An Open Letter About the Harmfulness of Embargoes at Film Festivals

September 8, 2019

Venice Film Festival

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.

Find more posts: Editorial, Venice 19



Well put Alex. I can't see how anyone can disagree with any of this, but these days, common sense and logic have been thrown out the window.

grimjob on Sep 8, 2019


If I read thru your anger correctly , the problem occurs when press screenings are hours( days ? ) before a public premiere . So ,have you asked Cannes and Venice Why they continue to do such ? Whats the point , from their perspective , besides pre-controlling reviews from social media ? a real answer , or their squirming obfuscation , might be instructive ...

Dominic on Sep 8, 2019


The word I've heard is that it's to protect filmmakers, to shelter them from negative opinions. They want to go to a premiere without any reviews before then. And so they choose to prioritize that over the openness of critical opinion, and our freedom to express our thoughts. This is why Cannes changed their schedule to put the public & press screenings together, and I mention that in this letter as an acceptable solution. Some critics claim it's to even things out and prevent early reactions, which is odd because controlling us shouldn't be the way to achieve that. We should have that freedom to converse and discuss films right away after all watching the film together - without any control. A simple ask.

Alex Billington on Sep 9, 2019


a sparsely atttended premiere , because the word is already out that the movie sucks , would be a problem ... Of course it can work positively for the film , as well ... Just make movies that don't suck ;?)) would that be too much to ask .. Tho The firing of their agents by 7000 Hollywood writers and now the upcoming vote by the Writers Guild of America( union) over whether to stay with this current course of protest against " Packaging " would seem a bigger story to cover , this is more personal to what you do .. Both stories point out to me , that Hollywood isn't as booming as one might think . Even with the Saving Grace of Billion to Trillion dollar-grossing CB movies . Studios are penny-pinching , and controlling as many facets of the business that they can , to do so ..

Dominic on Sep 9, 2019


Column by Steve Pearlstein on the subject , in Sunday's WaPo , might interest you ... The " Little Guy" in Hollywood is getting the short end of what profit sharing there is ....

Dominic on Sep 9, 2019


Hollywood and its minions can go to hell. If they want to avoid this situation, they have to release it to the media the same day as for the public. It's that simple.

tarek on Sep 9, 2019


If a film is genuinely poor, it's questionable that a festival is choosing to screen it. I've sometimes had reason to wonder about the 'quality control' at the London Film Festival.

Adrian Winchester on Sep 9, 2019


what a shame that I used to use the Schedule feature on this site to keep track of new releases. Definitely will no longer be doing that when this kind of baby-ish tantrum throwing is being encouraged.

captain tying knots ⛵️⚓️ on Sep 8, 2019


I don't think writing an impassioned letter about something that I think is important is "tantrum throwing", and no one is encouraging anything. I am speaking up because I want to and felt the desire to do so.

Alex Billington on Sep 9, 2019


Such an inflated ego. You're chasing clicks and views, stop framing it as some quest for justice.

disposableheroes on Sep 9, 2019


Chasing clicks and views? Really? All I want to do is have the freedom of expression, to talk about things and stir up discussion after seeing a film. I'm allowed to do this at every other major festival including Cannes and Sundance. I don't really care about the likes or clicks, that's up to you if you're interested or not.

Alex Billington on Sep 9, 2019


Then go as a civilian, not press.

brijazz012 on Sep 11, 2019


Doing my job should not involve constraints and limitations and control. Especially considering I have been doing this for 13 years and up until the last few years, there has never been an issue with my freedom to talk about films. Only very recently at a few festivals.

Alex Billington on Sep 11, 2019


Been following this site for a while and I support Alex. What is the point on an embargo at a festival? Yes, it is not that big a deal and not worth losing your pass over, but it makes no sense why this one particular festival wants to have these non sensical embargo. As Alex also pointed out....get with the times. Social media exists and you can always write your longer review later.

Have Hope on Sep 9, 2019


I had an open mind but took a look at the responses to this on Twitter. These convinced me that the embargo is perfectly reasonable, and that clearly applies to most people, as Mr Billington has been getting tiny number of 'likes' compared to his critics. Venice is different to most festivals, which often have press screenings after public screenings.

