It’s always illuminating to hear from various smart folks around the web and I feel grateful that they indulge my needling questions week after week; after all, it isn’t like any of the have any time to spare. I figure, the more intelligence we can bring to the table the better. This week we’re pondering the Governors Awards, the bad economy on the Oscar race and getting a sneak peek into what might make a few of our contributors’ top ten lists.
The participants (in random order):
Susan Wloszczyna, USA Today
Craig Kennedy, Living in Cinema
Damien Bona, Inside Oscar
Ryan Adams, Awards Daily
Pete Howell, The Toronto Star
Scott Foundas, Film Comment
(and newly appointed Associate Programmer, The Film Society of Lincoln Center)
Kristopher Tapley, In Contention
Anne Thompson, Thompson on Hollywood at Indiewire
Steve Pond, The Odds at The Wrap
Nathaniel Rogers, The Film Experience
Edward Douglas, Oscar Warrior at Coming Soon
Gregory Ellwood, Hitfix
Tom O’Neil, The Envelope
Scott Feinberg, And the Winner Is…
1. The Governors Awards are over. We’re now looking at an Oscars broadcast without them. How big of a mistake do you think this was, or do you think it is a good idea and that it will streamline a bloated telecast? On the other hand, The Oscars are now competing with shows like American Idol and Dancing with the Stars. Is this the first sign of the “dumb and dumber” Oscars soon to come?
Wloszczyna: It is always going to be a dilemma for this show, which at least attempts to maintain some standards and retain its value as a serious honor. Do you go for entertainment? Obviously, seeing clips of ridiculous rubber monsters and busty babes in Roger Corman films, marveling at the stunning dark and light images captured by Gordon Willis’ camera, and hearing a few good throaty chuckles delivered by Lauren Bacall would beat out listening to complete unknowns collect trophies for sound editing or short films while they thank their families. Or do you hold tight to the reason Oscar exists at all? To honor the best in the industry that year in a competitive contest?
Is it dumbing down or just the practicality of acknowledging that an entire generation of potential TV watchers don’t care about anything unless they can read it or watch it or type it in the palm of their hand? Dumbing down would be combining the Razzies and the Oscars into one show since that is how reality shows operate, wallowing in the awful and sifting through the drek to find real talent.
Kennedy: It depends on your definition of a “good idea.” It’ll make the show more palatable to those people who only pay attention to movies this one time of year and probably won’t tune in anyway unless Avatar gets nominated, but it cheapens the show and detaches it from the only thing that elevates it above the Golden Globes: the history and the connection to the industry. I’d rather see speeches from Lauren Bacall, Gordon Willis and Roger Corman over another musical number or even another poorly chosen foreign film or documentary winner. Nothing against songs, or foreign films or documentaries but let’s just admit the Academy is usually always horrible at picking them. They’re not equipped for it. Leave those awards to people who know what they’re talking about. The movie short-timers they need to appeal to for a big show will never miss them.
These are magical moments full of grace and feeling.
Bona: I think the Academy has made a terrible mistake by dumping dumping the Honorary Awards from the Oscar ceremony. First of all, these Awards have provided some of the most heartfelt and emotional pieces of Oscar history. Think of Barbara Stanwyck as she mentioned that her recently-deceased friend William Holden ‚Äì she was leading lady for his first starring role — had always dreamed that she would receive an Oscar, and, her eyes filling with tears, declaring, ‚ÄúAnd so tonight, my Golden Boy, you‚Äôve got your wish.‚Äù Or Gary Cooper‚Äôs not being on hand to receive his lifetime achievement award, and when his pal James Stewart accepted as his proxy and started crying, the world understood that Coop was mortally ill.
Jean Hersholt recipient Elizabeth Taylor acceptance speech was unparalleled in its eloquence and poignancy when she urged that we live up to our better ideals by showing compassion and love (as well as determination) in the fight against AIDS. Satyajit Ray was both heartrending and unexpectedly humorous when, dying and lying in bed, he cited his own love of films, mentioning that as a youth he had written fan letters to Deanna Durbin (who wrote back) and Ginger Rogers (who didn‚Äôt). And few Oscar moments were as inspiring as when Kirk Douglas, his once-dynamic voice slurred by a near fatal stroke, but showing the moxie and strength of his personality as he spoke of his pride in his sons.
