When the Critics' Choice Awards, an annual Hollywood ceremony reflecting the taste of hundreds of critics, announced its nominees last week, one company rose above the others.
Netflix received 61 film and television nominations, nearly double the amount of its nearest competitor. The streaming giant also had the movie with the most nominations, Martin Scorsese's The Irishman, and nearly half of the film best-actor field.
Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman swept the Critics’ Choice nominations pool. Credit:Netflix
The accolades weren't surprising given the praise drawn by some of Netflix's recent releases. But it came with an asterisk: The Washington Post has learned that Netflix had flown journalists from the voting body, which includes some 400 critics from outlets around the country, to Los Angeles and New York on pricey trips. The streamer's critics say this marks a potential breach of both awards etiquette and journalism ethics.
This time of year is known for Hollywood largesse. Award season, as the entertainment business calls the period between the Toronto Film Festival in September and the Oscars in February, regularly sees industry and media members hosted at splashy screening receptions in Los Angeles and New York or sent playful "swag" promotional items as studios seek to create buzz around their contenders.
The goal is to win support and, often, votes.
But sending journalists on free trips to achieve that aim opens a new front in these prize wars, demonstrating Netflix's win-at-all-costs mentality combined with an ability to foot those costs.
The Post has learned of at least four such trips this year. All of them included stays at high-end hotels and private encounters with filmmakers and stars, according to three people who attended or are familiar with the events but were not authorised to speak about them publicly.
Interviews with 10 studio executives, award consultants and experts – many of whom spoke on condition of anonymity because of the matter's sensitivity – suggest that the trips for the Critics' Choice Association members have become a flashpoint for an industry recently beset by deep-pocketed Silicon Valley players.
To traditional studios, such trips mark one more way these newcomers are using their weight to bend accepted practices, often corralling media in their efforts.
The tech companies, meanwhile, believe they are just doing what studios have always done this time of year: spend money to win award votes. They are, they say, simply the object of corporate envy.
Three of the trips – for The Irishman, Dolemite Is My Name and The Two Popes – were in Los Angeles. A fourth, for the recently released drama Marriage Story, was in New York.
Journalists from the Critics’ Choice Association’s voting body were flown to New York for Netflix film Marriage Story. Credit:Netflix
The journalists were put up at hotels that included the W, the Four Seasons and the Beverly Hilton in Los Angeles and the JW Marriott Essex House in New York.
One CCA member who accepted a trip for The Two Popes said it included the airfare to Los Angeles, a breakfast with filmmakers, tickets to a premiere at Hollywood's TCL Chinese Theatre and a stay at the Beverly Hilton, the hotel where the Golden Globes take place. About 40 such people were on the trip, said the person, who asked not to be identified because the person did not want to be known as having taken it.
The member said the trip did not affect the person's Critics Choice vote.
The Irishman trip involved a private news conference with principals from the film, including Scorsese and Al Pacino; tickets to the premiere at the TCL Chinese Theatre, which was turned into a New York street for the occasion replete with vintage cars and elaborate sets; packs of Uber vouchers; and a stay at the Four Seasons. Accommodations at the hotel range from $US500 ($723) for the most basic room to more than $2,000 for a one-bedroom suite.
Netflix declined to comment for this story.
The CCA includes film and television journalists from across the U.S., with many from the Midwest, South and other areas of the country not known for a high concentration of entertainment media.
The Critics' Choice Awards will take place on January 13, one week after the Golden Globes.
Supporters of Netflix say the trips are merely an extension of the common Hollywood practice of junkets – paid trips for reporters, often to desirable locations, with the goal of generating feature coverage about a film or show. In the past few weeks, Fox Searchlight and Sony Pictures, each with multiple films in the awards race, flew Hollywood Foreign Press Association members to tropical locations – Hawaii and Cabo San Lucas, Mexico – to visit sets for upcoming movies, although neither was for current awards contenders. The Hollywood Foreign Press Association votes on the Golden Globes.
Netflix critics, however, make a distinction between such trips and what the company did with its New York and Los Angeles trips.