Adrian Winchester on Sep 9, 2019


Entirely untrue, not looking for "likes", just looking for the freedom to express myself. Just because you don't like what I have to say doesn't mean that an embargo is reasonable.

Alex Billington on Sep 9, 2019


Trump gets hundred thousands of likes. Does that make of him or his posts good inputs? Stop judging thing on the "likes" basis. That's simply immature.

tarek on Sep 9, 2019


You're putting words into my mouth because I didn't say that the number of likes is indicative of a commendable tweet. People need to make up their own minds. The point I'm making is that if tweets on this subject from a known critic like Mr Billington get a few tens of likes, while the people expressing an opposing view are getting several hundred, or at least a thousand in one case, it's very clear that he's losing the argument. That doesn't automatically mean that he's wrong, but having read what others have to say on Twitter (have you?), I'm not surprised by the huge difference!

Adrian Winchester on Sep 9, 2019


(Taking back the words from your muoth). They are mine! ;D Well, I read some. They almost all sound like: "My roof, my rule" arguments. Nothing solid. I still don't get the purpose of the umbargo, or any other umbargo to be honest. Did you read any argument that can change my mind on this?

tarek on Sep 9, 2019


To control us, to favor the filmmakers and shelter them from negative opinions, and to halt any open discussion. It's a bit strange.

Alex Billington on Sep 9, 2019


Having read this tirade against "injustice", "oppression" and "authoritarian rule", I can hardly believe that it's all inspired by a reasonable request to delay tweeting for a few hours! This has to be to most arrogant, self-important writing I've read for quite a while, seeking to inflate something of minimal importance into something profound. And apparently the festival only "threatened" to take away Mr Billington's press badge - they showed extraordinary restraint!

Adrian Winchester on Sep 9, 2019


Without a press badge , he can't do his job ....which is to get information on this site for YOU to read ... and , sorry , the speed of today's communications is in SECONDS , not hours . or days like when Alex Started this site . and this isn't the only film website around . So while the two studios request is "reasonable" so is the answering request , to schedule press and public showings together .. Compromise ! should start from the studio end .. Because if you tacitly admit that a bad review can kill you , then these film review websites are more important to your business than you apparently wish to admit . So the studios need to cater to THEM , not the other way around ...

Dominic on Sep 9, 2019


It makes no difference to me how the press/public screenings are scheduled - maybe scheduling them together is the answer. But even if a festival has a world premiere, I can't believe the general public are desperate to see a tweet in advance of the official premiere - hardly anyone would know or care whether a press screening is beforehand. Mr Billington says on Twitter that "rules are meant to be broken", so I can't help thinking that his ideal scenario is tweeting in advance of anyone else, because he has fun breaking the rules. I don't work for a studio but considering how much time and effort are invested in a new feature - and what a special occasion a premiere is for those involved - I don't think it's asking too much to request no 'rogue' pre-screening tweets. And I expect most premiere audience members enjoy the sense of viewing a film that no one has judged yet.

Adrian Winchester on Sep 9, 2019


"I love rules and I love following them, unless that rule is stupid." -Anna Kendrick. I don't think there is any harm at all in expressing my thoughts, which is what I have done for 13 years already, and also what I do at every other festival because they don't have embargoes. Nothing bad happens. In fact, good things can happen when we do get to talk. All these concerns and issues you bring up are extremely exaggerated and defensive of the filmmakers over everyone else, which is a strange since we all should have the ability to discuss. I had to say something because I think it is important to have this freedom, as I do at every other festival, rather than fall under control for these reasons you claim. Have you ever been to a festival? Do you know how they work? Do you follow the buzz? If not, then why have such a strong opinion?

Alex Billington on Sep 9, 2019


You have every right to express an opinion, and you've clearly caused debate. But if I (and others) appear to have strong opinions, it's because I think you've addressed an issue of little importance and blown it out of proportion. References to "gagging" and "oppression" are over the top, especially considering what some people suffer due to genuine oppression. Also, ignoring the embargo seems disrespectful to all your colleagues who respected it and thus were not expressing views at the same time. Yes, I go to festivals and broadly know how they work. I'm interested to read reviews but I'm not desperate to follow the buzz, considering that if there are 250 films, I won't see the majority of them. Without the filmmakers, there would be no festivals, so don't think it's unreasonable for them to have some say on such matters.

