The obsession with movie review embargoes: is it being blown out of proportion?

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Late movie review embargoes: are they still a reason to worry? Simon has been taking a look.

Appreciating the internet clickbait machine needs its regular nourishment, I’ve nonetheless found myself bemused over the last week or two about an assortment of stories that have sprung up. They’ve centred on the review embargo for Birds Of Prey, that lifted last night ahead of the film’s release this coming Friday. And the general feeling appeared to be that because reviews were only lifting now, the film must be in trouble.

Said stories were soon rendered moot when the embargo actually lifted, and the reviews have come in very much on the positive side.

It all reminded me of another film a few years ago. That less than a week before release, reviews weren’t live, even though it was widely known press screenings of said film had taken place. I remember reading a post declaring the late release of said embargo was “worrisome”. Turns out the film was Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, that went on to garner ecstatic reviews, even though the embargo lifted four or five days before its release. Oscar nominations too.


Both Birds Of Prey and Dunkirk are Warner Bros releases, and it’s not hard to see a pattern in the way the studio is operating here (it practiced the same, if memory services, for Mad Max: Fury Road). That it doesn’t hide the film away, yet holds the embargo back. Then, on the week of release, a conversation kicks off online off the back of all the reviews, just when the studio marketing department most want people to be talking about the film. Ker-ching.

The fact, then, that Warner Bros put a tight review embargo in place for Birds Of Prey wasn’t a surprise. What was a surprise was that people thought it was a surprise.

Historically, of course, review embargoes were used sometimes as a damage limitation exercise.

The embargo for A Good Day To Die Hard infamously lifted at midnight on the day of its release. The mighty Geostorm had an embargo that lifted at 11am on the day of the film’s release. Best of all, X-Men: Dark Phoenix reportedly had an embargo that – thanks to a disparity in international release dates – left UK reviewers unable to post their reviews until the day after its release.

An embargo, incidentally, is a trade off between the studio and the reviewer. That in exchange for seeing a film early and being able to thus prepare material in advance, a form is signed agreeing to hold back coverage until an agreed time and date. A journalist doesn’t have to sign the form, of course, and can simply walk into a cinema on day of release and see the film in question. But the movie embargo is something where all sides, done properly, tend to win. Not least the person reading the reviews at the end of the process, who has a sporting chance of reading something someone’s had extra time to mull over. It doesn’t always work like that, but that’s the theory.

But back to the case in point. There’s no obligation whatsoever for a movie studio to screen a film in advance, although it tends to be useful for publicity purposes. And the embargo now is far more a global tool than a localised one.


Let’s go back to Birds Of Prey. Warner Bros has been screening the film for journalists for weeks, has been open about allowing people to put their reactions on social media (the same thing as a review to me, but then I’m old), and has used those reactions extensively in its marketing campaign so far. That may not be the same across the world, though, and having a timed embargo that’s enforced in every country around the planet stops a disparity – in the internet era – of some territories grabbing all the traffic because they got the movie earlier.

Furthermore, having every film outlet in the world unleash their reviews at pretty much the same time also all but guarantees the film in question is going to make an awful lot of noise on social media, and will hopefully – for the studio – ‘trend’.

It’s worth pointing out too that some embargoes lift very late for reasons such as the film in question not being finished until the last minute, and thus screenings are later than planned (hello Cats). And there is still some use of the hold back the reviews because the film is bad tactic. But that’s a short term approach, and tends to be quickly rumbled.

However, what’s clear is that the days of a film embargo breaking very late equating to a film being terrible have gone. I can’t help feeling that those days went a few years ago, and aren’t ever really going to return. It’s now on a studio by studio case just when they want reviews live, and each has a slightly different approach to how it likes to do things.

But as Birds Of Prey helps prove, it’s now more common than not for a late review embargo lift to be just another tool in the marketing campaign. Reviews and trailers are arguably the two most potent weapons when promoting a movie. If the timing of the former can be perfected, exposure of the movie is likely to be greater, and there’s a chance more tickets will be sold.

That’s, ultimately, the aim of the marketing campaign. And I’d wager a comfortable 50p on Birds Of Prey having a very successful weekend at the box office, irrespective of how late its embargo broke.

Lead image: BigStock

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