Flickr/Evil Preacher

Jabba the Hutt, a corrupt slug-like alien crime lord on the fictional desert planet of Tatooine, might very well have been a frequent enforcer of trade embargoes as he furthered his criminal enterprise. In 2008, in America, however, such embargoes in the film industry might seem anachronistic — a throwback to the pre-blogging age of Hollywood, i.e. 1993, when not just anybody with an Internet connection could post his thoughts on-line. In this pre-blogging age, movie studios could enforce review embargoes that prohibited critics from publishing their film reviews in advance of the film’s release date. It appears that the movie industry still views review embargoes as a valuable tool.

Just last month, a Warner Brothers studio official reportedly contacted Aint It Cool News and asked the Web site to remove a review of “Star Wars: The Clone Wars.” Apparently, the review had been posted after a studio-sponsored pre-screening to which the reviewer had been invited, but before the day of the film’s official release, which was an express violation of a Warner Brothers’ review embargo.

From a legal perspective, review embargoes are, well, legal, and although the exact language of the Warner Brothers’ embargo for Star Wars was not available, the TribecaFilm Festival this year used a clause that provides a good example of straightforward restrictive language: “Reviews of films that celebrate their world premiere at the Festival may only be published after the official premiere. All journalists seeking accreditation to the Festival declare their acceptance of this ‘embargo.’” Thus, as would be the case with any standard adhesion contract, the movie reviewer manifests his acceptance to the terms by seeking accreditation, in the Tribeca Film Festival case, or else, we can assume, by simply attending the advance screening in the “Star Wars” case.

The more pertinent issue seems to be the actual enforcement of these embargoes. As Aint It Cool News itself states, embargoes are “routine,” but “selectively enforced.” Thus, although the requirement to take down a post might seem arbitrary, any embargo-breaker would have to decide whether or not he wanted to fight for his “rights” (not necessarily legal ones, unless, perhaps, a reviewer wanted to argue that he or she had not been adequately notified of the nature of the embargo) against a major studio’s legal team or simply remove the post.

On the other hand, any studio, major or minor, would have to decide whether or not it wanted to risk the inevitable media storm–or mere rain shower in the blogosphere–that would result through the enforcement of its legal rights under the embargo because any action on the studio’s part would look like a vain attempt to cover up the inevitable publication of negative reviews. Studios routinely avoid pre-screenings of films and sometimes their reasons for doing so go beyond the obvious. However, attempting to exert some sort of control over timing of reviews on the Internet when the movie is pre-screened to critics, and, in some cases, the public, seems to be a waste of energy in this day and age when anybody and their grandmother can post their personal feelings on a particular movie, news story, or sports figure on virtually any major Web site across the vastness of cyberspace. For instance, in the case of the aforementioned “Star Wars” review, the scathing critique, before it was taken down, had been copied onto numerous other Web sites that had apparently not accepted any review embargo. Thus, the reviewer’s tagging of Baby Jabba as the “worst character in the history of Star Wars” was readily available to any and all Internet browsers before the premiere date despite the best efforts of the Warner Brothers’ legal team. In the end, the actual enforcement of the embargo drew far more attention to the venomous account than would have been otherwise.

Stuart Burkhalter

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