There were also the memorably fun occasions, such as Laurence Olivier‚Äôs poetic, highly theatrical acceptance, which wowed everyone until the transcript was published and it was revealed to be actually just a lot of high-fallutin‚Äô gibberish.
Arguably the most charming acceptance speech ever ‚Äì Stanley Donen‚Äôs singing Irving Berlin‚Äôs ‚ÄúCheek to Cheek,‚Äù then acknowledging the key to his success: Citing some of the illustrious popular songwriters (Lerner and Lowe, Comden and Green), writers (Fredric Rahael) and performers (Astaire, Kelly, Audrey, Cary Grant) with whom he had worked, the filmmaker concluded, ‚ÄúAnd when filming starts, you show up and you stay the hell out of the way!‚Äù
These are magical moments full of grace and feeling. (Or, in the case of Rat Elia Kazan, pure High Drama.) How sad it would have been if only 300 people in a ballroom got to witness them (and many other such special occasions). Moreover, a film artist whose career was deemed distinguished enough to receive this special recognition, by definition, deserves to be in the spotlight ON Oscar night, ON the Kodak stage, and not treated like some recipient of the Septic Tank Salesman of the Year award at the annual Southern Arkansas Wastewater Professional dinner held in the back dining room at the Pine Bluff Motel
In addition, many (especially younger) people who are tuning in to the ceremony primarily to gaze upon what Angelina and Jennifer are wearing or to see if the year‚Äôs kick-ass fan boy favorite will get any awards, probably aren‚Äôt familiar with many of the Honorary recipients. Giving viewers an overview of their careers undoubtedly piques interest in these artists, and if someone at home is moved to take a look at the films of, say, Blake Edwards or Michelangelo Antonioni, then that is a good thing, and something the Academy should be encouraging. But taking away this aspect of the show, yes, the Academy is dumbing down the Oscar ceremony.
The Academy‚Äôs argument is that by doling out the Governors’ Awards separately, more individuals can be honored. That‚Äôs nonsense. In 1970, four such awards were presented, the Thalberg to Ingmar Bergman, the Hersholt to Frank Sinatra, and lifetime achievements to Lillian Gish and Orson Welles.
The Academy’s other main point amounts to “Hey, let’s put on a shorter show!” Well, we all know that the ceremony is always going to be long and unwieldy no matter what, but if the Academy wants to have a go at eliminating some presentations at the ceremony, it should start with the various Short Subject Awards. These are films no one is familiar with and about almost nobody beyond the nominees’ friends and families cares about. It would make much more sense for these movies to be honored at a separate event, where the nominated filmmakers would be the center of attention, and not ‚Äì as they are now ‚Äì akin to poor relations who crashed a formal affair. The Student Academy Awards are presented at their own get-together, not at the Oscar show and the same should go with the Shorts.
And while we‚Äôre at it, the Academy also needs to deep-six the goddamn Best Cartoon Award, which never should have been started in the first place. If an animated feature does come along that is so special that it cries out for Oscar recognition, fine — give it a special Oscar, as was done with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Fantasia. Most of the things nominated in this category shouldn‚Äôt be within 1000 miles of the Kodak ‚Äì talk about wasting precious time on Oscar night!
Howell: — I think the Oscars are getting better, not worst. The Academy is open to new idea. Some will work. Some won’t.
Let’s hope the process results in a better and shorter show.
Not Dancing with the Stars just yet, but headed that way.
