It's the feel-good article of the year!
The business of movie blurbs
By Todd Leopold
(CNN) -- Two summers ago, a pair of enterprising employees at Sony Pictures invented a movie critic named David Manning.
Given the usual movie ad hyperbole, it wasn't hard for Manning's quotes to fit right in. He loved "Hollow Man" ("One helluva scary ride!"), "A Knight's Tale" (Heath Ledger is "this year's hottest new star") and "The Animal" ("another winner").
When Manning was revealed to be a phony, Sony took some lumps for its creation and suspended the offending employees.
As the controversy died down, Chicago Sun-Times and "Ebert & Roeper and the Movies" critic Roger Ebert expressed hope that studios would "return to the gold standard" of "real critics." "Many of these [critics quoted] don't always even write an actual review. The extent of their writing on the film is the blurb which appears in the ad," he told USA Today.
But the furor surrounding Manning's exposure faded as quickly as it arrived -- and movie ads haven't changed a whit. No matter how rotten the movie, there's always a critic or three who can be found to provide an approving blurb.
Indeed, says Variety managing editor Timothy Gray, the names may change, but the overstatement remains the same.
"It's always 'a roller coaster ride' or 'the feel-good movie of the summer,' " says Gray, who has written a puckish annual column on the year in blurbs for the past decade. "Sometimes I think, not only have I never heard of these people, but I've never heard of their organization.
"I find the whole process, in some ways, a little mysterious," he says.
In search of Earl Dittman
Much about movie blurbs drives Erik Childress up a 30-foot Cinerama screen.
"I'd go through papers, and I was shocked how often these names came up, especially names I'd never heard of," says Childress, a Chicago-based online and radio film critic who became the first online film critic to become a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association.
So Childress became overseer of the Criticwatch section of Hollywoodbitchslap.com, the latter a site developed by two former employees of "Clerks" and "Dogma" writer-director Kevin Smith to provide the public with no-bull film talk.
On Criticwatch, Childress keeps track of the number of films on which a critic gets quoted and ranks the reviewer accordingly. A large number of quotes isn't a bad thing -- Ebert and Roeper, thanks to their TV show and "thumbs-up" system, are quoted fairly often -- but Childress keeps an eye on certain names.
One critic who's come in for a particularly hard time -- from Childress and others -- is Earl Dittman. Dittman has been written about as much for his mystery -- he works for a publication company called Wireless Magazines, which maintains no public Web site and has limited distribution -- as for his blurbs, which include praise for critical and commercial failures "Boat Trip" and "Bulletproof Monk." An article in the Toronto Star wondered if he even existed.
CNN.com reached the Houston, Texas-based Dittman, who's in his early 40s, easily enough -- by e-mail (through a public query) and then in a phone interview. The amiable writer and editor acknowledges that without longer reviews his blurbs seem out of context, but makes no apologies for his work.
The film buff and former music journalist has been writing for several years, he says, and eventually hooked up with Wireless, a company that includes five publications (such as "Behind the Screen" and "Rhythm and Groove") that cater to pop culture niches. The publications are distributed in 183 markets -- though not New York, Los Angeles or Chicago -- and claim an overall circulation of 1.7 million, according to Dittman. (The numbers could not be independently verified.)
His thumbs-up for "Boat Trip" -- a movie widely panned -- came about because the movie reminded him of "The Ritz," a 1976 farce directed by Richard Lester and based on a hit Terence McNally Broadway show, he says. "I thought it was very well done," he adds. "Is it for everybody? Naaah. But I enjoyed it and I'm in a position to say it."
He freely admits going on some junkets -- studio-sponsored media gatherings at which reviewers can screen films and talk to stars -- but "has never supplied quotes" at them. As for having his taste questioned, he notes that there haven't been many Dittman blurbs this summer -- "it's been a terrible summer," he says -- and he just writes what he thinks.
"I don't critique films," he says. "If you want that, look at Film Comment. I give people my opinion. Whether everyone agrees or not ... nobody agrees on [everything]."
Observers are divided whether those opinions do any more than just fill ad space -- and whether the public can tell critics apart.
Richard Roeper, for one, believes the moviegoing public is savvy enough to tell The New York Times from a rah-rah radio reviewer.
"I think moviegoers are more sophisticated than the studios give them credit for," he says. His only problem is the nature of the hyperbole itself, that it's "spoon-fed to the public."
On the other hand, "I think people don't know the difference," says Tom O'Neil, a senior editor at InTouch Weekly (and occasional contributor to CNN) who runs the awards handicapping site Goldderby.com. "We in the media are savvy, but once [the public] gets beyond the big names, they don't know what the difference is."
Gray hears from both sides. "On the one hand, I've heard people say that [blurbs] hurt nobody," he says. "But on the other, [big-name] critics have said that they believe [blurbmeisters] 'degrade us.' "
Of course, one can argue that it doesn't matter whether critics agree at all -- even on the worst Hollywood puts out. As studios are fond of noting, audiences vote with their pocketbooks. Since "Bad Boys II" made $125 million in three weeks, its studio probably isn't worrying that Ebert called it "a bloated, unpleasant assembly-line extrusion."
Roeper says that movies may be "critic-proof in terms of the opening weekend," when some of the biggest expected blockbusters open on 20 percent of the nation's screens. "But when a movie is universally panned, when word-of-mouth comes through, it falls off fast."
Still, until then, those two Latin words remain appropriate: Caveat emptor. And learn as much as you can.
"I realize that, in the [entertainment] food chain, there are bigger gorillas than I am," Dittman chuckles. "But if I say something, telling people to see a movie I liked, I think I've done a great thing."