Kohn lives in Brooklyn, and there is a strong kinship between the Locarno and New York Film Festivals, so it was natural for him to bring the idea to New York City. The first New York Academy ran in September 2012, just a month after the Locarno version.
The second New York Critics Academy finished its run this October. A hundred applicants—twice as many as last year—were whittled down to just eight. They are an eclectic bunch, interested in everything from Gainsborough melodramas and New Hollywood to Polish cinema and Satyajit Ray. But they do have one thing in common: a strong point of view. The ideal candidate for the Critics Academy, Kohn said, is “somebody who is not just movie obsessed, but movie obsessed with a mission and with a voice.”
As in Locarno, participants divide their time between screenings and workshops. Guests include critics from Time Out, The New Yorker, and The Awl. Discussions are off the record. “What they’re going to get out of it really depends on how willing they are to invest themselves in those conversations,” said Eugene Hernandez, the director of digital strategy at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. (A founder of Indiewire, he collaborated with Kohn on the Locarno academy.) These candid talks help young critics understand the demands of the profession: who they should be pitching to; how to formulate an idea about films they are passionate about; and how to track stories based on when specific movies appear in the marketplace.
This year’s class is entering a field already clamoring with amateur voices. In the age of the internet, every blogger with a film ticket can be a critic. But Kohn believes critics remain essential “cultural gatekeepers,” helping audiences sort through the deluge of celluloid. “If you’re really passionate about this medium, there’s absolutely a way for you to figure out what the demands of media are right now, and superimpose your way of doing it onto that model.”
The Film Society at Lincoln Center and the Swiss Association of Film Journalists certainly agree. Both the Locarno and New York Critics Academies will continue next year, and Indiewire is collaborating with the Sundance Institute to launch a similar program at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2014.
In the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, at Lincoln Center, in a green room that is in fact gray, half a dozen aspiring critics were perched on sofas and stools, discussing the audience turnout for screenings of Cannes-favorite Blue Is the Warmest Color. The walls were adorned with chic black-and-white portraits of actors and directors—Ang Lee and Michael Fassbender among them—each autographed with a flourish, in black ink. Most of the official festival portraits were taken in this room. It’s also where Kohn and members of the New York Critics Academy met in mid-October for one of their last roundtable sessions.
The festival was ending the following night with a screening of Spike Jonze’s Her, and the critics were taking stock of their time in the Academy. Judith Dry, a 26-year-old Brooklynite with an interest in Queer cinema and music documentaries, was struck by the importance of advocacy, and “the idea that my voice is being listened to and people care about what I have to say.” She watched Fifi Howls From Happiness, a documentary about reclusive Iranian artist Bahman Mohasses, and was so impressed that she immediately felt a responsibility to write about it for the many who wouldn’t get a chance to see it.
Vanessa Erazo, 34, specializes in Latino films and appreciated the insider’s look she had been given of the industry. “I think [the Critics Academy] provided what [Kohn] set out to do in that it provided a realistic picture of what’s going on right now,” she said. The prospects for budding critics no longer seemed so dire, and she was much more pragmatic about them. “It’s just a changing world and you need to find your own place in it.” Mark Lukenbill, 21, a senior at New York University, agreed. Although staff positions for critics are now few and far between, “you can carve out a personality and niche for yourself and if people are interested [they’ll follow],” he said.
When young film buffs think of the golden age of American film criticism, they usually imagine the late Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris, effortlessly exchanging barbs and bon mots in a smoky New York bar. Kohn once mentioned this idea to Sarris and his wife, film scholar Molly Haskell—they laughed. No, they said, we went through the same daily grind critics do now, except we had typewriters, not keyboards.