Foundas: The absence of the honorary Oscars from the spring telecast will streamline the show for sure. It will also take something other than mere minutes of running time away from the ceremony. The Academy has always prided itself on honoring the best in current cinema while paying due homage to those who paved the way, in the form of clip reels, on-stage “group portraits” at key Oscar anniversaries, etc. The most meaningful of all these historical components has, of course, been the honorary Oscars themselves–and I think I’m hardly alone in thinking that some of those presentations (to Elia Kazan, Robert Altman and Peter O’Toole to name just three) have been among the most memorable Oscar moments of recent vintage. As I believe I suggested in the first round of this discussion, the decision to move the honorary awards “off campus,” as it were, strikes me as an entirely self-serving and financially motivated decision on the Academy’s behalf, no matter how they may try to spin it–not Dancing with the Stars just yet, but heading that way. At the same time, there is an obvious upside to the new arrangement: as can be seen in the clips from the Governors Awards available on the Academy’s website, the separate ceremony made it possible to accommodate longer, more eloquent tributes to the honorees than was ever possible when they were squeezed into the regular Oscarcast. But why are these web clips–as far as I know–the only way for non-Academy members to experience this ceremony? Did the Academy not try for a TV deal for the Governors Awards? Or is TV so ageist that no one was interested?
Tapley: I think it was a curious half measure in a sense. What I’ve been saying all along is that if you’re going to relegate the legends to a satellite ceremony, why not the same thing with the up-and-comers (i.e., the short films)? But this won’t happen, of course, because those in the short films branch would never stand for it, but it’s all a bit band-aided, in true Academy fashion. I think it will streamline the show to a point, but there are still the extra five Best Pic slots taking up space so I don’t know. I think it’s a nice way to drum up interest in the Oscars in the fall, however, as the press coverage was considerable.
Thompson: I love the TV-free Governor’s Awards, where Hollywood celebrates its own. The event was more fun, more relaxed, and the people involved got plenty of publicity. I hope it becomes part of the permanent awards calendar. The Academy Awards plan to use Tarantino and Almodovar as presenters in any case.
Pond: I don‚Äôt know that taking the honoraries out of the show was a mistake. It‚Äôs a calculation. Would you rather see Lauren Bacall, John Calley, Roger Corman and Gordon Willis get Oscars in November, or Willis get one by himself in March, with the others having to wait until next year for one more of them will be honored? The problem is, you can‚Äôt give our four honorary awards on the Oscar show without pushing it past four hours or taking some of the existing awards off the air. So you either get more generous with the honoraries and give them a separate ceremony, or you keep them on the show but limit them to one or at the most two per year. I‚Äôll reserve judgment until I see how they use Governors Awards footage on the Oscar show, but for now I‚Äôll tentatively call it an experiment worth taking.
As for ‚Äústreamlin[ing] a bloated telecast,‚Äù dream on. It‚Äôs bloated with or without the honoraries; that‚Äôs the nature of the Oscars.
To me, if the Academy or the Oscar producers really think they‚Äôre competing with American Idol and Dancing with the Stars, they‚Äôve already lost. Steve Martin is a good sign that they‚Äôre not trying to dumb down the show. Other signs are not so favorable. Again, I‚Äôm reserving judgment.
Rogers: I think denying the legendary older generation their due on Oscar night is really short-sighted. At the Q&A for NINE that I attended this week Daniel Day-Lewis raved about Sophia Loren’s “scale” as a star, that mythic stature. if you eliminate the older generation you eliminate the history of the movies. It’s a terrible move. When I was a kid I became interested in classic Hollywood in large part because of the Oscars. It’s sad that today’s kids won’t have that window into the past. I’m of the opinion that if you don’t care a whit about movies that existed before your time, you don’t really care about the movies. What you care about is pop culture. And, yes, you can get that elsewhere. If that’s all the night is about, why would the Oscars be important to anyone, really? I mean… anymore important than anything else? It seems that the Oscars have lost sight of why they’re an institution.
Douglas: I do believe that streamlining the telecast was a good idea, but I’m not sure we’re looking at getting “dumb and dumber.” The Oscar telecast has a LONG way to fall before it achieves American Idol dumbness.
