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An Interview with the Founder of the Seattle Film Critics Society

Please welcome Brian Zitzelman, our newest contributor. He's a member of the newly formed Seattle Film Critics Society and for his first post he's interviewing the founder of that society Michael Ward. A little inside peak for you. - Editor

Michael Ward of "Should I See It"by Brian Zitzelman

Beyond being a genuinely kind, smart man, Michael Ward has done what few have; he's created a film critic's society. The Seattle Film Critics Society to be exact.  

Despite being home to a near month-long film festival, a multitude of cinemas devoted to older movies and generally being pretty comfortably snobby about the arts, the city of Seattle hasn't had a proper Film Society for over a decade. Mr. Ward changed that with months and months of work dealing with studio reps here and cavalcades of other oddities. In between tallying the final votes and writing sensationally for his own site Should I See It, I spoke to Mike about the joys, troubles and curveballs of what it takes to develop something that’s usually an established institution in other parts of the country. 

BRIAN ZITZELMAN: Let me start with the obvious question; How happy are you to have this first year of the Seattle Film Critics Society behind you?

MICHAEL WARD: Well, it feels premature to say that we have a full year under our belts. We are still working with a team to complete the infrastructure but I am comfortable in saying that lots of people have put in lots of time to make this a reality. We are planning on voting in a Board of Directors in February 2017, and at that point, more than two years of hard work will definitely have paid off. 

Moonlight took 6 prizes including Best Picture at the first official Seattle Film Critics Society awards

Can you walk us through the whole concept? I think most people assume every major metropolitan city has its own film critics circle, especially those with a history of the arts like Seattle. 

While this iteration of a Seattle Film Critics Society is new, there was an organization that existed from 2001-2004. Unfortunately, when they disbanded it was an ugly dissolution, and people are still reeling from how that all apparently went down.  But you're absolutely right Brian, most major cities have a film critics society or organization which most people typically only hear about during awards season...  

I won't lie - there was something of a "Why Not Us?" chip on the shoulder that began this process. But very quickly, I recognized that you can not just start an organization to hold an awards announcement once a year. At least not here. It became clear that there were numerous places where an organization would be beneficial. 

Of course, we will conduct an awards process and vote on what we think are the best films of the year. We also have the opportunity to build an organization that not only provides a sense of community for our critics, but also, in the future, the chance to partner, assist, help and promote the diversity and unique elements of Seattle's film community. 

Most people are familiar with SIFF - the incredible Seattle International Film Festival we have in May and June each year, but few people are aware that we have events such as the Seattle Jewish Film Festival, NFFTY - a student-directed film festival, mini-festivals on French Cinema, Asian cinema, Children's Films, the Seattle Transgender Film Festival, TWIST, a 10-day LGBTQ themed festival, the Social Justice Film Festival and so many more. We have more than 100 Hindi, Indian, and Bollywood films which play around our city each year and a growing podcast and social media-driven element to our film conversations.  

And honestly, that's where this all originates from.  In the short-term it is banding together and creating an organization that gives Seattle film critics a voice. In the mid-to-long-term, this is about trying to raise awareness of all the great things that happen within our city and film community every year.

So film is the word obviously.  It's a unique thing in a community versus, say, a televison community. What challenges did you find figuring out not just what equals a 2016 release, but what constitutes film versus television or just the latest Netflix release? 

MW: I think we live in a world where the basic definition of a film has stayed the same, but the mechanism for distribution of that film is fluid and continually changing. This year, people had to scratch their heads more than ever when it came to understanding how a documentary like O.J.: Made In America can be viewed as the frontrunner for both an Academy Award, traditionally understood to mean theatrical releases, and an Emmy Award, typically viewed as for television projects.

I think I am not alone in longing for the days of the brick-and-mortar storefront when it comes to film and video distribution. The ease to access we have now is awesome and I would never want to go back. But, things were so much easier to understand back in the day. If a film was in theaters, we recognized that's where it would live for a few months before it showed up at the video store. If it was on the video store rack and we never had heard of it, well we knew what we were dealing with. 

