Proposal for 48-hour embargo on film reviews: Can vloggers make or break a film?

The Kerala High Court appointed amicus curiae’s report contends that review bombing and “disrespectful” reviews have a significant impact on public opinion about a film, but it does not explain how such a conclusion was reached.
Proposal for 48-hour embargo on film reviews: Can vloggers make or break a film?
Written by:

Who is an authentic film reviewer and who isn’t one? When is a film review valid criticism and when is it a manipulative attempt to boost or sink a film? These are some of the questions that the 33-page amicus curiae report submitted by senior advocate Shyam Padman to the Kerala High Court tries to address. The petitioner in the case is Mubeen Rauf, director of the Malayalam film Aaromalinte Aadyathe Pranayam (2023), who had sought a gag on film reviews by vloggers and social media influencers for at least seven days following the release of a film.

The report acknowledges the importance of film criticism, and also underlines its changing dynamics with the growth of social media platforms and digital media publications. There are two main issues of concern that the report identifies – review bombing on social media and aggregator platforms, and “disrespectful” reviews by vloggers who may or may not have a vested interest.

Review bombing refers to quick opinions posted about a new release with relevant hashtags and keywords. These ‘reviews’ are posted from multiple accounts that could be bots or fake accounts, and the intention is to influence public opinion about the film. Review bombing isn’t always negative, and many a time, one can observe ‘positive’ reviews flooding social media through such handles as well. Either this is manufactured by the producer or an actor’s dedicated fanbase.

While the report proposes some measures to curb review bombing, one is not sure how practical these are, and how one is to objectively distinguish between accounts posting genuine reviews about a film and others that aren’t. An FIR may be filed if there is extortion, intimidation, etc., but the report also says that even when there isn’t a “clear allegation that could attract a cognizable offence”, the affected party could pursue legal action for “false statements made in reviews” that could harm the reputation of individuals.

What exactly are these “false statements”? It would be a false statement to get the names of the actors or crew of the film wrong, but is it a false statement to say that the film is terrible? Or that the lead star’s acting is insufferable? Or that the director has no clue about filmmaking? These are not ‘nice’ statements, but can one decide for another if they’re false or not? Opinions about cinema are subjective, and cannot be put in a ‘true or false’ binary.

Read: The rise of YouTube reviewers is changing the dynamics of film criticism in Kerala 

Further, the report distinguishes between vloggers and film critics such as Anupama Chopra, Founder-Editor of Film Companion, and Baradwaj Rangan, Editor-in-Chief of Galatta Plus. According to the report, the latter category of critics is respectful towards the art of cinema while the former isn’t. But, the report’s conclusion about the quality of film reviewers is also entirely subjective.

Critics such as Baradwaj Rangan and Anupama Chopra have received the ire of fans and people from the film industry, too. For instance, Baradwaj Rangan’s review of Jai Bhim (2021) was slammed by many as disrespectful and unfair. The outrage was to the extent that many vloggers did a ‘review of the review’, tearing into the critic and his views on the film. Jai Bhim received mostly positive reviews and overtook The Shawshank Redemption on IMDb to become the highest-rated film on the platform. The critic has also been accused of caste bias by a section of readers and has blogged about it to address the allegation.

Director Sandeep Reddy Vanga has slammed Anupama Chopra for her review of Animal (2024), even hinting that she gave the negative review because he didn’t respond to her messages asking for an interview. Previously, Madhavan, who directed Rocketry: The Nambi Effect and also played the lead role, tweeted that a line from Anupama’s review referring to the scientist’s portrayal as a “true-blue Hindu patriot” was in terrible taste.

None of this is to say that either Baradwaj Rangan or Anupama Chopra deserve these allegations or that they had some malice while reviewing the films. The point is that even the reviewers recognised by the report have been accused of being disrespectful and prejudiced in the past. So, who’s to really be judge and jury here?

It is the report’s contention that review bombing and “disrespectful” reviews have a significant impact on public opinion about a film. In fact, the report claims that negative reviews by certain popular vloggers can influence the audience to an extent that there are “high chances for these movies to be out of the theatre after the very first day itself.” The report does not explain how such a conclusion was reached. It does not cite a single example of a film that was killed in theatres on its very first day because of negative reviews by vloggers or provide any evidence for a correlation or causation between reviews by vloggers and a film being taken out of theatres.

Consider the review of the devotional film Malikapuram (2023) by vlogger Secret Agent, a channel with 710k subscribers. The lead star of the film, Unni Mukundan, was so angered by the review and the vlogger’s choice of language that he called the latter and abused him. But, did the negative review impact the film? Made on a budget of Rs 3.5 crore, it went on to earn Rs 50 crore.

