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Why I No Longer Request Horror Screeners – Despite Reviewing More Movies Than Ever Before

Horror ScreenersI’ll never forget the day I received my first big time movie review copy in the mail, commonly known in the film journalism field as a ‘screener.’ Less than a year after I started my blog Freddy In Space, a package showed up on my doorstep courtesy of Warner Bros., and inside was a DVD copy of the Friday the 13th remake’s so-called ‘Killer Cut.’

I had by that point in time amassed a respectable collection of screener copies, though they all came courtesy of unknown distribution companies and in some cases, indie filmmakers themselves. Needless to say, the fact that I had caught the attention of Warner Bros. made me feel pretty damn good, and I was over the moon about getting the chance to review the disc several weeks before its release.

But things change. People change. And in the years since that exciting day in 2009, my opinion on screeners has most definitely changed.

If you follow the social media accounts of writers here in the horror community, you’ve probably noticed that screeners have become somewhat of a bragging right. Bloggers are almost always eager to show off pictures of their latest screener arrivals, impressing their friends and followers by letting them know that they got their hands on a disc that isn’t yet available to the masses.

And that’s totally okay. I used to do it. In fact, I did it pretty often. And yes, you better believe that I tried to impress people with my advanced DVD copy of the Friday the 13th remake. There’s a certain sense of pride that comes along with receiving a screener, not just because it’s free but also because you’re getting it before other people, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with embracing that pride.

In the years since 2009 I’ve become more and more involved in the horror community, writing for several websites and becoming somewhat of a self-appointed ambassador for the genre. You can often find me on Twitter encouraging people to support horror movies and keep the genre alive and kicking, and I’m a HUGE proponent of horror fans paying to consume the art they enjoy.

When I received that copy of Friday the 13th in the mail, a proverbial fire was lit in my belly, and I would spend hours shooting off e-mails to distribution companies and requesting copies of their latest releases. I wanted to see it all, I wanted to pay nothing, and most importantly, I wanted to be able to review new movies as soon as they were released.

And sure, I also wanted to take pictures and impress my friends.

But somewhere along the way I lost interest in the screener game. Though my methods proved to be hugely successful, and though I would often teach them to others, I all but stopped requesting review copies a couple years ago, and haven’t sent out one of those e-mails in quite some time. I initially wasn’t even sure why I stopped, but it has recently become crystal clear to me.

It all comes back to supporting the horror genre, and getting a thrill out of doing so. And though I would certainly never equate screeners to illegal downloads, there’s something about asking for free horror movies that goes against my core principle of supporting horror cinema. The two, at least in my mind, simply do not go hand-in-hand, and I can no longer justify getting all the latest horror movies… for free.

This is a controversial stance, I’m aware, and my fear in expressing this viewpoint is that many will misunderstand what I’m saying. For the record, there is nothing wrong with asking for free movies, if you intend on reviewing them and spreading the word, as it’s not like you have to con distributors into sending them out. Oftentimes, they’re more than happy to, and that’s their choice rather than yours.

And believe me, I completely understand why distributors do in fact set aside a certain number of discs for these purposes. The idea being that if I positively review a movie that a company sends to me, for example, YOU in turn may take my advice and BUY that movie. And that’s all good and well, as that’s the way this whole thing works. Always has been and probably always will be.

But if you have to buy the movie, shouldn’t I have to buy the movie as well? If guys like me, who love horror movies so much that we spend a good portion of our time writing about them, aren’t spending the money to buy new releases, then who the hell is? And is it really the smartest thing to send so many free copies to the people whose dollars you rely on in order to stay in business and continue putting out movies?

That last question is one I posed earlier today to indie filmmaker Rob Dimension, the director of short horror films like No Clowning Around, Baggage, and most recently, Rabbit Hole. Some would argue that indie filmmakers simply need to send out free copies in order to get the almighty “exposure,” and I was curious to hear what a working filmmaker had to say about that particular topic of discussion.

“I have sent out plenty of physical copies and streaming links of my films. Less than half of those who promised reviews actually wrote them,” Dimension told me, highlighting another big issue with screeners. “I have also uploaded my films online and just plain given them away, all with the hopes of establishing some worth and proving myself in the genre I love.”

