With ‘Star Wars’ Vote, the BFCA May Have Just Jumped the Shark

Org president Joey Berlin addresses bubbling controversy over late addition.

Stars Wars Rey Identity
Courtesy of Disney

I recall sitting appalled in the audience of the drafty Santa Monica airplane hanger where the Broadcast Film Critics Assn. (full disclosure: I am a member) held the 18th annual Critics’ Choice Movie Awards in January 2013. I was watching a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer accept his screenplay honor over the din of commercial break audience chatter because there was no room on the show for the award’s presentation. Meanwhile, throughout the evening, Jennifer Lawrence took to the stage on air not once, but twice (with a very real shot at a third appearance) thanks to a spread of “Silver Linings Playbook” and “Hunger Games” awards.

It was around that time that I think the camel’s back really began to buckle.

When the BFCA added a slew of superfluous categories centered on science-fiction, comedy and action films, it might have been positioned as an innocent casting of a wider, more inclusive net, but it felt more like an attempt to draw in a larger viewership for the show.

When this year, according to a source, top brass behind the scenes expressed frustration with the lack of major broadcast series represented in the conjunctive Broadcast Television Journalists Assn.’s list of TV nominees, the reason, no doubt, was ratings.

And when the BFCA’s board of directors polled the membership Monday about insinuating “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” into this year’s best picture category, many saw it as an opportunistic maneuver aimed at securing a place on the show for the biggest film of the year.

Referencing “an unprecedented cry out” from members, the board wanted to determine by vote whether the late-breaking Lucasfilm saga should be added to the list because Disney opted out of screening it before the Dec. 11 voting deadline. (The film’s premiere was held the day nominations were announced.) “The question will be: If you had seen ‘The Force Awakens’ before casting your Critics’ Choice Awards ballot, would you have included it in your five choices for Best Picture?” That was the simple language of the warning shot fired by email Friday.

Today, it was announced that J.J. Abrams’ film will indeed be added as the 11th best picture nominee. I have no way of verifying whether the membership’s vote legitimately reflected this because I’m not in a position to see the data generated by that questionnaire. I can only tell you I voted “no.” But regardless, that sound you hear is the camel’s back snapping clear in half.

Calling the situation “the most reasonable compromise,” BFCA president Joey Berlin said in an interview that he had never seen anything like the level of outreach, but that of course there was pushback as well. “There were certainly members who thought it was outrageous, that the deadline is the deadline,” he said. “But the board felt that’s really not what this is about. What’s the harm in bending the rules?”

In that case, where should the line be? “Have a preliminary vote over which Best Pic nominee to remove in its place,” Variety‘s Guy Lodge tweeted. “May as well make it as mortifying as possible.”

Harsh, but…

Everything this time of year is about opportunity in the awards race and riding the Oscars’ coattails. And even the Academy itself isn’t immune to chasing the populace, as the decision to extend the best picture playing field in 2009 was made in part to allow a wider range of films a better shot at a nomination and, hopefully, draw in a broader audience for the Academy Awards. I have a job getting paid, in part, for work built around this machine. None of that is lost on anyone. But even in that spectrum, this felt like sweaty opportunism.

“It would be foolish to suggest that the incredible popularity of the film isn’t a factor,” Berlin said. “And I can’t deny that this is also a good thing for the Critics’ Choice Awards show. But it’s really the popularity of the film amongst the critics, that it’s getting such good reviews. And honestly, if we were faced with the same volume of questions from the members about ‘can’t we do something to consider this small film that we just love and we didn’t see in time,’ yeah, I think we would probably make the same accommodation.”

Another group dealt with the situation differently, however. The American Film Institute announced ahead of time that its jury would hold off on the annual AFI Awards announcement in order to see “The Force Awakens” first. (Though few expected the group to leave it off the list after making such a show of waiting.) But asking for a do-over? And with such wobbly methodology? That’s something else entirely.

Alas, even though “The Force Awakens” began screening widely for press within a week of the nominations announcement, Berlin said pushing the BFCA’s own voting deadline back was not possible, nor was affording the same leniency to every other category for the film, because production of the Jan. 17 Critics’ Choice Awards show is well underway. “Clip packages are being cut. Booklets are being written up. To do it in every category seemed overwhelming,” he said.

But honestly, this particular circumstance isn’t even the half of it. There is also the BFCA’s obsession with not only perceived rival the Golden Globe Awards, but with predicting the eventual Oscar nominees. The night before this year’s Critics’ Choice nominations were revealed, phone calls were circulated by the group reminding that the BFCA has a better track record of mirroring Oscar nominees than the Globes’ Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. “So you can see that’s a more significant success rate,” I was told after being fed the data. “Let me ask you a question,” I asked, genuinely curious. “Define ‘success.'”

