Circle of Friends

Why does the Chicago Film Critics Association include all those flacks?

By Patrick Z. McGavin

As a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association, I get one free ticket to the group’s annual awards ceremony. Unfortunately, when I arrived at the Park West last Sunday for the tenth anniversary celebration honoring the top movies of 1997, they didn’t have my name at the door. The problem was soon straightened out, and a woman pointed toward a stairway snaking up to the balcony. “You know where you’re supposed to sit?”

As usual, most of the 43 voting members would be sitting in the balcony. But we weren’t discouraged: not only did we escape paying the $100 cover charge, this would be the first year in which we didn’t have to pay our way into the gala party afterward. Huddling together, we looked down at the well-dressed crowd, searching for familiar faces among the audience of nearly 700. Onstage a band behind a scrim played a desultory cover of “Soul Man.”

Making a living as a film critic can be tough if you’re a freelance writer like me. Without a consistent outlet, the freelancer lives in constant fear of publicists hired by the movie studios. There’s a lot of money riding on the success of films, and the job of any movie publicist is not only to attract publicity but to attract the right kind of publicity. Understandably, publicists tend to favor reviewers at larger publications, and they’ll sometimes keep the rest of us out of press screenings or refuse to make certain films available for viewing, thereby hurting a freelancer’s chances of getting a timely sale. That’s why I took comfort in the idea of a film critics’ society. There’s strength in numbers, right?

Yet after almost a decade, I’m starting to have my doubts, and many other members of the Chicago Film Critics Association have become disenchanted as well. Most of the group’s time and energy is spent on its awards show, a slick, bloated, and rambling affair, typically running in excess of three hours, all to hand out 13 awards. And whereas groups in other cities–such as the New York Film Critics Circle and the Los Angeles Film Critics–announce their awards in late December or early January, the Chicago Film Critics Association seems intent on devaluing its opinions by waiting until the end of February or the beginning of March, just in time to have its thunder stolen by the Academy Awards. Worse, unlike those other critics’ groups, the Chicago organization actually has movie publicists on its board. Thumbing through the group’s latest brochure, which lists such corporate sponsors as Absolut Vodka, Eastman Kodak, and Blockbuster Video, a critic couldn’t help but feel inconsequential.

The Chicago Film Critics Association was started in 1988 by Sue Kiner and Sharon Lemaire. The pair had met five years earlier, when Kiner was working as a marketing consultant and Lemaire was an usher at a movie theater. They decided to team up a la Siskel and Ebert, and began calling radio stations to offer their services. They were picked up by WGCI, and for the next several years Kiner and Lemaire recorded brief reviews to be played periodically throughout each day. Next, they jumped to WBBM FM, which put them on Sunday mornings. After losing that job four years ago, the two went their separate ways. Kiner remains at the helm of the critics’ association in addition to operating her own PR firm.

The current board of the Chicago Film Critics Association is almost identical to the one handpicked by Kiner and Lemaire a decade ago. In 1988, they selected Daily Herald critic Dann Gire, freelance writer Johanna Steinmetz, WGN’s Roy Leonard, WMAQ’s Norman Mark, and movie publicist John Iltis. Since 1994 they’ve added Tribune critic Michael Wilmington, freelance reviewer John Petrakis, publicist Stuart Wolf, and Nick Pullia, an editor and writer with Press Publications, a chain of newspapers in the western suburbs. Only Steinmetz and Pullia are no longer on the board. In 1991, the group was incorporated and assigned tax-exempt, not-for-profit status. While the awards ceremony remains its showcase event, the association’s most impressive achievement is an inner-city youth program called Send a Needy Kid to the Movies.

The group owes its longevity to Kiner’s organizational skills, a far cry from the haphazard planning of the short-lived Chicago Film Critics Circle, the first alliance of local movie critics started in 1981 by Gire and others. Looking back, Gire now says competing factions doomed that group from its inception. “There were seven members in the original group,” he recalls. “Part of the membership felt it was an organization to capitalize on the fame and notoriety of Siskel and Ebert. A guy named Stu Feiler, a theater and film critic, was in charge of that half of the group. I was part of the other group, wanting to recognize films for their accomplishments. Once I got elected president, the other side never showed up for any of the meetings, and the group fell apart.”