“The times have changed and giving away your work has unfortunately become the norm,” he continued. “As a result it’s very tough to create value in your art. Filmmaking is an incredibly saturated field, especially when it comes to the horror genre. New films are released all the time and we all want to be noticed.”

“I slight no one for accepting free movies,” Dimension was quick to make clear. “All I hope is that more horror fans give independent filmmakers a chance, support us, and allow us to put value to our art.”

It is precisely for the reasons laid out by Dimension that I now get much more of a thrill out of renting/buying movies than I do out of receiving them for free. I realize it may seem ridiculous that I’m publicly telling distributors to NOT send me free movies, but the genre and the filmmakers that play around in it need my money to continue what they’re doing, and I’m more than happy to give it to them.

Are screeners hurting the industry the way that piracy is? I’d hardly be able to justify answering anything but a resounding ‘no’ to that question. And again I’d like to stress that I am in no way criticizing those who feel differently about this topic than I do. More than anything, ‘rants’ like this one exist only to inspire discussion, and this is merely intended to be food for thought.

So feel free to spit it right out.

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If you don't get enough of me here on Halloween Love, you can also find me on Dread Central, iHorror and Shock Till You Drop. Contact me via john@halloweenlove.com.
  • Nice piece. I would also imagine that free screeners may consciously/subconsciously affect a person’s opinion when they’re writing a review. It’s a different arena but I once reviewed a set of action figures, and a reader asked if they were sent free. In that one case, they actually were. He said he wasn’t sure I’d have said the same glowing things had I actually paid for them and… damn it, he was right. Because it’s easy to celebrate free stuff.

    I’m not sure if that enters the screener arena too, but I imagine that at least some of them are expensive or special edition copies that aren’t cheap for the masses. (I have noticed that screeners do seem to be sent a little too liberally at times. I don’t get that, and this ties into what you’ve written above: Why make hardcore fans dream of being screener-worthy than dream of, you know, buying cool horror shit?)

  • John Squires

    Great points. I’ve found, like you say, that getting a movie for free can VERY easily impact your opinion of the movie, and I’ve always felt that many give into that temptation to say something nice simply cause the movie was free – and also for the purpose of not being placed on that company’s shit list. So that’s definitely another issue that screeners bring along with them.

    The main thing I want to stress is that horror fans should be eager to buy stuff, rather than expect it for free. And I think too many screeners being sent to too many people has made a lot of those people way too comfortable with the idea of getting the things they want for free. I hate to see that, and I’ve been seeing more and more of that.

  • @SBofSelfAbuse

    I’m still relatively new to the review game, but I’ve only received digital screeners so far. These tend to come with expirations so I’d equate that more to a free rental. I’d still have to buy it if I wanted to own it.

    To the point about positively reviewing free stuff, I feel like that could work both ways. If one paid good money for a movie that turned out to be shit, they might be overly unkind In their review.

    Not arguing with anything you’re saying. Just a couple thoughts.

  • Without a doubt, the greatest benefits of advance screeners are that they create buzz for a yet-to-be-released product and bring in lots of traffic for writers who review the movie early. It’s a win/win situation for both parties. I always try to give back financially to the movies that I thoroughly enjoyed (and saw for free). I received a screener copy of It Follows, but have seen it twice in theaters since. I received a screener copy of Spring, but I plan on whatever insane package Drafthouse throws together for that home video release. Screeners help me keep my e-ship above water, and are responsible for a significant amount of the traffic I receive as a writer. I like to think I’m giving back by writing an honest review and spreading the word, but I also know that paying $10 for a ticket, or $6 for a rental, or $20 for a Blu-ray is important too.

    Screeners are great until those receiving them begin to abuse the privilege and stop spending any money on the products they support.

  • Thomas Raven

    I think this goes beyond movies and touches on every aspect of our lives as consumers. These days, everyone wants products to be as inexpensive as they can be. Price point is the main feature in most consumers’ decision making process. This drives prices lower, and costs as well. The result is cheaper products that are cheaply made. If you like something, support it, and don’t begrudge an individual or a company for making a well-deserved profit.

