Four eminent film critics’ groups have announced that films from the Walt Disney Company will not be eligible for their respective annual awards until the company lifts a media blackout against the Los Angeles Times.
The Boston Society of Film Critics, the New York Film Critics Circle, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, and the National Society of Film Critics released a joint statement Tuesday that read in part, “On Nov. 3, The Times published a statement that its writers and editors had been blocked from attending advance screenings of Disney films, in response to The Times’ news coverage of Disney’s business arrangements with the City of Anaheim. Disney’s actions, which include an indefinite ban on any interaction with The Times, are antithetical to the principles of a free press and set a dangerous precedent in a time of already heightened hostility toward journalists.”
The initial Times article, published on Sept. 24 and titled “Is Disney Paying Its Fair Share in Anaheim?,” delved into financial deals the company enjoys in the town where Disneyland has been drawing millions of tourists since the theme park opened in 1955. Disney officials were interviewed at length in the article, but while the company has made known its displeasure with the finished piece, it has not requested any corrections from the Times.
Instead, Disney appears to be punishing one section of the newspaper for a different section doing its job. The blackout of the Times’s entertainment section means that its critics are banned from advance screenings of movies like Pixar’s “Coco” or the upcoming “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” and also that the paper will be receive no assistance from the studio in writing any features or profiles relating to Disney product. Advance screenings allow news outlets to run print reviews of movies the day they open rather than a day or two after, although such reviews may run sooner online.
The joint critics’ statement went on to say, “It is admittedly extraordinary for a critics’ group, let alone four critics’ groups, to take any action that might penalize film artists for decisions beyond their control. But Disney brought forth this action when it chose to punish The Times’ journalists rather than express its disagreement with a business story via ongoing public discussion. Disney’s response should gravely concern all who believe in the importance of a free press, artists included.”
Disney’s actions come at a time when news organizations are under increased pressure from outside and inside powers. The recent shuttering of the local news websites Gothamist and DNAInfo by billionaire owner Joe Ricketts a week after their staffs voted to unionize, the move of the hardy Village Voice (founded the same year as Disneyland, ironically) to online-only publishing, and the ongoing lambasting of the mainstream press as “fake news” by America’s commander-in-chief have created an environment in which a response felt necessary. (Full disclosure: this writer is a member of the Boston and national societies.)
The awards ban by the critics groups is seen as a way to push back against the studio without unduly punishing readers. While the end-of-year critics awards for best movies, performances, and so on do not in themselves add major grosses to a studio’s bottom line, they come early in an Oscar race that ultimately impacts profits and prestige, and they unquestionably set the conversation and help winnow the field.
In addition, individual critics and newspapers in other cities have indicated that they plan to work around Disney for the time being. The Boston Globe has served notice to the studio’s publicists that “for as long as the blackout policy stands and LAT critics and reporters are denied access to screenings and studio-arranged interviews, we’ll forgo publishing any related features that make use of those elements.” In addition, Globe writers may choose not to attend advance screenings and will approach reviewing Disney films on a case-by-case basis.
Alyssa Rosenberg, a Washington Post critic at large who often covers movies, wrote in an article posted on Monday that “Until the Times’ critics are treated like everyone else and welcomed back to press screenings, I’ll write about Disney movies, including ‘Star Wars’ and Marvel movies, after their premieres — generally that will mean writing about them on the Monday after their release to a general audience.”
The full text of the critics’ statement can be read at www.bostonfilmcritics.org.
Here is the text of what the Globe sent to Disney on Sunday night:
The news blackout imposed on Los Angeles Times journalists is deeply troubling to those of us who edit and write film coverage at The Boston Globe. We strongly urge that the Walt Disney Company reconsider its position on this matter.
In the meantime, for as long as the blackout policy stands and LAT critics and reporters are denied access to screenings and studio-arranged interviews, we’ll forgo publishing any related features that make use of those elements. (Reviews will continue to be a case-by-case decision, whether or not we attend advance screenings.)
We understand that access is not a right. It is, however, fundamental to a high-functioning free press and should never be broadly denied as a form of punishment. We stand with our fellow journalists in LA and elsewhere on this issue.