Ellwood: I think it was long overdue and won’t make the big show itself any dumber (the wrong producers can do that without any help from the Academy). However, I do think the Academy is missing out on an opportunity to broadcast this event as its own TV show similar to the AFI salutes. If handled correctly and on the right network (AMC anyone?) this type of evening could really help shine the light on cinematic history. Of course, that may negatively influence the choice of honorees so they become too populist, but there is a chance here to expand the Academy historical efforts on a national basis. If they take it, of course.
O’Neil: Booting the honorary awards off the Oscars was a terrible idea. The Oscars are SUPPOSED to be the annual family reunion of the film industry, a high holy event at which they take time out to honor a beloved and accomplished elder — and we, as mere mortals watching on TV at home, get to peek in. There’s something thrilling about that. But the Oscars are so hungry for money (i.e., TV ratings) that they’re desperate to find time for more “entertainment” segments that usually bomb. Dumb, dumb, dumb and sad, sad, sad.
Feinberg: This year, the Academy is trying to balance its desire to preserve time-honored traditions with its need to appeal to a larger audience. Most people will be understanding and supportive of changes as long as they are handled tactfully. In this case? I think it’s terrific that there’s now a full evening for tributes to and speeches from the honorary Oscar recipients — certainly better than the short time that they have historically been afforded during the Oscar show before being rushed off the stage so that the spotlight can return to today’s stars. My one caveat is this: Shankman and Mechanic still need to include a brief but proper tribute to the recipients during the show, sans speeches. Have the president of the Academy come out, say his requisite welcome, and then introduce a special montage that begins with highlights of the recipients’ finest work and then transitions to highlights of their acceptance speech at the Governors Awards. Then, when the lights come up, have the audience look up to one of the boxes high above the stage (like where Sidney Poitier was cheering from when Denzel Washington won his Oscar) and let them get their lengthy standing ovation before cutting to commercial. I think that will keep the Academy, the recipients, and the majority of the audience happy.
2. How do you think the state of the economy has impacted the Oscar race this year?
Wloszczyna: Studios probably took fewer chances this year in what they produced and already anyone trying to compile a list of the year’s best or possible best picture candidates can see the effect of that. The substance is severely lacking. As far as campaigning, I don’t cover the marketing side of the biz but one would expect a cutback in lavish events and big media pushes to sell a film as a contender. Which, save for Precious, means the makers of smaller films will have to find smarter, cheaper ways to get the word out. Such as begging for coverage in emails to the press.
Kennedy: I think the era when a studio could mount lavish Oscar campaigns for a movie whose box office potential was limited is over. At least for now. I don’t think movies like No Country for Old Men or There Will Be Blood would get such a big push this year. At the same time, there seems to be an eerie quiet this year – like everyone is just waiting for someone to step up and start spending. Will they? If they do, will it convince more players to jump into the pool? Pocketbooks may have shrunk in Hollywood, but I doubt egos have and that could be the determining factor in the end. Then again, as the bean counting stooges take over, it’s less about ego and more about the bottom line. Is the reward of a winning campaign worth the risk and expense? I don’t think it is this year.
Bona: The economy is perhaps slightly better than it was last year during Oscar season, although back then there may have been a greater sense of optimism — it hadn’t occurred to many of us that the Republican in Congress wouldn’t actually want to be doing something to help the country’s financial situation, not when they could be spending time and effort trying to make Obama look bad. In any case, once again there‚Äôll be fewer parties during Oscar week than there were a mere two years ago, and those that are held won’t be as lavish. But money spent on viable Oscar campaigns will still be seen by the studios as strong positive investments, and the trade papers should make out well revenue-wise, especially since there’s double the number of nominees — why not shell out for a campaign for a picture that this year has potential to make the top ten whereas it would have been a longshot in a field of five?
