Broadcast critics take advantage of the shortened Acad calendar

For most of their existence, TV and radio film critics have been looked at askance by the high priests of print criticism at such outlets as the New Yorker, New York Times and Film Comment. “Blurb-meister” and “junket whore” are two of the kinder epithets hurled at the Gene Shalits, Bonnie Churchills and Rex Reeds of the world.

“There are some very smart people out there reviewing film that don’t write for the major newspapers,” says Michael Medved, who reviews films as part of his daily nationally syndicated radio show. “But there’s still a great deal of snobbery about broadcast critics.”

However, a number of factors could allow the broadcast critics some measure of satisfaction against their detractors. With the L.A. Films Critics Assn. and the Chicago Film Critics Assn. having decided to cancel their awards events in protest of the Motion Picture Assn. of America screener ban policy, and the Golden Globes telecast occurring eight days after branch members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences have completed their nomination process, the Broadcast Film Critics Assn.’s Critics’ Choice Awards will be in prime position to steal some thunder during this shortened award season.

If you subscribe to the accepted wisdom that Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences members can be swayed by pre-Oscar publicity, then the live telecast of the Critics’ Choice Awards on Jan. 10 on E! means they’ll have the Acad’s undivided attention (even if E!’s total audience may only top 400,000).

On that date, AMPAS members will be midstream in their voting, giving the BCFC winners the kind of weight they otherwise haven’t enjoyed in the past. As much by accident as by design, the org will have the field all to itself for 15 days before the Golden Globes takes the kudos spotlight Jan. 25.

“We had a 10-year plan to be competitive with the Golden Globes and we think we’re well positioned to take advantage of this year’s opportunities,” says Joey Berlin, co-founder and president of the BFCA.

“The idiocy of the Academy moving its show so early in the year has worked to our advantage,” adds critic Jeffrey Lyons, based at WNBC in New York and seen on NBC affiliates nationwide. “The shorter window for the awards season is making everything more important, including our awards.”

One new feature of the 2004 event that has been designed to up the association’s profile is the Ten Best Fest — seven days of screening the BFCA film nominees specifically for Academy members, the major entertainment guilds and WHAT IS CCA? members. “The people who have the highest aspirations for an Oscar for their work are going to show up,” Berlin predicts. The screenings will run Jan. 2-8.

It was because of the poor rep and lack of street cred of their colleagues that Berlin and then-fellow film journalist Rod Lurie (now a successful film director) formed the BFCA in early 1995. At the time, Lurie was film critic for the New York Daily News and had a movie call-in show on KABC radio in Los Angeles. “We couldn’t join the various critics groups in Los Angeles, New York or Boston,” says Berlin, “so we decided to take matters into to our own hands.”

Currently, the BFCA has 180 members in the U.S. and Canada. “In large measure, I think (the BFCA) has been successful getting broadcast film critics taken more seriously by the studios and the press,” says Medved.

While the profile of the Critics’ Choice Awards is almost inevitably going to rise, it won’t be without sacrificing some of the often-goofy informality of past shows. For the first few years, the BFCA announced the winners before hand and threw them a boozy lunch at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Then four year ago, the lunch was taped for the first time and heavily edited into a one-hour highlight reel shown 10 days later on E!

Last year, sans tuxedos, sans any production numbers and probably primed with a few glasses of Sauvignon Blanc, an acceptance speech by Jack Nicholson (“About Schmidt”) quickly morphed into comedy improv with Robin Williams. As Nicholson spoke, Williams translated Jack-speak into English. “I have so many publicists tell me that our awards are how the Golden Globes used to be,” says Berlin.

When Oz tough guy Russell Crowe won actor for his performance in “A Beautiful Mind” in 2002 he thanked the assembled critics and then stuck a wry knife in. “The broadcast film critics are an eclectic bunch,” he said. Then added, as he leaned forward into the mike: “‘Eclectic’ is a polite word for ‘weird.’”

If the Critics’ Choice Awards ever move to network TV (and there have been discussions), you can bet the mock insults will be quickly replaced by pro forma gratitude. But, says Berlin, who no longer reviews and works year round on the event: “Broadcast film critics are the frontline troops bringing films to a mass audience. I think we’re ready for the heightened scrutiny.”

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