Film criticism has changed greatly since the 1970s when there were just a few groups that voted on awards and just a handful of people calling themselves critics. A few voices really mattered when I got online and started my site in 2000. Though many of us who were already online and writing about film (I started a film criticism site called cinescene.com before I began this site on the Oscar race, for instance – it still exists but I handed it over long ago) we were considered non-pros. Film critics were an elite group and name branded. Kenneth Turan, Joe Morgenstern, Janet Maslin, Manohla Dargis, AO Scott, Owen Gleibermann, Lisa Schwarzbaum, etc. They were the people whose reviews helped shape the awards season and that made it much easier to separate the critics from the industry.
Now, with explosion of awards sites like mine, and mainstream media getting involved in the Oscar race, you have a giant snake eating its own tale. There is no other way to describe it. The Broadcast Film Critics, for example, write about the awards they vote on. I see people in the BFCA who compete for Oscar coverage like I do. Yet somehow they’ve reconciled it being okay that they vote on awards and attend a star-packed telecast and are now officially part of the race, no longer observing it. I’ve always found that dynamic bizarre and that’s the main reason I have never joined any critics groups. I belong to the Alliance of Women Film Journalists but I do not vote on their awards. It isn’t that I’m holier than thou or more ethical than the others it’s just that my perspective has always been analysis OF the race and advocacy within it, but it stop short of becoming part of the show itself. I don’t know. Maybe it’s just silliness on my part. Anyway, back to the topic at hand.
So how did we get here?
1. The internet developed a usable web browser and before long anyone and everyone was a voice online, an identity, with many singular people (like me) starting up their own websites to directly compete with the print media, which was mostly slow to get online, particularly in the entertainment industry – specifically, the Oscar race, where there was virtually no online coverage of the race until about 1999.
2. Oscar changed its date around 2003 that pushed the awards back a month, which made it almost impossible for the public to be a deciding factor in the awards race. The focus shifted to film festivals and critics awards rather than box office and star power. Bloggers like me began comparing the awards won by critics to the Oscar race.
3. At the same time, the industry itself was growing in a vastly different direction. The massive number of people writing about movies, debating them on Twitter and calling them early successes or failures was leading to less movies available for awards. Now what we have is way too much demand and not enough supply.
While this was going on, another massive shift was taking place on the consumer side.
1) Screeners, the exodus to television, hand held digital, piracy and VOD. With giant 50 inch flatscreens at home, it was a bit of an adjustment to start feeding voters with screeners but that is what is the norm now, not just for industry voters but for all of the film critics who form groups who put out awards. Those screeners make their way online and suddenly you have a major piracy issue which cuts into profits.
2) Adults pretty much stopped going to the movies for the most part. The Oscar race can still sometimes bring them out but it is not uncommon to have your adult friends tell you that they maybe pay to go to the movies a couple of times a year. Contrast that with teenagers looking for a fun Friday night or single women, for instance, or kids and families and you have a picture of what makes up the majority of the studio fare aimed at ticket buyers. That made it harder and harder to find “Oscar movies” in mainstream Hollywood product: enter the indies.
3) The explosion of the independent film industry feeds into the awards race. If a studio can procure any buzz at all it can make the difference — sometimes — between a million and five million. The independents mostly dominate the Oscar industry nowadays because that is where the movies “they” like tend to exist. Movies like Gone Girl are extremely rare – for a thinking person’s movie that was talked about in the New Yorker, NPR and the New York Times to also make $160 million at the box office? That used to be how the Oscar race worked more so than how it has worked since, oh, say the mid-90s. The small studio offshoots still exist – Focus, Sony Pictures Classics, Fox Searchlight – they have a foothold in the Oscar race more than the big studio movies. I’m not sure but I think my fellow pundits are greatly underestimating Gone Girl’s chances in the Oscar race. But you know, that’s just me.
China, South Korea and India overtaking global ticket sales freaking Hollywood out. If you head over to Boxofficemojo.com and you check out the international box office takes you’ll notice China’s massive numbers, which compete with America’s and will soon overtake them. This has impacted Hollywood, where profit seems to matter more than anything, though it’s yet to impact the Oscars. That is primarily why the critics still matter, even in their current state, than the public. It wasn’t always this way.
