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Review Plus Revue Equals Reel Clout

January 05, 1986|DAVID T. FRIENDLY

Wrestling may have its "Tuesday Night Titans" but the movies have the rough 'n' tumble Siskel and Ebert. And the Hollywood movie-making Establishment endorses the pair in rare unison on their importance as national critics.

With their triple-threat attack--syndicated newspaper reviews, local and national TV--industry insiders say these verbal counterpunchers have emerged as two of the most valued critics in the country, ranking (they say) behind Vincent Canby of The New York Times and the critics from Newsweek and Time. "Other than the morning shows, they certainly have the highest on-air profile," says the publicity chief of a major studio. "TV is the way to reach the most people, and they have their own half-hour show. . . . You talk to any director, and they will be very concerned about what Siskel and Ebert think of their movie."

That's an opinion that was echoed throughout the industry. Calendar talked with two-dozen publicists and marketing and production executives to find out Hollywood's "take" on them. Almost without exception, egos being what they are, sources agreed to discuss Siskel and Ebert but refused to be quoted by name for fear of alienating other critics.

"Right now, I'd have to say they are the most important critics in the country," said another studio publicity boss who quickly added, "but don't you dare use my name."

The majority of those interviewed said Siskel and Ebert were vital not only because of their broad-reaching audience but because their reviews are intelligent and, perhaps most important, delivered in an entertaining way. "Everybody wants Pauline Kael (the New Yorker critic) to like their film, but that's mostly for prestige," one publicist says. "There's a feeling that these guys can really impact the box office."

It's an old debate: Can critics make a significant difference in selling tickets? At most studios, marketing experts believe it's all in how you sell a movie--the ad campaign, the posters, even the title--while the publicity folks think the critics can bury a gem or make a turkey fly.

But Siskel and Ebert have had a hand in refocusing that debate. What they offer is equal parts review and rev ue . There is plenty of show biz in their style and audiences seem to tune in as much for the shtick as for the performances they are judging.

"They are showmen, they're not just critics," says the marketing head of one studio. In order for the show to work best, observers say, there has to be genuine friction between the critics. "Having your film reviewed on their show is a little like the Christians being fed to the lions," says the marketing man. "When they both hate your film, it's like getting two bites of the same poison apple."

Siskel and Ebert aren't known as the toughest critics. They are said to be passionate about movies and loyal to their favorite film makers. One publicist said she knew both Siskel and Ebert were big Albert Brooks fans and was not the least bit surprised when "Lost in America"--a film that drew mixed reviews and performed marginally at the box office--got two thumbs up.

And they are not beyond helping their own cause. Until recently, early versions of scripts from untaped shows were released to allow studio publicists to use quotes for the print ads (free and useful promotion for "At the Movies" and a fairly common practice among critics). That all came to a grinding halt last summer: Tri-Star Pictures, knowing that "Real Genius" would land two thumbs up, ran a so-called "tune-in" ad touting that night's show. Stephen Randall, Tri-Star's executive vice president of marketing, explained that the studio gained permission to run the quotes from the producers of the show but that Siskel and Ebert didn't know about it. They no longer release the scripts in advance.

Inside the industry, most critics have their greatest impact on marginal "art" films, as opposed to the broad-based commercial pictures. "You have to ask who is review-sensitive?" says Irv Ivers, president of worldwide marketing for MGM UA. "That audience is usually a more discriminating, intelligent audience, and they become much more important on films like 'The Color Purple' or 'Out of Africa.' But there are a lot of films that are simply critic-proof." Ivers cited the examples of the "Rocky" and "Porky's" movies and "Stir Crazy."

Says Ivers: "The one thing that show does which no other medium has taken advantage of is the opportunity to offer a second opinion. Wouldn't it be interesting if newspapers had two reviews of every movie?"

Though they are regarded as intelligent critics who write well (nearly half of the publicists interviewed mentioned Ebert's Pulitzer Prize), there are some who worry that the entertainment values of the show are beginning to dominate the reviews. "When I saw them playing basketball on the David Letterman show, I realized they really are overexposed," said one publicist who works with them frequently. "The show business of it all is starting to detract from the legitimacy they have in print."

Maybe so, but a thumbs-up from Siskel and Ebert is a prize catch. Still, like all critics, their popularity is a mercurial thing. Says a studio marketing head: "You always feel they're brilliant when they love your movie and they're absolute idiots when they rap it."

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