National Board of Review Chief Responds to Claims of Favoritism and Murky Membership

Annie Schulhof - H 2015
Jim Spellman/WireImage

The 106-year-old National Board of Review will present its 87th annual awards on Tuesday at a lavish, star-studded gala at Manhattan's Cipriani 42nd Street. Topping the list of this year's winners are best film Mad Max: Fury Road, best actor Matt Damon of The Martian and best actress Brie Larson of Room. Willie Geist will serve as host for the second year in a row, and many of the industry's biggest names will be in attendance.

But at the same time, many inside and outside of the ceremony will also be questioning the legitimacy of the gathering. The NBR and its voting procedures have long been shrouded in mystery. And some industry insiders as well as several defectors from the group have alleged that its vote is manipulated to reward certain distributors over others and friends of some of the group's most powerful members.

In her first in-depth interview, Annie Schulhof, who has served as NBR president since 2005, spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about those claims as well as the changes she has instituted at the NBR. The group describes themselves as "film enthusiasts," based in and around New York City. Says Schulhof, "We are not critics, we are not the Academy, we are not the Golden Globes, we are not the guilds; we're the people who go to the movies. This is our take."

By virtue of its important-sounding name and the fact that it traditionally announces its awards in early December, before other groups begin to weigh in, the NBR's pronouncements are always guaranteed a day's worth of headlines. Like the newer but similarly opaque Hollywood Film Awards, recognition from the NBR can help jump-start an Oscar campaign — at least that's been the thinking since 1934. That's when the group, at its sixth ceremony, the third at which it voted to determine a ranked list of the year's top 10 films, tapped It Happened One Night as the best film of the year. When, against all odds, that screwball comedy went on to sweep the Oscars, the NBR began to look like a strong bellwether. "We were considered brave and bold at that time," Schulhof emphasizes.

There has always been a question, though, about who exactly votes for the NBR Awards. Some of the group's members are highly distinguished — among them is Wesleyan University film chief and AFI trustee Jeanine Basinger — but others have few credentials at all. A few have been members since as far back as the 1960s; many joined only recently. And, as members of the "Screening Group," all are invited to attend hundreds of free screenings throughout the year — many followed by Q&As with talent — and to vote at the end of the year on the NBR Awards' "major" categories, such as best film and best actress.

According to Schulhof, the group currently has some 130 members, 85 of whom are "young professionals." "These are the future filmmakers," she says. However, publicists who deal regularly with the group question those figures, suggesting it's a much smaller club of wealthy friends, based on the fact that the group requests screenings — to which members are invited to bring a guest — in rooms that seat fewer than 100. It's impossible to know exactly who constitutes the voting pool, because the NBR — like the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences — declines to name all its members. "We're a private organization," says Schulhof. "I don't want to publicly disclose the names of the members because I want to dissuade outside attempts to influence them."

Schulhof, who is in her 60s, runs the organization out of an office suite on 37th Street, near the Empire State Building, with the support of two staff members and a 14-person board of directors. After studying at Mills College of Education and NYU, where she got a master's degree, she began volunteering as an advocate for kids in foster care through CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates), which brought her into the courtroom of Judge Judy Sheindlin on more than one occasion. Back around 2000, she was invited to join the NBR. "I was brought in by one of the board members," she says. "She was a friend of a friend of mine. My friend had told her what a film nut I was, and she thought it might be an organization that I might enjoy and that they might enjoy having me on the board." Since 2005, she has devoted herself full-time to the group, from which she does not draw a salary. "I am lucky enough that my husband supports both me and my dog," she says with a laugh.

Like most of her organization's members, Schulhof has no formal education or professional experience connected to film. "It's always been a passion of mine," she shares, noting that her father took her to the movies every weekend when she was a kid. "In addition to my family, animals and the environment, I love cinema."

Most critics of the NBR don't question the winners that it selects — many of which have been excellent, such as 1950's Sunset Blvd. and 2015's Mad Max: Fury Road — but rather the way in which those winners are selected. Schulhof says that she has made it her mission since she became NBR president to make sure the organization is beyond reproach. "I knew there were going to have to be some changes and some shifts," she acknowledges, "and not everybody was happy with that." She continues, "Remember, this is an organization that's over 100 years old — it's steeped in certain traditions — and when I became president I didn't want to come in with a wrecking ball; I had to sort of get my feet wet and see how it all worked and see how the board and I could make the organization stronger, vital and more current."

One of her first orders of business was to re-evaluate the membership rolls. "When I took over, the Screening Group left something to be desired," she says. "There were people who were coming to just the 20 big films, and that, to me, was an issue. If you are going to be a voting body, you need to have people see films. That goes to the integrity of who we are and to the choices that we make as a voting body. So the Screening Group had to get cleaned up very quickly, and as I was cleaning up the Screening Group I then started to see what would work." She began recruiting younger members and sought to cater to their needs: "I was the one that pushed forward expanding the Q&As after we screen a film because the group has so many young filmmakers."

