In a move that is more or less unprecedented as far as critic/film studio relations are concerned, four major film critic circles—the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, the New York Film Critics Circle, the Boston Society of Film Critics and the National Society of Film Critics—today jointly denounced the Walt Disney Company for its media blackout against The Los Angeles Times. Furthermore, all four critics associations have voted to disqualify all of Disney’s films from year-end awards consideration until Disney publicly lifts said blackout, and presumably apologizes.
On Nov. 3, the L.A. Times revealed that its writers and editors had been barred from attending all future advance screenings of Disney films, a move that the Disney company made after the paper’s negative coverage of Disney’s business arrangements with the City of Anaheim. Disney claimed that reporting disregarded “basic journalistic standards,” and apparently banned all L.A. Times critics from its films as a stroke of petty revenge, despite the fact that it was in response to a business story that had nothing to do with the film industry. You know what they say: If you’re angry at someone for disregarding journalistic standards, the best way to get back at them is to immediately disregard basic freedom of the press. This obviously pissed off the film critic circles on a national level—their press release today reads as follows:
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.
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.
This is a heavy blow to Disney, which would typically be expecting awards season praise for upcoming films such as Pixar’s Coco. All of the film critic groups vote on their annual awards soon—New York on Nov. 30, L.A. on Dec. 3, Boston on Dec. 10 and the National Society of Film Critics on Jan. 6. One must assume that many of these members are also members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and thus voters for the Oscars as well, which could make a substantial impact on everything from Coco to Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
Critics nationwide are now piling on, in what will probably become a PR nightmare for Disney, which really should have known better. Check out the Chicago Tribune labeling the move as “craven, petty and hostile to journalism” for an idea of the tone we’re talking about. With enough focus on the story, one has to assume that the ban against the L.A. Times will presumably be lifted. Otherwise, we’re facing a pretty dangerous precedent here.