how do bad movies get good blurbs for advertisements?

Ever wondered how so many movies, including terrible ones, are able to get exceptional blurbs from critics in advertisements? Well, in many cases movie studios will actually take critics out of context to get great blurbs out of negative reviews. The Slate Magazine article “‘[Best] Film Ever!!!'” provides comprehensive information on how movie blurbs work. The article describes the rules, or perhaps lack of rules, for quoting critics in advertisements:

There’s no official check on running a misleading movie blurb, aside from the usual laws against false advertising. Studios do have to submit advertising materials like newspaper ads and trailers to the Motion Picture Association of America for approval. But the MPAA reviews the ads for their tone and content, not for the accuracy of their citations. When a new movie comes out, the studio’s marketing department scans the reviews, picks the most positive quotes, and figures out how to represent them in advertisements. Publicity teams don’t necessarily try to make blurbs line up perfectly with the original reviews. They do, however, generally avoid wild inaccuracies, so that the reviewer doesn’t throw a fit or file a lawsuit.

Although publicity teams generally avoid wild inaccuracies, there are still plenty of examples where critics have been blatantly taken out of context, or worse. Sometimes, these blurbs are changed, such as when a critic complained after he/she was quoted as calling the movie Se7en “a masterpiece,” when the original quote called the introductory credits “a small masterpiece of dementia.” Vanity Fair‘s Mike Ryan was quoted by ABC as having said that that the series Lost was “the most addictively awesome television show of all time.” He really said it was “the most confusing, asinine, ridiculous—yet somehow addictively awesome—television show of all time.” Roger Ebert said that he once wrote a negative review of a movie based on a novel he had enjoyed and the studio used positive adjectives he used to describe the novel to promote the movie without his approval. Fortunately, the studio stopped using the quote after Ebert complained. Gelf Magazine has a section called “The Blurbs,” which exposes blurbs from New York Times ads that take critics out of context. The following examples of quotes taken out of context are from the Gelf Magazine articles listing the “Best Worst Blurbs,” for 2007 and 2008.

  • Jack Matthews of the New York Daily News was quoted as having said that Live Free or Die Hard was, “hysterically…entertaining.” He actually said, “The action in this fast-paced, hysterically overproduced and surprisingly entertaining film is as realistic as a Road Runner cartoon.”
  • Michael Wilmington of the Chicago Tribune was quoted for an ad for the movie Norbit as having said that “Eddie Murphy’s comic skills are immense.” He actually said, “Murphy’s comic skills are immense, and ‘Dreamgirls’ shows he’s a fine straight dramatic actor too. So why does he want to make these huge, belching spectaculars, movies as swollen, monstrous and full of hot air as Rasputia herself—here misdirected by Brian Robbins of ‘Good Burger,’ ‘Varsity Blues’ and that lousy ‘Shaggy Dog’ remake?”
  • An ad for Year of the Dog claimed that it was one of the year’s best reviewed films. According to Gelf, thirty-two movies were in theaters at the time that had a higher rating on Metacritic, a movie review aggregate website.
  • In an ad for Funny Games, Ty Burr of the Boston Globe was quoted as having said, “Fasten your seatbelts—This director doesn’t play nice, fair or easy.” However, Burr said this quote after watching a preview for the film months prior to actually seeing it. He later called the entire film, “infuriating and moot.”
  • In an ad for Leatherheads, Peter Travers of Rolling Stone was quoted as saying, “Clooney throws us a rowdy party of a movie.” He actually said, “Clooney throws us a rowdy party of a movie. Or does he? Leatherheads could be subtitled We Only Kill the Things We Love.”

When studios can’t find any good quotes from well-known or noteworthy critics, they often will turn to local stations or newspapers and inflate their credentials. For example, according to the Washington Post, ads for The Nanny Diaries used critic Milan Paurich of WKBN-TV in Youngstown, Ohio. However, he was described as working for “CBS TV” because that is the network WKBN-TV is affiliated with. The label “CBS TV” implies that Paurich is an important critic for a major network when there are actually over 200 stations that CBS is associated with, many of which having movie reviewers. The aforementioned Washington Post article explains:

Film critic Erik Childress, who has examined how movie studios use blurbs for the Web site, says movie companies regularly turn to lesser-known and out-of-the-way critics when more prominent reviewers have panned a film. He calls the practice lazy as well as foolish. “When you see some name you’ve never heard of [in a movie ad], it’s fun to do some research,” he says. “You find out that the guy praising ‘Rush Hour 3’ is really some local station’s former weatherman or daytime talk-show host.”