  • John Squires

    There’s also the issue of it becoming a chore to review a movie, once you receive a screener. Always hated that. I like to watch what I want/when I want to watch it, rather than feel like I’m forced to watch a certain movie at a certain point in time.

  • John Squires

    Absolutely agree. Goes well beyond just the horror community, for sure. Art, as a whole, has really lost its value over the years.

  • John Squires

    Amen to that last line. And that’s what I worry about. Can’t help but feel that many only really add movies to their collection/watch them when they’re getting them for free. You need to support with your money, as much if not more than you support with your reviews, tweets, etc.

  • John Squires

    On the subject of digital screeners, I think that’s definitely a better way to go. Hopefully, when people dig a movie they were sent a digital screener of, they’ll buy it once it hits DVD/Blu-ray. Personally though, I hate watching movies on my computer. Would rather pay and watch on the TV.

  • @SBofSelfAbuse

    I use Chromecast to beam it to TV

  • John Squires

    You are WAY more high-tech than I am!

  • Harlan Ellison has been raging about this for decades, unfortunately too many people are in such a rush and dont listen.

    Creating art is a job of work and should be compensated as such. If the individual as an artist devalues it, how can you ever expect a consumer to do anything but as well?

  • Thomas Gleba

    I can see your point, to an extent. I don’t run ads on my site, my blog, or anything else my reviews go on, save for a couple “courtesy ads”, therefore, I don’t have anything resembling a “budget”, so I’m not inclined to blind buy a film. That being said, I DO buy copies of movies I love, and pimp the shit outta anything I enjoy on social media, so yeah, I own two copies of a lot of films, both a screener and a commercial release. But I almost never buy a film in order to review it.

  • calciferboheme

    As an artist, it can be incredibly frustrated dealing with people. I have had to lowball myself in order to make sales, but in many cases people say that what I’m charging is still too much, despite the fact I don’t know anyone who charges less.

    I just hope I can get to the point where I can pick and choose more than i currently do.But when a job comes along I don’t turn it down unless it’s insultingly low. To bad we don’t live in a time when many artists could find support.

  • @SBofSelfAbuse

    Haha. If plugging something into the back of the TV counts.

  • sexyarmpit

    There are 2 things that I think need to happen to be able to be on the same
    page. First, I think we need to define the fact that INDEPENDENT artists and
    filmmakers are the ones that we should be helping. Sure, it’s great to show
    support for mainstream horror movies like Insidious 3 and Paranormal Activity
    17, but when you look at it, even if several thousand people decide not to
    support those films, they’ll likely still be a giant success anyway because
    they are usually made reasonably, and there’s still millions…AND MILLIONS of
    people across the world who are going to see the film in the theater AND buy it
    on bluray and DVD. I’m not saying don’t support horror, I’m saying, don’t worry
    as much about supporting mainstream horror because if those fail, the only
    people it hurts are major studios who have literally billions of dollars to
    work with. Support artists and filmmakers who don’t have the backing of huge
    studios behind them like a Rob Dimension. But on the very same token, I don’t
    agree with indie artists feeling that it’s easy for average people to make a
    leap and buy a movie if they haven’t A) seen their other works B) seen at least
    a longer than average trailer that provides enough of an idea to a buyer that
    they might like it. iTunes changed the length of their song samples several
    years ago to give buyers a better idea of whether they wanted to buy the track
    or not. Same thing should go for indie movies and shows, as well as other stuff
    they sell. You can never expect people to buy your stuff unless you’ve built up
    a body of work that is readily available, a good chunk of that body of
    work should be free, otherwise no one can become familiar with you and
    your brand in the first place. In the instance of screeners, I don’t think them
    being sent out is the issue, I think the issue is that they are being sent out
    way too liberally. The PR folks have a job to do. They have X amount of screeners
    to give away. To their bosses, it’s better that they make the contact with a
    writer and send the disc to them for a possible review rather than having a
    stack of discs sitting in their office collecting dust. I say, support
    independent artists as much as possible, but conversely, the indie artists
    should give people a reason for the buyers to support them. Horror fans usually
    support whatever horror they can get their hands on, but the real culprit isn’t
    the screeners, it’s the torrents. To tie this all back to horror, let me talk
    as my finger friend Tony, “STOP DOWNLOADING TORRENTS MR. TORRANCE”

  • sexyarmpit

    And to clarify what I meant by this line “a good chunk of that body of work should be free, otherwise no one can become familiar with you and
    your brand in the first place..” What I meant to say here was that there’s a much greater chance that an indie filmmaker can gain an audience by putting at least some of his or her stuff out for free ONLINE which garners the widest audience.