Schulhof also points to another change she made regarding the way the NBR picks its award winners. For years, there were two classes of NBR members: "The Screening Group were the people who paid dues to keep Films of Review, the arts magazine, current; and then there was a group of people that was called the Exceptional Photoplay Committee, and they were the people who voted on the awards." In effect, only a small segment of the NBR's overall membership determined the winners of its awards. "That was part of the heritage of the National Board of Review," she grants, but she decided that needed to change. So, she says, in 2006 she "disbanded" the Exceptional Photoplay Committee.

Some individuals who have left the group in recent years, however, say that the EPC continued beyond 2006, and even though an alternative approach may eventually have been implemented, they question whether things have really changed. Under the new system, Schulhof says, "The top awards are voted on by everybody in the group" — members fax or email their ballots to Lutz and Carr, an accounting firm she retained when she took office — but "the special awards," which she declines to identify, are chosen by the Awards Jury, a group of "over 10" people. Schulhof insists that unlike the old Exceptional Photoplay Committee, the Awards Jury is not an entity unto itself, but rather follows the lead of the Screening Group: "The Screening Group puts the awards jury in a place where they are looking for certain special awards. The [Awards Jury] has to be supportive of these films. We can't go willy-nilly and just start picking films."

But despite Schulhof's reassurances, there are industry insiders who still doubt that every member's vote counts evenly toward the major awards, and some believe it picks its winners on the basis of considerations other than merit.

Critics of the NBR have alleged that the films of certain distributors — with whom friends of Schulhof are associated — have received preferential treatment from the group. For example, according to these individuals, Schulhof's personal friendship with David Fenkel, a marketing/distribution vet who co-founded A24, has led to that company's particularly strong performance with the NBR, including 2014 wins by A Most Violent Year for best film, best actor and best supporting actress prizes (the Academy subsequently snubbed the film entirely) and accolades for virtually every other film on the A24 slate, as well, including Obvious Child, Locke and Under the Skin. (This year A24 received prizes for Room stars Larson and Jacob Tremblay as best actress and best breakthrough actor, respectively.) "That insults the films and the filmmakers," Schulhof counters. "We don't look at A24, Warner Bros. or Paramount. We are given a film slate from each particular studio or distributor. If there are some years that some studios have a stronger film slate, so be it."

Some also suggest that the group rewards friends of other key members. For instance, Clint Eastwood, who has a close relationship with Basinger and who has donated his papers to Wesleyan, has done disproportionately well at the NBR Awards, receiving accolades not only for his films that most other awards groups also embraced, but also for films that virtually no other awards groups honored. (For example, he won the NBR's best actor award for 2008's Gran Torino and best director for 2009's Invictus.) Schulhof responds, "I can categorically say [that Basinger is not giving him special treatment] because everybody has one vote and so nobody can sort of swing these awards." An NBR insider says that it is unlikely that Basinger, who rarely attends NBR gatherings, garnered special treatment for Eastwood, but the insider suggests that Warner Bros., which has distributed most of Eastwood's movies, has received a disproportionate number of prizes and that Dan Fellman, the studio's former head of domestic distribution, is a longtime friend of Schulhof's.

Others suggest that the NBR deliberately spreads its awards around to a wide cross-section of films so that it can sell expensive tables at its awards ceremony to as many distributors as possible. "That is far from true," Schulhof responds. "You'll see this year that there are certain studios that are not represented at all."

Some have further suggested that certain NBR Awards are given only after assurances are received that big-name talent will attend the ceremony to present or receive them. And they also say that the quality of "table giveaways" that a distributor promises to deliver — the tchotchkes distributed on each table at the awards ceremony — are a consideration in determining the awards. Schulhof dismisses the first charge as unfounded. "You can look," she says. "Last year Fury [which was awarded best ensemble] had some great actors in it and none of the actors came. It was accepted by John Lesher, who was the producer of the film." And she laughs at the second claim as absurd.

While fending off such criticism, Schulhof and her family have also come under attack from James Janowsky, who served as the NBR's creative director from 2005 through 2012 — when he resigned after winning the lottery. Since his resignation, he has railed against the organization generally and Schulhof in particular, frequently posting ad hominem rants about her and the organization on his social media platforms. Janowsky has claimed that NBR members refuse to confront Schulhof because "they know she will build a BS case against them and they will lose their membership." Another NBR insider backs up that charge, noting that virtually all of the NBR's staff left or was forced to leave between 2006 and 2012.

Schulhof dismisses Janowski's claim. She adds, "Sadly, there are people who have worked for the NBR who have not left under the best of circumstances and, as a result, harbor a grudge, whereas the NBR does not."