The article gives the examples of Lisa Stanley and Jim Svejda, who are both claimed to be “CBS Radio” critics in ads. Both Stanley and Svejda are actually associated with local radio stations in Los Angeles; Stanley works the morning shift at KRTH-FM and Svejda is a part-time critic at KNX-AM.

Another tactic studios use to get good blurbs for bad films is using critics that like almost everything and constantly exaggerate how impressive movies are. While researching these kinds of critics, one name kept appearing–Earl Dittman.

In Schlock Value: Hollywood at It’s Worst, critic Richard Roeper, the former co-host alongside Roger Ebert of At the Movies, writes about this infamous critic:

One thing that we can agree on: Earl Dittman loves movies. Big movies, small movies, action movies, comedy movies, action/comedy movies, sequels, prequels, trilogies, buddy movies, dramas, romances—if the picture is in focus and the sound is working, you’ve got a fighting chance of getting an ‘attaboy!’ from the Dittman quote machine. The media are fascinated with Dittman. He’s been the subject of a 20/20 segment on ABC and articles in USA Today and the Toronto Star, and online journalists have skewered him in several in-depth pieces. Dittman was even one of the ‘critics’ named (along with Maria Salas, Jeff Craig and Mark Allen, among others) in a 2001 class-action suit filed by a group called Citizens for Truth in Movie Advertising. They alleged that quote whoring duped them into seeing bad movies and that the studios were essentially purchasing positive reviews by paying all expenses for reporters who come to Los Angeles to screen films and interview the stars…Dittman’s more famous than 99 percent of the legitimate critics in the country—not just because he likes so many movies, but because he likes so many movies that just about everybody else despises.

So, just who is this Dittman guy anyway? He works for Wireless Magazines, which includes five publications. In a CNN article, Dittman claimed that Wireless distributes publications in 183 markets that do not include New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles.

Variety magazine’s Timothy M. Gray has been listing the best movie blurbs of the year since the 90s. Dittman is a staple of these articles (Click here, here, and here to view some of the Variety articles featuring Dittman.). Dittman’s quotes from the Variety articles are as follows, with the reviewed films’ Rotten Tomatoes ratings added:

The Legend of Bagger Vance — “As perfect as any film could get.” (2000) Rotten Tomatoes rating: 43%.

Almost Famous — “The best film of the year.” (2000) Rotten Tomatoes rating: 88%.

What Women Want — “The most entertaining and delightful film we’ve seen all year.” (2000) Rotten Tomatoes rating: 54%.

Into the Blue — “It will leave you breathless.” (2005) Rotten Tomatoes rating: 21%.

Derailed — “It will leave you breathless!” (2005) Rotten Tomatoes rating: 20%.

Guess Who — “An extraordinarily funny, laugh-a-minute, side-splitting comedy!” (2005) Rotten Tomatoes rating: 43%.

King’s Ransom — “A gut-busting and side-splitting comedy!” (2005) Rotten Tomatoes rating: 2%. That’s right, only 2%. Only one out of 50 critics counted on the Rotten Tomatoes rating liked the film, yet Dittman apparently loved it.

Lucky Number Slevin — “The year’s best thriller!” (April 7, 2006) Rotten Tomatoes rating: 51%.

RV — “The best family film of the year.” (April 28, 2006) Rotten Tomatoes rating: 23%.

From calling a badly reviewed film “as perfect as any film could get” and then calling another film “the best film of the year” to overusing the words “breathless” and “side-splitting” to naming the best films of the year in April, Earl Dittman’s film criticism is so terrible it’s hilarious.

Roger Ebert once wrote an article on his website called “Movie Quote Whores of 2005” (Yes, Roger Ebert was apparently a user of the term “quote whore.”) In the article, he quotes a list of quotes Dittman supplied to the studio to use to promote the film Robots, which currently holds a 64% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Dittman’s quotes were leaked to Criticwatch by an editor for the Robots trailer. The following is just one of the ten quotes that Dittman supplied:

Wow! ‘Robots’ is absolutely magnificent … Although there’s still nine months to go in 2005, ‘Robots’ is such a spectacular animated film that it already deserves the Number One spot on every critic’s year-end Top Ten list … if ‘Robots’ is any indication of the caliber of animated motion pictures we can expect from Hollywood from this day forward, audiences are in for the best movie-going years of their lives … Count ‘Robots’ as one of the funniest and brilliantly conceived computer-generated animated films of the new millennium.

Dittman is hardly the only critic that consistently loves poorly-reviewed films and writes grand overstatements praising them. Another such critic is Shawn Edwards of WDAF-TV in Kansas City, although he is cited as being from Fox TV, the affiliated network, in ads.