Now, we have movies released on demand and in theaters the same day. We have video release dates announced, but digital cable systems have the films two weeks earlier. Netflix has 28-day delays for some titles, Redbox has 28-day delays for others. Independent kiosks do not abide by any delayed rules and have titles available right away. 

If my critic friends are confused when movies are available, I can only guess how confused [regular filmgoers get] . Their only real option is just to consume the product when and where they can. In Seattle's consideration for awards voting this year, we decided we would include Netflix releases because Netflix permeates into such a massive amount of homes. We also tracked more than 950 films that played a minimum of three showings in Seattle-area theaters. VOD complicates matters but the reality is that we are in an age of redefining how films are delivered to us. We just have to feel it out as we go along I think.

BZ: 950 is such an insane number, yet we still have scenarios where a major film like Martin Scorsese's Silence did not get screened for awards consideration in Seattle. What are you expecting might change?

MW: Selfishly, we would love for studios to want Seattle to see their prestige films before the end of a calendar year. As we become more credible and established, I hope that comes along. Silence was just shown to critics here the first week of January and I think, had we had the chance to see it, it would have popped up in some categories based on the reaction it received as we exited the theater.  

Being able to have access like some of the bigger markets would be nice. Seattle is notorious for having some tough embargoes, so perhaps that can be alleviated a bit more. But it's all about establishing a presence and a voice and working throughout the year with studios and publicists to show your organization does not exist strictly to give out awards. Credibility and hard work really goes a long way.

Speaking of the awards themselves, when it comes to categories, I know you and I have disagreed on where certain performances fit in the Lead vs Supporting debate. A couple years ago when you were doing awards via your website, by polling local critics, I was a pain. I think I was also right, but definitely a pain, by insisting on putting Daniel Brühl as a Lead for Rush. The studios campaigned him as Supporting. How do you deal with the age-old question of what can be nominated and where?

Brian, you are never a pain! However, your example of Daniel Bruhl brings up lots of thoughts that Nathaniel has discussed frequently at The Film Experience; namely, "category fraud."

The name I hear this year is Viola Davis for Fences, and we are a year removed from the Alicia Vikander debate for both The Danish Girl and Ex Machina. There is no right answer because these decisions are beyond anything we have control over. Until some standard is implemented, saying that perhaps a certain percentage of screen time defines someone as supporting or as a lead, we will always have this debate. I am not advocating for that provision necessarily, I just am aware that the conversation is out there. 

With that said, we have adopted a "nominate anywhere" clause for acting performances, but defer to the FYC campaigns if, for example, Davis or Vikander, earned enough of a vote to land in both Supporting and Lead for a performance. I don't think an Awards Chair should have to make that decision, and so our rule is, in the case of discrepancy, defer to the studio. 

How do you feel about the nominees and possible winners Seattle selected and what, if anything, does it hint at about how the same films get nominated across the country, yet people never seem happy with what gets recognized? 

Far be it from me to go against the wills and wants of a city, but my sense is that Seattle marches a little bit to the beat of its own drummer, which is kind of cool. This year, we threw some curveballs out there with one largely unexpected nomination in each main acting category. Logan Lerman and Indignation got a lot of support for Lead Actor, but we also nominated Kyle Chandler in Manchester By The Sea, which I have to admit caught lots of us off guard when votes were counted.  

We had some really surprising and wonderful social media reaction when our nominations came out a couple weeks ago. Someone very kindly tweeted that Seattle had the best nominations of any critics group this season. That was humbling and greatly appreciated. 

I guess there is always a push for the frontrunners each year and the good and great always seems to bubble to the top. But, thus far, you can count on Seattle to at least potentially nominate some work that deserves to be in the conversation, but has seemingly been overlooked. And I hope we never lose that passion for the work we truly believe in. 

Time will tell, right?



