I was reminded of this while having an exchange with a friend on the ongoing debate over the mostly negative critical reaction to "Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice" and the film’s strong box office opening last weekend, and any correlation (or lack thereof) between the two. If you have no idea what I’m referring to, a Google or Twitter search will easily assist. Dozens of articles have been written on the matter in the last 3 days, and continue to be.
Let’s take a trip into the past, back to May 1988, when Eddie Murphy’s "Coming to America" was set to open in theaters nationwide a month later.
Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel appeared on Oprah Winfrey’s daytime talk-show that spring to preview the summer movie season that year.
During their conversation with Oprah, they talked about the film ("Coming to America") not being screened for the press (as is custom) before it was released in theaters, which, as Siskel opined, meant that the studio wasn’t confident in how it would be received by audiences.
Ebert went on to say that the film was screened, but just once, for press in New York, but reactions to it by those who attended that screening were so dreadful (apparently none of the New York critics liked it) that the studio, Paramount, decided it best to cancel all other press screenings for the film, ahead of its release, so as not to influence audience decisions on whether to pay to see the film on opening weekend, which would obviously affect box office.
So neither Ebert nor Siskel had seen the film when they appeared on Winfrey’s program, and thus hadn’t reviewed it, even though, as they stated, screening requests were made, but they were told that the film wasn’t available, which was of course not the case. The studio just got spooked by reactions after its first pre-release screening for critics in New York, and certainly didn’t want any further disparaging coverage of it nationwide.
Siskel went on to say that he was offended that the studio withheld the film from the press, and it reflected even worse on the film that studio executives apparently didn’t have much confidence in it to begin with, regardless of what critics said about it early on.
I think of recent films that weren’t screened for the press for essentially similar reasons; for example, Lionsgate rarely screened Tyler Perry’s films for critics for what should be obvious reasons. Perry’s films were critic-proof if only because he had/has an incredibly faithful and active fan base who were/are always more than ready to support his work no matter what those "snooty" film critics had to say,, always armed and ready to defend him whenever and wherever necessary.
But Perry’s movies are just one example. There have been others. And something tells that, even if Warner Bros. didn’t screen "Batman v. Superman" for critics, the movie would’ve likely still had the really strong box office opening that it did. Not that I’m suggesting that "Batman v. Superman" and Tyler Perry movies are comparable.
The Ebert and Siskel conversation on Winfrey’s show in 1988, about Paramount’s worries over "Coming to America’s" critical reception and its potential effect on the movie’s box office, is worth listening to.
What’s even more hilarious is that, despite the studio’s apparent worries, the film went on to become a blockbuster! In fact, it was the 3rd highest grossing film of 1988, taking home $128,152,301 domestic (adjusted for inflation, that’s about $250 million in today’s money). Globally, it grossed $288,752,301, or about $550 million in today’s dollars.
And it’s gone on to become a comedy classic! I’d even go out on a limb and say that, in 20 years, "Coming to America" will still be remembered and will still be cherished, and probably by more people than "Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice."
As Siskel emphasized to Oprah, obviously the studios don’t always know what exactly they have on their hands, which underlines this entire matter.
As for what Siskel and Ebert eventually thought of "Coming to America," well, watch their review of the film below, after you watch their appearance on Oprah (the conversation on "Coming to America" starts at the 8:30 mark):
And here’s their review of the film: