Last fall, I was sitting in the elegant bar of Indianapolis' Canterbury Hotel chatting with Ralph Winter. He's a big-wheel producer, about as big as they come in Hollywood, having produced the X-men, Fantastic Four and part of the Stark Trek franchises. He was here to speak at the Heartland Film Festival. I found him intelligent and unusually forthright about the game of Hollywood, how movies are made and marketed.
We talked quite a bit about his next project, "X-Men Origins: Wolverine," the spin-off of the most popular X-Men character played by Hugh Jackman. Anticipation for this movie is through the roof, and we meandered into some geek chat about Wolverine's mysterious background and familial dynamics. Winter was clearly pleased with his movie, and that so many fans are dying to see it.
But today I learned that "Wolverine" will not be screened for critics in Indianapolis before it comes out one month from today. It will also not be screened in Cincinnati and Columbus, the two other major Midwest cities where screenings are held.
This is simply unprecedented. For a major, major film -- certainly one of the two or three most anticipated movies of 2009 -- to not screen anywhere in this region is unheard of. The reason given is a familiar refrain: money, or the lack thereof. The studios are telling us they simply can't afford to do advance screenings here.
I find this hard to believe. It is true that it takes a lot of effort to stage the promotional screenings held in the evenings where the public is invited -- they have to have extra staff, and security and representatives have to be paid to handle the logistics. But the cost for a critics' screening, held on a weekday morning, is negligible. Quite often, it's literally one or two people to run the whole event.
Screenings for Indy have slowly dropped off since The Indianapolis Star reassigned movie critic Bonnie Britton in fall 2006. But there's still a lot of local criticism going on, as the new seven-member Indianapolis Film Journalists Association can attest. And simply put, we can't do our jobs if we can't see the movies in advance.
For a while, some films have screened in Cincinnati and Columbus, but not Indy. This has galled the Indiana critics, since these are smaller cities with fewer media outlets. (Indianapolis is the 25th largest media market in the U.S.; Columbus and Cincy are 32 and 34, respectively.)
But the trend is catching up with everyone. The Cincinnati newspaper got rid of their film critic before the Indy Star did, and the Dispatch in Columbus laid off their critic recently. I believe The Cleveland Plain Dealer is now the only daily newspaper with a full-time critic between Chicago and Philadelphia.
With so many metropolitan papers dumping their critics, studios are more often eschewing to screen movies at all in those cities -- even though alternate newspaper, radio and Internet critics are still soldiering on there. But without the big stick of a 200,000-plus-circulation daily to anchor the screenings in a given city, studios are taking a pass, so critics for smaller outlets are being shut out. We want to pick up the slack, but we have to see the movies to do it.
We're entering very dangerous territory here. When whole swaths of the nation are being shut out of screenings for big movies like "Wolverine," the diversity of opinion about film is squeezed to a choke-hole. Soon, all film criticism will originate from either New York, LA or Chicago -- not because those will be the only newspapers with critics, but because those will be the only places movies are being shown.