When the Chicago Film Critics Association was formed seven years later, Gire says he found it difficult to sign up recruits, so he made every critic in the city a member, whether the critic wanted to join or not. “To build the organization, we made everyone an automatic member,” he says. Gene Siskel, Dave Kehr, and Lloyd Sachs were all listed as members against their will; their respective top-ten lists were used as ballots when the group tabulated votes for awards. “We had to do that because we didn’t want any barrier between the membership and the actual operating film critics’ community. We were starting up.”

Rather than holding an election among their constituency, Sue Kiner and Sharon Lemaire chose all the board members. Gire claims that was the only way to gain legitimacy. “We didn’t have a situation where we had 30 critics together and we all decided to put on a show, put on an organization,” he says. “This was Sue’s idea, and she picked five people that she thought could make it happen.”

The group first started giving out awards at a modest afternoon party in the Pump Room, followed by drinks across the hall at Byfield’s. Then in 1994, the program was moved to the Royal George Theatre Center to handle the growing demand for tickets. Since then Kiner says she’s held conversations with a cable syndicator about telecasting the show. She estimates the cost of producing the ceremony would be $750,000 without the support of sponsors and donated services. (The organization now relies on 60 volunteers just to run the show.) “I was told a long time ago we would have to grow or we’d die,” Kiner says. “I miss the simplicity, like the time Anthony Hopkins was just milling around with everybody at Byfield’s. I also like a much slicker production. [But] the slicker it is, the easier it is to lose the humanity and the warmth. That’s why all awards shows look the same.”

The group’s inclusion of noncritics, especially publicists, strikes many as problematic, even though noncritics can’t vote for the awards. There are nearly twice as many lay members as critics, if you include the organization’s auxiliary branch, Friends of the Critics. Having publicists on the board of a critics’ organization is particularly troublesome given the often conflicting responsibilities of the two professions. In 1991 Reader critic Jonathan Rosenbaum was banned from all Warner Brothers screenings for nearly three years by the studio’s intransigent midwest head of publicity, Frank Casey, who died in 1995. Rosenbaum had asked Casey if he could attend a closed screening of the movie New Jack City. Shocked that a critic had knowledge of a closed screening, Casey demanded that Rosenbaum reveal his source of information; Rosenbaum refused. When Casey banned him, then wouldn’t back down, Rosenbaum turned to the Chicago Film Critics Association for help, but the group was reluctant to get involved. The matter wasn’t resolved until late 1993, largely through the efforts of Wilmington and Peter Rainer, the chairman of the National Society of Film Critics.

“I can’t tell you how many hours we spent on the Rosenbaum situation,” says Gire. “When this happened, we weren’t as established. We couldn’t go to the publicists and make demands. We did not intervene on the Rosenbaum matter because, quite frankly, Frank Casey was a nutcase. He had so much power behind him; he was truly the last untouchable. You’ve got to remember, we’re a group that comes together for one purpose: we vote for awards that one wing of our group puts on. It was never considered to be a union, an advocacy group, an intervention outfit, or an arbitrator of any sort.” He says the group has gone to publicists on behalf of certain critics “and talked about, in principle, how sometimes publicists shaft other critics by giving preferential treatment to some critics and not others.” But often the publicists “pay us lip service, and business goes on as usual after a period of time has lapsed.”

Even with the city’s two top movie publicists on the board, Kiner insists their influence is overstated; they mostly work on the awards show. She claims the group has actually lessened the traditional animosity between critics and publicists. “I think things have actually gotten warmer.” The publicists, she says, are an asset. “They’re extremely helpful” in attracting celebrities. “The role they play is making sure the talent is there, coordinating the logistical aspects so we don’t have to expend the energy and resources. It’s good to have them on the board….The critics’ role is to vote; the publicists’ involvement makes the studios feel comfortable that the professionals they’re used to dealing with are also handling their talent.”

