After a promo campaign that’s lasted the better part of a year, Robert Rodriguez’s Alita: Battle Angel finally makes its grand debut this Friday. This might be news to you if you’ve been reading the reviews, many of which hit the web on January 31, a full two weeks before the movie’s release. Why? Because that was the day of the embargo — the time and date a studio picks for when critics, most of whom have seen the movie days or weeks ahead of time, are finally able to reveal their impressions to the public. Alita’s embargo is noteworthy not just because it’s earlier than usual but also because it provides an occasion for one of my favorite hobbies: going deep into the weeds analyzing the hidden messages behind movies’ embargoes.
Now, not every movie has an embargo. Movies that premiere at film festivals usually don’t; once Roma played Venice, it was fair game to talk about, even though regular people wouldn’t be able to see it for three more months. (A lot of movies do screen for critics ahead of their festival premieres, in which case the embargo is set for whenever the first festival viewing is.) But you’re probably familiar with the basic 101-level understanding of embargoes: The closer they are to the release date, the worse the movie is. This is true enough — when the embargo is set for the Thursday night before release, you know you’re probably in for a stinker.
However! There are enough exceptions that it is probably more accurate to say that the closer an embargo is to a release date, the worse the studio thinks the movie is. And its judgment is not infallible. Critics on Twitter spent last summer complaining that they weren’t able to bang the drum for The Little Stranger, since Focus had not only decided to bury the Lenny Abrahamson thriller at the end of August, but also set the embargo for two days before release, preventing the movie from obtaining the kind of good word of mouth that could have saved it. The reverse situation is a little more juicy. I’ll never forget how sure Sony was that Passengers would be a smash, setting the embargo for the day after the critics’ screening, more than a week before it hit theaters. They likely anticipated an orgy of raves along the lines of “J. Law and Chris Pratt Are Sexy AF in Space”; instead, they got days of “Wait, Passengers Is About What?” headlines.
But it would be a mistake to assume that all late embargoes are a sign of ill-feeling surrounding a movie. Projects that have been shrouded in secrecy often employ them to maintain mystique. We saw this with Phantom Thread, which confounded awards pundits last season with an absurdly late embargo that didn’t lift until after the film had already been honored by the National Board of Review and the L.A. Film Critics Circle. On the more commercial side of things, this PR strategy is also useful for massive blockbusters that have little to no use for critics either way; Disney’s Star Wars and Marvel movies set late embargoes to minimize spoilers, which are probably more damaging to them than an armful of pans.
An additional wrinkle: Disney and others have started using two separate embargoes, one for reviews and the other for social-media reactions. This is sort of a have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too move for the studios, who can enjoy waves of “I’m screaming” tweets while still keeping most plot details under wraps. Captain Marvel is getting this treatment right now: The embargo lifts March 5, only a few days before the premiere, but social reactions are allowed on February 19, two weeks earlier. Two inferences: (1) They’re pretty happy with it, and (2) there’s some sort of connection to the fourth Avengers film they don’t want getting out there too early.
If a late embargo might just be proof that a movie’s studio doesn’t support it, or is trying to tamp down on spoilers, when can you look at a movie’s embargo and tell it’s going to be bad? This is where we get to the real galaxy-brain stuff: The surest sign that a movie is not going to be good is not if it has an early embargo or whether it has a late embargo, but when it has an embargo that keeps changing. This is a sure sign of internal disruption in the movie’s camp, and you know what causes internal disruption? A turkey. Recall the case of Vice, which had an embargo that kept on shifting with the winds, as the movie’s team tried to figure out what to do with an Oscars player that many critics absolutely hated. They eventually landed on December 17, a week before it opened, but more importantly, 11 days after the movie cleaned up at the Golden Globe nominations. The plan worked! Vice was already established as a major awards movie before the negative reviews hit, and the film eventually sailed through the rocky critical response on the way to a Best Picture nomination.
Knowing all this, what can we say about Alita’s early embargo? It’s certainly a sign of remarkable confidence in the project, a confidence perhaps inspired by the movie’s pedigree (James Cameron is a producer) but which also seems to have been slightly misguided: The movie’s received mixed reviews, and is on track to become one of 2019’s first and biggest bombs. And thank God. Embargo-spotting wouldn’t be any fun if the studios guessed right every time.