Critics orgs change stances, only look to issue of fairness

When the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. got together for its scheduled meeting Oct. 18 it was supposed to be for selecting a lifetime achievement honoree to be feted at the group’s annual January kudofest.

When the critics left the room, however, the only announcement LAFCA prexy Jean Oppenheimer had to make was that there would be no kudos handed out this award season at all due to the MPAA’s screener ban, something the group felt attacked the indie filmmaking community in a grossly unfair way.

That was before Dec. 5 when District Court Judge Michael Mukasey imposed a preliminary injunction on the MPAA’s ban, suddenly giving studios and distribs the option of where to send their screeners — not just the Acad but all voting orgs, including L.A. and the Chicago Film Critics, who were the only groups to protest.

The LAFCA has suddenly switched gears and reinstated its awards following a furious email blitz between members, while the Chicago org has also reversed its initial decision and will hand out year-end honors. In the L.A. group, some wanted to vote right away, others wanted to wait a few weeks, while one member suggested changing the format to a shared “top 10 list.”

Others in the org wanted the awards to remain canceled but Oppenheimer says the vast majority were in favor of overturning their original decision to sit this season out.

“The only thing that caused us to change our minds was the court ruling that lifted the ban, and our initial complaint had been the imposition of the ban,” she says, adding that while some wanted to wait and see how many screeners they received the real issue was the principle of supporting the indies.

Dann Gire, prexy of the Chicago Film Critics Assn. says his group is indeed holding back to see how events develop particularly since the MPAA is threatening to appeal.

“What happens if a judge reverses the ban on the ban. Do they re-cancel if it’s overturned?,” he asks about the L.A. decision. “You’ve got to think these things out. The important issue is fairness for the independents and that’s not going to happen until the screeners get into the hands of the organizations giving out the awards. Anything less than that is not good enough.”

Gire adds that with the earlier Oscar date this year falling on the very weekend the CFCA has traditionally held their event, plus the screener ban it was already going to be difficult to put on their show. He points out that doesn’t preclude their voting, however, if their board decides to lift their suspension at some point.

“The concern I have is that if you’ve got a group that canceled something to make a political statement and then they turn around and flip-flop, it could be a dangerous precedent for other critics organizations,” he says while pointing out the credibility of critics is at stake.

While some in the Hollywood community feel the impact of these groups’ awards have been diminished by their actions, others still point to the importance of the publicity boost kudos from them can have, particularly for arthouse films.

“The L.A. and Chicago critics will inadvertently be hurting the films they’d most like to help,” says Lions Gate prexy Tom Ortenberg of the on again/off again awards. “It’s hurtful to the indies. We rely on the local and regional critics organizations to be a major part of the launch of the awards season.”

Ortenberg says the groups should push back their awards to give themselves more time to see the pics they’re missing and perhaps self-servingly even suggests that they should catch the indie films first and the majors later to make sure the playing field is level.

But Chicago Tribune critic Michael Wilmington, who says he initially brought the idea of skipping the awards to the CFCA board, believes that the issue is much more complicated than simply being inconvenienced.

“We were trying to redress an injustice. I have seen it portrayed in some reports that the critics are upset because they won’t be getting any goodies this year but that really wasn’t what this was all about,” he emphasizes. “It isn’t that we wanted to get the screeners back. All we were asking for is a voice for the mini-majors, the subsidiaries and all the people everybody I know is convinced the screener ban was really after.”

Most of the critics surveyed for this story agree that they use screeners infrequently and usually only to view a film again they have already seen on the bigscreen. They say the impetus for their actions was to take a strong stand that would resonate with the MPAA. Holding back their best-of kudofest was the only effective way to fight the battle.

“If awards were a crap game, the MPAA wants to play with loaded dice,” says Gire, who reviews films for the Chicago Daily Herald. “The thing that bothered us was the inequity of it all. It was clearly a clandestine act on their part and then they don’t get why we were upset.”

Many critics point out that their job is to see movies in theaters and they shouldn’t be so upset about losing screeners. Gire contends, however, that most in his 48-member group are part-timers who don’t have a chance to see the kind of indie and foreign pics that are far more challenging than multiplex fare and that the media outlets they work for only want them to review the big studio films. Screeners enable them to see — and perhaps champion — the little guy.

“In L.A. there are over 400 films released each year. It’s very difficult — even for a full-time critic — to guarantee that you will see a competitive film,” says Henry Sheehan, a former LAFCA prexy and longtime critic. “It’s particularly difficult when it comes to independent films because those companies don’t have the money to set up special screenings. If they send screeners you can catch up.

“That’s how I saw ‘Secretary’ last year and was very impressed with Maggie Gyllenhaal’s performance. I probably wouldn’t have seen it otherwise.”

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