Originally published in September 2014
No Good Deed is a new thriller about a devoted wife and mother (played by Taraji P. Henson) who has to fight for survival after an escaped convict (Idris Elba) makes his way into her home. There is nothing particularly special about this premise; it sounds like a hundred other movies, and if you’ve seen the trailer, it looks like a hundred other movies, too.
Nonetheless, No Good Deed got a lot of attention in the movie press this week when all critics screenings were abruptly canceled. The screenings were originally scheduled for Wednesday night. That’s less than 48 hours before the movie was set to open to the general public. This kind of thing is typical when a studio lacks confidence in a movie. If they think they’ve got a winner, they’ll screen it a week or more in advance and allow critics to start the social media buzz. When they think – or know – they have a turkey, they will often hold screenings last-minute, in part to keep bad buzz on the down-low until the opening, and in part with the hopes that critics won’t have time to get a review filed before the first tickets are sold. This strategy also minimizes the likelihood of an abysmal approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes prior to opening.
On Wednesday morning of this week, critics who were invited to No Good Deeds screenings got emails saying that the studio, Screen Gems, was calling the whole thing off. Here is a copy of the email that I received:
Hiding a movie from critics is common. Studios do it all the time when they have no confidence in their product. What’s different about this situation is that Screen Gems was, in effect, blaming critics for the need to cancel all the No Good Deeds screenings. Their logic was that we would immediately spoil whatever the “twist” is, thereby ruining the fun for average ticketbuyers. It’s an absurd claim. For starters, Rex Reed aside, no critic professional enough to be invited to a screening would blow the movie’s big surprise. Secondly, if one felt it was absolutely essential to reveal the twist in order to properly critique the film, you can be sure he or she would give readers fair warning. Those are just basic film criticism ethics. Screen Gems’ excuse is nothing but smoke and mirrors, a way of saying “We know this movie is going to get poor reviews, and since we already scheduled screenings, we need to find a way to save face.” It is also another case of critics being unfairly villainized.
The story took another unexpected twist – one likely more fascinating than the one ostensibly in No Good Deed – today. Sony Pictures, which owns Screen Gems, sent out one of its weekly email newsletters. Not surprisingly since it opens this week, the subject was No Good Deed. Right there, in the corner of the email body, you wil find this:
Yep, that’s right – a critical blurb for a movie that no critics have seen. The author of that blurb is Joel Amos, who writes for MovieFanatic.com, a website so heavy with pop-up ads that it almost seems like a satire of bad websites. Amos is what is derogatorily known as a “quote whore.” (He is not the only one.) Quote whores are people who are allegedly willing to provide studios with glowing quotes for bad movies, in exchange for the opportunity to see their name in an ad. Oftentimes, the quotes are pre-written by the studio marketing departments, and a quote whore will simply lend his or her name. Joel Amos has been very successful on being quoted; the Criticwatch column, run by my colleague Erik Childress, had Amos as its #6 quote whore of 2013. (He was #1 the year before.) Amos is the guy who called Beautiful Creatures “gorgeous, lush, and wildly romantic,” said This Means War was “the funniest comedy of the year,” and proclaimed You Again to be “hysterical with a heart of gold.”
If you look on MovieFanatic.com, you’ll see that Amos attended the press junket for No Good Deed. He’s got a video of himself interviewing Idris Elba posted there. What you won’t find on the site is a review. At least not yet. Did he really love it? Perhaps. But he’s not the real issue here. No, the real issue is that Screen Gems is engaging in shameful manipulation. They’re lying about why they won’t show No Good Deed to critics. They’re unfairly making professional, and often low-paid, writers the scapegoats. And then, on top of that, they’re trying to dupe the public into thinking that 1.) they have shown the movie to critics, and 2.) it’s getting rave reviews. The whole “we don’t want critics to spoil it” idea is taken to an even further extreme in the subject line of their email newsletter:
Yep, that’s a #NoSpoilers hashtag right there. Critics can’t see the film because #NoSpoilers.
Why should you care? Because here’s a major corporation that is fudging things to sell you a product they suspect you won’t like. The marketing message, emphasized by Joel Amos, is that No Good Deed has a shocking surprise twist. Of course, telling you that in advance seems like a spoiler itself. Wouldn’t it be more surprising if you didn’t know there was a twist and therefore weren’t expecting it? Screen Gems’ use of a suspiciously message-specific quote from an established blurbster gives you the exact opposite impression from the truth. Real critics have not yet seen this film, so therefore no legitimate raves exist. Sony is the same company that created David Manning, a non-existent film critic who was quoted praising Sony movies in their own ads back in 2000. The company seemingly has no problem with flat-out fabricating things to sell their movies.
I have no idea if No Good Deed will be terrible or not. (I’ll be there for the 11:10 AM show on opening day, with a review going up soon after.) What I do know is that Screen Gems and Sony would not be going to all this trouble – and working overtime to build such a faulty illusion – if they had even an ounce of confidence in their movie. If they thought it was legitimately good, they wouldn’t need to cancel screenings, blame critics, or get into bed with noted blurbsters.