Edwards is heavily featured in Variety‘s best blurbs of the year for 2004, 2005, 2006, and 2007. Here are his quotes:

Barbershop 2 — “The best comedy of the year!” (Feb. 6, 2004) Rotten Tomatoes rating: 68%.

White Chicks — “The funniest comedy of the year.” (July 9, 2004) Rotten Tomatoes rating: 15%.

Little Black Book — “The best romantic comedy of the year!” (Aug. 1, 2004) Rotten Tomatoes rating: 21%.

The Chronicles of Riddick — “One of the best sci-fi films ever! Extraordinary! A true classic that’s not to be missed! Vin Diesel is ecstatically superb.” (June 11, 2004) Rotten Tomatoes rating: 29%.

Hitch — “’Hitch’ is the comedy of the year.” (Feb. 6, 2005) Rotten Tomatoes rating: 69%.

Be Cool — “The coolest movie of the year!” (March 3, 2005) Rotten Tomatoes rating: 30%.

Batman Begins — “It’s the film of the year!” (2005) Rotten Tomatoes rating: 85%.

Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants — “The most charming and wonderful movie you’ll see all year.” (2005) Rotten Tomatoes rating: 77%.

Waiting… — “The craziest comedy of the year!” (2005) Rotten Tomatoes rating: 31%.

The Skeleton Key — “The best thriller of the year.” (2005) Rotten Tomatoes rating: 37%.

Get Rich or Die Tryin’ — “The most powerful movie of the year!” (2005) Rotten Tomatoes rating: 16%.

Nacho Libre — “You won’t see a funnier movie all year!” (June 16, 2006) Rotten Tomatoes rating: 40%.

Little Man — “The wildest, funniest and most hilarious movie of the year!” (July 9, 2006) Rotten Tomatoes rating: 12%.

No Reservations — “The most delightful movie of the year!” (July 22, 2007) Rotten Tomatoes rating: 41%.

Resident Evil: Extinction — “The most exciting movie of the year!” (Sept. 28, 2007) Rotten Tomatoes rating: 22%.

Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium — “The most magical movie of the year!” (Nov. 11, 2007) Rotten Tomatoes rating: 37%.

I Am Legend — “The best movie of the year!” (Dec. 15, 2007) Rotten Tomatoes rating: 70%.

As you can see, Edwards contradicts himself many times such as when he is names multiple movies as the best comedies of the year. He also likes to name the best films of the year as early as the beginning of February. What motive would he have for giving exaggerated praise to so many movies? According to Gelf Magazine, Edwards told the Kansas City Star, “The quotes you read of mine, alongside Roger Ebert and all the top-notch critics, has totally helped my career as a film critic and my credibility.”

I think it’s sad that many legitimate critics probably aren’t able to get quoted in ads and gain more exposure because people like Dittman and Edwards, who were quoted 36 times each in 2005, give ridiculously positive quotes for movies all the time.

other questionable movie marketing practices

Besides taking critics out of context or using quotes from “critics” who seem to think every film is the best of the year, movie studios use other dubious tactics to promote films.

Sony Pictures once had to offer a $5 refund to all Americans who saw certain films that had been advertised using quotes from film critic David Manning, who was completely made up. This blunder cost Sony $1.5 million and they suspended two employees. In addition, Sony later admitted to posing two employees in their marketing department as fans in a testimonial ad for The Patriot. The company isn’t exactly a stranger to sketchy advertising techniques; in my blog post on astroturfing, I wrote about how Sony used actors disguised as tourists to advertise a new phone and made an inauthentic fan blog to promote the Play Station Portable. Sony isn’t the only studio that engages in dishonest advertising, though. According to a Los Angeles Times article, in 2002, multiple movie sites traced the IP addresses of people making posts on message boards promoting certain films to studios like Universal and Paramount.

the two best movie reviews of all time

Variety‘s 2008 article on the year’s best movie ad quotes provides the two funniest quotes about movies I have ever read. They don’t really give examples of specific problems about blurbs in advertisements that I wrote about in this blog post, but they’re hilarious.

Richard Roeper on Forgetting Sarah Marshall: “One of the funniest movies of the decade. I want to get down on my knees and declare my undying love for this movie … An instant classic. I laughed out loud 20 times… I don’t think I can oversell this, I loved it. One of the funniest damn movies I’ve ever seen.”

Peter Travers said that Pineapple Express was, “like if ‘Superbad’ met ‘Midnight Run’ and they had a baby, and then ‘Pulp Fiction’ and ‘True Romance’ met ‘Freaks and Geeks’ and ‘Undeclared’ and they had a baby, and by some miracle those babies met — this would be the funny movie they birthed.”