Inside Film Critics’ Struggle Over In-Person Screenings During COVID-19

As the public becomes less confident in returning to theaters, critics are pushing for studios to make films available digitally for reviews

On Wednesday, Disney hosted a press screening for the latest Marvel film “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” at L.A.’s El Capitan Theater. Aside from the mask mandates required by Los Angeles County, the event looked just like any other advance screening offered to critics and reporters for a new Hollywood film release.

But Disney’s decision not to offer critics the option to watch the tentpole digitally has made it part of a growing wave of concern among reviewers over seeing movies in person as COVID-19 cases have surged and customer confidence in moviegoing has taken a hit over the past month. With the fall film festival season quickly approaching, the pandemic is forcing critics, editors and studios to make some tough decisions.

“I just feel like it’s a hell of a time to take a chance. So I’ve cut out virtually all in-person screenings temporarily,” Chicago Tribune critic Michael Phillips told TheWrap, noting that he has an 11-year-old son who is not eligible for a COVID vaccine. “I’m just being selfish, completely selfish, but to my view, studios haven’t changed their thinking on this enough, or quickly enough.”

Disney Shang-Chi Trailer Simu Liu
“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” (Disney/Marvel)

Last year, the pandemic forced studios to replace their traditional in-person critics screenings with digital screening options, a trend that largely continued into this summer even as many theaters reopened. But now, critics are facing a strange period where the availability of digital screeners can change from film to film, even within studios.

Disney, for example, has made some of its top summer films like “Black Widow” and “Jungle Cruise” available for digital screeners alongside in-person screenings. Studio insiders said that the reason why the same option wasn’t made available for “Shang-Chi” is because the film is being released in theaters only without a premium paid streaming option on Disney+, and Disney wants critics to watch the film in the same format that audiences will.

But freelance critic Keith Uhlich said that major studios need to recognize that not all critics are able or willing to attend in-person screenings with the Delta variant causing cases to spike. “We can still do the things we want to do. We can still write about the art form we love, and I encourage it, but we also need to put it into perspective and also adjust,” he said.

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Jeremy Fuster

Box Office Reporter • • Twitter: @jeremyfuster