Adams: Is the economic tightness really hitting the studios as hard as the rest of us? I know the accounting on individual films is complex, but for Paramount to cry they don’t have money to mount an Oscar campaign for Shutter Island begins to look like an evasive hedge when we consider they’re carving up a large part of the $2 billion earned worldwide by Transformers, Star Trek, Monsters & Aliens, GI Joe… not to mention a tidy 433,000% profit on Paranormal. Last numbers I heard, the 2009 box-office has surpassed 2008 by about 8% overall. Possibly the cutbacks in FYC spending are something like what Congress does in a budget crisis: slash entitlements while still finding ways to fund plenty of pork. The expansion to 10 BP nominees and the economic “downturn” could be motivating an experiment in “starving the beast.” The trouble with starving some beasts is that it makes the beast more desperate and vicious. We’ll see consequences of the trimmed FYC spending this season, and the results aren’t going to please a lot of people. Whatever testing of new strategies we may be experiencing this year, I suspect it will be back to business as usual in 2010.
Howell: There seems to be fewer trade ads and general rah-rah, especially for the presumed Oscar-worthy films no one has seen yet. It may be my imagination, but the screener rollout also seems slower this year.
Foundas: So far, the pages of the trades do not exactly seem bereft of Oscar ads, and there is certainly no shortage of wing-and-a-prayer indie movies you’ve never heard of four-walling themselves at the moment in order to “qualify” for the race. The studios and indies alike DO seem to be scheduling ever fewer screenings of their films (except for the really big year-end tentpoles–NINE, LOVELY BONES, et al.) and relying more on DVD screeners, but that may be a decision motivated as much by common sense (i.e., low attendance, especially for films already in wide commercial release) as by the economy. Basically, the allure of Oscar still seems sufficient to lead most companies into bankruptcy in pursuit of one.
Tapley: Boy. Loaded question. I think it’s obviously affected campaigning, as studios have been more reserved and measured in taking ad buys. It delayed things is more to the point. That’s the only thing that has stood out to me. It’s still to be seen in some ways.
Thompson: The studios are not throwing money around with abandon as they once did. There are vanity projects and stars and strange hopefuls because of the top ten possibilities. But it’s being done on a shoestring except for Paramount, which is spending on The Lovely Bones, Up in the Air, Star Trek, and Lionsgate, which is spending on Precious. Sony Pictures Classics was never a big spender anyway. Summit will do a late-breaking campaign on Hurt Locker. There seems to be sensitivity to late timing this year. Not cresting too soon.
Pond: You‚Äôd think that expanding to 10 nominations would lead to an increase in FYC ads, parties, etc. It hasn‚Äôt. That‚Äôs the economy at work. (Or out of work.) Nobody knows what the new rules will do, but nobody‚Äôs got the big bucks to really find out if you can buy your way into the 10. I mean, Weinstein bought space in the latest print version of the Envelope and had all four of its contenders sharing the same ad. In the old days, you know they each would have had their own page. Things may not look frugal when Paramount is renting out the Griffith Observatory or sending a planeload of journalists Up in the Air, but they are.
Douglas: Good question. It’s probably too early to tell because we’ll see how much it does, if at all, during the actual telecast, but you also have to remember that the economic collapse had already happened before this year’s Oscars and while they made jokes about cutting costs, I think AMPAS knows that this is a big deal in Hollywood and they’ll spend the money needed to put on a big show.
Ellwood: Hard to tell with the season starting “later” this year. We’ll know more in a few weeks, but it does seem that the trades are getting far less print advertising. Again, this should be revisited in the middle of December.
O’Neil: Less money is being spent early in derby season for campaigns this year. That’s obvious — and ominous.
Feinberg: I think studios are just watching their wallets a little more, as one would expect — in many cases fewer screeners are being mailed, less grandiose events are being thrown, etc. Had the economy been stronger, we might also have a number of films in the race that we don’t because studios (a) opted not to pursue campaigns, (b) pushed potential contenders to next year in order to devote what resources they do have to other films on their slate, or (c) never commissioned some projects or purchased distribution rights to others in the first place. Moreover, there are more big studio movies (“Julia & Julia,” “Star Trek”) and fewer artsy/indie films among the top contenders this year than in past years. And how could there not be? Many of the little studios that brought us the latter in past years have either been gutted (Miramax, The Weinstein Company, etc.) or closed shop altogether (Paramount Vantage, Picturehouse, Warner Independent).