Nominees: 13th, Arrival, Elle, The Handmaiden, Hell or High Water, Jackie, La La Land, Manchester by the Sea, Moonlight, The Witch

BEST DIRECTOR: Barry Jenkins, Moonlight

Nominees: Damien Chazelle - La La Land, Robert Eggers - The Witch, Paul Verhoeven - Elle, Denis Villeneuve - Arrival

BEST ACTOR: Casey Affleck, Manchester By The Sea

Nominees: Ryan Gosling - La La Land, Logan Lerman - Indignation, Viggo Mortensen - Captain Fantastic, Denzel Washington - Fences

BEST ACTRESS: Isabelle Huppert, Elle

Nominees: Amy Adams - Arrival, Kate Beckinsale - Love & Friendship, Natalie Portman - Jackie, Emma Stone - La La Land

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Mahershala Ali, Moonlight

Nominees: Jeff Bridges - Hell or High Water, Kyle Chandler - Manchester by the Sea, John Goodman - 10 Cloverfield Lane, Lucas Hedges - Manchester by the Sea


Nominees: Lily Gladstone - Certain Women, Naomie Harris - Moonlight, Kate McKinnon - Ghostbusters, Michelle Williams - Manchester by the Sea


Nominees: Captain Fantastic, Hell or High Water, Fences, Manchester by the Sea

BEST SCREENPLAY: Moonlight – Barry Jenkins, Tarell McCraney

Nominees: Arrival, Hell or High Water, La La Land, Manchester by the Sea

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE: Zootopia – Byron Howard and Rich Moore, directors; Jared Bush, co-director.

Nominees: Finding Dory, Kubo and the Two Strings, Moana, Tower

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM: Elle – Paul Verhoeven, director

Nominees: The Handmaiden, The Innocents, Under the Shadow, The Wailing

BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE: O.J.: Made In America – Ezra Edelman, director

Nominees: 13th, Cameraperson, Tickled, Weiner

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY: Arrival ­– Bradford Young

Nominees: Jackie, La La Land, Moonlight, The Witch

BEST COSTUME DESIGN: The Handmaiden – Cho Sang-kyung

Nominees: Jackie, La La Land, Love & Friendship, The Witch

BEST FILM EDITING: Moonlight - Nat Sanders, Joi McMillon

Nominees: Arrival, Cameraperson, Hell or High Water, La La Land

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE: Arrival - Jóhann Jóhannsson

Nominees: Jackie, La La Land, Moonlight, Swiss Army Man

BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN: The Handmaiden – Ryu Seong-hee

Nominees: Arrival, Jackie, La La Land, Rogue One

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS: [TIE]  Arrival & Doctor Strange 

Nominees: Captain America: Civil War, The Jungle Book, Rogue One

BEST YOUTH PERFORMANCE: Anya Taylor-Joy, The Witch

Nominees: Alex Hibbert - Moonlight, Royalty Hightower - The Fits, Sunny Pawar - Lion, Harvey Scrimshaw - The Witch

BEST VILLAIN: Howard Stambler (portrayed by John Goodman) - 10 Cloverfield Lane

Nominees: Darcy Bank (Patrick Stewart) - Green Room, Black Phillip (Charlie & Wahab Chaudary) - The Witch, Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) - Rogue One, Norman Nordstrom (Stephen Lang) - Don't Breathe


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Reader Comments (21)

Thx for the insightful n interesting interview.

Great list! Both the nominees n the winners

Am hapi for Huppert, really prayin both she n Bening will get in

January 5, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterClaran

I guess I'm alone actually believing Viola Davis to be supporting in Fences! I don't think it's category fraud at all. If she's lead, then I guess so is Jovan Adepo? Is that how everyone views it?

January 6, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterRoger

Oh! And I loved a lot of what Seattle awarded, mainly Moonlight and Isabelle Huppert (Elle In general)

January 6, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterRoger

How I usually define a ("best") supporting role: if you removed all of the character's scenes without the lead(s) in them, would the film/play still make sense? If so, it's probably supporting. Now, if you would be very unhappy removing them, that's what makes a great supporting role and/or a great supporting performance.

In the case of Fences, all of Rose's scenes are essential, even the ones without Troy. The only difference between her role and his is that he has a few more scenes than she does. And he talks a lot more, which makes him seem like the sun around which the other planets resolve.

January 6, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw


But Fences is essentially a chamber piece anyway, which confuses these kinds of categorizations.

January 6, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

Paul -- i think that's a fairly good way to define it (with a few exceptions but every rule has them). I think it's absurd in general to view any marital or romantic dramas as having only one lead (er... did they marry themselves?) but that's just me.

