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Tuesday, December 28,2010

The Screening Room

When studios play hide-and-seek

by James Sanford

Here's what's on the horizon at your local cineplex this Friday: the science-fiction thriller "Splice"; a live-action version of "Marmaduke"; a raunchy comedy called "Get Him to the Greek," starring Jonah Hill and Russell Brand; and the crime comedy "Killers," starring Katherine Heigl and Ashton Kutcher.

Guess which one isn't being screened in advance.

If your guess is "Marmaduke," you're absolutely — wrong. "Splice" was shown at the Sundance Film Festival and got generally positive reviews. "Greek" has already been sneak-previewed around the country.

But unless you're a close friend of either Heigl or Kutcher (or an executive at Lionsgate), there's not much chance you'll be seeing "Killers" before it's unleashed on the masses. Lionsgate announced last week there would be no media screenings of "Killers," a notice that instantly sparked speculation among entertainment writers that the film must be a dud.

Of course, Lionsgate's PR department begs to differ. “We want to capitalize on the revolution in social media by letting audiences and critics define this film concurrently," notes a studio press release. "In today's socially connected marketplace, we all have the ability to share feedback instantly around the world. In keeping with this spirit, Lionsgate and the filmmakers want to give the opportunity to moviegoing audiences and critics alike to see ‘Killers’ simultaneously, and share their thoughts in the medium of their choosing."

You can practically hear those muscles straining as they try to spin this one. Anyone who knows about the way the film industry works can tell you if a studio declines to show a movie to the media before opening day, it's "bombs away."

It's been this way for ages. Remember "Shanghai Surprise," the much-hyped screen teaming of then-husband-and-wife Sean Penn and Madonna? Despite plenty of pre-release publicity, MGM refused to show the final film to reviewers. On Aug. 29, 1986, everyone found out why: It was a catastrophe.

Here are a few other titles that crept into theaters without advance screenings: Lindsay Lohan's "I Know Who Killed Me"; "12 Rounds"; Nicolas Cage's "The Wicker Man" and "Bangkok Dangerous"; "Disaster Movie"; Kiefer Sutherland's "Mirrors"; "Saw V"; Beyonce's "Obsessed"; "From Justin to Kelly"; "Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector"; Paris Hilton's "The Hottie and the Nottie," and many, many more.

Not many gems on that list, although — to be fair — every so often there is a film that the studio dumps that critics and audiences actually like. A prime case is writer-director Mike Judge's "Idiocracy," which was all but shunned by Twentieth Century Fox. Not only was the movie shelved for more than a year, when it finally did open, Fox didn't even bother sending out trailers, print ads or posters.

"Idiocracy" played briefly in only a handful of cities before it was released on DVD, where it has managed to build up something of a cult following. Even reviewers enjoyed it: The film has a 72 percent positive rating at Rotten Tomatoes.

Although "Killers" may be the first of this summer's crop of films to get the hide-and-seek treatment, it won't be the last: Warner Bros. recently decreed there will be no advance screenings of "Jonah Hex," the Josh Brolin/Megan Fox/John Malkovich western fantasy that has already garnered plenty of bad buzz from fans of the DC Comics series who've seen clips at conventions. So if you want to know if "Hex" is indeed a wreck when it opens June 18, skip the entertainment section. Check your Twitter feed instead.


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