words for Vertical Limit. He more recently described Heath Ledger as "this year's hottest new star" in a blurb for A Knight's Tale. One small technical problem - David Manning doesn't exist. Joe Horn of Newsweek discovered that Manning was a fabrication of the Sony Pictures advertising department. Sony used the Manning hoax for conveniently adoring quotes, which it plastered on ads for their films.

What's the surprise? It's not that Sony pulled such a hoax. Studios will do just about anything to market their films, whether it's blanketing television air waves or ludicrous commercial tie-ins. Shortly after laying off hundreds of employees, Disney staged a $5 million premiere party on a battleship for Pearl Harbor. As the studios increasingly focus on a big opening weekend, marketing is everything.

You could argue that the real surprise is that no one noticed while Sony used fake quotes in its ads for over six months. But wait a minute, let's look at two of the other quotes from the Friday, June 1 Washington Post ad for The Animal:

"The season's first fun comedy romp" - Mike Cidoni, Ackerley Group Television

"Uproariously funny, a laugh riot" - Tim Wassberg, Inside Reel

Has anyone heard of Mike Cidoni or Tim Wassberg? Has anyone even heard of Ackerley Group Television or Inside Reel? Probably not. If you saw Manning's quote next to Cidoni's and Wassberg's a few weeks ago, would you have been able to tell the difference? Again, probably not, and for good reason. Many quotes seen in film ads come from outlets that exist solely to provide these quotes in the first place. The "critics" with these outlets, commonly referred to as "quote whores," are wined and dined by the studio at press junkets. In return, these critics provide glowing reviews tailor made for ad copy. These reviews have about as much credibility as the "random" taste-testers picking Pepsi over Coke in Pepsi ads or the infomercial audience members who proclaim "You mean you get all of this for just $19.95?"

The more you think about the scandal, the more you realize that the reason no one could tell the difference between Manning and the other "real" critics quoted in so many film ads, is because there is no difference. Sony merely cut out the middle man. We look to critics for an honest assessment of a film based on their expertise and insights. But most of the critics cited in print ads are, either directly (Manning) or indirectly (most of the others), mouthpieces for the studios. Even the legitimate critics are often taken out of context (e.g., the ad for Little Nicky pulled a quote from Roger Ebert proclaiming it Adam Sandler's best work while neglecting the fact that Ebert still did not recommend the film). Through these dishonest and misleading tactics, print ad quotes not only insult the intelligence of filmgoers, they also devalue film criticism as a whole.

At this month's Cinema Lounge, local film critics Joe Barber, Bill Henry, and Willie Waffle discussed their profession and what it means to them. The discussion spotlighted professional critics who love films and care enough to offer intelligent, genuine reviews. Sure every critic has their own biases, but the good ones are free of any outside influences. These critics and their reviews are out there, and it's not too hard to find them. We just need to look a little. The David Manning scandal reminds all of us that when it comes to film opinions we need to consider the source. There is a difference.

Man on the Street

The fallout from the David Manning scandal has grown more interesting than the revelation itself. One moviegoer sued Sony Pictures, claiming that the false David Manning quote in the ad for A Knight's Tale misled him into seeing the film. Good for him. No, the lawsuit has no merit and will likely suffer a quick death in the courtroom. If this man is telling the truth, he's admitting his gullibility more than anything else. But I saw A Knight's Tale, or should I say endured the 132 minutes it took to see that ill-conceived, badly written and horribly directed abomination. So when I read about this lawsuit, I could not help but think -- yes, Sony should be sued. In an ideal world we could sue Sony for wasting money that could have been spent for films that don't make you envy the blind and deaf. Since that scenario is but a fantasy we need to take what we can get. Every dollar Sony spends on this case is one less they can use on A Knight's Tale 2.

Sony's problems didn't end with Manning. Turns out that two of the random viewers who sang the praises of The Patriot (what is it about Heath Ledger films?) in a television ad were actually Sony employees. Once again shock and indignation reigned among film media, while other studios decried Sony's chicanery. Come on already. Even the "quote whore" critics have a flimsy pretense of credibility, so Sony can be and should be faulted for their deception in creating David Manning. But there is no such pretense with these "man on the street" interviews featured in television ads. Critics can be researched and verified if you try hard enough. With random filmgoers in the "man on the street" ads, you have no way of knowing who they are, where they came from, how they've been manipulated, or whether or not they've even seen the film. When commercials show a man extolling Mylanta for easing heartburn, do we think that's real? I hope not. Film ads are no different. Even when these ads do include honest feedback from those who saw the film, it's still worthless. If 397 viewers hated the film and three liked it, who do you think will end up in the ad?

Sony did play fast and loose but they did not sink below industry standards for these types of ads, because there are no standards. If anyone saw The Patriot based on the "man on the street" ad, that's their fault, not Sony's. We should all know better.

Adam Spector
June 21, 2001

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