You can remove or composite any other character from FENCES and still have essentially the same story and meaning but not Rose & Troy. Their long compromised life together is the subject. the tragedy is in how she learned to live with what life dealt her but he couldn't live with what life dealt him, destroying even the good things it gave him.

January 6, 2017 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Nathaniel - I just don't really see it as a marital drama? It's seems totally focused on Troy's life: his past, present, future, and legacy on his family. Everyone is talking to or about Troy. Rose has a couple big scenes, but just goes in and out of the others. Maybe I'm blinded by Troy's enormous personality.

Truthfully, so much of my viewing experience was plagued by scrutinizing Viola's category placement! LOL

January 6, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterRoger

OMG they nominate Kate McKinnon for Ghostbusters YAS

January 6, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterCraver

OMG they nominate Kate McKinnon for Ghostbusters YAS

January 6, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterCraver

Leaving the decision to the studio re: category fraud is a cop out. It's the studios who perpetuate this sort of manipulation. I do not applaud or respect that decision. Unless and until critics groups and film festivals actually step up and set some standards they are part of the problem.

I would simply add that this cowardice is especially galling and silly since there is so little risk to them laying down some ground rules. Films are still going to be available for screening, PR managers are so eager to get exposure for their clients that Awards groups risk nothing.
Nothing !
If they took some steps to end category fraud they would undoubtedly earn way more respect & praise.

I'm left feeling slightly underwhelmed by this list. So many of these lists are carbon copies of each other. Even with the inclusion of Kate McKinnion's nomination this list is conventional.
So many awards to the very same movies just makes the whole exercise tiresome, and a case of "too much to too few".

January 6, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterLadyEdith

Category fraud benefits too many to ever be a thing that needs correcting. I think about the supporting actress smack downs from the past where many were left confused by performances with very little screen time and left almost no impression. The closest we've had to a nomination such as that is Jackie Weaver's sophomore nod. When semi leads eat into the lineup actors with name recognition get to inflate their Oscar records. And it removes a bit of the transient stigma the supporting categories have for one off award season wonders.

January 6, 2017 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

I don't think she commited "category fraud" or at least far from the degree that some people did last year (Mara and Vikander were shameful cases) or even this year (Patel, Grant). It's not a marital drama, it's 100% about Troy's journey with Rose playing an important part in it. Although like Arquette in Boyhood or Winslet in Steve Jobs, she could be seen as a leading character, supporting is not something far-fetched. Rose's character in the story exists in connection to Troy, unlike, say, Aibileen in The Help, who, despite probably less screentime (though I don't think so), had way more impact and kept the ensemble together. I'd say go for the win, Viola, you earned it. And in such a crazy competitive year, I'm not sure she would have won. I truly believe that juicy, 100% leading part is in Viola's future (and possibly a second Oscar as well).

January 6, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterdinasztie

Great interview. Hoping to get involved with the Seattle Film Critics Society once enrollment opens.

January 6, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterChris K

I just left there. Great town.

January 6, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

Considering the fact that a) we never see Troy's baby mama onscreen (i.e., no scenes to flesh out that relationship or to take focus from Rose), b) Rose is the one left standing at the end of the movie, not Troy, and c) she is the one connected to all three of Troy's children (even the ones she didn't bear), there's certainly an argument to made that Rose is even more the lead of the film than Troy. Just because a character is supportive (and female) doesn't mean the role is supporting.

January 6, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

Mini Militia

February 19, 2017 | Unregistered Commentermini militia

After spending some time reading your article on Smart Video, I got to say you, hello, Brian Zitzelman! I think it’ll save me serious time doing the research for one of the resources for our community as well as the website, Drillly

December 15, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterWillie Osgood

Hello, I think your efforts to offer us this article deserve more than mere thanks or verbose appreciation.

April 23, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterTommy Davis

I am so much pleased to read your article. I just love this post. Here all information seems to be very resourceful and knowledgeable for everyone.

April 25, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterValerie Jordan

Love this post. All information is resourceful for everyone.
Thank You

April 27, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterSam Dozon

Incredible meeting. Planning to engage with the Seattle Film Critics Society once enlistment opens.

July 31, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJenny Molin

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