It’s welcome news that the Times has changed its policy regarding movie reviews. Until early this year, the newspaper reviewed, in principle, every movie that received a theatrical release in New York—though we’re not certain how they defined “theatrical release.” In practice, it seemed to mean any film playing for seven consecutive days in the same Manhattan theatre. That policy has been the horse driving the cart of releases: many movies that have little chance of making money at the box office get limited theatrical releases in New York through the practice of “four-walling.” A distributor rents a theatre (or, more likely, a screen in a multiplex) and stages their own release, mainly for the purpose of garnering a Times review, which in turn helps push viewers to the film’s simultaneous Video On Demand distribution.
In other words, distributors have been using the Times policy to generate free advertising for themselves. That’s why the policy change is good news: distributors can no longer, in effect, buy themselves coverage. Also, the resulting inflation of theatrical releases driven by the Times policy (often twenty or thirty in a week) made it tougher for low-budget films—often given shoestring releases by small, intrepid distribution companies—to break through the din and clutter.
Nothing against video-on-demand (VOD); sometimes, movies released straight to video have great artistic merit, and it’s part of the critic’s responsibility to seek them out. (In an interview last week with Sam Adams of Criticwire, A. O. Scott, the chief critic at the Times, explained that the change in policy also involves an effort to consider “digital platforms and non-theatrical release options.”) Most recently, for instance, Abel Ferrara’s “Welcome to New York” went straight to video. It’s a film that’s near the top of our list of the best of the year but that, because of its lack of theatrical release, may not be eligible for consideration on year-end lists.
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