Freebies and access define Hollywood this time of year
Late last week, the Washington Post raised something of a stink over the idea that Netflix had sent some members of the Critics Choice Association on junkets to Los Angeles and New York, and in doing so had somehow swayed their vote in the Critics’ Choice Awards.
The story didn’t really get much traction after it was published on Friday, but the reasons why — and the whole topic of junkets and Oscar campaigning in general — might be worth kicking around for a bit. So here are my thoughts on it.
Yes, Netflix spends more money on campaigning than anybody else. An, yes, that makes other studios mad. It has more billboards on the Sunset Strip because it bought at least 18 of them in 2018. It buys more ads; it sends out a crazy amount of swag to voters who can accept it; (Oscar voters can’t.) and it annoys companies who can’t compete with that, just as it annoys companies by spending more on content than anybody else.
(Spending more on content and spending more to campaign for that content might be related.)
And, yes, Netflix has more films competing in the major categories for Oscars this year than it ever has before, which means that the company is pulling out all the stops with its campaigning. That’s what Netflix does.
Which brings us to junkets. The Post reported that Netflix flew members of the Critics Choice Association, which consists of more than 400 television, radio and internet critics from around the country, to Los Angeles for junkets related to “The Irishman,” “The Two Popes” and “Dolemite Is My Name,” and to New York for “Marriage Story” events.
In a statement, Netflix called the junket “a long-standing industry practice,” which it is, though not all publications allow its writers to accept free trips and lodging. The Critics Choice Association, in fact, began in the late 1990s as the Broadcast Film Critics Association, an organization of press members who met while attending regular junkets. It still has a section on its members website devoted to news on upcoming junkets, though the page is seldom used and is slated to be removed.
Currently, though, only a small minority of members regularly attend junkets.
“Most members have never been on a junket,” CCA president Joey Berlin told TheWrap. I’ve been a member of the BFCA and then the CCA for almost 10 years, and I was unaware that Netflix was hosting trips this year. A Netflix rep did ask me if I was going to be in New York for the Gotham Awards, which coincided with “Marriage Story” events, but didn’t offer me a trip when I said I wasn’t.
If Netflix was trying to bribe the Critics Choice Association, did it work? The Post suggests that it did by pointing out that Robert De Niro got a Critics’ Choice nomination for “The Irishman” and Eddie Murphy got one for “Dolemite Is My Name” when they were not nominated by the Screen Actors Guild, “a group with tighter rules around awards campaigning.”
De Niro and Murphy did indeed get CCA nominations and not SAG noms, although Murphy did land a Golden Globe nomination, because they have separate comedy-acting categories. (The Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which votes for the Globes, accepts free food and lodging but pays its own airfare on its regular junkets.) But what the Post doesn’t mention is that SAG has five nominees in each acting category, while Critics’ Choice has seven in its lead categories and six in its supporting categories – so math alone means that it has to nominate more people.
And if you look at the other Critics’ Choice nominees who weren’t singled out by the Globes or SAG, it’s not a Netflix-heavy list. The CCA nominated De Niro and “Marriage Story” director Noah Baumbach, both of whom were bypassed at the other shows. But those two examples of being nice to Netflix artists are outnumbered by the five instances in which they did the same for A24, which definitely isn’t throwing money around, and the three times they did so for Sony.
A24 landed CCA-only noms for “Uncut Gems” for picture, director and actor; Willem Dafoe (“The Lighthouse”) for actor and Zhao Shuzhen (“The Farewell”) for supporting actress. Sony was the beneficiary of “Little Women” nods for picture, director Greta Gerwig and supporting actress Florence Pugh.
Certainly, the lines can get murky in Hollywood, particularly around awards season. (Hell, I could have gotten a free cocktail and a free cat-ear headband at yesterday afternoon’s screening of “Cats.” I accepted the popcorn and soda but turned down the alcohol and ears, though in retrospect one of those might have been helpful.)
The point is, freebies and access and largesse are the coin of the realm in Hollywood this time of year, and journalistic integrity can be a tricky thing to locate in this town. (Can we talk about all the “reporters” who cover awards season and then take money directly from the people they’re covering to moderate screenings?) And Netflix occupies the position that Miramax and the Weinstein Company once did: It pushes the limits but typically knows how to stay within the rules; it is the big dog, and also the big target.
Maybe awards-related junkets are kicking things up a notch, though they don’t appear to have helped much and it’s not as if Netflix wasn’t already going to be the leader in Critics’ Choice nominations. And it’ll almost certainly be the leader in Oscar nominations, too, so perhaps we should save some outrage for Jan. 13.