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Oscar Roundtable Take Five, Part One

In our fifth Oscar roundtable we had to split it into two posts. It’s well worth the read. The Oscar season has never been more wide open in many ways and hearing about it from so many different perspectives is always a way to see things with new eyes.

Damien Bona: Inside Oscar, 10th Anniversary Edition and Inside Oscar 2
Mark Harris: Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood
Susan Wloszczyna: USA Today
Erik Childress: The Oscar Eye, Cinematical
Edward Douglas: Coming Soon
Pete Hammond:, Notes on a Season, LA Times
Ryan Adams:, Awards Daily
Steve Pond: The Odds, The Wrap
Craig Kennedy: Living in Cinema
Peter Knegt:, Indiewire
Brad Brevet:, Rope of Silicon
Scott Feinberg:, And the Winner Is

1. There is no denying this is a unique year in America – the first term of the first African-American President. Of course, the studios couldn’t have known this was how the year was going to turn out. If you could go forward in time and look back at 2009, do you think any of the following films fit into the bigger picture?

Bona: There have been African-American presidents in movies since at least 1972’s The Man, so Hollywood was ahead of the curve on this one. (‚ÄúTreasure Chest,‚Äù a monthly comic book that we kids in Catholic schools subscribed to, actually featured a story about a black man being elected President in 1964. Other than that, it was mostly loony anti-Communist propaganda, with nuns being slaughtered trying to protect chalices.)

I suspect that years from now, when people look back on 2009, the presence of an African-American in the White House may not be as significant a signpost as the worldwide economic crisis, so Up In The Air could turn out to be the seminal movie of 2009. I don’t feel that any of these four pictures will be particularly seen as having captured the pulse of America in 2009. This quartet of movies can be seen as simply current examples of very well-worn genres or sub-genres.

The Blind Side is merely the latest Underdog-Makes-Good-Sports-Film (a cinematic chestnut that’s been kicking around since silent movies) melded with the equally enduring White Man’s Burden theme. Precious follows directly in the footsteps of gritty, character-driven independent films pioneered by the likes of Cassavetes and Shirley Clarke, and more recently exemplified by Half Nelson and SherryBaby (neither of which was fortunate enough to bear the imprimatur of Oprah Winfrey). With films set in South Africa not all that uncommon over the last quarter-century, I don’t think Invictus really says any more about 2009, the first year of Obama‚Äôs presidency, than A Dry White Season says about 1989, the first year of George H.W. Bush’s. As for The Princess And The Frog, well, Disney finally made a cartoon with a black heroine. What took so long? And too bad about all the stereotypes.

Harris: That odd list is a fascinating reminder that we’ll have to wait until 2010 to see the first films actually greenlit in the Obama era. Movies and political moments rarely match up neatly; they certainly don’t this year. (If McCain had been elected, wouldn’t we be saying that The Blind Side was a perfect McCain-era zeitgeist film?) I do think it’s notable that almost all the movies you list come from white filmmakers and were designed largely (though not exclusively) to appeal to white moviegoers. And it’s the one that wasn’t—the one that was directed by a black gay man, written by an African-American, based on a novel by an African-American lesbian, cast almost entirely with African-Americans, and endorsed by two popular African-American entertainers—that is the most electrifying, most controversial, and most discussed of the four, and, I think, the most likely to endure.

But let me throw a list back at you: Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Up, The Hangover, Star Trek, Monsters Vs. Aliens, The Twilight Saga: New Moon, Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian. The ten top grossers of 2009 so far. Total meaningful African-American representation on screen: Uhura, Skids, and Mudflap. Jesus wept! Studio executives should look at that list and feel not just shame, but deep embarrassment at how far they’ve fallen behind the America in which the rest of us actually live.

Wloszczyna: The only one that could possibly fit into the bigger picture is The Princess and the Frog, despite how it handles its racial angle so timidly. Of those four films, it is the only one that takes its genre to a new place with the addition of a black princess as the central character. And culturally — at least at toys stores — it already is having an impact.

Childress: The only one that should be seen as a direct connection to the Obama presidency is Invictus, which is about a newly elected black leader trying to unite a country and uses the word “change” more than a lineup of the homeless. The Blind Side follows the old model of a black person needing a white one to help them achieve greatness. The Princess and the Frog might have been more revolutionary if the black heroine didn’t spend 2/3 of the film as a frog. And Precious speaks more to the power of the influence of Oprah then some newly found grand acceptance of a culture because of the color of our President. Not to mention how a little hype can wash away people’s blinders to bad filmmaking and some embarrassing performances.

