Indiana Jones Is Battling the Long Knives of the Internet
LOS ANGELES — Now comes the part where Indiana Jones dangles over the snake pit of public opinion.
Actually, a handful of Web reviewers have already struck at the film “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” despite an intense effort by the director Steven Spielberg, the executive producer George Lucas and Paramount Pictures to keep this highly anticipated sequel out of sight until Sunday, May 18.
On that day, this fourth Indiana Jones movie is scheduled to make its debut at the Cannes Film Festival with an afternoon press screening, and another one at night.
At about the same time, the picture, which opens in theaters on the following Thursday, is expected to be screened for the news media and industry insiders at multiple showings in Manhattan and Los Angeles, while other screenings are scheduled around the world.
Mr. Spielberg is unusually fastidious when it comes to protecting his films from advance word that can diminish excitement or muddy a message planted by months of carefully orchestrated publicity and expensive promotions (including, in this case, a February cover article in Vanity Fair, complete with Annie Leibovitz photos of the cast, and leather bullwhips delivered weeks ago to newsrooms).
Mr. Spielberg customarily avoids leaky test screenings. Even Marvin Levy, his publicist of more than 30 years, said he had not yet seen the new movie.
Still, there it was, at 6:42 a.m. on Thursday: a harshly critical review on aintitcoolnews.com, from a poster who identified himself as “ShogunMaster.” Rife with details from the film, the review said, “This is the Indiana Movie that you were dreading.”
By that afternoon two other less critical, but less than sparkling, reviews also appeared on the Web site.
The man who posted as ShogunMaster, reached via the Web site, said he is a theater executive who saw the film at an exhibitors’ screening this week. He spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid reprisal from the studio.
Paramount had shown the film to a handful of theater company executives at its Los Angeles lot and elsewhere.
Movie studios increasingly tend to protect their biggest bets from advance showings. Two years ago, for instance, Sony Pictures screened “The Da Vinci Code” for critics at the Cannes Film Festival only two days before its opening in the United States. But exhibitors’ screenings can open a window for determined reviewers.
Such screenings are required in about two dozen states that have laws against blind-bidding, a practice in which theater owners were once asked to bid on films they had not seen.
As a practical matter, there is little or no actual bidding in the contemporary theater business, which relies instead on negotiations between distributors and theater owners. But distributors continue to hold screenings for theater company executives in the weeks before a film’s release, whether as a courtesy or as a way to avoid conflict with a patchwork of state laws.
Theater executives may have an incentive to play down a movie’s prospects after such a screening, to get better terms. In any case, many fans will most likely flock to “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” if only to make their own judgments about Mr. Spielberg’s decision to revisit the franchise fully 19 years after its last installment. Still, bad notices could keep the more ambivalent moviegoers from attending and thwart a truly huge box office haul.
According to Mr. Levy, who spoke by telephone on Thursday, Mr. Spielberg has kept a watchful eye on virtually every aspect of the film’s marketing campaign. “He gets involved with everything,” Mr. Levy said. “Every TV spot, every line in every ad, every advertising concept.” (Among the marketing tie-ins were Indiana Jones fedoras, available at Blockbuster stores.)
The current campaign has been engineered to create excitement around the opening date, May 22 — some billboards feature the date, in flame-colored letters, and little else — without telling too much about the film. Last year the movie’s producers went so far as to file a lawsuit against a bit player who had publicly discussed the film’s plot, which involves the exploits of an aging archaeological adventurer, still played by Harrison Ford, now 65.
The campaign has been effective so far. Fandango, which sells film tickets online, said this week that it was “seeing brisk advance ticket sales” to “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” identified as the summer’s most anticipated film in a poll Fandango conducted of moviegoers.
But a better gauge of success is likely to be the extent of online sales in the few days after the film screens at Cannes — and after many reviewers have weighed in.
Tim Ryan, a senior editor at Rottentomatoes.com, which compiles film reviews, said he expected those of “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” to surface “maybe an hour or two” after the Sunday afternoon press screening in France. His company will have someone on hand to post them immediately, Mr. Ryan said.
As rated by Rottentomatoes, the earlier “Indiana Jones” films enjoyed strong reviews. The worst-reviewed of the three — the second, “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” released in 1984 — was still the third-most-popular movie of the year.
Mr. Spielberg, Mr. Levy said, may not be the first to know if the aging Indy manages to wriggle past any negative early notices to score another hit. “When a movie opens, he usually disappears,” Mr. Levy said. “He usually doesn’t want to know all the details about how it’s doing.”