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.”
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.
Adjusting is also something that entertainment editors have had to do as they prepare for a busy fall that will not only include reviewing festival films at Toronto and Venice but also a crowded release slate that includes films from David Chase’s “Sopranos” prequel “Many Saints of Newark” and Edgar Wright’s “Last Night in Soho” to “Dune” and the James Bond film “No Time to Die.”
TheWrap’s chief film critic, Alonso Duralde, said that for many critics, digital screeners provided more accessibility to write about films if they were unable to attend in-person for whatever reason, be it health or disability concerns, family responsibilities or simply because they did not live in a major city like New York, Los Angeles or Chicago.
Now, amid the COVID-19 surge, Duralde said that he’s had to take a lot of different factors into account, including whether there’s a screening available for the film and, if not, which critics are available who would be comfortable to attend an in-person screening in a theater, screening room or festival. “Last year, Venice didn’t do any press screenings online. As for Toronto and New York, you are seeing some critics based in those cities feeling comfortable with going to a screening in a theater, and I’m finding myself assigning reviews for films I would otherwise review myself to those writers,” Duralde said.
Duralde also said that he has requested digital screeners on behalf of himself or his critics and has been able to receive them, but notes that not all critics have such requests honored. As a freelancer, Ulrich said, he’s noticed that studios have treated his requests for screeners differently depending on which website he is writing a review for, or if he’s writing for his Substack site instead.
“It’s not about you really, it’s about the venue that you write for,” he said. “What they’re looking for is the venue that has the highest number of clicks or the brand name. It’s a business decision. It’s been that before the pandemic, and it’s that now. And I just choose not to be offended by it, and where I’m at personally, I’m past the point of wanting to play this game.”
Phillips is on the opposite end of the clout spectrum. As a critic holding column space that once belonged to Gene Siskel, he’s one of the top critics in Chicago and acknowledges that he’s been able to benefit from the “caste system” that studios have created around press screeners. But with “Shang-Chi,” he had to travel to New York for an in-person screening, something that he’s tried his best to avoid whenever possible for the sake of his son.
“The last two, three weeks I’ve felt like, you know what, the least I can do is try to stay out of the screening room or a theater whenever possible until the 11-year-old in our house who is turning 12 soon gets his second shot sometime in December,” he said. “With all the confusion and second guessing I go through, that’s one thing I feel reasonably clear about, and I’m trying to stick to it.”
Box Office Reporter • email@example.com • Twitter: @jeremyfuster