Douglas: I honestly don’t look at the world in that sort of black/white way, and of the three you mention that have been released, only The Blind Side has shown that has a success across the country rather than the regional success that Precious has found. I haven’t seen Princess and the Frog or Invictus yet, but I don’t think either one of them has anything to do with Obama being President since both were well into production before he was elected.

Hammond: It’s an extraordinary time for Black people around the world , not just African Americans. With Invictus you have a white actor/director making a film about how a Black president of South Africa brought his country together through sport; you have a white director bringing the story of a near-homeless African American kid overcoming all odds thanks to a Christian white republican southern woman in The Blind Side; You have Disney which has been afraid to reissue Song Of The South now making a full on animated musical with black characters in the leads; And you have Precious, an overweight African American girl also finding her way out of her own personal ghetto and given hope through education. Coincidence? Not really. Hollywood reflects the changing times and attitudes and it sometimes can actually be ahead of the curve as I think it was in 2009. What really made the difference is the audience acceptance of all these films (I assume Invictus will be a hit as well), and the acceptance of a black man as our President. It’s all timing but there’s still a long way to go.

Adams: The Great Debaters was around to test this theory last year — and before anybody scoffs, Oprah’s darling got a score of 89 from the BFCA, the same as Precious and not much higher than The Blind Side’s 85. I think a political debate against Harvard by studious and upstanding young black men is far more relevant to Obama’s story than a raped teenager or a football hulk — and it didn’t make a dent at the Oscars. If there’s a parallel to be drawn between Mandela’s ability to bring opposing fringes of society together, then Obama suffers sadly in comparison. His respectable efforts at bipartisanship have only succeeded in driving the crazies out of the woodwork. Stubborn fossils have dug in deeper, and the country’s racial tension is worse than ever. If there’s a relationship diagramming the state of the nation to The Princess and the Frog, I wish Obama would hurry up and french the right fucking frog. He needs some magic badly. Honestly, we already had more important things on our mind in 2008 because Bush left such a mess there was no time to celebrate the historic significance of Obama’s win. There’s even less time and patience for that this year.

Kennedy: I would expand that list to include the group of films made by women that are getting some Oscar traction. In general, I really think we’re on the cusp of having both race and gender fading into the background as a hot button issue.

Knegt: That depends on what bigger picture we’re looking at. Economically, I can’t speak for “Invictus” and “Princess” just yet, but “Precious” and “The Blind Side” have sent strong messages about the potential for films targeting (at least in some part) African-American audiences. More over, they’ve sent strong messages about female audiences, which black or white have been driving both those films to truly astonishing box office numbers.

As far as the social importance of these films are concerned, I don’t think “Invictus” and “Blind Side” are bringing anything new to the table. They’re fine examples of well-intentioned, mainstream films that speak conventionally to racial divides, but we’ve seen this many times before (most notably is Academy-rewarded fare like “Crash” and “Driving Miss Daisy”). They’re also all written and directed by white people. Which is not to say white people are incapable of making important works discussing race. It’s just not quite the same as, say, “Precious,” a film that I think could fit into a bigger picture. This is a film that speaks (even if it does so melodramatically) to issues that have never found a place in this kind of spectrum. On top of that, it’s directed, written and starring almost only African-Americans, and successful due to strong support from African-American communities. If it goes on to win best picture, or make $100 million, it would really be a first of its kind.

2. The Oscars were originally invented to pump money back into the film industry. The divide between critically acclaimed films and public consumption on a mass scale has never felt wider than it has this year. Do you think the Academy will make a genuine effort to bring the masses back into the fold this year? And if so, which films do you think are the best candidates for the job? Or do you think the Academy shouldn’t concern itself with the business side of Hollywood at all?

Bona: The Academy seems to have paid at least lip service to greater populism by doubling the number of nominations, but that expansion may just be paving the way for a greater number of smaller films to be honored. (Academy voters, have you seen (500) Days of Summer?). So far, at least, there‚Äôs been no commercial blockbuster that was also a critics‚Äô darling, other than Up, but since cartoons have their own category, it’s a special case and hopefully Oscar voters won‚Äôt treat it like a real movie. In any case, a mass public that spends $400 million on Transformers: Revenge Of The Formers doesn‚Äôt deserve to enjoy the Oscars. The Academy may be stubbornly middle-brow and parochial, but it does show somewhat better taste than whoever it is that votes in the People‚Äôs Choice Awards.

Harris: There’s nothing that I hate more (yes, hate) in Oscar coverage than the notion that the Academy is out of touch whenever it fails to reward high-grossing movies. (And I write that as someone who thought both Wall-E and The Dark Knight deserved Best Picture nominations last year.) Awards are for the talented, not the merely popular. Whatever the origins of the Oscars, it’s now the job of Academy voters to honor excellence, thus encouraging people to see excellent movies. And that system often works quite nicely: Witness Slumdog Millionaire’s ascent from tiny foreign film dumped by its distributor to smash hit that became the highest-grossing of last year’s best picture nominees.

