Regional critics flex muscles

Eye on the Oscars: Crix Picks

When Kathryn Bigelow’s wartime drama “The Hurt Locker” won the Oscar for best picture two years ago, it was the final victory lap in an awards-season marathon that included prizes from just about every critics group in the country.

If it weren’t for the critics’ honors, says Summit Entertainment publicity VP Eric Kops, “The Hurt Locker” may not have won the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ top trophy. “It was the cumulative effect of all those prizes,” he adds. “Every day, people were reading that the movie had won this group and that group. It was ‘winner, winner, winner.’ You couldn’t deny that all those organizations were saying the same thing.”

As dozens of critics orgs have popped up over the past decade from Vancouver to Washington, D.C., studios have begun adapting their awards-campaign strategies to include these far-flung clusters.

In some cases, campaigners are looking for a little validation for their long-shot candidates. Others, like “The Hurt Locker,” crave a collective roar that will catapult their film into the Oscar field.

“The Los Angeles and New York film critics are about making statements whereas the voice of all these regional groups allows people to see who the contenders are,” says Michael Kupferberg, VP at Strategy PR/Consulting, which works on awards campaigns for several studios.

Adds veteran awards consultant Tony Angelotti: “With movies like ‘The Hurt Locker’ and ‘United 93,’? films that didn’t find their audiences initially, these regional critics groups can get the Academy’s attention. But they’re only effective if they steamroll across the country and start racking up trends.”

Many regional critics groups emerged fairly recently as reviewers found themselves marginalized through layoffs and downsizing. The Washington, D.C., Area Film Critics Assn. just celebrated its 10th anniversary, having come into being to give critics a collective voice. (By contrast, the New York Film Critics Circle was founded in 1935; the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn., four decades later.)

“Many of our screenings are at a theater less than a block from the White House,” says WAFCA veep Nell Minow, who reviews as The Movie Mom for the website, beliefnet. “We feel we bring a unique perspective to the conversation.”

“Sometimes, you can shine a light on a movie and get it noticed,” adds San Diego Union-Tribune film critic Alison Gang, an officer with the San Diego Film Critics Society.

That kind of critical championing happened immediately this year when the DC group, first out of the gate, gave its original screenplay award to Will Reiser’s cancer comedy, “50/50.” The movie’s distributor, Summit, hopes that award will create momentum for Reiser and the film itself.

“We know a lot of Academy members were afraid to go, thinking they might cry in the theater,” Kops says. “If these critics groups chime in, the resistance won’t be as strong.”

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