Movie reviews for sale?

As movies become more and more commonplace, no matter the subject matter, the junkets for journalists who review the movies are becoming more and more lavish. As the number of movies released each year increases, studios are looking for more outrageous ways to catch reviewers’ attention.

It’s not uncommon for movie reviewers to receive, among other things, airfare, meals and hotel accommodations for attending premieres; merchandise, whether related to the movie or not; and/or chances to meet and interview select Hollywood movie stars, unreachable to their peers.

All for the sake of a favorable review, hopefully elevating a single movie above the fray.

Now, a group of movie viewers are taking the reviewers to task in court. Ten class action lawsuits have been filed against the major movie studios, questioning the ethics of movie junkets and the reviews that the junkets spawn. The lawsuits’ intended goal is to prevent studios from wooing reviewers with junkets, merchandise and interviews.

Four individuals and a group calling itself Citizens for Truth in Movie Advertising filed the complaints in the Los Angeles Superior Court on Monday. The complaints allege that the studios use endorsements by film critics that were given such perquisites as the focus of advertisements for the film.

Defendants named in the lawsuit are Sony Corp. of America, Viacom Inc., Artisan Entertainment, AOL Time Warner, The Walt Disney Co., Vivendi Universal U.S. Holding Co., DreamWorks SKG, Lions Gate Entertainment, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc. and Fox Entertainment Group Inc.

No studio contacted would comment while the suit is pending.

The Radio-Television News Directors Association’s Code of Ethics advises that followers will “[s]trive to conduct themselves in a manner that protects them from conflicts of interest, real or perceived. They will decline gifts or favors that would influence or appear to influence their judgments.”

Gifts or favors, says RTNDA President Barbara Cochran, would apply to those provided for professional as well as personal use. Use of junkets, she says, “certainly raises questions.”

[Full discosure: does attend junkets paid for by studios, when offered.]

Reviewers were named in the suit, not as defendants but as examples of the alleged misconduct. They include Maria Salas of Telemundo/Gems Television, Jim Ferguson of The Dish Network/Fox TV, Jeff Craig of Sixty Second Preview, Mark Allen of UPN, Ron Brewington of American Urban Radio Network, and Earl Dittman at Wireless magazine.

Some of these critics have already received negative reviews in the press themselves.

The New York Post‘s Lou Lumineck wrote, ” there are some people who doubt [Jeff Craig] even exists.”

Gil Whitely of was highly critical of Maria Salas.

“Would you trust a critic who declared I Dreamed of Africa is ‘the most beautiful and moving film of this year!’ and called Drowning Mona a ‘gutbusting laugh-a-thon!?’ No? Well, then you’d better steer clear of Maria Salas.”

Salas is no longer with Telemundo, and could not be reached for comment.

Anthony Sonnett of Yukevich & Sonnett, attorney for the plaintiffs, called studio-paid movie junkets Hollywood’s “dirty little secret.”

“Does anybody really believe that somebody saw Battlefield Earth and thought it was as good as Star Wars? Give me a break!” Sonnet said.

Specifically, the papers filed allege three infractions of California penal law: fraudulent concealment, unfair business practices and misleading advertising.

Punitive and compensatory damages are being asked for. Additionally, the suit seeks court orders barring the defendants from making “false, misleading and deceptive advertising;” requiring the studios to provide warnings, corrective advertising or public notice of their alleged violations; requiring the defendants to correct their ads; and establishing a legal duty to disclose to the public the benefits the reviewer received.

The lawsuits come on the heels of Sony’s admission that the studio created a fictitious critic, David Manning, and used favorable testimonials from that critic in the marketing of certain Sony films, including The Animal.

Sonnett asserts that the Sony case just takes studio movie junkets to the next, logical step.

“They know what the people are going to write anyway. Why not just go and make it up?”

Two advertising execs at Sony have been suspended in conjunction with the fictitious testimonials and an in-house investigation was conducted.

Information from CNS contributed to this report.