You‚Äôre right about the divide between acclaim and big box office being especially wide in ‚Äò09 (two impressive exceptions: Inglourious Basterds and Up). But the solution is not to define quality downward (by, for instance, expanding the Best Picture nominees to ten in order to pad them out with unworthy blockbusters). If mainstream Hollywood wants more Oscars, it should make better movies. If it‚Äôs going to remain as risk-averse and marketplace- (and marketing)-driven as it has become, why should that be celebrated–especially at the end of a year that saw the demise or downsizing of so many ‚Äúdependents,‚Äù and the large-scale abandonment of creative ambition under the pretext of economic responsibility? Do the Pulitzer Prizes need to broaden their appeal by high-fiving Stephenie Meyer? Should the Emmys shove Mad Men aside because more people watch NCIS: Los Angeles? Mass success is already amply rewarded–with money. Isn‚Äôt that enough?

Wloszczyna: I think the academy already has by adding five more berths for best picture candidates, although none of the more commercial films likely to earn a spot have the draw of a Dark Knight or Titanic this year. And the academy has always involved itself in the business side — the trouble is that the studios have mostly stopped involving themselves in the quality side, save for their sadly evaporating arthouse divisions.

This year, Up in the Air and Up manage to combine both mass appeal and art. But I don’t see either adding significantly to the viewership of the show, unless George Clooney floats away onstage with a bunch of balloons.

Childress: I don’t see the Academy throwing any kind of bone to public ticket buying. It’s not like Transformers, The Hangover or New Moon were ever going to be in the awards discussion anyway. Last year The Dark Knight was a legitimate blockbuster with the critical favor to back up its artistic merits. Some felt that way this year about Star Trek, but once everyone saw past the smaller picture of an extra five slots opening up, they woke up to the big picture that there are still a lot of smaller films that have a better shot at being voted in. Up is the one true blockbuster that will remain in the discussion and could even become a Best Picture candidate. Call it WALL-E guilt or whatever, but if nothing else the newly established 10 slots opened up the gates to finally allow a superior animated film to breakthrough the constraints of merely the Animated category. The only other $100 million film in the serious Best Picture discussion is Inglourious Basterds, although Up In The Air and Avatar will likely be there eventually.

Douglas: Nope, no way. If anything, this year’s awards contenders will push the Oscars further away from the popular concensus as displayed by box office grosses. Even The Hurt Locker, which is one of the most guy friendly independent awards frontrunners we’ve had in a while didn’t do very much business, even if those who did see it generally agree that it is a very well-done movie. I guess if it gets the movie rereleased in theaters than the Academy can say they’ve accomplished something but I just don’t see any reason why they should include the likes of Star Trek or Julie & Julia or District 9 or other big studio movies that have already made decent bank just to show that they’re in touch with moviegoers.

Personally, I don’t think the Academy has been very concerned about the business side of Hollywood when it comes to awards, nor do I think they should or will be concerned in the future. Plenty of movies make money without awards (Star Trek, New Moon, etc.) and we’ve only seen a few cases where being nominated for Oscars REALLY pushed a movie’s box office gross over the top. (Brokeback Mountain for instance.) Others, have barely made a dent despite nominations e.g. Frost/Nixon, Milk. Many of the movies that get nominated have already been in theaters and already did their business, so I think the two will continue to be unrelated, as it should be.

Hammond: The Oscars were originally invented to pump money back into the film industry. The divide between critically acclaimed films and public consumption on a mass scale has never felt wider than it has this year. Do you think the Academy will make a genuine effort to bring the masses back into the fold this year? And if so, which films do you think are the best candidates for the job? Or do you think the Academy shouldn’t concern itself with the business side of Hollywood at all?

I don’t think you can say the Academy as a whole is going to move the needle one way or another. It’s 6000 individuals doing their own thing. I don’t think they sit there and say ‘Gee we need Star Trek or Avatar nominated to get ratings so I will vote for them’. BUT I do believe that in general a lot of Academy members react to the same things the public does, especially if emotion is involved. In that regard I think “The Blind Side” (if it gets seen in big numbers by Oscar voters) is the movie to watch. It’s there in terms of being a box office smash phenom but it’s not there yet in terms of Oscar voters. It could be though. It could be the little movie that could this year for both audiences AND academy members who may not want to admit it. Longshots sometimes come through. Keep watching.

