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Awards season inundated by critics

Increase of pundits can skew a film's potential

With the recent explosion of websites across the Net analyzing box office, Oscar potential and everything in between, everyone is — quite literally — a critic.

Just one click on the Rotten Tomatoes site will yield a film’s “score,” be it “rotten” or “fresh.” But the number of critics adding their voices to the overall score has tripled since the website debuted in the ’90s.

Columnists are critics. Media analysts are critics. Fans are critics. And if everybody is a critic, everybody and their brother is an Oscar prognosticator.

Collectively, the Oscar voter’s taste seems to lie somewhere between what the public pays to see en masse and what the critics embrace. That wide spectrum of films has spawned a whole industry that tries to predict just what Academy voters will do next. And the melee will sometimes leave casualties in its wake.

Many websites now are trigger-happy, trying to get the word out early on a movie and its potential success or failure with the public, with critics and with the Academy. Will it be a box office smash? Is it an “Oscar movie”?

In the rush to be first to answer that last question, the relative quality of a film can often be negotiable or even irrelevant, and a film’s potential as an “Oscar movie” is, at best, a film journalist or blogger’s intuition of what an Academy voter’s impression will be.

Generally, films that are released in the last quarter of the year, or even in the second half of the year, are either going to ride the Oscar train or quietly (or sometimes spectacularly) derail.

“A film’s Oscar chances are largely manufactured by the movie companies and the publicists working for those companies and are then repeated and recycled ad nauseam in the media (online and off),” says Manohla Dargis, film critic for the New York Times, “which is all too happy to spin this very same disinformation. This manufactured information/disinformation — i.e., ‘buzz’ — has no bearing on a film’s worth, as the Academy Awards, of course, prove time and again.”

The fact is, many films are marketed to be Oscar movies because that is their best chance at making a profit, whether or not they fit into the prescribed box.

But if a film is positioned for the Oscar race, it had better deliver.

“How much consideration do I give for Oscar?” says Toronto Star film critic and Oscar columnist Pete Howell. “Just a little, but more in passing than anything else. And are my expectations automatically raised? Only if I see a film that I think is worthy of Oscar potential. More often than not, my expectations are dashed.”

For critics, “Oscar movies” represent only a fraction of what they see and review each week.

“I loved ‘Superbad,'” says Dave Karger, film and Oscar columnist for Entertainment Weekly. “I still love to go to a regular, non-Oscar movie, too. Having said that, though, my favorite movies are usually the Oscar movies.”

The shape of the race is defined by movies that appeal to a particular taste in film.

“Whenever I’m watching a movie, with one eye I’m watching it to see how I feel about it and with the other eye I’m watching it as if I were an Oscar voter,” Karger explains. “Even more specifically, over the last couple of years I’ve invented this character in my head and his name is ‘Joe the Sound Guy’ and he’s around 50 years old and he’s worked in the movie business for a long time and I like to think about what kind of movies would turn him on. Last year, Joe loved ‘The Departed,’ and he’s the one who told me ‘The Departed’ would win. Someone of that demographic is representative of a large part of the Academy.”

But even with more general appetites, the Oscar race can reap huge benefits for nonmainstream discoveries.

“They’re really good at picking out the best stuff and a good mix of stuff that’s commercial and movies that are a little bit smaller and off the beaten path — if not for the Academy no one would have seen ‘Boys Don’t Cry,'” Karger adds.

In some cases, a movie’s best hope for Oscar attention is to arrive with no bulky expectations attached. “I think the best part of being a critic is the element of surprise,” says Howell. “I didn’t think prior to seeing ‘Once,’ for example, that it would be Oscar material — and yet I firmly believe that it is.”

The element of surprise certainly would have benefited “Dreamgirls,” which after being championed as the de facto front-runner for almost a full year before its release, was ultimately snubbed by Oscar.

“If ‘Dreamgirls’ had been a ‘Million Dollar Baby’ or ‘Letters From Iwo Jima,’ that snuck in at the last minute without much advance hype,” Karger argues, “it definitely would have been a best picture nominee, but I think a lot of people felt it was force-fed down their throats, and as much as I think that’s the campaign’s fault it’s also a bit of the media’s fault.”

Joe the Sound Guy may not respond to films like “There Will Be Blood” and “I’m Not There,” two films Karger feels the critics will embrace but that the Academy will snub in the race for picture. These are films, though, that will likely resonate long past the silliness of this brutal season.

History is littered with masterpieces that never achieved gold, most famously “Citizen Kane,” “Rear Window” and “Raging Bull,” which perhaps explains one mystery about the Oscars. The defining films, those that break through convention, launch new waves and influence generations of filmmakers and artists aren’t ever fully appreciated out of the gate.

Perhaps they are treasure maps rolled up and stuffed into bottles, meant for different eyes, somewhere in time.

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