Film marketing and distribution could be changed forever after Paramount pre-screened GI Joe: The Rise OfCobra to fanboy websites - and not to broadcast and print outlets

Paramount Pictures took a bold step when it decided not to screen $175m tentpole spectacular GI Joe: The Rise Of Cobra to conventional critics in advance.

For the new generation of movie-goers, Transformers 2 is probably their Lawrence Of Arabia, and Harry Knowles their Pauline Kael.

When the same decision has been reached by studios in the past, the message was clear: the movie stinks. Warner Bros let loose its wannabe tentpole The Avengers sans screenings in summer 1998 in the full knowledge the movie was a turkey. In those situations, the distributor can at least hope to salvage a respectable opening weekend before poisonous word of mouth dispatches the film to DVD.

But Paramount’s decision on GI Joe was ruled by neither panic nor resignation. The film plays well to mainstream audiences and is mindlessly entertaining, unapologetic popcorn fun. But, assuming highbrow critics would tear it to pieces, the studio decided not to make it available to them, instead specifically screening it - to mostly positive reviews - for fanboy websites such as Ain’t-It-Cool-News, Hitflix, Dark Horizons, Chud and JoBlo.

Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen
had opened earlier in the summer for Paramount and has grossed almost $400m in North America alone despite stinging reviews. This tentpole around, Paramount decided there was no upside from having such negative press during opening week. What’s more, the studio pre-screened it extensively in the heartland of the US - at airforce bases and Midwestern cities - far from the evil scrutiny of the New York or Los Angeles media.

The ploy seems to have worked. GI Joe opened on more than $54m in the domestic market, and at time of going to press, was holding up well in its second week. Overcoming the negative spin from shunned critics, it was benefiting from positive word of mouth among the teen and pre-teen boys for whom it was designed.

The GI Joe decision marks a sea change for film distributors everywhere, as the power of the newspaper critic begins to wane and the internet’s true taste-shaping power begins to crystallise.

AO Scott wrote a piece in The New York Times on August 7 bemoaning the infantilisation of studio film-making. “Those reliable axioms about the taste and expectations of the mass-movie audience are not so much laws of nature as artefacts of corporate strategy,” he wrote. “And the lessons derived from them conveniently serve to strengthen a status quo that increasingly marginalises risk, originality and intelligence.”

But Scott is probably missing the point. In the never-ending debate over whether the studios dictate what mass audiences consume or whether they respond to what mass audiences demand, it appears that at this moment in time, they are absolutely meeting the needs of tens of millions of young people across the globe whose tastes are moulded by the internet.

We should stop blaming Star Wars and its successors for turning the studios into blockbuster-driven franchise-seekers and start analysing why kids lap up the endlessly uninspired remakes and sequels, and movies-of-toys, video games and theme-park-rides. That’s a bigger question involving the dumbing down, short attention span and lack of imagination which the internet itself inspires.

Critics haven’t understood that what kids want has changed. The short chunks they digest on YouTube or the experiential kick of video games means they watch movies today for the visceral thrills of an action scene or a cool effect, stunt or a tight outfit on Megan Fox. For them Transformers 2 is probably their Lawrence Of Arabia, and Harry Knowles their Pauline Kael.

They are not after an emotionally rich story and apparently couldn’t care less about narrative.
As idea-driven adult cinema struggles increasingly to locate an audience, the fear is that today’s teens are tomorrow’s adults and will continue to want two-dimensional internet-styled cinema as they grow older. Then movies are really in trouble.