There's a spirited tussle underway in Hollywood, fueled by the industry's drive to collect as many movie awards as possible.
Film critics' associations and awards shows are jockeying for position like never before, with a surprisingly strong new contender emerging this season -- even though the journalistic practices of some of its voters are debatable.
In just 10 years, the Broadcast Film Critics Assn. has transformed its awards show from a small luncheon for winners into a nationally telecast special. Nearly half its voters are part of the "movie junket press," a cadre of mostly out-of-town reviewers and writers who travel to interview filmmakers and performers at events that are paid for and orchestrated by the studios.
Their often-gushy quotes are then splashed across advertisements for many of the year's worst-reviewed films.
All the same, the association's show, "The Critics' Choice Awards," is attracting big star power. It is doing all it can to catch up with the Golden Globe Awards, considered the second most important ceremony behind the Oscars.
Last season, the sometimes reclusive Sean Penn presented an honorary award on the association's behalf. This season, Tom Cruise will receive a new Distinguished Career Achievement prize. And the ceremony is moving from cable television to the WB network, with "Will & Grace's" Eric McCormack as host.
Many news organizations frown upon the practices of some of the members of the association, because they believe that accepting meals and hotel and travel accommodations could compromise writers' work, or create the appearance of a conflict of interest.
For years, similar questions were raised about the Golden Globes. The Hollywood Foreign Press Assn., the group that awards the Golden Globes, has since discouraged its members from accepting fancy gifts. There are also new strict rules that seek to limit how studios can influence Oscar voters.
The broadcast critics' association, which announces its nominees Wednesday, defended the work of its rank-and-file members. It argued furthermore that it has become among the most accurate predictors of Academy Award nominations, and that last season it correctly picked all six top Oscar winners.
"We are comfortable, professionally, with this arrangement," said Joey Berlin, president of the group, whose membership spans the country with critics from smaller media outlets in cities such as Boise, Idaho, and Kansas City, Mo.
Studio publicists say they make certain to pay attention to the group's members, and they say the Critics' Choice Awards are gaining on the Golden Globes.
Unlike the Globes, which are awarded the day after Oscar ballots are due, the Critics' Choice Awards are handed out six days before Academy Award voting concludes, and could theoretically influence balloting.
The WB hopes it can turn "The Critics' Choice Awards" into a highly rated annual show, much as NBC has done with the Globes broadcast.
While the junket reviewers and reporters tend to see several movies every weekend and are thus well informed, they have been criticized not only for accepting four-star freebies but also for handing the studios highly complimentary quotes even before their reviews are broadcast or published. Several of the junket press also enjoyed cameos in the 2001 movie "America's Sweethearts."
Members of the Broadcast Film Critics group regularly can be found in newspaper ads touting films few other prominent critics liked.
Shawn Edwards of WDAF-TV in Kansas City called "Connie and Carla" "one of the year's most enjoyable films," while he considered Vin Diesel to be "ecstatically superb" in "The Chronicles of Riddick." Dan DiNicola of WRGB-TV in Albany, N.Y., thought "Troy" was "Hollywood's best epic in years."
"How can you put any stock in those kind of opinions?" asks Erik Childress, a reviewer for efilmcritic.com and a member of the Chicago Film Critics Assn. "Who do the movie junkets serve first and foremost? They serve the studios, not the public."
As part of his work for another show business website, Childress compiles similarly enthusiastic blurbs, annually naming the 10 worst purveyors of over-the-top reviewer quotes. Six of last year's Top 10 are members of the broadcast critics group.
Berlin, the association's president, writes a syndicated weekly film column for Copley News Service. He has also written reviews for the syndicated radio program "Sixty Second Preview," though his opinions are attributed to and read by someone calling himself Jeff Craig, who is really Jeffrey Rubenstein and hasn't seen all the films he recommends.
On its website, the association says that "any attempt to influence a review beyond providing information is a violation of BFCA standards." However, a studio giving a critic a complimentary room at a hotel such as the Four Seasons is not covered by that rule, Berlin says.