Everybody's a critic.
No matter which Sarasota Film Festival movies you see this year, you'll likely have your favorites and your stinkers. But other than recommendations to friends, not much will be riding on your opinion.
There are nine viewers, however, whose judgment could nudge a film toward fame or let it languish in obscurity. They are the members of three jury panels that will select the best pictures of the 2012 festival.
Of course, even for jurors, "best" is a subjective term.
"The winners are the result of compromise," says Thelma Adams, contributing editor at Yahoo! Movies and a member of this year's documentary panel. "In any film competition, including the Oscars, that's the case. In any given year, someone on the jury is happy and someone else is unhappy."
This year's festival has three jurors assigned to each of three film categories — narrative features, documentary features and "Independent Visions," which recognizes low-budget American films and emerging artists. All have primary jobs as film critics and/or editors and most are called upon to judge a festival once or twice a year.
The process is fairly simple. Generally the jurors — who in this case are each evaluating eight to 10 films in their designated category — screen a number of the entries at home on DVD before arriving for the final weekend of the festival. What they are looking for is "a film that justifies itself," says John Anderson, a critic for Variety and Newsday.
"Whether it's a documentary or fiction, you want to be absorbed in the story it's telling you," he says. "Everyone wants to be a filmmaker, but it's the rare filmmaker who really knows how to tell a story visually."
Their evaluation is based on quality, narrative arc and visual storytelling, not on commercial viability, the needs of the film or filmmaker or even, except in rare circumstances, a single standout performance, he says.
Once the jurors convene in Sarasota, they will attend the remaining films in the theater with the others on their panel. Ultimately, the jurors are sequestered in a room and the winnowing begins. Sometimes that's by ballot, sometimes by everyone naming their top choices.
"You want to get an idea right away of where everybody stands so you won't have to argue every film," says John Anderson, a critic for Variety and Newsday. "You say, 'This one's off the table,' or 'These are the real contenders.'"
Sometimes choosing a winner can be remarkably simple.
"I was on a panel in the Hamptons a couple years ago and it was a 30-second deliberation, because we were all on the same page," says Anderson. "But it doesn't always work that way." More often there is "a lot of pull and tug," says Adams. Since men and women tend to have distinctly different preferences and since the male/female balance on juries reflects the same male gender bias as the film industry overall, that can also lead to contention.
"It's always the case," says Adams of the gender imbalance. "And yes, it has an impact on what gets picked."
She recalls an instance at the Tribeca Film Festival when the discussion became "really heated."
"I'm generally a 'getting-to-yes' person," she says, "but after a certain point it's 'I want to get out of this room and how do I make that happen with the most grace.'"
Sometimes, if a particularly obstinate juror holds out, the others will agree to give an "honorable mention" to a second film. Ultimately, that is what happened for Adams at Tribeca.
"They went with a more experimental film that I certainly didn't support, but they threw me a bone and gave a special mention," Adams recalls. "That is not uncommon."
Anderson, however, is opposed to such compromises.
"I think it dilutes the weight of the award," he says.
Keith Uhlich, the staff film critic at Time Out New York and a member of this year's Independent Visions panel, says he is more forgiving as a juror than he is in his day job.
"As a critic, I tend to look at things as a whole package more, partly as a result of the length of my reviews," he says. "I'm looking to make a yes or no recommendation. As a juror, I'm looking more intently for elements that might be worthy of calling attention to, certain aspects."
Uhlich says he sees an average of four movies a week, Adams, who is no longer reviewing daily, somewhat fewer. But Anderson says he views about 400 a year and three in one day is not at all unusual. The vast majority are, he says, "just mediocre."
"The unfortunate truth is that very few movies get any better after the first five minutes," he says. "So if you're on a jury and looking at your watch after the first five minutes, you know you're in trouble."
That's not the case in Sarasota, he quickly adds. Having already screened five of the eight narrative feature entries before arriving in Sarasota, Anderson admitted to having already chosen a favorite he was judging the others against.
"That's what happens," he says. "But I think the level of the competition in Sarasota is far better than what I've seen at other festivals. It's not going to be easy."