An Open Letter About the Harmfulness of Embargoes at Film Festivals
by Alex Billington
September 8, 2019
After being threatened by the Venice Film Festival to have my press badge removed because I refused to follow the nonsensical embargo rules, I decided to publish this letter. When you experience injustice, when you experience oppression in the world, you must speak up. While this is not that bad, I still fight. I expect many of my colleagues and other critics will disagree with me and refute my claims, which is of course their right. But throughout the 13+ years I have been running this website, I have often seen jealousy and fear manifest itself as control and dominance and this is another example. I was told that others "complained" about my tweets, and so I was forced to fall in line and do what they demanded. I resist. I refuse. It is time to change this rule at festivals. Once a film screens, we should be free to talk about it. My full letter below.
No film festival should have embargoes. Period. Film festivals are wonderful, exciting places where authentic creative expression is encouraged and championed, and all attendees should have the freedom to participate in the ensuing discussion. Last year, the Cannes Film Festival announced a fairly major change to press screenings, and in response Venice followed suit. However, the decision to try to control the press and their reaction to films by implementing an embargo was not only annoying, but very confusing and frustrating. It effectively killed the conversation, eliminating any actual healthy discussion about the films from the press. Especially on social media. Being afraid of instant reactions and being afraid of social media is a fear-driven mentality that only leads to more control, limited expression, and less diverse discussion.
Major festivals like Sundance, Toronto, and Telluride do not use embargoes. They know that it's worse to try and stop the discussion than to let it flow freely. In our current day & age where social media rules, a festival embargo unquestionably stifles discussion and supports a more insular, ego-driven community. It reminds us that certain industry publications who demand and threaten to have their content published first always get their way. Festivals are a place for every single cinephile, critics or otherwise, to sit together inside these beautiful cinemas and experience the films together. It puts us all on the same level, and it's much healthier to encourage and support the resulting discussion than to control it or to cave to the threats of a powerful minority. Cannes understands this, which is why their decision to schedule press screenings at the same time as public premieres and maintain their policy of allowing discussion as soon as the film is over is a healthy example of a reasonable solution. Implementing an embargo actually eliminates more substantial discussion, as was the experience at Venice this year. It opens the door for the media to cover more gossip and unrelated news, and not focus as much on films and the experience that every person has in the cinema.
The idea that instant reactions prevent deeper analysis and destroy intelligent criticism is an unfounded and absurd claim. If there are critics who wish to take more time to think about and respond to a film, they are more than welcome to do so. Embargo or not. It is not a requirement. Those of us who enjoy giving an instant reaction, and participating in social discussion immediately, and further refining and analyzing the films, are the ones being gagged. Everyone experiences the world in real time nowadays, and expressing ourselves in real time is a contemporary concept that can and does actually benefit and encourage healthier criticism. Every single critic can choose whether or not they wish to participate in social media, and every single critic can choose how much time they really need to properly express their thoughts about any film. No one is forcing them to rush, and because others are fast doesn't mean we should all be stifled. I spoke with many journalists who were confused about the embargo, wasting time on scheduling and figuring out when they can talk, rather then participating in any conversations. How can this be considered healthy?!
Filmmakers have the freedom to tell their stories, we should have the freedom to express our opinions. Not only at a certain time demanded, but as soon as the film ends at a festival. As soon as the credits roll. I reject the embargo. I resist control. And we all should open our eyes and realize this form of authoritarian rule is extremely dangerous and harmful. These films will go on to exist forever. And anyone can take their time to watch, analyze, and compose more thoughts on it - this week, next week, next year, or in ten years. There's nothing good that comes from controlling the discussion and preventing immediate reactions - it only further encourages a world where we can not properly engage in discussion, or learn to grow by respecting other opinions. Even the negative ones. There is no need for embargoes at film festivals, we instead should be encouraging more diverse, unique, vibrant conversations and criticism in all forms. This is the way to build a stronger film community. This is the way to inspire intelligent criticism in the age of social media.
I am not the only film writer / critic / journalist who feels this way. Many others wish to express themselves through social media without any censorship or forceful control. However, many still repulsively demand control over others so that they can maintain their own dominance, and will attack and defend gagging without taking a moment to really question it. But I reject that. I speak up for what is right, what is fair, what encourages equality and openness, and for the beautiful human right of free speech and expression without limitation. I believe that fairness and freedom of expression is something worth fighting for, and I believe talking about this is the only way to make a difference. This industry talks so much about supporting the freedom of expression for filmmakers, then why can't we also support that same freedom for critics.