As film critics go, David Manning of Connecticut’s Ridgefield Press weekly was relatively easy to please. In 2001, Manning seemed to hold a special affinity for movies released by Sony-owned Columbia Pictures, including the Rob Schneider comedy The Animal, which Manning called “another winner!” Manning also had high praise for the mountain-climbing drama Vertical Limit (2001), the anachronistic medieval drama A Knight’s Tale (2001), and Paul Verhoeven’s Hollow Man (2000), which featured an invisible and nude Kevin Bacon.
Manning, in fact, could find nothing bad to say about any of Sony’s releases. His unthrottled praise was quoted in newspaper advertisements, where Sony hoped his effusiveness might compel moviegoers to purchase a ticket for the studio’s films.
But Manning, like Bacon, was invisible. He didn’t pop up at premieres or appear on television. That’s because Manning was a fictional film reviewer—an invention of the Sony marketing department, which was essentially reviewing its own movies. And Manning's reviews were always glowing.
Film criticism has long been a space that invites caveat emptor (buyer beware) on the part of the reader. Early film write-ups at the turn of the 20th century were more about marveling at the then-new medium of film than turning a critical eye toward its artistic merits. Some reviewers were culled from the sports pages in newspapers, their opinions no more informed than that of the average viewer—and possibly less, if they didn’t see many movies.
As films matured, so did critical thinking. Beginning in the 1960s, Pauline Kael of The New Yorker had seemingly unlimited space to explore her feelings on film and demonstrated a kind of film literacy that earned her the respect of the industry. Later, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert helped popularize a more easily consumed and combative kind of criticism, which was penetrating—Ebert won a Pulitzer in 1974 for his work—but accessible on syndicated television with Siskel and Ebert At the Movies. Major publications like The New York Times (which published Vincent Canby), Time (who had Richard Corliss), and others employed critics whose words were fueled by integrity.
As far back as the 1930s, however, film studios have tried to sway more impressionable critics with perks, from alcohol to free screenings to intoxicating them with stars. Known as press junkets, critics attend to enjoy the freebies and then, the studio hopes, write good reviews. It’s how mediocre films can still wind up with endorsements, albeit from critics or news outlets you’ve never heard of. Often, the blurbs are all there is. The critic doesn’t write a full review.
In July 2000, Sony director of creative advertising Matthew Cramer decided to simply cut out the middleman. Having grown up in Ridgefield, Connecticut, he decided to use the real Ridgefield Press as the hometown paper for the fictional David Manning, a pliable critic who existed solely in Cramer's imagination. Cramer then seeded quotes in newspaper ads for Columbia films, all of them raves.
Of The Animal, Manning declared that “The producing team of Big Daddy has delivered another winner!”
Hollow Man was “One hell of a scary ride!”
The 2001 horror film The Forsaken was “A scary, sexy thrill ride!”
At first, Manning’s undiscriminating taste went unnoticed. He was merely one of several impressionable reviewers feted at junkets. But then Newsweek reporter John Horn started to feel as though something was amiss. Horn had been developing a story about junket critics and had taken a special interest in Manning, whom he found peculiar. For one thing, Manning had raved about The Animal before it had even been screened for critics. For another, Horn was well-connected in the film industry, knew a lot of critics, and had never heard of him. Nor had any of the studio publicists he called.
Horn took the practical step of phoning Ridgefield Press publisher Thomas Nash to inquire about Manning. Horn told him no such person worked at the paper. The Press did have its own reviewer, or reviewers—a father and son team that evaluated films. Neither of them were David Manning.
“I was more puzzled than anything, because I couldn’t yet imagine he was a fake,” Horn told Connecticut magazine in 2016. “Then I called Sony. Before the studio returned my call, I got a call from the producer of The Animal, and he said he had nothing to do with Dave Manning. That made me even more curious. So I asked Sony specifically if Manning existed, and the studio said no.”
When Horn broke the story in Newsweek in June 2001, Sony was predictably sheepish. They vowed to conduct an inquiry and take appropriate action but insisted no high-level Sony executive had been involved in the deception. When Cramer was identified as the culprit, he was suspended for a month without pay, as was Josh Goldstine, Cramer's boss and the studio's senior vice president of creative advertising.
Strangely, it wasn’t Sony’s only brush with marketing controversy. The same month Horn published his story, Sony was caught using two Sony employees in television ads for 2000’s The Patriot who were presented as casual moviegoers emerging from a screening of the film. (Universal and Fox later admitted they used employees in ad spots, as well.)
“It’s a perfect date movie,” one Sony employee said, referring to the violent Mel Gibson film about the Revolutionary War.
Though they labeled the ad spot “troublesome,” the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which has oversight of advertising claims, declined to launch any formal investigation. Believing the Manning ruse was largely harmless to his newspaper, Nash declined to pursue any legal action. But that didn’t mean Sony was completely off the hook.
Angered by the deceptive Manning stunt, Connecticut attorney general Richard Blumenthal investigated Sony and eventually settled with the studio for $326,000 in 2002. Sony also had to agree not to fabricate any more movie reviews.
That was a pittance compared to the $1.5 million a judge awarded filmgoers in a class action lawsuit filed in 2001 by disgruntled customers who argued they were misled as a result of the Manning debacle. Anyone who saw Vertical Limit, A Knight’s Tale, Hollow Man, or The Patriot was eligible to receive a $5 refund from Sony for every ticket purchased.
Lost in the shuffle of all this marketing intrigue was David Manning—not the fictional critic, but the real person. Manning, a medical equipment salesman, was a friend of Matthew Cramer’s and allowed for his name to be used in conjunction with the movie reviews. In 2002, he had an opportunity to speak about his alter ego in an interview with The New York Times.
“I didn't think anything of it,” Manning said of the controversy. “The blurbs are nondescript. Then other people at Sony did more blurbs from there. I didn't look at it as right and wrong. I looked at it as, I was going to see my name in a newspaper. I didn't think ahead.”
At long last, the real Manning also had a chance to give his own impression of The Animal. “Not the best movie I’ve seen,” he said.