The Oscars are edging slowly towards what Lynda Obst calls the “new normal,” however. With Gravity last year winning so many Oscars (except Best Picture) and ditto Life of Pi the year before, it seems that they are almost ready to give themselves over to Big Effects Movies with heart. They will have to have actors – not motion capture – and they will have to be touchy feely like Gravity and Life of Pi were. Interstellar was going to be that game changer this year but it is far too divisive to manage that. Instead, your Best Picture winner looks like another that made roughly $25 million, Boyhood.
But before we get too deep into that, I want to stay with the examination of film critics groups – their tremendous rise and what they mean overall. I think that they’re mostly valuable in terms of driving buzz and consensus. For instance, Gone Girl is coming on very strong in this early part of the race, as is Birdman and Boyhood. That could and will likely change how some big name pundits judge the film’s success. Or maybe not. The critics can only sometimes determine a winner. But these days you can’t really be a bomb with the critics and win the Oscar. The last film to get nominated with terrible reviews was Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. But transparency with the sheer volume of critical voices now sort of demands that the best reviewed films get in the race.
Can the smaller groups that make outside the box choices like Snowpiercer for Best Picture impact the race? Well, probably not. But the aggregate attention on Tilda Swinton for supporting FOR Snowpiercer might. What the awards can do is lend prestige — put a sticker on an ad that might make someone pop in the screener, for what that’s worth.
In the end, the thing I have always loved about critics and critics groups in this brave new world we’re living through is that much of it springs from a love of films. This overwhelming attention on the Oscar race springs from that, I think, a desire to see the best films, their favorite films, validated with an award. Sure, it might all just be a meaningless contest and maybe it’s the high school prom in its last gasp but this part of the race, the critics awards, that is about a celebration of the love of cinema. How can that be a bad thing? I don’t know. You tell me.
So let’s look at our critics groups.
And here are the critics groups, when they started, and how many members they have currently. Some of them I couldn’t get the numbers for. Also, there are many crossover names in these groups, like Stephanie Zacharek who is in the National Society, the New York Film Critics Online and one other. If someone would like to make a bigger list of the crossover critics I would very much appreciate it!
Broadcast Film Critics – 1995, 303 members, (also called BFCA, Critics Choice)
Online Film Critics Society – 1997, 257 members
London Film Critics Circle – 1926, 140 members , (announcing 12/16)
Alliance of Women Film Journalists 2006, 91 members
National Society – 1966 -57 members
Los Angeles Film Critics – 1975 – 57 members, announcing tomorrow
Washington DC Area Film Critics – 2002 – 55 members
Southeastern Film Critics – 1992 51 members
Chicago Film Critics – 1990 48 members, noms 12/12, winners 12/15
Toronto Film Critics Awards -1999, 39 members
New York Film Critics Online – 38 members
New York Film Critics – 1935 34 members
North Carolina Film Critics – 2012, 32 members, (Jan. 5th, 2015)
Dallas Fort Worth Film Critics 30 – 1990, (announcing 12/15)
Kansas City Film Critics Circle Awards – 1967, 26 members
Huston Film Critics – 2007, 26 members
Boston Film Critics – 1981, 24 members
Florida Film Critics Society Awards – 1996, 25 members
Phoenix Film Critics – 27 members, 2000
San Francisco Film Critics Awards – 2002, 36 members
Austin Film Critics – 25 members, 2005
Vancouver Film Critics – 20 members , 2000
St. Louis Gateway Film Critics Association – 2004, 20 members
San Diego Film Critics – 1996, 19 members
Las Vegas Film Critic – 1997, 19 members
Detroit Film Critics – 2007, 18 members
Denver Film Critics – 2009 14 members
Georgia Film Critics – 2011 14 members
Indiana Film Journalists Association – 2009, 10 members
North Texas Film Critics – 2005, 8 members
Nevada Film Critics – 2006, 7 members
Central Ohio Film Critics – 2002
African American Film Critics Association – 2003
Iowa Film Critics – 2003
The Oklahoma Film Critics Circle – 2006
But all of them together only make up 1,570, a tiny fraction of the industry numbers:
SAG awards – 1995 – 100,000
Writers Guild – 1940 – 22,000
Directors Guild Awards – 1948 – 14,500
BAFTAS (after shifting date before Oscars) – 2000 – 6,500
Oscars – 1929 – 6,000
Producers Guild awards – 1989 4,500
Ace Eddies – 1962 -650
Could not find member counts for:
NAACP Image Awards – 1967
Annie Awards – 1972
Golden Reel Awards (MPSE) – 1989
Cinema Audio Society Awards – 1993
Art Directors Guild – 1997
AFI – Top Ten – 2000
VES Awards – 2002