Girl with Dragon Tattoo: Reviews Controversy

Producer Scott Rudin has banned New Yorker critic David Denby from screenings of his future movies because the New Yorker is breaking a Dec. 13 embargo on reviews of David Fincher‘s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by publishing a  review in its new issue, which hits newstands and the publication’s iPad app on Monday.

In an e-mail exchange with Denby, published at, Rudin wrote, “You’ve very badly damaged the movie by doing this, and I could not in good conscience invite you to see another movie of mine again.”

Denby and fellow members of the New York Film Critics Circle saw the film early, on Nov. 28, because it was meeting to vote for the year’s best films  Nov. 29. (The critics’ group actually postponed its meeting, originally set for Nov. 28, by a day in order to screen the movie before they deliberated.) The group chose the early voting date for the first time this year so that they would be the first major awards group to announce winners.

Sony Pictures Entertainment executive vp motion pictures publicity Andre Caraco also sent a stinging memo Sunday criticizing Denby (see entire e-mail below) to critics in an attempt to maintain the embargo. “As a matter of principle, the New Yorker’s breach violates a trust and undermines a system designed to help journalists do their job and serve their readers,” Caraco wrote. “We have been speaking directly with the New Yorker about this matter and expect to take measures to ensure this kind of violation does not occur again.”

Denby’s move also drew criticism from other members of the NYFCC, particularly since Denby had lobbied against the group’s taking an early vote, which, ironically, led to the early screening of Fincher’s movie.

“Sony was very explicit about us not running anything early,” NYFCC president John Anderson said.  “The screening was specifically for our consideration as NYFCC voters, and unless David had a different conversation than I, he agreed to the same thing the rest of us did. There may be mitigating factors, but I don’t know for a fact that there were, and don’t now what they might have been. We abide by embargoes all the time.”

“The NYFCC has been excoriated in some quarters,” said Anderson, “for supposedly wanting to be ‘first’ this year (writers have consistently ignored the other reasons I’ve provided). But it’s precisely a desperation to be first that is complicating the relationship between movie studios and critics, journalists and the rest of the legitimate media. Having what you might call a gentleman’s agreement about when we write our reviews is hardly a moral compromise. And I can understand a company wanting some control over its product. Frankly, we have no right to see movies early; we get to do so as a courtesy. And perhaps the whole process should be abolished — if everyone had to go to the theater to see everything, it would level the playing field, and no one would have to ‘play ball’ in order to maintain their access.”

Denby’s review, which is largely positive, begins, “You can’t take your eyes off Rooney Mara as the notorious Lisbeth Salandar, in the American movie version of Stieg Larsson‘s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” And it concludes, “This is a bleak but mesmerizing piece of filmmaking; it offers a glancing, chilled view of a world in which brief moments of loyalty flicker between repeated acts of denial.”

In his email exchange with Rudin, Denby explained the decision to break the embargo on the movie, which opens Dec. 21, by saying there were two many important films opening at the end of the year for the New Yorker to accomodate them all. It would have had to run them as either short reviews or wait until January to deal with them at more length.

“It was not my intention to break the embargo, and I never would have done it with a negative review. But since I liked the movie, we came reluctantly to the decision to go with early publication,” the critic wrote. “I apologize for the breach of the embargo. It won’t happen again. But this was a special case brought on by year-end madness.”

Rudin responded that Denby’s explanations were “disingenuous” and “nonsense.” He added, “You will now cause ALL of the other reviews to run a month before the release of the movie, and that is a deeply destructive thing to have done.”

Within the NYFCC, Denby has been accused of being inconsistent for racing to publish the first Tattoo review. He was among the loudest voices urging his fellow critics not to vote on winners early. “What’s so important about being first?” he demanded in the following “huffy” e-mail Oct. 25:

Dear NYFCC Member:

We apologize for the huffy tone of what follows (and trust us, we feel duly guilty that we didn’t attend the business meeting), but this is too important for us to ignore. We’re unhappy with the Circle’s decision to vote on November 28. We think it’s potentially a major mistake, and are unlikely to vote at all if November 28 remains the date. There are multiple reasons for this dissent.