"There was no junket, no reason for the journalists to be there, no [significant] stories that came out of it," said an executive at a rival company who asked not to be identified because the executive was not authorised by the person's company to speak to the media. "It was simply to spend money on them so they'd vote for the movie.
"I don't think you can compare a traditional junket with what this was," the person said.
Netflix rivals acknowledge that it is impossible to establish any causal link between the trips and the high number of nominees. But they say that in a noisy climate, the opportunities for Netflix to woo voters in this way helps the company increase awareness and goodwill.
And while many of its films and actors have been drawing acclaim widely, the Netflix rivals point to some Critics' Choice nominees that were not as common on other lists, such as best actor Robert De Niro from The Irishman or Eddie Murphy in Dolemite is My Name. Neither actor received nominations this week from the Screen Actors Guild, a group with tighter rules around awards campaigning.
Eddie Murphy has scored a Critics’ Choice best actor (film) nod for his performance in Netflix’s Dolemite Is My Name.Credit:Netflix
The guilds – they also include directors, producers and others – have stricter controls on what voters can accept. Tighter still is the Oscar-overseeing Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, which even prohibits any direct contact between nominees and voters; one such incident several years ago resulted in a movie being de-nominated.
Netflix critics said the CCA has been targeted because of loopholes the other groups have closed off.
The trips coincide with what has been an increase in award swag across multiple companies but particularly Netflix, with social media often abuzz about the latest item received in the mail, such as a pair of slippers to promote The Two Popes, a denim jacket for Dolemite and a blanket for Marriage Story.
The company has also sponsored swanky parties and prominent billboards, continuing a trend of free-spending that began with its Oscar best-picture contender Roma last year. Netflix supporters say any griping is simply a matter of sour grapes on the part of less-capitalised rivals.
Experts say Netflix has a different strategic motivation for award spending than its competitors do. For many companies, awards are often used as a tool to boost box office receipts. But without those revenues, Netflix relies on nominations for another purpose.
"They are certainly using awards as a kind of proof point" for Wall Street and analysts, said Stephen Beck, the founder of management consultancy cg42 and a streaming expert. He also said awards mattered more to Netflix because it needed to prove its model to a creative community that eyes it more sceptically than traditional theatrical distributors.
"Award nominations and wins are critical to attract top directing talent," Beck said. "And those people are the real currency."
Media experts said they believe the trips were problematic, particularly at this social moment.
"You're seeing it across so many spheres where trust in journalism is going down," said Kathleen Culver, the director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
"If a critic is getting jetted out to L.A. and staying at the Four Seasons it makes consumers wonder if they've become a promotional tool of the industry," Culver added. "When you're a critic you're being paid for your opinion, and what the audience needs is for your opinion to be trustworthy. And if a reviewer is giving an opinion on Marriage Story and they're getting lavish gifts from Netflix, the audience is going to find it less trustworthy."
Samuel Freedman, who teaches a journalism ethics class at the Columbia University graduate school of journalism, said the onus was on reporters to resist these gestures.
"I don't blame Netflix for trying to influence a vote – that's what they're in the business of doing," Freedman said. "I blame news organisations at the both the level of the individual critic and the level of whoever is in charge of ethics. I don't think it's a secret to any news organisation that you're not supposed to take a freebie, especially a trip to a big coastal city that puts you in the presence of a filmmaker with the intent to dazzle you and turn your head."
He said he believed such trips went beyond junkets, which he also opposed, because junkets are at least designed to produce stories.
The CCA does not list specific guidelines on its website about what members are permitted to accept.
When asked about the trips, Joey Berlin, the group's president, said in an email that "We have no policy against press junkets, a well-established tradition in the movie business dating back almost a century. The Critics Choice Association represents the interests of our members, who are well served by this tradition of studios providing pre-release screenings and access to filmmakers and performers to enhance their coverage of movies."
On its website, the organisation says, "Our standards: All film reviews represent the unique and honest opinion of the authoring member. Any attempt to influence a review beyond providing information is a violation of [CCA] standards."
The Washington Post
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