So it's Friday, and you're considering seeing this new movie that has just Opened In Theaters Everywhere. Before you do, you grab a copy of today's newspaper, and turn to the movie section, looking for a review. Or you check a site like Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic to get both their combined metascore and the reviews that come with it.
Instead of a review, you read a notice stating that the film was "not screened for critics." The review compilation sites also have very few reviews and can't compute a review score from it. This is a big warning sign about the quality of the movie. Under normal circumstances, the reviewers would have seen the film already on DVD "screeners" or private showings, and would have had plenty of time to write witty, biting criticism (or just plain vituperation) that would have completely eviscerated it. The general indication is that the studio doesn't want people to be warned away from the movie prior to opening day.
Another tactic by studios is to allow critics to see a preview screening... with a bunch of contest winners, so that instead of being able to make notes and review a film in a quiet theater or purpose-built screening room, the critic has to do it in a crowded megaplex with people who probably wouldn't have seen the movie at all if they hadn't won free tickets and will probably like it only because they didn't have to pay to see it. Films aimed at kids and teenagers might get a rowdy and rambunctious audience throughout the entire film (worse if it features the Teen Idol of the moment). One of the actors or producers may even make a "surprise" personal appearance, taking away any sense of a neutral setting (are you going to tell them their film is awful in person?). Many critics thus will easily not take the bait and stay away in droves for their sanity.
This tends to happen a lot during the months of January, February and late August — the traditional Dump Months where all the movies in which the studio no longer has faith but which it is contractually obligated to release get dumped, leaving the good months for summer blockbusters and Oscar Bait.
This happens with video games as well, though many big-budget ones will have extensive pre-publicity in the form of overwhelmingly positive previews. A positive outlook tends to creep into video game previews because of a lack of things one really can write about a game without playing it. With a movie, you can describe the plot, characters, describe who's working on it, what previous experience they have, and all sorts of things. With a video game, there isn't really the same sort of celebrity gossip.
Television is also an area where this occurs - preview DVDs (formerly tapes) are sent to reviewers so they can write their reviews. Where this does not occur, it is for three reasons:
It's recorded very close to transmission or is a live broadcast.
The number of preview DVDs being sent out is also slowly decreasing overall, as studios have finally realised where all those pre-theatrical-release DVD rips of blockbusters floating around the internet actually come from. However, this doesn't mean previews stop being sent altogether, just that fewer reviewers are trusted with copies. TV networks also screen their programs over the internet on password-protected sites for critics, although this can also be discouraging (any television critic can tell you that they'd rather do anything else than watch a program on the infamously glitchy ABC MediaNet site).
Compare It's Not Supposed to Win Oscars.
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Seltzer and Friedberg's spoofs Date Movie, Epic Movie, Meet the Spartans and Disaster Movie all fit this trope.
The Avengers (1998). The studio even said it was putting the film out without previews not because it was awful, but because the studio wanted the public and press to "discover the film together". Obviously, no one believed this for a moment; both public and press quickly discovered the movie sucked hard.
Snakes on a Plane. They may have skipped screening it based on the logic that next to nobody walking into that theater is going to be swayed by a review, and it was pretty much intentional So Bad, It's Good. That and the concept itself is anathema for any professional reviewer, pretty much ensuring that a majority of critics will give it a negative review. Somehow, Snakes on a Plane still managed to get a "Fresh" rating on Rottentomatoes.com, even before the "WTF... this is so dumb" word of mouth came in. A possible case of Hoist by His Own Petard. Some critics actually embraced the film, but since they could not spread the word-of-mouth to the uninitiated because of the lack of pre-screening, people on the fence stayed hesitant and Snakes wound up scoring way less at the box office than what the viral buzz indicated.
Many Gorn genre flicks fall into this, including the Saw franchise, which notably stayed off Richard Roeper's "Worst Movies of 2007" list specifically because of this and the fact that he didn't want to watch them in his free time.
The Ĉon Flux movie. Peter Chung, creator of the original Ĉon Flux TV show, once claimed to have felt "helpless, humiliated, and sad" upon seeing the film adaptation of his work. Apparently, this movie wasn't even screened for him (his sole allowed contribution was a single hour-and-a-half meeting with the people writing/directing it).
Alfred Hitchcock didn't want any critic to see Psycho, not because of any worry of quality, but because he didn't want the Plot Twist to leak out. Tropes Are Not Bad, indeed. And no, that wasn't just his cover story. He actually bought up hundreds of copies of the source novel out of his own pocket, for the same reason.
The 2008 comedy An American Carol, about a version of a certain well-known leftist filmmaker being taught to appreciate America after being visited by three ghosts, went unscreened by critics, as its creators claimed it was too conservative for them to appreciate/approve of. Leading some critics to still see it and claim that politics aside, it was just bad.
It's more or less standard practice now for studios to not screen most horror movies for critics, unless it's something like Drag Me to Hell. Studios believe critics just universally hate horror films, and with good cause.
The Roberto Benigni version of Pinocchio (2002) in the U.S. Miramax's explanation for this (according to the Other Wiki) was that the English-language dubbing for it wasn't completed in time for advance screenings. Critics who saw it gave it vitriolic reviews. The subtitled version (which was given a limited release two months later) was better received though.
Political documentaries aimed towards right-wing audiences (The Undefeated, I Want Your Money, 2016: Obama's America) tend not to be screened to critics, and if they are screened in advance, usually to small and controlled settings such as a church auditorium or a bought-out theater. The filmmakers or production companies likely do this for similar reasons that An American Carol wasn't.
