- Some studios are not making films available to critics ahead of their upcoming theatrical debuts.
- Pre-coronavirus, studios might withhold screenings because they do not want major plot points spoiled or because they think negative review will deter moviegoers.
- During the pandemic, movie theaters in New York and California, where many critics are based, have not reopened to the public, making it difficult for studios to have a public press screening.
"New Mutants" will finally arrive in theaters this Friday after nearly three years of bouncing around the theatrical calendar. However, if you are looking to get a sense of how critics felt about the film before buying tickets for the weekend, you'll find the Rotten Tomatoes' review pages surprisingly bare.
That's because Disney isn't making the film available to press via an advanced screening or through a digital link.
"In other words, the only way critics will be able to see 'The New Mutants' is if they buy a ticket and go to a theater, just like everyone else," A.A. Dowd, a film editor from The A.V. Club, wrote in an article Tuesday. "In normal times, that's exactly what we'd do: Studios will sometimes decline to screen a movie in advance of its public premiere — often, it must be said, when they're afraid that reviews will be negative enough to hurt attendance."
A New York-based critic, who wished to remain anonymous, said that Disney has established a platform that allows reviewers to screen upcoming Disney+ content.
"So, they could send screeners," the critic said. "They are choosing not to."
It's unclear why the studio has decided not to permit critics to view the film ahead of its release on Aug. 28, but it's not the only one that's been elusive to film critics in recent weeks.
Warner Bros.' "Tenet" has yet to be screened for American critics, several U.S.-based film reviewers told CNBC. Instead, the film was made available in London and Berlin, the New York-based critic told CNBC. "Tenet" currently holds an 83% "Fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes from 59 reviews.
"Bill and Ted Face the Music" will be shown to critics digitally, however, the Orion Pictures film must be watched at a scheduled time or it cannot be accessed for review.
There are a number of reasons in pre-Covid times that a studio might withhold a film from critical review. In some cases, studios believe the film isn't very good and don't want audiences to be deterred from seeing it opening weekend. In other cases, studios don't want critics to spoil major plot points before moviegoers have a chance to experience them.
Digital versions of films are sometimes given to critics, but a similar fear of spoilers or of a copy of the film accidentally or intentionally winding up on a pirated video site exist.
For upcoming movies, there could be a simpler explanation. Many of the critics for major publications live in New York and California and movie theaters in those states have not reopened to the public, making it difficult for studios to have a public press screening.
On occasion, studios will host smaller press events in private screening rooms, but those rooms typically only house between 10 and 20 critics. Under social distancing guidelines, it wouldn't be very efficient to use these screening rooms, as they would only be able to hold a handful of people.
Representatives for Disney and Warner Bros. did not immediately respond to CNBC's request for comment.
It's still too early to see how Warner Bros. will handle the October release of "Wonder Woman 1984" when it comes to critic screenings or how Disney will handle the November release of "Black Widow."
In addition to trying to secure screenings of upcoming films, critics are also facing a moral quandary: does a positive review of a movie mean the publication is suggesting audiences should go to movie theaters at a time when it's unclear just how safe it is to venture out to theaters?
Movie theater operators have been touting the updated sanitation methods that have been adopted in major cinemas, which range from making mask-wearing mandatory and social distancing to investing in specialized air filters for air conditioning units and instituting more vigorous cleaning between showings.
Still, epidemiologists aren't convinced that sitting in a movie theater for upwards of two hours with strangers who may or may not keep their masks on when the lights go down is a safe way to spend an afternoon.
"It feels like any review of a movie playing exclusively in theaters needs to come with the equivalent of a warning you'd find on a cigarette pack," Glenn Whipp, a film and television writer for the Los Angeles Times, told his colleague Justin Chang, in an article published last week.
"DANGER: Watching bleak B-movies in a poorly ventilated environment can be hazardous to your health," Whipp said.
AV Club's staff, too, has contemplated this ethical dilemma. The publication has already adopted a policy that would prohibit its writers from reviewing films that couldn't be watched safely either through social distancing at a press screening or by receiving a digital version of the film.
For films that the publication does review, editors have opted to provide readers with a warning within the review itself.
"Our current, imperfect solution is to provide readers with a warning upfront, linking to the aforementioned article about the risks involved," Dowd wrote. "For the time being, all A.V. Club reviews of films headed exclusively to theaters will carry this disclaimer. The message, we hope, is clear: Here is a new movie you can see on the big screen. Before we talk about it, here's why you maybe shouldn't buy a ticket."
Disclosure: Comcast is the parent company of NBCUniversal and CNBC. It also owns Rotten Tomatoes.