[6 December 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It’s tough being an out of the loop critic. What makes it even worse is being a mere 70 miles away from said cinematic in-crowd. Let me explain. Though I am currently a member of the Florida Film Critics Circle, the Southeastern Film Critics Association, and the Online Film Critics Society, I am located in Tampa, Florida. Disney hates us. Indie efforts avoid our theaters like rational sports franchise thinking (local in-joke) and, in general, we are the unwanted bastard step-child to Walt’s world over in Orlando, and by 1-75 and Alligator Alley extension, that meaningless metropolis Miami. All flowery prose aside, this means we get fewer than half of the important, noncommercial releases every year. Makes trying to be a voice here at PopMatters all the more complicated.
Thanks to the high profile of the important and influential site you are currently surfing (no facetiousness intended or implied), as well as my years grinding out the content, I get a lot of personal studio attention. Titles that might otherwise never see the light of a Big Guava day (another local in-joke) end up coming to my mailbox or delivered via FedEx. Of course, watching a sprawling foreign epic about an important piece of Eastern European history can be a tad underwhelming on even the largest home theater set up and no matter the level of manufacturing oversight employed, screener DVDs have been known to freeze, skip, and fail to play all together. And let’s not even get started on the whole piracy security strategy, which can see huge studio logos, burned in bugs, and - most annoyingly - the random desaturation of the colors affect the visual aspect of the mainly VISUAL medium you are grading.
All of which leads to the last weeks in November and the beginning of December. In the biz, we call this Awards Season, or the push toward the Year-End Best-Ofs. All of the critic’s circles I hang in have their individual awards, as do a couple of sites where my questionable opinion finds some avenue of acceptance. Coming up with a Top Ten is difficult enough (and thanks for making it that much harder, half-assed 2010) - but because of such arguably unimportant factors as timing, publicity, legitimacy, and that always persnickety concept of being first out of the online gate, my fellow film writers are constantly pushing for earlier and earlier reveals. Even though many of the main Oscar contenders won’t darken my particular doorstep until late December (if at all - I’m looking at you, Persepolis!), the mass emails arguing for a preeminent post-Turkey Day strike constantly fill my inbox.
On the one hand, it’s no longer a major hassle. When I first started, I was stuck. Without my name instantly associated with any real press-based organization, getting material - EPKs, trailers, even the movies themselves - was almost impossible. Once in, it took time before the studios associated name with reputation and reliability. Eventually, I fell into the screener pool, and over the years, the pile of product has increased ten-fold. If I remember correctly, my first year in the good graces of Hollywood’s “For Your Consideration” clique, I received about 20 titles. Most I had seen. A couple I had not. Still, as I compiled my final tally of the finest, I knew I was missing several supposedly important pieces of the puzzle. I remember that I did not see Children of Men until January. Same with such other favorites The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Happy-Go-Lucky, and An Education.
As time in the trenches translated into more recognition, the stacks increased. In 2008, it was 35 titles. In 2009, nearly 50. Now, as I sit at my desk, pounding out these hopefully focused thoughts, I am looking at something close to 75. That’s right - 75 individual offerings that someone, somewhere thought might benefit from having its name associated with it some end of year appreciation. Many of them won’t make the grade - Monsters, I’m Still Here, Babies (???). But some are right up there amongst the highest of high profile possibilities: Four Lions, Rabbit Hole, Another Year, Biutiful, Made in Dagenham. There’s also the promise of getting early looks at True Grit, The Fighter, and Blue Valentine. When you add in the actual theatrical screening schedule for both mainstream releases and FYC acknowledgement, the workload becomes oppressive.
Of course, we do get the occasional important release. The controversial Jim Carrey comedy I Love You, Phillip Morris was featured a couple of weeks prior to its release. Similarly, over the course of the year, other high profile petitioners - Winter’s Bone, The Social Network, 127 Hours - were shown some early Tampa love. But if you look to the current buzz building, if you follow the fortunes of film at all, you quickly see you are missing a huge chunk of the potential pie. Move 70 miles to the East and you’re close to golden. Pull a LeBron and take your talents to South Beach and you’re sitting pretty. Local PR representatives try to placate us, but in the end, they tow the studio line, setting up perfect storms of too many titles with too little time to consider them properly.
For example, during the week of 13 December (the day the first of my many critic’s group awards are ANNOUNCED, mind you) , there are currently eight screenings set up - and that’s just the ones on the calendar as of today. Some will probably be circumvented by the arrival of an Oscar push package. Some definitely not. But most are hoping to get some Best-of mentions. Similarly, if I pull out all the movies I have already seen, if I strategize over the ones that probably have no shot whatsoever, I still have approximately 20 to 25 to attempt to go through. Sure, one a day until Christmas works, right? Wrong. SEFCA has a deadline of 12/12. FFCC and OFCS is a week later. That means, in 14 days I will have to try and watch 28 to 33 films, process what I’ve seen, and then grade it against all 200 plus efforts I’ve already experienced this year.
That’s impossible - and that’s why being an out of the loop critic is so tough. A few miles away, my fellow journalists are already overdosing, but at least they’ve had time to see The King’s Speech, The Illusionist, and/or Somewhere. They’ve put many of the movies I am still sifting through into considered perspective and are starting the big wind down. There’s no rest for the West Coast wicked - and we all have to keep up with the Trons, the Fockers, and the bumbling Yogi Bears coming to a Cineplex near you. True, true - there are thousands of tougher jobs than this and in the grand scheme of things, complaining about an increase of work is like arguing that real life is too real. But when you’ve trying to maintain a certain profile and dependability in a domain dominated by thousands of squeaky wheels, it would be nice not to have to struggle so much. Guess I could always move…