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updated: 11/10/2017 11:39 AM

Critics groups used 'the Chicago way' to deal with Disney

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  • When 20th Century Fox banned Chicago film critics Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel from press screenings in 1990, Chicago Film Critics Association President Sue Kiner and Vice President Dann Gire spearheaded a protest that forced the studio to back down.

    When 20th Century Fox banned Chicago film critics Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel from press screenings in 1990, Chicago Film Critics Association President Sue Kiner and Vice President Dann Gire spearheaded a protest that forced the studio to back down.

 
 

Film critic uprisings aren't all that common, so when they do happen, people tend to pay attention.

Maybe you've already heard how 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 earlier this week disqualified all Disney movies from their year-end excellence awards.

They did this in response to the studio banning L.A. Times critics and editors from press screenings of Disney movies, an overt act of retribution for the newspaper's unflattering reports on Disney's business dealings with the city of Anaheim. The report was titled "Anaheim's Subsidy Kingdom."

The symbolic protest gained traction. The Toronto Film Critics signed on in support. So did the New York Times.

Locally, the Chicago Film Critics Association, by an avalanche vote, opted to support the awards boycott, citing how Disney's transparent bully tactics attempted to intimidate and manipulate the news media.

Then, just before Chicago critics released their official statement of support, Disney caved. Threw in the towel. Waved the white flag. Tucked its tail in. Retreated. Ran for cover.

A crisis had been averted.

Not that critics couldn't see movies at press screenings, but that a powerful entertainment corporation thought it could bully an American newspaper into submission.

You might think that Disney executives would have carefully considered political blowback before banning L.A.'s scrappy critics.

The Mouse House suits clearly didn't remember what happened to 20th Century Fox the time it tried to ban critics in Chicago.

Read on.

Ebert & Siskel banned, critics band together

In 1990, Variety published a report with the headline: CHI CRIX NIX FOX PIX. Here's the story.

After legendary Chicago movie critics Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel poked fun at 20th Century Fox's release "Nuns on the Run" during a guest stint on "The Tonight Show," the studio's punitive marketing department president Bob Harper declared the critics would no longer be invited to Fox press screenings.

Chicago Film Critics Association founder Sue Kiner called for a moratorium on reviews for Fox movies, citing the actions against the critics are "counter to the spirit of timely and unbridled critical discussion."

WGN radio icon Roy Leonard, right, spoke out against 20th Century Fox's attempt to ban Roger Ebert, left, and his partner Gene Siskel from studio press screenings in 1990.
WGN radio icon Roy Leonard, right, spoke out against 20th Century Fox's attempt to ban Roger Ebert, left, and his partner Gene Siskel from studio press screenings in 1990. -

WGN icon and founding CFCA board member Roy Leonard told Variety: "When they go after two people, in a sense, they're going after all of us. We want everyone in the industry to know that we all feel, as a group, that 20th Century Fox's actions were really childish and unprofessional."

So, the CFCA announced a boycott of Fox movie reviews for as long as the studio's ban lasted. Among those on board were Leonard, Chicago Tribune critic Johanna Steinmetz, WBBM's Sherman Kaplan, WGN's Nick Digilio, Pioneer Press critic Virginia Gerst and me.

Now backed by his fellow Chicago critics, Ebert boldly predicted that the Fox ban would fall before the studio released its next movie.

He called it correctly.

Variety reported on the boycott: "Both Siskel and Ebert expressed appreciation for their fellow critics' show of support, which Ebert described as 'very gratifying and touching.' Siskel added that it made him proud to be a Chicagoan because he did not believe this could have happened in any other city."

And it didn't. Not for the next 27 years anyway.

Film critics from L.A., New York, Boston and the National Society made history this week with their show of solidarity in the face of ever-increasing pressure by studios to turn the press -- especially entertainment journalists -- into PR cogs for their corporate machinery.

As Sean Connery in "The Untouchables" might advise: When Disney bans your critics, you withhold awards. When Disney sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of theirs to the morgue. (Newspapers all have morgues, you know.) That's the Chicago way.

And that's how you stop Disney.

Those other critics' groups just caught on.

Dann Gire's Reel Life column appears in Friday's Time out! Follow him on Twitter at @DannGireDHfilm.

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