The report also claims that if vloggers with large subscriber bases give positive reviews for low-budget films without a star cast, “the chance for these movies to remain in the theatre and do business for the producer increases”. Again, there are no examples provided of such films. On the contrary, there are several films that have received positive reviews across the spectrum of film reviewers but have not become blockbusters. Take the example of Anand Ekarshi’s critically acclaimed film Aattam (2024) which won rave reviews in the festival circuit. The film, which revolves around the sexual assault of a woman actor in a theatre group and the responses of her male colleagues, was released in theatres on January 5.

Reviewers, including vlogger Aswanth Kok who is mentioned in the report, hailed it. But the film’s collections were a modest Rs 1.5 crore. It is now finding a fresh set of audience on OTT, after it started streaming on Amazon Prime Video. 

If these vloggers are indeed compromised and giving negative reviews only because they were not paid by the producer, one wonders how small budget filmmakers can afford to accommodate these payments to garner positive reviews. It would have helped if the report had provided evidence for such allegations, but once again we’re left only with claims.

Ironically, the report has arrived close on the heels of Malayalam cinema’s biggest blockbuster month. In February, the industry had three massive hits – Premalu, Manjummel Boys, and Bramayugam. The first film has collected over Rs 100 crore and has been dubbed in Tamil and Telugu following its success. The second film has collected over Rs 150 crore and is set to become the highest-grossing Malayalam film ever. The third film has grossed over Rs 50 crore. Tovino Thomas’s police procedural Anweshippin Kandethum also collected a commendable Rs 25 crore and would have probably done better had it not been swept away by these blockbusters.

All these films are of different genres. Premalu is a romcom, Manjummel Boys is a survival thriller, and Bramayugam is an experimental horror thriller shot in black-and-white. Barring Bramayugam which stars Mammootty, none of the other films have prominent stars. What’s common to all three films, however, is that they demand a theatrical experience. After the mushrooming of OTT platforms, several people in the film business have pointed out that the audience now differentiates between films that can be watched on streaming platforms and films that require a theatrical experience. This is true across film industries, and is a major factor in deciding a film’s fate, given that going to theatres is considered an expensive affair.

Read: Malayalam film Manjummel Boys is doing wonders for Tamil Nadu theatres

More than reviews, what is key to a film’s survival is the word-of-mouth it gets. If the audience in the first few shows likes the film and recommends a theatrical watch, nothing can stop it from becoming a success. And if they don’t like it or feel it can be watched on OTT, chances are that it will tank. This is an organic process. Take the example of Mohanlal and Lijo Jose Pellissery’s Malaikottai Vaaliban (2024). The film was released on January 25 and took a good opening of Rs 5.8 crore, thanks to the names of the cast and crew. But it received mixed reviews, and some of the vloggers also generated controversy for being “disrespectful” of the film. 

If the film had appealed to the audience, however, it would have gone on to become a blockbuster, thanks to the opening that it took. The same is true of Dulquer Salmaan’s King of Kotha (2023) that opened at Rs 7.7 crore but couldn’t capitalise on it because it failed to meet the expectations of the audience. There might be a slim percentage of viewers who depend solely on social media reviews and vloggers to watch a film in theatres, but this isn’t the section that seals the film’s fate at the box-office.

Post-pandemic, every industry has struggled to get people into theatres. Filmmakers, theatres, and OTT platforms have been trying to figure out terms that work for all of them. Reviewers are a very small part of this ecosystem. They definitely aren’t its life force. If at all a reviewer looks like a villain to a filmmaker, the latter should have the intelligence and experience to recognise that this is a very minor villain in the larger scheme of things. Certainly not the alpha.

The present report suggests that vloggers should not review films for at least 48 hours after release. How is this enforceable? It is the report’s claim that such vloggers can significantly improve the fate of small budget films in theatres. If that is true, then going by its own logic, won’t such a ban have an adverse impact on small budget films? Or should that not matter? 

Cinema needs conversation, a diversity of views and readings, for it to flourish. Trying to control this isn’t in the interest of cinema, a mass medium consumed by millions. That is something the report fails to understand. 

Sowmya Rajendran writes on gender, culture, and cinema. She has written over 25 books, including a nonfiction book on gender for adolescents. She was awarded the Sahitya Akademi’s Bal Sahitya Puraskar for her novel Mayil Will Not Be Quiet in 2015.

Related Stories

No stories found.
The News Minute