The vast majority of left and right-wing documentaries are never screened for critics simply because they tend to have no studio backing, which keeps them out of the larger theater chains and off the radar of mainstream critics to begin with
Premium Rush was given this treatment, only to have the film company discover that the critics largely liked it upon release (Rotten Tomatoes score of 76%, Certified Fresh). Unfortunately, by then it was too late to take advantage of that and the film became an Acclaimed Flop.
Superman IV was not screened for critics in New York City, and holds a reputation for one of the worst movies in both the series and the genre. It didn't help that one of the film's stars, Jon Cryer, said that the film wasn't finished.
Doctor Who has at times not sent a DVD to reviewers, or omitted closing scenes. One interesting example was "Partners in Crime", where the appearance of Rose Tyler was removed from all the preview tapes and casting documents were altered to remove Billie Piper.
"The Stolen Earth" is a highly notable "Last Scene Withheld Until Transmission" one: The "regeneration" bit was not on them.
In The End of Time, Part One, the press copy was altered so it ended with the six billion Masters laughing, and not with the Time Lords. Part Two wasn't even shown to the press: the script for the final three scenes wasn't shown to most of the cast.
The 2007/8 Writers' Strike meant that UK listing magazines couldn't review some CSI Verse episodes as they hadn't even aired in the US.
The producers of Battlestar Galactica (Reimagined) have been known to omit key scenes from reviewer screenings, to avoid twists leaking out. Most recently, the premiere of season 4.5 was screened with its final scene, where Col. Tigh realizes his deceased wife was a Cylon who he'd known on Earth in a past life, left out.
Teen and Children's shows are pretty much never shown to critics, which means unlike other genres, they can often keep a tight hold on any storylines when they choose to keep them secret.
Dan Schneider has used this to his benefit on iCarly. He managed to keep secret the cliffhanger ending to iOMG for what had to have been over a year by filming on a closed set with a minimum of cast and crew.
Several car manufacturers have refused to lend the Top Gear team new cars to test.
One of the most notable would be the City Rover, which still appeared on the show as James May went to the dealer for a test drive while wearing a hidden camera and microphone. It was, unsurprisingly, considered one of the worst cars they'd ever featured.
A high contender would also be the American muscle car special, where the makers refused to loan the show a Dodge Challenger. They got around this obstacle by buying one, and Richard Hammond went on to give it an enthusiastic endorsement.
It's alleged that the Dacia Sandero (a central European light SUV-type) was actually canceled for the UK market because Top Gear spent an entire series mocking it regularly. Ironically when he got to test-drive one during the Romanian special, James May loved it. Also ironically, it had to be an abbreviated test because Clarkson and Hammond arranged to have the Sandero smashed by a semi-truck hours after May got it.
On one of the show's road trip specials, Bentley pulled their Mulsanne out at the last minute when they decided that the special's theme ("Ideal luxury cars for the leading lights of Albanian organized crime") was loaded with Unfortunate Implications. Since buying (and insuring) a Bentley of their own was well outside the budget, instead the part of the Bentley Mulsanne was played by an extremely used Yugo. This led to constant criticism from all three presenters about what a shoddy product Bentley is putting out these days.
In a subversion, despite not only refusing to provide cars to the show, but also banning James May from entering the company premises, Bristol Cars are quite highly praised by the presenters even though it is far from what they normally prefer in a car.
The video game version of this is for companies to not send review copies to publication or web editors, forcing them to dip into their own budgets to obtain a copy of the game to critique. Obviously, this makes the editors even less enthusiastic about reviewing the game. Acclaim Entertainment was notorious for doing this in the early '90s.
Vivendi Universal refused to send Electronic Gaming Monthly (EGM) a copy of their Game Boy Advancegame ofThe Film of the Book of The Cat in the Hat because they "didn't want Seanbaby making fun of it." It didn't work, needless to say. After having to pay for a review copy, Seanbaby was all too pleased to lay into the game and its creators with his most scathing reviews. It's also a form of Insult Backfire because Seanbaby's section at the time was called "Seanbaby's Rest of the Crap", with emphasis on "Crap" - it was, at the beginning and end of his run, his job to review the games that were so shitty that they actually merited their own scale because any review of it placed in the section for reviews proper would be "kill it with fire"; so saying "We don't want Seanbaby to make fun of this game" is essentially saying "We're aware of how bad our game is, but are delusional enough to think we can fool people".
Activision did not send any review copies of Tony Hawk: Ride prior to release. Instead, a weekend before release, they organized a Family Fun / Review Event, which, due to the obvious attempts at essentially bribing the reviewers, many reviewers such as GameSpot's declined the invitation. They did something similar for Modern Warfare 2, but unlike Ride, Modern Warfare 2 was well received. It really didn't help that Ride was controlled by a clumsy skateboard peripheral which was savaged by most reviewers and buyers. The game now goes for a 75% discount of its original $120 sticker price in bargain bins everywhere.
Square Enix did send out copies of Final Fantasy XIV to critics, but also asked them not to give out their reviews until they'd fixed some of the bugs before releasing it. Naturally, since the game was already on store shelves, most didn't feel like playing along and gave decidedly negative reviews.
According to Metro's gaming supplement, Gamecentral, review copies of games often get "lost in the post." They become more wary of a game when this happens, since they are known as being among the more strict game reviewers.
While Seven45 Studios did send copies of Power Gig: Rise of the SixString as well as their touted SixString guitar peripheral out for review, they did not send their AirStrike drum peripheral to reviewers. The few who bought their own AirStrike to review noted that the peripheral looks nothing like a drum kit, and its operation was very finicky at best to completely nonfunctional at worst due to a complete lack of tactile feedback; the player had to use the "special" drumsticks that came with the peripheral and hold them in a specific way in order for the unit to register a "hit" on a "drumhead".
There were no review copies sent out for Ride To Hell Retribution, for reasons that became obvious when the game finally released and was universally panned by critics.