Earlier this week, the New York Film Critics Circle announced their annual awards. A bunch of prizes went to Todd Haynes's forthcoming Carol, which is a good film, and to other good films such as In Jackson Heights and Timbuktu. Fine. That's fine. It's all well and good.
On Dec. 13, the Toronto Film Critics Association will release their annual list of the year's best films, as determined by a group of (quoting the TFCA's mandate here) "Toronto-based journalists and broadcasters who specialize in film criticism and commentary." The films on this list will probably be fine, too. Sure. It will be a list of films a lot of people have already heard of, if not seen. There'll be a three-way race for a $100,000 prize for Best Canadian Film, which will be awarded at a fancy dress-up party in early January.
For the longest time, critics' choice awards such as these were perceived as being antidotes to the pomp and circumstance of the Golden Globes and Oscar races, which tended to ignore critical darlings in favour of holiday season crowdpleasers. In Toronto alone, the TFCA does some pretty good work. Sure, handing out $100,000 in cash (or in the form of a novelty oversized cheque) to an established Canadian filmmaker may seem a bit crass, just shy of lifting a billowy curtain and awarding them with keys to a brand new Kia Sedona (or two). But the association also awards student filmmakers with production money, and hands out the semi-prestigious Clyde Gilmour Award, which recognizes excellent in Canadian cinema (Deepa Mehta is this year's winner).
More and more, however, these organizations feel otherwise useless. For some background: When I was starting out as a young, hungry writer in Toronto, desperate to be legitimized in any way possible, I jockeyed diligently to join the TFCA. After a few years, I left. In part because I thought I was leaving town (I didn't end up leaving town), but also in large part because sitting in a room and debating the merits of movies I usually didn't even like seemed like an unappealing way to spend a weekend afternoon during the holidays. Also: As an organization, the whole thing felt hopeless.
See, you pay annual dues to be in a group like this. This makes it seem a bit like a guild, or even a union. But guilds and unions have bargaining power. They represent the collective interests of members of their trade, and use that power to improve working conditions. In my (albeit limited) experience, the TFCA was totally ineffectual in this regard. The association's attempts to lobby the major studios to gain access to filmmakers and stars at TIFF was met with total disinterest. And why? Because studios don't need critics. Or rather, they don't need them like they used to. The relationship seems wholly lopsided from a labour standpoint. Critics' organizations don't work against the studios, but rather, they work with them – or, it increasingly seems, for them.
Basically, TFCA membership means paying about $50 to get screeners to end-of-the-year films. A "screener" is a low-grade, heavily watermarked DVD copy of a major motion picture that you can watch at home for awards consideration. It's seen as being some sort of sweet perk – indeed, the only perk of being in an organization for arts writers, critics and commentators – even though it's generally accepted that the bulk of these major studio prestige pictures are piping hot garbage to begin with. You also get to spend another hundred dollars, plus the cost of dry-cleaning your semi-formal-wear, to dress up, go to a seated dinner and pat yourself on the back for all the judicious decisions you and your fellow cinephile travellers made, awards-wise.
It would be amazing if a real guild or union could do legitimate work on behalf of freelancers, especially those unified by a common field of interest (or even "expertise"). But this organization, and ones like it, accomplish little in the way of preserving work for journalists and critics. Indeed, opening up membership to barely remunerated film bloggers (like me at the time I joined) desperate for a whiff of credibility and an armful of year-end screener discs only serves the opposite effect: delegitimizing the hard work and knowledge of working critics, or those with real insight into the medium.
In a grimly ironic turn, the TFCA's own film blog has become a resource for (often very good) film writing and criticism that the organization's membership presumably couldn't place elsewhere. Instead, the TFCA and groups like it exist to propagate the idea of their own relevance, and to advocate for their own role in shaping "the conversation" around cinema come awards season.
In this respect, critics' awards become weirdly self-defeating. What was once perceived as a corrective to the blandness and long-odds conjecturing of the awards season only ends up serving the "For Your Consideration" set. And so once again, an organization conceived to jam up, however slightly, the grinding machinery of Hollywood studio promotion and publicity only ends up greasing their cogs. In their earnest attempts to guide the conversation, critics' awards end up just more noise, joining the symphony of screeching that defines the arduous race toward Oscar.