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Dec 7, 2011

The Dragon Tattoo and the FTC's Taboo

Some of the usual sources for film and media insiders -- Indiewire; The New York Times "Carpetbagger" blog; NPR's "Monkey See" blog; the "All Things Digital" blog; and the Poynter Institute site formerly known as Romenesko -- are buzzing over film critic David Denby's review of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” in the latest New Yorker magazine.

While Denby's review is generally positive, calling the film a "bleak but mesmerizing piece of filmmaking," he published it prior to the agreed-to "embargo date" for reviews of the movie, a violation of protocol which producer Scott Rudin described in an e-mail to Denby (published by Indiewire) as "a very, very damaging move and a total contravention of what [Denby] agreed [by attending an advance screening.]"

As described by Linda Holmes of NPR, such embargoes are a frequent part of movie reviewing.
[I]n return for getting to attend screenings with their dual advantages of seeing movies free and seeing movies early, you're asked to follow some requests — one is that you give in to those obnoxious phone-confiscating policies, but the most common is an embargo date: an agreement not to run your review until a particular day. Studios like embargo dates — which are most commonly the opening date of the movie, which makes Dragon Tattoo unusual — because they cause all the reviews to hit on the same day, which is good for the movie's PR push.

As Holmes notes, the previews at which movie reviewers see the films are free: neither the reviewers, nor their employers, pay for the screenings.

This standard practice of free movie previews for reviewers without disclosure to readers may be considered an ethical issue by some. But for bloggers and others who review movies on social media platforms, failure to disclose the free preview could run afoul of the Federal Trade Commission's
"Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."  That's because, as I've written before, the guides -- which the FTC can enforce with fines -- require disclosure of such freebies in new media, while not requiring it of traditional media, on the rationale that "everyone knows" that traditional media get such perks.

I should note here that the FTC has said that it will not go after individual bloggers; instead, it has targeted companies and ad agencies that have offered free or reduced-price products and services to bloggers, without telling them of the disclosure requirement.

But the problem is that the FTC should not apply one set of rules to social media and another to traditional media. If the fact that David Denby and other movie reviewers for mainstream media outlets saw "The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo" for free need not be disclosed, then there should be no such requirement for their colleagues in newer forms of media.

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