August 04, 2005
Rebates for rotten reviews

Remember David Manning, the fake movie critic that was invented by a couple of Sony employees to generate positive buzz for some bad movies? Shortly after that scam was discovered, a group of moviegoers filed a class action lawsuit alleging that such reviews violate California's truth-in-advertising law.

The complaints, filed Friday in Los Angeles Superior Court by a group calling itself the Citizens for Truth in Movie Advertising and four individual plaintiffs, targets 10 studios: Universal, Fox, MGM, Sony, DreamWorks, Warner Bros., Disney, Paramount, Artisan and Lions Gate.

The suits seek to require studios to disclose the nature of junketeering and stop the movie houses from making "false, misleading and deceptive advertising" in violation of California law. The suits also ask for unspecified compensatory and punitive damages.

"The reviewers are in bed with the studios," says plaintiffs' attorney, Anthony Sonnett. "If they want to promote a movie, let them do it honestly...but ultimately we want to bring this practice to an end."

Sonnett cited such reviewers as Jeff Craig, Ron Brewington, Maria Salas, Jim Ferguson, Mark S. Allen, Earl Dittman and the Los Angeles Times' Kevin Thomas as examples of how studios defraud consumers by making the aforementioned critics' glowing notices the centerpiece of print and television ad campaigns.

Yesterday, that suit was officially settled for a little over one million dollars.

The suit, filed in 2001, accused Sony of unfair business practices, including the "intentional and systematic deception of consumers," by using fabricated quotes attributed to Manning. Manning was identified as a critic for the Ridgefield Press, a Connecticut publication, and his quotes in praise of such films as "Hollow Man," "Vertical Limit," "A Knight's Tale" and "The Animal" appeared in studio ads and promotional materials.

Attorney Norman Blumenthal, who represented the plaintiffs, said the final settlement amounts to $1.5 million. However, a preliminary settlement order, dated Dec. 15, 2004, approved a court notice that announced a settlement fund of $750,000 plus $500,000 in attorneys fees, for a total of $1.25 million.

Despite repeated calls, Blumenthal could not be reached for further comment. Sony, which did not admit liability as part of the settlement, declined comment.

Under terms of the agreement, moviegoers who bought tickets to any of the four films between Aug. 3, 2000, and Oct. 31, 2001, could file a claim that could return them as much as $5 for each ticket purchased. Unclaimed portions of the settlement fund are to be earmarked for charity.

One can only hope that possession of one's ticket stub from the movie in question is not a prerequisite for getting the refund.

I can't leave a story like this be without mentioning Earl Dittman, one of the so-called critics cited at the time the original suit was filed. There was a bit of a mania to learn more about Dittman, who never saw a movie he didn't love and want to be quoted about, back in 2003 - see eFilmCritic and Movie Poop Shoot for the details. The brief spurt of bad publicity didn't deter ol' Earl, however - he's still out there, hard at work offering breathless praise of movies like Robots and Guess Who. So be careful, and hold onto those ticket stubs, just in case.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on August 04, 2005 to TV and movies | TrackBack

This makes me nostalgic for the late 80s Spy magazine - does anyone else remember the Blurb-o-Mat guy, the movie publicists' friend?

Posted by: Ellen on August 4, 2005 8:31 AM

I would have been very suspicious about anyone giving a good review to "The Animal" or any other Rob Schneider movie.

Posted by: William Hughes on August 4, 2005 9:29 AM

Earl Dittman, Maria Salas and Kevin Thomas actually do provide a service for the enlightened, because when you see their name on a review, you know the film is AWFUL. However, it is true, that most Americans do not realize that they are getting payola.

Posted by: Mark Alan G. on January 12, 2007 11:32 AM