The org’s publicity firm doubled down by sending out a heavy-handed reminder. “We also crunched some numbers, given the fact that with a newly combined movie and TV ceremony this year, [the Critics’ Choice Awards] are mirroring the Golden Globes more than ever,” it read.

Here are the bullet points that followed:

– For the all-important Best Picture race, the Critics’ Choice Movie Awards matched the Oscars in 7 of the past 11 years. The Golden Globes were right only 3 times — despite having the advantage of doubling their chances with their drama and comedy or musical categories.

– The Critics’ Choice Awards are also the clear winner when it comes to predicting the Best Director, having picked the same Best Director as the Oscars 15 out of 20 times, compared to just 50% (10 out of 20) by the Golden Globes.

– Furthermore, the Critics’ Choice Awards have an undisputed track record with their nominations in all four major acting categories. Over the last 10 years, the Critics have consistently won the predictions over the Golden Globes. Critics’ Choice nominated actors have more than a 70% chance of getting an Oscar nomination, as opposed to Golden Globe nominees with just 40%.

– Lastly, the BFCA consists of over 300 non-biased professional film critics, making sure that having an impartial and educated view of movies is important to maintaining the integrity of film as an art form, and not a “prominent” choice.

That last one struck me as particularly rich. With a string of decisions capped off by yesterday’s “Star Wars” vote, the BFCA is frankly making the HFPA — which has a long, recorded history of quid pro quo concerns but has been moving away from those dark days as of late — look somewhat classy. Furthermore, as my colleague Steven Gaydos recently pointed out, “in terms of quality choices validated by time, [the HFPA’s] awards usually either matched the Academy’s picks or went to even more challenging selections.” Winners like “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” and “East of Eden” were highlighted by Gaydos, but you could also point to nominees like “Little Children,” “A History of Violence” and “Closer” as well.

Basically, say what you will about the HFPA — and you can say a lot — but “prominent” isn’t something the group has necessarily chased. Meanwhile, the BFCA appears to be consumed by it.

Is this what the BFCA is aiming for? Prognostication? Is that why the nominations annually look like something more akin to a list of Oscar predictions than an actual honest assessment of superlatives? The BFCA comprises a broad, scattered group of people. So it’s understandable that their choices would more often line up with a broad group like the Academy, perhaps more so than the HFPA, which is closer to 100 members. But what’s “important to maintaining the integrity of film as an art form,” if indeed an awards show has any place whatsoever in such an equation, is shining a light in unsung corners, not aiming at another group’s target and then being proud of it.

“The reason [we point out these figures] is because there is such an obsession in our business with the Oscars,” Berlin said. “That is the gold standard award and [those figures are], we think, relevant in the effort to promote the Critics’ Choice Awards.”

And what of the various genre categories that make the show feel overstuffed and have in the past left talent accepting during commercial breaks, to say nothing of the below-the-line artists perpetually awarded as part of commercial bumpers?

“I will never stop regretting the decision to try presenting awards during the commercial break,” Berlin said. “It was brought up again this year and I told the network about what a disaster it was. But there are a lot of categories that are reflective of the nature of the BFCA membership. The majority of our members are on television or radio talking to mainstream audiences about mainstream movies. We’re kind of a populist organization and I think it’s reasonable to shine a little extra light on some of these genres.”

Circling back to the “Star Wars” situation, Berlin said he was prepared for a backlash given that it was such an unusual maneuver, and he admitted that bending the org’s rules was “not an easy decision.” There was something of a precedent, as in 2000, “Cast Away” was added as the 11th nominee after most BFCA members were unable to see it prior to the voting deadline. But in the end, he and the Board of Directors felt the exceptional nature of this particular case not only warranted an audible, but that the audible itself was in keeping with the role critics play.

“The analogy I use is that lots of studios release lots of films and don’t show them to reviewers — they just dump them into theaters. But we still review them when we can,” he said. “This movie wasn’t dumped, obviously, but it’s somewhat analogous. Sometimes you can’t review it when you want to, so you review it when you can. That’s what we’re doing.”

All fine and good, but this is a crossroads moment for the BFCA, I feel. Berlin has called the Critics’ Choice Awards a “principled alternative” to the annual awards gauntlet, but more and more, it’s simply become part of the whole awful charade. This show will never, in its wildest dreams, land higher ratings than the far more entrenched, network-hosted Golden Globes. And if the group is concerned with being taken more seriously than the long-derided HFPA, clumsy moves like this one ought to be avoided. Enough, too, with the obsessive tracking of Oscar parallels; we really don’t need another copycat.

One day you wake up and you’re the Hollywood Film Awards, lining your own pockets, gorging yourself on the red carpet. Either be a “principled alternative” or just stop kidding yourself.