The Awards Show Show: How Critics Affect the Oscars, and How Bias Affects Critics

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Photo: The Weinstein Company

We’re entering the portion of the awards season where the various critics circles start to make their favorites known. This week on the Awards Show Show, Vulture’s Kyle Buchanan and The Frame’s John Horn welcome the Daily Beast’s Jen Yamato to discuss the role film critics play in the Oscars race. Do the demographics of the profession — largely straight, white, and male — make a difference in the films they champion? Does Jessica Chastain know how to bring more diversity to the field?

Selected excerpts from the conversation follow; listen to the episode below, and subscribe to the Awards Show Show on iTunes.

On how much critics groups matter in the awards race:

Kyle Buchanan: People ask me, “The Gothams or the National Board of Review, how much do they matter?” And what I always say is, “Well, it doesn’t hurt to have headlines that you won something.” It doesn’t hurt to have an indication of momentum, especially because these are very early ones. That said, something like the Gothams, these awards are only voted on by a handful of people. The National Board of Review, which is the first critics group to weigh in is made up of like, 100 people, some whom are students. So it’s kind of a questionable.

John Horn: It’s a slightly smarter version of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. And that’s setting the bar very low.

KB: And then there’s the Broadcast Film Critics who put together the Critics Choice Awards, which John doesn’t even want to say … they’re basically Voldemort to him.

JH: Just because you have a good party doesn’t make you legit. But stepping back to these organizations, National Board of Review, Gotham Awards, Broadcast Film Critics, New York Film Critics, they kind of set the agenda. They kind of winnow the field and then you can see certain trends emerging.

On the divide between critics groups:

Jen Yamato: There is definitely a rivalry. Not just between New York and L.A. critics, but between every major critic group. They’re well aware of the other critics groups and when they are voting, when their awards dinner are, and there’s kind of this mad dash to be first, as if setting the tone for the overall race denotes more weight to that group. When you think about how so many films are not ready to be screened or are not available to be screened by the time some of these groups actually vote …

KB: I think it will be interesting to see in which ways the L.A. critics tack differently than the New York critics and in which way they confirm it by choosing a film other than La La Land. But if they do what the New York film critics did and go for Barry Jenkins for director, that’s going to build this narrative of momentum that I’m already detecting where, if you believe that La La Land is still the best picture front-runner, which I do, it starts to bring up the notion that maybe La La Land can win Best Picture while Barry Jenkins still wins Best Director for Moonlight.

JH: What this raises is the question of, What is a critics organization? Are they supposed to sort of mirror the consensus? Are they supposed to foreshadow what other people are going to do? The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is made up of people who might be makeup artists, might be sound editors. They could work in visual effects. They could be actors. There’s a whole array of fields. Critics are, by definition, critics. So my question is: Does that suggest that they have a specific point of view and does that point of view dictate a different kind of responsibility? Should critics be doing something maybe a little unexpected and a little off the beaten path? Rather than trying to figure out what other people are going to do and make sure they’re not too much of an outlier.

On the demographics of the critical profession:

JY: The critical landscape is not diverse and that is a huge problem. Critics groups are starting to address it a little bit more. The L.A. film critics are pretty diverse. There are a lot of women, including Claudia Puig, the new president. It’s got ethnic diversity. And it’s got a lot of generational diversity, which I think it really great. And I find that the younger critics bring in a different voice. It’s becoming more diverse but criticism is not a diverse place to be. That is something that’s obvious if you look at Rotten Tomatoes, for any given wide release. Or any movie that has a specific bent that would be benefited by being championed by a certain type of voice that is not represented in the critical body.

JH: And that informs the awards themselves, right? So it starts to mirror what happens in the Academy. If you don’t have a diverse group of voters in the Academy, you don’t end up necessarily having a diverse group of nominees.

JY: Do women and men respond to all films the same way? No, they don’t. Do people of a certain ethnic background maybe have a different perspective on a film that relates to them? Yes, they do. If that is not represented in what’s written about those films, then that point of view does not get out as far as it should.