Adams: If Hollywood knew which projects were the best candidates to merge art and popular appeal we’d have more BP hopefuls like The Departed to chose from. I can’t imagine that a lot of industry retirees and Dakota Fanning will have any better clue about which films they can pick to bridge the gap. Nope, the movies that have popular appeal have already raked in their millions and need no assistance from the Oscars. That’s why Paramount isn’t worried about Shutter Island missing out on being groped and mauled by the awards process. It won’t need nominations to sell tickets. The Oscars should stay classy and stop worrying about how to get Joe six-pack to tune in. Focus on honoring quality and they’ll create an environment for more Star Treks and Harry Potters to finance Keats and McCarthy. The same way Robert Pattinson is invisibly escorting Kathryn Bigelow to the big ball this year.

Pond: The Academy, as a body, has already made its “genuine effort” by expanding the best-picture slate. Now it’s up to the Academy, as a group of individual voters, to follow suit, which would require them to consciously vote for a varied list of films. The problem is that if you ask Oscar voters whether they’re going to use the 10 slots to deliberately look for a broad cross-section of movies – and I’ve asked a lot of them just that – they will all tell you that their criteria is not going to change at all. They’re going to vote for their 10 favorite films, period. And the list of nominees is going to look like it always looks, but bigger.

In a perfect world, the Academy shouldn’t concern itself with the business side of Hollywood. And in a perfect world, the major studios would want to make big movies that were really good.

This is not a perfect world.

Kennedy: I think the Academy should stick to trying to pick the best films and I don’t think they really have a choice. You can’t mandate that the voters pick from a certain group of films. The only way to change the types of movies the Academy chooses is to fill it with more populist members. As a somewhat selective group in terms of who they let in (the thing that lends them a certain gravitas and elevates the awards above the riff raff), they’re always going to be a little bit elitist. Unless the studios start taking bigger chances on the films they spend the most money marketing, it’ll never change. I’m not sure it should.

Having said that, if there is any film embraced by the masses that might get in, I thought for a brief moment after finally breaking down and seeing it that it could be The Blind Side. In the end I think NY/LA anti-red state snobbery will keep it out (though those predicting a Bullock nomination are probably on to something) plus there’s absolutely no edge to it. Nothing a voter can hang on to that makes them feel smart. Having said that, I’m not fully prepared to write it off. If the Reel Geezers dump on it, I’ll officially cross it off the list.

Knegt: I don’t think the Academy is necessarily capable of intentionally concerning itself with the business side of Hollywood. Sometimes it happens anyway, though, and I feel like it’s usually based on what that year has to offer. I mean, this year we could easily see $100 million+ grossing, mass-consumed films like “Inglourious Basterds,” “Up,” and perhaps even “Star Trek” in the mix. “Precious” is another example of a awards contender this year that is most definitely being consumed by the masses. “Up In The Air,” “Nine,” and “Invictus” all seemed primed for wide appeal. It’s quite possible 5 of the 10 best picture nominees will end up grossing over $100 million. So I actually don’t feel the divide between critically acclaimed films and public consumption is irregularly wide. Sure, “New Moon” and “Transformers” aren’t going to be making major Oscar plays, but a lot of films well-received both critically and publicly are.

I also think of the Academy as being made up of a contingency of voters is a diverse group of members that don’t make decisions as a collective unit. And call me naive, but I also don’t think too many of them will vote out of a desire to pump money back into the industry, but out of a desire to reward what they feel is deserving, even if political and social influence play into that more often then most of them might admit.

Brevet: The “divide” is due to people looking at box-office returns as an indicator of quality. Just because Transformers made a boatload of money doesn’t mean everyone that saw it loved it, it just means they saw it. I don’t think you are going to have a slew of online fanboys saying Transformers should win Best Picture the same way they cheered for The Dark Knight. For the most part, people still know true quality when they see it. Star Trek and District 9 are the “quality” audience favorites right now and Avatar has the potential to be the other one, but manufactured hype may prove to be that film’s undoing, which is unfortunate as I am hoping it will blow the doors off.

Feinberg: Questions like this come up every year, and people really need to understand that the understand something: Academy members do not sit down with their ballots and ask, “How can I, as an individual voter, use my ballot to help boost the industry and the Oscar show’s ratings?” Instead, they either say, “Which, of the few awards hopefuls that I actually watched, did I like?” “Which, of the other awards hopefuls that I did not see, are supposed to be worthy?” And “Which awards hopefuls do I know and/or like and therefore want to support?” Having said that (sorry, Larry David), I think that many commercial movies — particularly “Avatar,” “The Blind Side,” “Inglourious Basterds,” “Julie & Julia,” “Sherlock Holmes,” and “Star Trek” — will be among the most widely-seen and widely-liked awards hopefuls of the year, and for those reasons will be nominated and help “bring the masses back into the fold.”

Click here to read Part Two.