When stars don't sell, star ratings do

When stars don't sell, star ratings do


Vinod Mirani

Mumbai, Jan 31 (IANS) I am not sure if film critics qualify to be called journalists. Maybe they did very, very long ago.

Because, reviewing films was a part of their multiple other duties. One of the journalists on the roster was assigned the task because he was either a movie buff and threw around his 'gyan' about movies, or just because he was the editor's favourite.

The reviewer's job was somewhat of a recreational break because it involved watching a movie for free and gorging on decent snacks during the interval. Press screenings or press shows were organised a couple of days before a film's theatrical release and that was the privilege a film critic enjoyed and boasted of. Everybody wanted to know from the critics how good or bad the film was!

There was no system of outsourcing film reviews as one of the staffers of a newspaper or magazine was assigned the role. This was the era of only the print media. Critics from reputed publications were expected to be honest and they did not let us down.

But, then, how many people read English publications in those days! So, the influence of the reviewers was really felt in B-rung publications and also the vernacular media.

This influence, though, came from the headline of the review being grabbed by either the male or female lead of the film, the PROs, or public relations men, of both approaching the reviewer with sealed envelopes. The weight of the envelope decided who grabbed the headline.

This was so because no one expected people to read a complete film review. (That has not changed even today.) Only the first and last paragraph of a film review was read.

The press screenings were held in what in those days were known as the Preview Theatres, with a seating capacity for not more than 50 people. It was a funny system because the vernacular media occupied front rows while the English and other reputed media houses used be assigned the rows behind. This system was not designed or imposed by anybody. It just so happened that those who occupied the front row were the first to reach the refreshment area during interval!

How did this grabbing of the headline in a four/five column film review help an actor? Really speaking, it did not. There were two kinds of audiences which, I think, still holds true. There were these first-day-first-show types and those who took in a film within its opening weekend. A film with a reasonable star cast got that benefit. The rest did not matter. The second kind was the one that went by the word of mouth. Reviews? Who cared!

A film was worth watching only if the opinions were favourable, for it used to be a family outing. 'Paisa vasool' was the operative phrase in those days.

The opinions expressed in the reviews and the actors who grabbed the headlines were of interest only to the stars and the critics.

If no one cared for reviews and what the critics had to say about a movie when the money was scarce and movie outings were an occasion for most families to cherish together, what was the purpose of courting film reviewers? The film stars lived in their own world, nursed massive egos and the reviews were just an ego booster.

If the stars of yore loved to see themselves being praised in film reviews, it was simply that and did not mean they were trying to fool or deceive anybody for personal profit. Because, finally, the box office figures spoke louder than the reviewers.

I keep using the word reviewer because they were not critics, and possessed no specialised knowledge of filmmaking, such as the number of frames that rolled in a second! They took in a film, and liked or disliked it like any other layman.

A critic is one who does the critical analyses of a work of creativity. Instead, what the reviewers did was to start with a brief paragraph on the film and filled the rest of the column with a synopsis of film's story.

The scene today is pathetic. Let alone critics, the reviewers also come with riders. The review has to be favourable. Conditions apply. Otherwise, no invite. The production house and its PR machinery decide what you are expected to write.

As a result, you will see that the vocabulary is limited and the same phrases are repeated when extracts of the reviews are published to attract more viewers.

Take for instance the advertisement for 'Fighter'. The film was released on January 25, but and on 26th, its ad carried 12 media comments. The word 'Brilliant' is used in three and word 'Cinematic blah blah' twice.

Other excerpts carry equally eloquent words of praise. You will not find this language when you read the review. These are quotations especially drafted for use in advertisements.

The press screenings are no longer small preview theatre affairs. They need a multiplex auditorium seating 150 people at the least.

Anybody and everybody has turned into a film reviewer. After all, how much does it cost to register a portal? Say, Rs 150? And, how much for a blue tick on X? Barely Rs 600. That investment, I am sure, is recovered after one review.

The price of each reviewer is fixed and the old hands, the so-called trade analysts, cost a bit more. But you are required to praise just about everything in the movie and give it three to five stars; nothing less is acceptable. In most cases, the number of stars is dictated by PR companies.

Besides the money, what does the reviewer get? It is like this. For starters, a free movie outing along with samosa, popcorn and cola. Besides, the stars given to a film, accompanied by the name of the reviewer and of the media house he or she represents, is published in the newspaper ads and social media inserts by the PR companies.

This, their names being in print, they believe, is an endorsement of their being qualified film reviewers / critics / experts! It is a kick.

When did this business of reviews start becoming so blatant? From small-time film reviewers pocketing envelopes, the system has moved to media house managements, which also have got into the business of selling star ratings along with film reviews. The four-or-five-stars ratings, though, came with much bigger price tags.

With the onset of the digital media, it has become everybody's business. The erstwhile gate crashers at press screenings spent a few hundred to become owners of websites. Getting listed on the invitees' lists of PR companies was easy and then they were ready to review films.

Now, what this shameless soliciting has done is that when the PR machinery approaches the one or two remaining veteran journalists who review films, they are approached with offers to talk business.

How does this false notion of great reviews and highly inflated box-office figures help a filmmaker? After all, he is the one paying everybody, from the PR company to the reviewers!

It does not help him in any way except in wasting some more money. For, the people don't buy these reviews and the cinemas continue to remain empty.

Yes, it does help the stars. It helps them because the outside world, mainly the advertising world, believes in the reviews and figures and the stars get multiple more assignments. That is how they mint money.

Take, for example, Shah Rukh Khan, who was said to be on his last legs, but now has ten more endorsements post the social media blitz about the money his films 'Pathaan' and 'Jawan' made!

As things stand, the production houses have more faith in the stars they buy from film reviewers than the stars in their films!

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