The National Board of Review of Motion Pictures was founded in 1909 in New York City, 14 years after the birth of cinema, to protest New York City Mayor George B. McClellan Jr.'s revocation of moving-picture exhibition licenses on Christmas Eve 1908. The mayor (son of Civil War general George B. McClellan) believed that the new medium degraded the morals of the community. To assert their constitutional freedom of expression, theatre owners led by Marcus Loew and film distributors (Edison, Biograph, Pathé and Gaumont) joined John Collier of the People's Institute at Cooper Union and established the New York Board of Motion Picture Censorship, which soon changed its name to the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures to avoid the word "censorship".
Its stated purpose was to endorse films of merit and champion the new "art of the people", which was transforming America's cultural life. In an effort to avoid government censorship of films, the National Board became the unofficial clearinghouse for new movies. From 1916 into the 1950s thousands of motion pictures carried the legend "Passed by the National Board of Review" in their main titles. The board was a de facto censorship organization. Producers submitted their films to the board before making release prints; they agreed to cut any footage that the board found objectionable, up to and including destroying the entire film.
In 1930, the NBR was the first group to choose the 10 best English-language movies of the year and the best foreign films, and is still the first critical body to announce its annual awards. The NBR has also gained international acclaim for its publications: Film Program (1917–1926); Exceptional Photoplays (1920–1925); Photoplay Guide to Better Movies (1924–1926); National Board of Review Magazine (1926–1942); New Movies (1942–1949); and Films in Review, which published its first issue in 1950. Influencing generations of filmmakers and film lovers, these journals have fostered commentary on all aspects of cinema production and history, and contributors have included Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, Harold Robbins, Tennessee Williams, Dore Schary, William Saroyan, James Agee, Manny Farber, William K. Everson, Alistair Cooke, and Pearl Buck.
To determine the NBR's annual awards, ballots are sent in by over 100 members – select knowledgeable film enthusiasts, academics, and filmmakers in the New York metropolitan area – and subsequently tabulated by a certified public accountancy firm in order to decide the winners. In addition, the awards jury helps to determine the special achievement awards presented at the annual gala in January.
The organization also works to foster commentary on all aspects of film production by underwriting educational film programs and seminars for film students. In 2017, the NBR provided grants to The Reel Works Teen Filmmaking, The Ghetto Film School, and The Educational Video Center. The organization also awarded grants to 13 student filmmakers as part of its annual student grant program.
The boards's official magazine had existed in several forms and different names since its inception. In 1950, the magazine changed its name from Screen Magazine and launched the first issue as Films in Review on February 1, 1950.
Note: Until 1945, there were only awards for Best Picture and intermittent awards for Best Documentary and Best Foreign Film.