  • Totally, having been a part of Amazon Vine and receiving free junk for the last decade from companies to review on my site it got to the point where the idea of reviewing any of this stuff was a total chore. I also saw first hand the downfall of a DVD distribution company (BCI Eclipse) who was flooding the market with screeners of expensive sets that I was all to eager to get my hands on at a time when I couldn’t afford to buy the sets myself. The company went under because they couldn’t turn a decent profit and sure, they didn’t go under because of the 1k worth of DVDs they sent my way, but I’m just one out of hundreds of folks who were receiving those screeners and it starts to add up. They were doing amazing work on those sets too, and now a big chunk of that stuff it out of print and hard for fans to get their hands on. It just left a bad taste in my mouth and I always felt bad that I didn’t put my money where my mouth is so to speak. Since then I’ve largely stopped accepting review copies and when I do I try to always buy additional copies of the product to give away on the site.

  • John Squires

    Thank you for this comment, because it really adds to what I’m feeling/saying here. I think too many fans have become way too comfortable with getting free stuff, and that ultimately can hurt companies/the overall genre, if not nipped in the bud. Again, I’m not equating screeners to illegal downloads, in any way, it’s just a personal stance I’ve chosen to take. I just don’t feel right being an advocate for the genre, and yet sending out e-mails every week asking for free movies.

  • John Squires

    Torrents are a MUCH larger issue than screeners, to the point that screeners aren’t even an issue. Like you said, the main problem is that too many free movies are sent out to perhaps the wrong outlets, but even that isn’t a huge problem. It’s just a personal choice I’ve made, to not ask for free movies. I feel weird about it, given how much of an advocate I am for BUYING movies.

    And you’re totally right. When you’re starting out in any artistic field, you kinda do have to offer your art up for free. For a brand new filmmaker to ask for money to see their first short film is pretty silly. But once you reach a certain point, you definitely do have to start putting a value to your hard work.

  • Walker Porter

    Hello, I am not a regular commenter but I do read a lot of horror sites regularly. I have noticed that most in the “horror community” are rightly against piracy of movies. It absolutely is stealing. One thing I don’t understand though is all of the unlisenced merchandise horror fans produce and sell, I assume for their own profit. Using the likeness of a horror icon without paying the lisencing fees to the copyright holder is still stealing.
    I am not referring to your horror buddies in particular, I do not know if you pay a liscensing fee or not. But am interested in your opinion on this. I am not trying to attack or accuse, just honestly curious why people who illegally download the movies are rightfully called thieves yet it is almost deemed honorable to produce “fan art” and sell merchandise of characters that you have not paid for the permission to do so?

  • John Squires

    I definitely see what you’re getting at, but piracy and unlicensed products are two very different things. Pirating a movie is directly stealing profits from the distributors/filmmakers. Making your own product, on the other hand, is not actually taking away profits from anyone. Sure, you’re making money off someone else’s idea, and many artists do not approve of that, but it’s impossible to equate it to piracy.

    My stance with stuff like that is that nobody is actually hurting anybody else, by creating their own unlicensed merchandise. It may not technically be legal, I’m not even 100% sure, but I’d hardly be able to criticize someone for doing it – and in fact, as you pointed out, I’ve done it myself.

    Good point, though. That’s a very interesting topic of discussion, though an entirely different one.

  • Jimmy Sue aka Pnut

    It would definitely be hurting somebody else if you make unlicensed t-shirts (for instance) if the company that owns the rights to the character were to make their own sometime down the line. People may not buy them from the rights owners because they already bought an unlicensed one awhile back. Regardless, the rights owners should have the sole decision as to whether or not that character ever makes it to a t-shirt at all…

    Sure, it’s not the SAME as piracy, but it’s still just as wrong and illegal. The only thing that makes it better or worse in someone’s mind is the way in which the person chooses to justify it (“I think it’s okay because ______________”)