"Baywatch" was one of several blockbusters that flopped last summer, an embarrassment that many studios blamed on critics' negative reviews. (Image via Rotten Tomatoes)

Hollywood and Its Film Critics Need Marriage Counseling

The Oscars’ new category is Hollywood’s way of exploiting the public’s growing distrust of critics.

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The Oscars’ new category is Hollywood’s way of exploiting the public’s growing distrust of critics.

A few hours after news broke that the Oscars were considering adding a new award for best popular film, the media solidified its opinion: This whole thing was a cynical grab by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences to get more people to watch its awards show by including a category that high-grossing flicks could grab easily. But there’s another theory I think is a better fit: Hollywood is trying to distance itself from critics in the eyes of audiences.

Flashback to the summer of last year. Like every year, there were some hits, but there were also a remarkable number of true failures: “Baywatch,” “Pirates of the Caribbean 5,” “The Emoji Movie,” “King Arthur” and similar under-performers weighed down the worst-grossing summer for Hollywood in almost a decade. Instead of blaming the fact that nobody wanted to watch another “Pirates” movie, though, Hollywood blamed an outside foe — Rotten Tomatoes.

Apparently, the real reason people didn’t shell out to watch a reboot of “Baywatch” years after the original (in a movie climate increasingly resistant to the word “reboot”) was because the accumulated critical reviews turned viewers off. Producers and Hollywood insiders blamed Rotten Tomatoes’ prominence on ticket-buying websites like Fandango and Google’s decision to display scores next to search results. The common theme behind all of this was Hollywood’s determination to blame their lack of predicted success on common movie critics, especially those on the internet.

Sadly, producers weren’t alone in blaming critics for box-office bombs. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson used Twitter to personally call out critics he claimed laughed at screenings only to pan the movie in their actual reviews. It did little — “Baywatch” closed after making back less than half of expected earnings in the domestic market.

That split between critics and Hollywood reemerged earlier this year when “Gotti,” a biopic of the famous gangster, got splatted with a zero percent professional critic score. The official Twitter account of the movie, @Gotti_Film, shot back by tweeting menacingly about how critics must be trying to keep people from seeing the film and pointing out that the audience reviews were 80 percent positive.

Some countered that those positive reviews are so numerous that it’s a little suspicious, considering that “Gotti” didn’t actually do very well at the box office. The real takeaway here, though, is that Dennis Rice, the head of marketing for “Gotti,” thought directly dissing film critics was the best way to mitigate a tide of poor reviews.

So, what does this mean for the Oscars? Based on the “Gotti” and “Baywatch” examples, it seems to me that Hollywood (and by extension, the Academy) wants to change how it relates to critics and audiences. What makes the animosity in these latest examples different from historical critic-moviemaker scuffles is that the people making films are no longer content to go on the defensive. Intentionally or not, both Rice and The Rock tried to drive a wedge between critics and audiences by alleging the people who review movies for a living have suspicious motives or are out-of-touch with the average consumer.

While not exactly dangerous, it is kind of sad. Film is a form of art that deserves thoughtful critique, and if the Oscars decide they can just retool categories to give mediocre-but-popular movies more awards, people who appreciate the art will miss out. Studios won’t have as much incentive to compete artistically and might stop producing independent films, in lieu of making a bigger movie geared at the Academy and general audiences.

Other, more charitable explanations for the new category do exist. In an interview with Variety Fair, one member of the Oscars board who requested anonymity claimed the new category will encourage studios to make more movies like “The Godfather” that were both classic films and popular successes. Harvey Weinstein, in this telling, is responsible for the current trend of studios producing two different kinds of films: ones that aim at getting awards, and others that aim at getting butts in seats. After Weinstein’s model found success, other studios started mimicking the approach.

The interviewee said the new Oscars category is a good-intentioned experiment meant to encourage studios to go back to making movies that critics and audiences can appreciate. If that’s true, I’m not convinced this will have the desired effect. It shouldn’t make any difference to studios if their Oscar-bait films continue to get Oscars, only for their blockbusters to have another chance (outside of the various technical awards) to earn their own statuettes. In the meantime, though, it might be interesting to keep an eye on what Hollywood says next about its critics.

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