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New York Film Critics pay a Price for Being First

nyfcc2012

The New York Film Critics pushed back their dates (now voting December 3) so that they could announce before the National Board of Review (December 4). They did it to be out front of awards season and to be the first “important” voice of the season. Or perhaps they did it to dampen the impact of the National Board of Review. Both have been around a very long time but the date change is a fairly recent development, borne out of awards season hysteria where every city with a population of more than 500 has a critics group that votes on awards. At some point you just tune it out because it hardly feels like it matters anymore who wins what where. What you look at is the consensus building around certain films.  It is also pointless to say the NYFCC are more prestigious than the NBR. As you’ll see from the chart at the end of this article, it really makes no never mind who they are. Their choices are not that different.  Perception and positioning is what matters. Very few films that won either the NBR or the NYFCC did not go on to win Best Picture.

The New York Film Critics want to be first — but they will pay a price for that. Yes, they will be out front. There is a good chance their choice for Best Picture will go on to be nominated for Best Picture.  This year, they will likely miss seeing The Wolf of Wall Street and perhaps American Hustle. Maybe they will be screened in time, maybe they won’t.  But either way, it is not supposed to be their jobs to influence the awards race. They are supposed to carefully consider the films of a given year and decide which film deserves to be called best. Therefore, their choice to push back their date threatens their whole purpose of existing in the first place.

When I hear the panic about certain films missing their deadline the only conclusion to draw from that is not that the films will suffer, but that the NYFCC will suffer for not having seen all of the films. How can they justify that?  Whatever their reasoning behind the movie must be more important to them. And so it goes.

A word on perception, which drives the Oscar race: Voters vote for what they think is good. What they think is good is driven by unpredictable buzz, hype and yes, perception.  The subjective vote is often driven by the zeitgeist – what feels sexy at the time.  How do we know that everything is subjective?  Just look at the split reviews for Ridley Scott’s The Counselor.  The consensus would sink The Counselor.  But there are still a handful of critics who praise it.   The trick of a publicity team is to raise perception by taking advantage of hype and buzz around a contender.  It is no easy task if the public or a rival studio make that film a target – as they often do when a film is a threat to win, or if the movie has far more bad reviews than it has good ones – you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. You have to start, at the very least, with mostly positive reviews.

Either way, once the NBR and the NYFCC announce a winner that film becomes one of the frontrunners. I would be willing to bet that if The Counselor won one of those major awards it would be enough to get it into the running for Best Picture, even with the bad reviews.  It might not get the nomination in the end but simply winning a major award can shift perception dramatically. Those wins are put on the ads. They make people take notice.   They also put a target on the film’s back.

One of the most unpredictable things I’ve ever seen in film happened last year.   In the age of Twitter suddenly it was very very easy to spread information faster than ever.  The 2012 Presidential election united the factions on Twitter. A single journalist, like Andrew Sullivan for instance, is connected to thousands of followers. Those followers often take what he says and champion those beliefs.  Suddenly, for each top of the tree there are hundreds of thousands of branches.  It wasn’t long before anyone who loved Zero Dark Thirty, for instance, suddenly had to defend why.  It wasn’t long before people who loved Lincoln were apologists for getting history wrong and white people making films about white people.  Those movies were targets because they were winning stuff early.  Let’s face it – this was mob mentality run amok. Twitter was the conduit. And this is how it went down:

Last year, Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty got it the worst last year but they were hardly the only ones. Argo benefitted from flying under the radar, staying mostly out of sight, being the one no one really thought was good enough to beat the other movies.  It never really became a target until it started winning awards and suddenly became a threat.

Timeline:

  • September 16, 2012Argo loses to Silver linings Playbook at TIFF
  • December 3, 2012Zero Dark Thirty wins New York Film Critics award for Picture, Director
  • December 5, 2012Zero Dark Thirty wins National Board of Review Picture, Director, Actress
  • December 9, 2012Zero Dark Thirty wins Boston Film Critics Picture, Director, Screenplay
  • December 10, 2012 Zero Dark Thirty wins Washington DC area film critics Picture, Director, Actress
  • December 10, 2012 – David Edelstein writes in his review that “Dick Cheney would have loved Zero Dark Thirty”
  • December 10, 2012 – Glenn Greenwald’s headline “Zero Dark Thirty: new torture-glorifying film wins raves
  • December 10, 2012Zero Dark Thirty torture debate
  • December 11, 2012CNN: Did torture really lead to Bin Laden?
  • December 12, 2012MSNBC Does Zero Dark Thirty promote torture?
  • December 12, 2012New York Times – torture scenes open reopen debate
  • December 12, 2012Hollywood Reporter – Zero Dark Thirty, how to sell it
  • December 13, 2012Argo wins San Diego Film Critics Picture, Director, Screenplay
  • December 16, 2012Argo wins Southeastern Film Critics Association
  • December 17, 2012Zero Dark Thirty wins Chicago Film Critics Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actress, Editing
  • December 18, 2012Argo wins the Florida Film Critics Picture, Director, Screenplay
  • In a December 19 letter to the chairman and CEO of Sony Pictures Entertainment, which produced the film, three senators alleged it was “grossly inaccurate and misleading in its suggestion that torture resulted in information that led to the location” of bin Laden.
  • Friday, January 4th, 2013 – Naomi Wolf calls Kathryn Bigelow Leni Reifenstahl
  • Critics Choice ballots due — January 8, 2013
  • Oscar nominations — January 10, 2013 – Kathryn Bigelow, Ben Affleck and Tom Hooper not nominated for director.<–the snub
  • Critics Choice Awards — January 10, 2013Argo wins Picture, Director
  • Golden Globe Awards — January 13, 2013Argo wins Picture, Director
  • January 13, 2013 — Ed Asner and Martin Sheen send letter to Academy voters to boycott Zero Dark Thirty
  • January 15, 2013 – Kathryn Bigelow writes an op-ed defending Zero Dark Thirty
  • PGA/WGA/SAG ballot deadline — January 25, 2013
  • PGA Awards — January 26, 2013Argo wins
  • SAG Awards — January 27, 2013Argo wins ensemble
  • January 28, 2013 – Michael Moore launches defense of Zero Dark Thirty
  • January 30, 2013 — Martin Sheen retracts statements against Zero Dark Thirty
  • DGA Awards — February 2, 2013Argo wins DGA
  • February 8, 2013 – Oscar ballots are sent out.
  • February 24, 2013 Argo wins Best Picture

Now, you might look at this scenario and conclude that “they just liked Argo better.” Indeed, the bigger the awards voting body, the more agreeable overall the film has to be.   What you’ll note from the above timeline is that the Affleck snub happened concurrently with his winning the Critics Choice and the Golden Globe.  Zero Dark Thirty’s fall probably influenced the Critics Choice — but I’ll be that the Globes genuinely liked Argo better and that it would have won there regardless.  But Affleck’s snub and his winning those two big awards at the same time really did create an unbeatable Oscar story.

Could Zero Dark Thirty have won were it not for the controversy? I don’t think so. Could Lincoln have won without all of the dung that was flung at that film during Oscar season? The nasty rumors about Clinton’s appearance at the Globes, that silly congressman pointing out the flaws in the script publicly? We’ll never know but I’m guessing not.  Despite how the season went, in retrospect, Argo has almost everything a Best Picture winner needs except one vital factor: a sense of urgency to vote for it.  The Affleck snub gave it that sense of urgency and the film slam dunked a win.  It is a perfectly fine winner, in keeping with the Academy’s recent spate of Best Picture winners.

Divisive vs. Non-Divisive

Why Twitter has become more important now is that the chatter can make an undivisive movie suddenly divisive.  As we know with the broad consensus voting, any hint of divisiveness won’t fly. There has to be uniform likability.

The NYFCC and the NBR are tiny microcosms of voters compared to the bigger industry groups–

DGA-14,500
SAG-100,000
PGA-4,500
Academy-6000

In the NYFCC there are only around 40 film critics.  The National Board of Review has probably close to that number. In holding their awards early, they are influencing how the race might go – both groups awarded Zero Dark Thirty their prize for the best film of 2012.  But that doesn’t mean, when all is said and done, that movie will win Best Picture. In fact, it might put a target on its back for the rest of the season.