KB: I think the deal with a lot of white, male critics is there’s a very empirical way that they write that they write their movie reviews that always puzzled me. Movies are such subjective things. Back in the day, I used to be the film critic for The Advocate, and it was really striking to me when I would go into screening rooms and I was by far the youngest. They were filled with old white men. And when you watch a film like Black Snake Moan, that’s playing with a whole lot of gender and race issues, I was like, Are like 70-year-old white men like really the sole voices that I want to hear on this movie? It just didn’t feel right.

JY: I’ve been very pleasantly surprised to see the receptions Moonlight has gotten. But one of the films that I was disappointed to see not get more traction was American Honey. I distinctly remember sitting in a screening room full of mostly older white guys and thinking during the film, How are any of them going to relate to this movie?

JH: Jen, I was struck by something you said a couple of weeks ago when I was talking about Sully: That I didn’t recognize that that’s a move about white people. Everybody on the plane is a white person. When you have a different life experience, you look at a movie in terms of how the extras are casted in a very different way, and I think that’s a problem with criticism. It’s not just not getting a movie like American Honey; it’s getting a movie that maybe doesn’t need to be gotten.

KB: And you know, there are problems, obvious, apparent problems, you have when the critical corps is essentially like all the same kind of guy. Joe Morgenstern, the film critic for the Wall Street Journal, he committed an error — and I feel bad for him, because we all live in fear of making a mistake that becomes a big deal — but in his review of Lion, he confused Dev Patel and Kal Penn. He said that Dev Patel had turned in his best work since The Namesake. We all make careless errors, but this one is indicative of the issue we were talking about.

On the purpose of critical praise:

JH: As I start looking over the films that are getting attention this year from critics or organizations, I love a lot of them. I think Moonlight is fantastic film, but are they getting it right? Should they be looking in different places? Thirty years ago, the L.A. film critics association gave their top prize to Brazil, a Terry Gilliam movie that, at the time, Universal Pictures wasn’t releasing. They basically said “This is, we think, the best film of the year. Put it out in theaters,” and they ended up getting it released. Do critics have a different role? Why are they giving out awards if they’re just trying to mirror the consensus?

KB: Do you feel like a critic is an advocate, Jen?

JY: I do, and that’s how I also approach my work when I’m writing about smaller films. I feel like it’s my job to bring what I have to the table to point out what I feel like is important. Critics’ work can be a very valuable form of advocacy. I want to bring up something that Jessica Chastain tweeted recently: “Hey #nastywomen — If you love film and are good with a pen, how about becoming a critic? We need female critics to bring balance and diversity.” And she is so right, and it’s interesting to see that from her. She had a movie come out this season, Miss Sloane, that hasn’t really caught momentum at all. It has a really strong, complex, messed-up female character, the kind of role we don’t really see that often and that we say we want to see more. But who’s championing them?

JH: Even if critics can help move ahead the fortunes of certain Oscar-contending films, can they actually make a difference in terms of the movies that get made? 

KB: They have the ability to affect the movies that the studios were maybe already going to make. Last time we had Jen on, we were talking about white-washing, about more inclusive casting. Those are things that come from critics. They certainly weren’t coming from the people who are actually making those movies. They’re going to continue to make superhero movies and action spectaculars and then the Oscar movies about white-man pain, but at the same time, they’re not going to do it with such blinders on. Or at least, we’re not going to make that easy for them, you know?

JY: I do feel that, now more than ever, it’s the critic’s job to point those things out in their reviews, even if it’s just, you know, a film review of whatever’s coming out on Friday

JH: I think the real problem is that in a Rotten Tomatoes aggregate-score world, the individual voice of the critic has been diminished categorically, and I think the voice of an individual critic now is, unfortunately, less than meaningful than it has been.

KB: The bright side is, even if one critic may not wield that kind of influence anymore, it’s more important to have more voices out there. It can seem like we have 57 channels and there’s nothing on. But you can have these viral reviews and you can speak to an audience that was underserved when you have that many more voices.

Awards Show Show: How Critics Affect the Oscars