As a movie fan, I am the opposite of a trend-setter. I'm never a proponent of the big, new something, because my tendency is always to gather more information about whatever I want to talk about, to research, to contextualize, and to analyze. I'm also a notorious completist. When it comes to "Best of" lists, I love making them, but I usually wait about ten months after everybody else's has gone public, and after I'm relatively sure I've seen everything I feel is relevant to making a decision. And I mean everything.
So I've been viewing the maneuverings of the various critic groups and awards organizations with some incredulity as they jostle to be the first to hand out honors to 2011 films. The Gotham Independent Film Awards announced a tie between "Beginners" and "The Tree of Life" for Best Feature on Monday. The New York Film Critics Circle went with the silent film, "The Artist." The Gotham Awards are only for indies, so their choices had limited impact, but there was some drama over the New York critics bumping their announcement date two weeks earlier than last year, when they crowned "The Social Network" on December 13th. This year they had to delay voting deadlines for a day to allow its members to screen David Fincher's "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," but some contenders didn't make the cutoff time. Stephen Daldry's star-studded "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close," isn't expected to start making the rounds until Friday. Is being first really so much more important than these critics seeing all the films that they're supposed to be judging? Do they realize that it's still November?
The line of thinking goes a little something like this. Awards, or even the buzz for potential awards, mean attention and money for prestige pictures. The smaller groups that hand out their awards early can influence the long race that ultimately ends on Oscar night. So the first awards announcement, in this case made by the New York Film Critics Circle, is guaranteed more attention and importance than those of groups of relatively equal prestige, like the Los Angeles and Boston critics circles, who are handing out their awards later in December. Studios and distributors, happy for more chances to campaign for their pictures, have exacerbated the whole situation, turning many of the minor guild awards and the awards handed out by obscure organizations into major events. Look at the rise of the Golden Globes, which is handed out by the sketchy Hollywood Foreign Press Association. The kudomania has resulted in a gauntlet of awards and ceremonies and marketing that stretches from December through February. Some film organization, like AFI, have created their own awards just to be able to get in on the action.
So as all these awards keep jockeying for position, the scheduling has become a very important factor. The trend has been to push for earlier and earlier announcements, with everyone trying to get their oar in before a consensus of opinion solidifies, the winners start becoming predictable, and awards fatigue sets in. If the Oscars get moved up as some organizers have suggested, say to late January, then it'll cause even more chaos as everyone else scrambles to readjust their schedules. Voting deadlines for many kudos could be moved up even further, which means we'll be seeing more films getting left out of contention - in the short run, anyway. The practice of waiting until the tail-end of December to get many prestige films into theaters might reverse, if potential contenders can't make the deadlines for awards consideration. This might alleviate the pressure on critics and other voters who often have to resort to marathoning films. Of course, it could also result in more rushing on the filmmaking end, and compromised, weaker films.
I still daydream about being a professional movie critic for one of these big organizations sometimes, actually participating in the awards process and having access to all the newest, most anticipated films. On the other hand, I'm grateful that I don't have to watch them all in the same week. But I really appreciate these guys and what they do. A long awards season may become a slog, the most deserving films rarely win, and the politics can be infuriating, but this keeps the focus on the quality of films instead of the box office for a little while, and ensures that the smaller films with otherwise limited commercial prospects will find their way to you and me eventually. And that they'll make more next year.