“This is a deal with the devil,” Gire says, but it’s a necessary one. He claims his 1981 group “fell apart because only critics were involved. That was the key lesson I learned, because I realized I needed people on that board who are builders, people who know how to build an infrastructure that will grow and will not collapse. It’s an organization dedicated to honoring excellence in film. We have people who believe that. The thing of it is, as a critic, I don’t like having publicists on the board of directors, but critics do not have the time, temperament, or skills to assemble the organization. Getting John Iltis and Wolf involved was a stroke of genius.”

That was a matter of debate during the postshow party at the Chinese restaurant Ben Pao. Tribune critic Mark Caro has attended the last three shows. “As a critic, you’re supposed to be outside the system and outside what you’re covering. The idea of us being involved in something built around a show where the purpose is to lure stars so you can mingle with them and collect a hundred dollars a ticket seems a little contrary to the spirit of what we do. I’m more comfortable with the aspects of critics stating their opinions and bringing attention to worthwhile works than I am with the aspect of orienting the whole thing towards a show–a show where the critics seem like an afterthought.”

Michael Wilmington is one of the most ardent supporters of the group. He’s a member of the National Society of Film Critics and a past member of the Los Angeles Film Critics, which, he says, has only one noncritic in its ranks–an administrative assistant. “I actually think critics’ groups are very important. It’s important to have a community of critics, and for critics to feel they’re a community,” he says. While he admits that some local critics may feel alienated from the group “because there are no elections [to the board],” he says, “we have to somehow combat this alienation that [some members] feel. There was a committee about reforms in the group, though I don’t remember what happened to the reforms. It’s obvious with our group, the complexity of the show dictates the form of the critics’ group itself. On the whole, it’s hard to get critics to do other things because film critics are so overworked.”

Rosenbaum didn’t attend this year’s awards show. “The most difficult and important thing for critics to do, in my opinion, is to distinguish themselves from publicity,” he says. “That is precisely what this organization is very poor at doing. I think critics are clearly marginalized by the event itself.” He didn’t vote for this year’s awards and currently plans to let his membership lapse.

Reece Pendleton, a freelance writer who’s reviewed films for the Daily Southtown, New City, and the Reader, attended last weekend’s awards ceremony, though he says it will be his last. He’s just quit the group. “I don’t feel like the organization is really representing the critics–this is an organization more interested in promoting the agenda of the publicists,” he says. “So much energy and time is sucked up by the awards ceremony and everything surrounding it, there’s not enough time spent on the things that it should be doing. It’s driven more by the publicists’ needs than the critics’ needs.

“What is the purpose of the organization?” he asks. “A film critics’ organization should be more than an annual dog and pony show. Why should I put time, money, and energy into an organization that is not giving me anything back? That time and energy comes in a variety of ways. I personally attended every meeting, wrote articles for the group’s newspaper, and agreed to chair an artists’ rights committee.” That committee, named after musician Frank Zappa, looked into censorship and other issues dealing with freedom of expression. On several occasions Pendleton asked the board to take a stand on controversies–such as the inclusion of V-chips in televisions–but the board always refused to act. “After a while I found no point to continue. I didn’t feel they would respond to anything I was doing. I felt I had more worthwhile causes to be donating my time to.

“It’s more a sense of frustration than anything else. Some of the issues have been long-standing. The matter of freelancers not being able to get on certain screening lists. This was going on at a time I was writing for three newspapers. This is probably not a big deal for people like Wilmington or Rosenbaum, who don’t need the organization. But the people who do–the freelancers–could really use some help.”

This year’s awards ceremony wasn’t particularly memorable. It began with a Marilyn Monroe impersonator breathlessly singing, “Happy Birthday, Chicago Film Critics…” And it ended with Roger Ebert presenting the award for best actor (Ebert’s a member, though Siskel’s not). But Ebert appeared slightly annoyed, singling out presenters who had mispronounced names and deriding the show’s organizers for the poor grammar on the TelePrompTer. After the show was over, Joey Lauren Adams, winner of the “most promising actress” award for her performance in Chasing Amy, asked me, “Was that as painful for you as it was for us?” o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Dann Gire, Sue Kiner photo by Jim Alexander Newberry.