First of all, it’s extremely unlikely that all the major Christmas movies will be shown before the meeting. We realize that the whole premise of this super-early voting date is that since the studios show their films to the National Board of Review, they’ll agree to show them to us as well. But the members of the NBR aren’t working critics. From the studios’ point of view, there’s a lot less politics involved in showing the movies early to them. Most of the December movies may be done now, but that doesn’t mean that marketing divisions and producers and directors (who make these decisions, not publicists) will allow us to see them early.

And here’s the crux of the issue. Let’s say that the overwhelming majority of the studios do decide to show their films in time for us. Let’s imagine that there’s only one holdout – say, the studio releasing “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” Is the New York Film Critics Circle really going to vote for Best Picture of the Year without seeing the new David Fincher film? (Please don’t squawk if you don’t happen to like Fincher, or Swedish-set art thrillers; it’s just an example.) Voting without the opportunity to see that one film – or any other movie you might name – would be a serious breach of the Circle’s integrity. It would violate the idea that we work from a level playing field.

Don’t forget, as well, that the meeting, as scheduled, comes right after the Thanksgiving holiday (a shortened week when, traditionally, almost nothing gets screened), and that there are lots of movies opening in late November that we all have to deal with. The jam-up would be unworkable. Are we really going to be able to see, and absorb, the 25 to 30 awards-season movies opening in December by the end of the third week in November? Is Steven Spielberg really going to let us see “The War Horse,” which is opening on Christmas day, five weeks before opening? It seems seriously doubtful. Even if all the major releases are shown to us, smaller, less heralded films drop into circulation in early and mid December, and we would need to consider those as well for possible awards. It would be a travesty of our history, which is rich with independent and idiosyncratic votes, if we allowed those movies to fall out of consideration.

An additional point: Even if we’re able to see everything in November, many of us, who like to work from fresh impressions, would need to see those movies again later in order to review them. Major inconvenience.

But what we’re really wondering is this: Why is it so important to be first? Why is it important at all? Who cares when the National Board of Review announces its choices? They aren’t critics, and by trumping them, we’re taking them more seriously than they should be taken.

And putting it crassly, how does being first benefit us as a group? Our names are not listed in the news articles or the blurbs that run with the ads announcing awards. If we rush into the awards-season madness, aren’t we simply reinforcing its destructive effect on release schedules, in which half the interesting movies of the year are held for the final weeks? Aren’t we putting ourselves on the same level as the publicists and the Harvey Weinsteins who are trying to game the awards, joining the very thing that we normally deplore?

If all the movies, by some miracle, are shown before November 28, and we can see them, then we will vote. But otherwise, we’ll take a pass this year and vote again when the group comes to its senses.

Here is Sony’s Dec. 4 Dragon Tattoo e-mail:

Dear Colleague,

All who attended screenings of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo agreed in writing to withhold reviews until closer to the date of the film’s worldwide release date.  Regrettably, one of your colleagues, David Denby of The New Yorker, has decided to break his agreement and will run his review on Monday, December 5th.  This embargo violation is completely unacceptable.

By allowing critics to see films early, at different times, embargo dates level the playing field and enable reviews to run within the films’ primary release window, when audiences are most interested.  As a matter of principle, the New Yorker’s breach violates a trust and undermines a system designed to help journalists do their job and serve their readers.   We have been speaking directly with The New Yorker about this matter and expect to take measures to ensure this kind of violation does not occur again. 

In the meantime, we have every intention of maintaining the embargo in place and we want to remind you that reviews may not be published prior to December 13th.

We urge all who have been given the opportunity to see The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo to honor the commitments agreed to as a condition of having early access to the film. 

Thank you in advance for your cooperation.


Andre Caraco

Executive Vice President, Motion Picture Publicity

Sony Pictures Entertainment