3. We’re very close to the critics’ top ten lists being revealed. What five films do you know will be on your personal top ten?
Wloszczyna: Up, Coraline, Zombieland, A Serious Man and Precious.
Kennedy: Top 4 locks for my top 10 of 2009: Summer Hours, A Serious Man, Inglourious Basterds and Flame & Citron. There are a bunch of candidates for #5.
Bona: For me, Summer Hours remains by far the best film of 2009. I fully expect Flame and Citroen, 35 Shots of Rum and S√©raphine to remain in my Top 10 when I‚Äôm through with 2009‚Äôs releases. Given Clint Eastwood‚Äôs track record, Invictus is the not-yet-released movie most likely to be on my list, along with the just-opened Broken Embraces.
Adams: I could go completely non-Anglo, so why not? Flame & Citron, A Prophet, Summer Hours, The White Ribbon, and Vincere. To pledge that I still love America I’d better mention The Hurt Locker and The Road. I know that doesn’t leave me much wiggle room to fill out my eventual Top 10, but from the looks of things as yet unseen I’m not going to need much.
Howell: I can’t say for sure at this point, but off the top of my head, Precious, The Hurt Locker, Up in the Air, Fantastic Mr. Fox and A Single Man are all in the hunt. Stay tuned…
Foundas: I fear my editors would send out a contract killer to silence me if I were to answer this one.
Also, WAY after the fact, if I may come back to something from Take 3 of the roundtable, which I was too swamped to respond to in a timely manner: While I more or less agree with everyone else that no documentary this year stands a really strong shot at a Best Picture nomination, I’m shocked–shocked I say–that nobody so much as mentioned James Toback’s Tyson among even the dark-horse contenders. Aside from the fact that it was one of the most widely acclaimed documentaries of the year (83 on Metacritic and 86% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, which is considerably higher than This Is It and Capitalism, and even one point higher on Metacritic than The Cove), got a standing ovation at Cannes, and has exactly that “element of personal drama” Ryan referred to, it was recently given a very enthusiastic push by Oprah, who devoted an entire show to Tyson timed to the DVD release of the film, making this the “other” 2009 movie (after Precious) upon which the queen of all media has stamped her seal of approval. Still doesn’t make it a BP contender, but certainly as much or more of one than any other non-fiction feature.
Tapley: I’m pretty sure “A Serious Man” and “Up in the Air” will be on there, but I’m still working through that. Those are the two best films of the year for me so far, however.
Thompson: Bright Star, A Serious Man, Hurt Locker, An Education, Up
Pond: An Education will be on it. Hurt Locker. The White Ribbon. Now that it‚Äôs not even shortlisted, I might have to put It Might Get Loud on there. At the moment my passion is Mary and Max, so I‚Äôll say that one, too. But don‚Äôt hold me to any of this.
Rogers: I don’t want to give the game away yet! But of the Oscar contenders Precious (the backlash is expected but sad) and Bright Star (which is already underappreciated… probably because its so delicately spun) will be there. Making a top ten is torturous. I always want to watch all the films a second or third time to be sure. But it’s good torture.
Douglas: Sorry, I don’t like giving this away so early in case it might change, but I do know that Up in the Air and last year’s Oscar winner Departures are definitely in there.
Ellwood: Precious,” “The Hurt Locker,” “In the Loop,” “Bad Lieutenant Port of Call New Orleans” and “A Prophet.”
O’Neil: My fave films of the year so far are “Precious,” “The Road,” “A Serious Man,” “Up,” “Star Trek,” “Inglourioius Basterds.”
Feinberg: Though I’d love nothing more than for a bunch of great films to come along and bump some of these out, I’d presently say (1) “The Hurt Locker,” (2) “Racing Dreams,” (3) “An Education,” (4) “500 Days of Summer,” and (5) either “Adventureland,” “Nine,” or “The Road.”