Fans of doofus comedy were understandably excited by the prospect of Will Ferrell and John C Reilly reuniting after hits such as Step Brothers and Anchorman, this time as the literary detective duo Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson in Holmes and Watson, which releases here this weekend.
They needn't have been excited. Things started to look suspicious when the film's August release was pushed back to November, then again to December. Deadline reported that the cause of the delay was that the film's scores in test screenings were so low that Sony was desperately trying to offload the film on someone else, even offering it to Netflix at a knock-down rate, to cut its losses. Netflix evidently declined.
What happens when a film is terrible?
Next, it was announced there would be no press screenings ahead of release – never a good sign. Press are usually given access to new movies up to a week or so before release, even if they are required to sign an embargo promising not to publish until a certain time. It’s a set up that benefits everyone. The press get a decent period of time to collect their thoughts and put their reviews together, while the studios get to manage the buzz, or lack of, around their movie. If the film’s a dead cert, the studio may be happy to let reviews go out days ahead of release and build up the hype. If the studio isn’t so sure, they can hold the reviews until virtually the day of release in the hope that plenty of advance tickets will have sold before the bad word gets out.
As a rule of thumb, the later the embargo, the more dubious the film is likely to be. Warcraft, for example, had an embargo set for the United Kingdom and United States press after the film's 2016 release in more than 20 territories, including some major ones, such as France and Russia. A Good Day to Die Hard reviews, meanwhile, were embargoed for a minute past midnight on the day of the film's release. It's fair to say neither of those films made too many end-of-year top tens, and although it's not always the case that a late embargo means a poor film – studios may just be trying to build maximum hype by keeping audiences waiting or avoid spoilers – it's generally a cause for at least some suspicion.
In Holmes and Watson's case, there was no embargo to worry about at all, because Sony clearly didn't want the critics to see it. The film was quietly slipped into cinemas on Christmas Day, presumably in the hope that no critics would give up their turkey dinner to see a bomb on their own time. Unfortunately for Sony, some dedicated souls did, and the film raced to a 0 per cent rating on Rotten Tomatoes from around 20 reviews on Christmas Day.
It has since climbed to 8 per cent, which is definitely still not a good sign. Among the more generous reviews, The Globe and Mail stated simply "Holmes and Watson is bad," while Rolling Stone noted: "It's so painfully unfunny, we're not sure it can legally be called a comedy." Even the rare "positive" reviews on Rotten Tomatoes weren't exactly slapping any backs. Vulture noted that "no brain cells are harmed" by watching the film, while 3AW went into hyperbole mode saying that the film would keep viewers "mildly entertained."
A history of bad films
Holmes and Watson isn't the first time a studio has declined to give the press access to a film it has doubts about. That honour is believed to fall to Warner Bros' 1998 adaptation of the 1960s Brit crime show, The Avengers. The film was a dud, and the studio decided to hold no press screenings at all for either the US or UK media. Conversely, the decision to withhold the film from the press actually generated publicity for the movie, and at least Warners was guaranteed an unexpected windfall at the film's first screenings as critics winced and handed over their cash to be the first to get the reviews out there.
That was 1998, however, in the days before the internet was all-encompassing. By the time that first batch of journalists to view The Avengers had seen the film, written their reviews, turned in their copy to their editor and the publications had gone to print, Warners would already have had a whole day of box-office takings without anybody knowing how bad the film was.
The media landscape has changed since then. You have to question whether it's even worth studios withholding movies, or imposing late embargoes, in the age of Twitter, and indeed Rotten Tomatoes – which has retroactively graded The Avengers at five per cent, in case you were thinking of streaming it.
By lunchtime on Christmas Day, the #HolmesandWatson hashtag was trending, and not in a good way, while those first dedicated reviews were already being collected by Rotten Tomatoes’ algorithms. Early tweets were coming out before the film had even finished, and the internet was quickly filling up with “worst film of the year” headlines. How much damage had Sony really prevented by keeping the press away? If anything, their conspicuous silence probably persuaded the more vocal and mean film fan fraternity to get out early and give the movie a good online kicking.
The role of bad reviews
Another pertinent question is "just how much do reviews really affect attendance?" The major studios certainly seem obsessed with them, particularly on Rotten Tomatoes, which aggregates the reviews of critics all over the world. Even more so since the site was acquired by Fandango in 2016, the leading online ticket seller, meaning that good or bad reviews and the option to buy a ticket now existed in one space.
Things seemed to come to a head in summer 2017, when Baywatch, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales and The Mummy all went down significantly in pre-release tracking after the review embargo dropped, and the industry was full of talk of "The Rotten Tomatoes Effect." Films including The House had their press screenings pulled in the aftermath, though that still bombed. In fairness, none of those films was better than below average, so maybe studios should look at their product before blaming reviews for pointing out how bad it is.
Let's look at The Emoji Movie, which came out that same summer, and is one of the worst movies I've ever had the displeasure of reviewing. Most critics seemed to agree, and the film holds an eight per cent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. After the initial reviews had settled, follow-up headlines included "The Meanest Lines from The Emoji Movie Reviews"; "The Emoji Movie Lost Its 0per cent Rotten Tomatoes Rating Thanks to This Positive Review," and the straight to the point "Nobody Likes The Emoji Movie".
The film leapt to a highly respectable $25 million (Dh91.8m) opening weekend at the US box office and went on to pull in close to a quarter of a billion globally. A critical kicking couldn't kill that movie, just like a 93 per cent rating couldn't turn Edgar Wright's excellent Baby Driver into a billion-dollar blockbuster the same summer – that film took almost exactly the same amount as The Emoji Movie.
Filmmaking is not an exact science
Ultimately, if people want to go and see a movie featuring Patrick Stewart portraying a text message poop, they will, whatever the best advice of critics. And if they don't want to go and see a highly rated piece of heist-themed cinematic ballet that you might have to think about a bit, they won't.
In the Twitter age, everyone's a critic. When, as is the case with Holmes and Watson, a million Twitter accounts are yelling "worst film of the year" within minutes of opening, you have to wonder exactly what the benefits of keeping a couple of hundred people who happen to have a business card with "critic" on it away from the film until everyone else is slamming it too are. The damage is done whether through a million 140-character tweets, or a couple of hundred 700-word dissections of exactly why it's the worst film of the year. It's still a bomb.
Ultimately, filmmaking is not an exact science. No amount of critical approval or disapproval, no amount of production or marketing budget, and not even any amount, or lack, of quality can guarantee success or failure. Critically acclaimed films bomb, and reviled films smash records all the time. Micro-budgets like The Blair Witch Project can come from nowhere and take a quarter of a billion dollars globally, and mega-budget studio flag poles such as John Carter can bring studios to their knees with $200m losses.
I’m reminded of a conversation I once had with a Hollywood producer who had been having discussions with a potential investor looking at moving into the film industry. The investor had been listening closely to my acquaintance’s description of the movie industry, and picked up on his comment that if you make 20 films, probably 19 will fail, and the one success will rescue the operation. The investor, spectacularly missing the point, replied that he’d like to only invest in the successful movies.
That’s an extreme example, but Sony really should be old enough, and wise enough, to know that if they have a movie on their hands that they are scared to show to critics, and that Netflix won’t take off their hands for a few dollars to hide away in their little-visited “movies for the lobotomised” section, they’re probably on to a loser, with or without reviews.
Holmes and Watson is in UAE cinemas January 10