Adrian Winchester on Sep 9, 2019


Good for you. I don't think there's really any harm or any real major issue here, just a few strong words, and some individual choices going against the herd. If that's reason for you to get all worked up and come after me, that's on you, not on me. I haven't done anything to harm anyone or cause any major disturbance. I am there to champion films and spread a love for them, by any means necessary. I think YOU are blowing this way out of proportion, too.

Alex Billington on Sep 10, 2019


Again , its not an issue of lLittle Importance to ALEX , or anybody else who is in the "Film Review Website" industry . Just to us who don't go to premieres or Profit off of them . We might not care about the Buzz ; but that doesn't mean the industry people who DO and could profit or lose from it , aren't interested in such "tweets" . Everything needs Promotion , so a filmmaker needs to work with the rest of his industry to create such a buzz . Not work against them ... Also , these aren't random movie night openings ; they're Film Festivals where multiple movies are MEANT to be screened and talked about . So to then say " You can see it but not discuss it until hours /days from now " , is somewhat strange , and just doesn't work in today's world ...

Dominic on Sep 11, 2019


I agree! Oh I agree, but it's hard to argue this when everyone has their own mind about what is and isn't important or good or bad or necessary or whatever. But I understand, I'm totally with you. I am not doing this "for profit" anymore, just doing it because I love doing it and love talking about films.

Alex Billington on Sep 11, 2019


From an anti-capitalist perspective I agree with the sentiment with regards to corporations controlling the narrative for the release of a product. There's a larger conversation to be had about cinema's intersection with capitalism and artistry. However, this is some whiny, entitled, crybaby bullshit.

AverageWriter on Sep 9, 2019


You're conflating following requested rules and guidelines with oppression. No one forced you to take a press badge and walk into the theater. They gave you the value out of the pass in exchange for the coverage and the presumed ad-rev. But then you decided you didn't wanna. You're entirely cognizant of embargos, everyone that goes to a press screening or receives episodic screeners has them. That you want to be an entitled to do what you want - then go as the public, pay for a ticket, and do your own thing. They're not obliged to entertain your self-anointed sense of entitlement.

Bill Watters on Sep 9, 2019


I don't really see it as this kind of business transaction, and pointing out how much this rule doesn't help but only limits and controls the discussion is an important thing for me to speak up about. I'm doing my job and covering the festival no matter what, and causing no harm and no problems by wishing to talk about films as soon as I see them. I've been covering festivals for 13 years, and most do not have this issue & still run perfectly fine. It's not so much of a big deal to ask that they run their festival like every other festival so we can talk about the films without being forced to only talk when they tell us.

Alex Billington on Sep 9, 2019


While I can see why the companies want to use embargoes, it kind of doesn't make sense in today's instant gratification world. Sorry the comments section seems to have gone to crap. Be well, AB.

DAVIDPD on Sep 10, 2019


Guess I'm the lucky one here because I simply don't care. I've been around and involved with films for over 4 decades and can see the validity on both sides here. I understand Alex's frustration as he's used to the way it's been for a long time, but things change. The internet, social media, twitter...it's all changing things. I've always felt if a studio or filmmaker does not want their film reviewed then don't show it to anyone. Especially to critics or the press/media. Trying to control what is going to be written after you screen to professional critics is a bit ridiculous and even draconian to me. Also, if Alex doesn't like these new rules he doesn't have to abide by them by going to these festivals where the rules are in place. If you don't like deuces and one-eyed Jacks being wild then it's not wise to play in the particular poker game. I mean, you can sit in and play and ignore the rules, but the other players are gonna be playing deuces and one-eyed Jacks are wild and you're going to lose. Pretty simple. I have to admire Alex though and taking a stand and making his opinion and frustrations public because who knows? Maybe that will have a positive effect on it all and perhaps the rules will lose their firm grip like they have now. Nothing wrong with that. I hope you don't suffer any painful consequences for your standing up to be heard, Alex. It's an admirable thing...so good luck!

thespiritbo on Sep 11, 2019


Whenever I see a review embargo, be it movie, game, book, etc., I always assume there is an embargo because the product isn't very good. Embargo = Not worth my time.

ScytheNoire on Jan 28, 2020

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