The Charts:
was not nominated for Best Picture

2013
2012 Zero Dark Thirty Zero Dark Thirty Argo
2011 Hugo The Artist The Artist
2010 The Social Network The Social Network The King’s Speech
2009 Up in the Air The Hurt Locker The Hurt Locker
2008 Slumdog Millionaire Milk Slumdog Millionaire
2007 No Country for Old Men No Country for Old Men No Country for Old Men
2006 Letters from Iwo Jima United 93  The Departed
2005 Good Night, Good Luck Brokeback Mountain Crash
2004 Finding Neverland Sideways Million Dollar Baby
2003 Mystic River Return of the King Return of the King
2002 The Hours Far From Heaven Chicago
2001 Moulin Rouge Mulholland Drive A Beautiful Mind
2000 Quills Traffic Gladiator
1999 American Beauty Topsy-Turvy American Beauty
1998 Gods and Monsters Saving Private Ryan Shakespeare in Love
1997 LA Confidential L.A. Confidential Titanic
1996 Shine Fargo The English Patient
1995 Sense and Sensibility Leaving Las Vegas Braveheart
1994 Pulp Fiction/Forrest Gump Quiz Show Forrest Gump
1993 Schindler’s List Schindler’s List Schindler’s List
1992 Howards End The Player Unforgiven
1991 Silence of the Lambs The Silence of the Lambs Silence of the Lambs
1990 Dances with Wolves Goodfellas Dances With Wolves
1989 Driving Miss Daisy My Left Foot Driving Miss Daisy
1988 Mississippi Burning The Accidental Tourist Rain Man
1987 Empire of the Sun Broadcast News The Last Emperor
1986 A Room with a View Hannah and Her Sisters Platoon
1985 The Color Purple Prizzi’s Honor Out of Africa
1984 Passage to India Passage to India Amadeus
1983 Terms of Endearment/Betrayal Terms of Endearment Terms of Endearment
1982 Gandhi Gandhi Gandhi
1981 Reds Chariots of Fire Reds Chariots of Fire
1980 Ordinary People Ordinary People Ordinary People
1979 Manhattan Kramer Vs. Kramer Kramer Vs. Kramer
1978 Days of Heaven The Deer Hunter The Deer Hunter
1977 The Turning Point Annie Hall Annie Hall
1976 All the President’s Men All the President’s Men Rocky
1975 Nashville Barry Lyndon Nashville One Flew Over/Cukoo’s Nest
1974 The Conversation Armacord Godfather II
1973 The Sting La Nuit Americaine The Sting
1972 Cabaret Viskningar och rop The Godfather
1971 Macbeth A Clockwork Orange The French Connection
1970 Patton Five Easy Pieces Patton
1969 They Shoot Horses… Z Midnight Cowboy
1968 Shoes of the Fisherman Lion in Winter Oliver
1967 Far from the Madding Cr.. In the Heat of the Night In the Heat of the Night
1966 A Man for All Seasons A Man for All Seasons A Man for all Seasons
1965 The Eleanor Roosevelt… Darling the Sound of Music
1964 Becket My Fair Lady My Fair Lady
1963 Tom Jones Tom Jones Tom Jones
1962 The Longest Day none Lawrence of Arabia
1961 Question 7 West Side Story West Side Story
1960 Sons and Lovers The Apartment The Apartment
1959 Nun’s Story Ben Hur Ben Hur
1958 Old Man and the Sea The Defiant Ones Gigi
1957 Bridge on the River Kwai Bridge on the River Kwai Bridge on the River Kwai
1956 Around the World in 80 Days Around the World in 80 Days Around/World in 80 Days
1955 Marty Marty Delbert Mann, Marty
1954 On the Waterfront On the Waterfront Elia Kazan, On the Waterfront
1953 Julius Caesar From Here to Eternity From Here to Eternity
1952 The Quiet Man High Noon The Greatest Show on Earth
1951 A Place in the Sun Streetcar Named Desire An American in Paris
1950 Sunset Blvd. All About Eve All About Eve
1949 Bicycle Thieves All the King’s Men All the King’s Men
1948 Paisan Treasure of Sierra Madre Hamlet
1947 Monsieur Verdoux Gentleman’s Agreement Gentleman’s Agreement
1946 Henry V Best Years of our Lives Best Years of Our Lives
1945 The True Glory the Lost Weekend The Lost Weekend
1944 None but the Lonely Heart Going My Way Going My Way
1943 The Ox-Bo Incident Watch on the Rhine Casablanca
1942 In Which We Serve In Which we Serve Mrs Miniver
1941 Citizen Kane Citizen Kane How Green was My Valley
1940 The Grapes of Wrath The Grapes of Wrath Rebecca
1939 Confessions of a Nazi Spy Wuthering Heights Gone with the Wind
1938 The Citadel The Citadel You Can’t Take it W/You
1937 Night Must Fall The Life of Emile Zola Life of Emile Zola
1936 Mr. Deeds Goes to Town Mr. Deeds Goes to Town The Great Ziegfeld
1935 The Informer The Informer Mutiny on the Bounty
1934 It Happened One Night It happened One Night
1933 Topaz Cavalcade
1932 I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang Grand Hotel