The ongoing and ever-increasing fascination with the Oscar race has shifted the way movies are consumed, appreciated, written about and remembered. I started Oscar watching 13 years ago. The game was played then almost exactly as it’s played now. The only thing that has changed is the level of interest. Even now, for those of us in the business of this trying to explain it to the outside world will attract those telltale looks of pity and mild confusion. But if you see any movie with a crowd you’ll often hear those very same people saying things like “he’ll win the Oscar.” We still see the Oscars as the gold standard, for better or worse. We who study them year in and year out know that there is a disconnect between how the Oscars are perceived and how they actually go down. After all, they are simply given a ballot and told to vote for what they like. Critics are the ones responsible for how films really go down in history; not the Academy. Nonetheless, when an Oscar nominee or winner dies, that is usually the first thing on their obit. Unless that person is Al Gore. Who didn’t technically win an Oscar anyway. But who’s counting.
Back in the early days there were two major film festivals: Cannes and Toronto. No one really thought much about the others in terms of how they might influence the Oscars. The Palme d’Or held some weight in and of itself – it still does. But Cannes was disregarded as being too lofty, too auteur-focused, not commercial enough for the American Oscar race.
Toronto, though, it had a foothold on Oscar early on. There was a brief moment there when it was all about Toronto. A movie could be launched there and the buzz would last clear on through Oscar season. But something shifted. Bloggers happened. Movies that did well there might not have enough stuff to last. Moreover, a film could be taken out of the race completely, which is what what happened last year to Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter, and what has happened this year with Madonna’s W.E. (which got the boot in Venice).
To that end, for the heavy hitters, running the festival circuit becomes more and more risky, what with Twitter and instablogging where the requirement is insta-opinion. There is no time to ruminate on anything – it’s just good/bad, thumbs up/thumbs down, winner/loser, Oscar contender/non-Oscar contender – and all that really means in the end is that the film or actor will do well with the 6,000 or so who vote at the end of the year. It means nothing beyond that. The Oscars are and will always be a moment in time captured, with little regard to how well that win will sit over time. The Oscars are not about Ms. Right, but about Ms. Right Now.
In the early days, a critic would get credentialed to cover the fests. You’d maybe see one or two early reviews of a film but mostly you’d read them when the movie was about to open. This, for two reasons – the first was that the author of the review, and the outlet, might not have had much interest in a movie that wasn’t going to open for months. The second reason was that the studios simply had more control then.
Now, though, any film that plays at a festival is subject to reviews by bloggers and critics. Even a film that has an embargo set can see that embargoed broken with a terrible review months before it opens to the public. Now, unless you have Slumdog Millionaire, The King’s Speech, or The Artist you can’t, in all good conscience, take that risk, not for the Oscar race, not if you hope to profit from your film’s opening weekend.
The festivals work better for smaller films looking for a boost. This worked very well with Steve McQueen’s Shame, which would have gotten buried had it skipped the festivals. It also worked well for Alexander Payne and The Descendants, which made the wise choice to debut in Telluride where there is a much smaller pool of bloggers and therefore a situation that’s slightly easier to control. Toronto, by now, is unwieldy – there are simply too many people covering things there. But Telluride still gives a film a chance to break through. Of course, this can be good and bad.
When I was at Telluride, word got out that maybe Jason Reitman was there. Would he be bringing Young Adult, everyone wondered? The answer was a resounding no. Even though Reitman had brought every one one of his films to Telluride to preem, he had been soured on the whole experience, so it goes, once Up in the Air hit the skids winning zero Oscars. It seemed a personal and painful loss to have won all of the writing awards up to the Oscars but then losing, in the final act, to Geoffrey Fletcher for Precious. It was one of the most surprising Oscar defeats in recent memory and there were a few reasons for it but at the top of the list was the film’s peaking way too soon. By the time Up in the Air finally hit theaters it had already been talked about and talked about – there was nothing left.
And so, it is with this paradigm that the race –despite the success of The King’s Speech at Telluride and Toronto last year — is holding all of its biggest players until the post-fest season. One can’t argue with this decision in the least bit. You don’t go to the fests to build buzz unless you have to or you might find yourself selected out before the race even begins. And damnit, you can’t put that genie back in the bottle.
It is a beast you can’t tame, this internet thing. Publicists and studios now proceed with caution. Oscar strategists have had to make friendly with the beast because otherwise, forget it. There is a strategy of skipping the blogs entirely, going right to audiences and/or mainstream press. That works for films that don’t need the chatter to push them — movies like The Blind Side and The Help. But for the most part, this is the new normal, this whole internet thing. And it ain’t going away any time soon. So, what’s an Oscar campaign to do? We wait, we wait.
The next thing that’s going to happen is that the films will start to roll out. A select few will be chosen to screen these films in most cases — I’ll probably get an invite or two if I’m lucky. This will test the waters. A few first impressions will give the studio an idea where the film is headed, internet support-wise. That won’t necessarily help with the mainstream critics, who sit way outside the blog/studio relationship, but if the film is outright bad, they’ll know.
I personally think Hereafter would have done a lot better last year had it skipped Toronto where it bombed out and gone directly through the blogs in November-ish. There is a moment there where buzz can propel a film forth, even if it’s not been seen yet by the majority – Gangs of New York is one example. But the case could made for Benjamin Button, which was pushed blog-heavy before it started getting reviewed. Avatar and True Grit, I do believe, followed a similar pattern. I am not smart enough to know if any of this was intentional or if it worked as planned. What I do know is that if your movie grinds to a halt in Toronto you have nowhere to go from there.
Reitman’s decision not to put Young Adult through its film festival paces only to see it flatline come Oscar time seems to have been a good choice. Clint Eastwood’s decision to hold off on the festivals for J. Edgar also seems like a good choice, and War Horse and Extremely Loud and We Bought a Zoo and all of the other movies we’re all waiting to see. But it does put we Oscar predictors in an uncomfortable place: we’re now taking a wild guess as to which movies will advance to dominate the race. When it comes to picking movies no one has seen the game is at its most risky.
So you might wonder where’s the harm? Predicting winners and nominees sight unseen does two things. The first thing it does is set the film up for unrealistically high expectations. Not only does it have to be good but it has to be better than everything else. The second thing it does is make Oscar predicting seem totally pointless, which it may be anyway. Where is the skill in predicting something based on pedigree, subject matter and studio? Anyone can spit in the wind and get lucky.
The two films that are in the hot seat sight unseen are Clint Eastwood’s J Edgar, Steven Spielberg’s War Horse, Cameron Crowe’s We Bought a Zoo, and Stephen Daldry’s Extremely Loud, Incredibly Close.
Until these films are seen, my friends, no one can accurately or reliably predict the Oscar race. Up until that point it is just like throwing dice. Even the films that have been seen but haven’t yet been released or screened for the Academy are not sure bets. Don’t be fooled by the overly confident Oscar bloggers making predictions left and right – this is still very much an open table where any movie can break in if it’s got enough number 1 votes.
Right now, as we keep saying, the playing field looks pretty good for:
Midnight in Paris
And then the second tier of hopefuls
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
Totally off the charts but not writing them off:
Attack the Block
Tree of Life
We Need to Talk About Kevin
And the ones everyone has high hopes for sight unseen:
Extremely Loud, Incredibly Close
We Bought a Zoo
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
I realize I am alone in many of these. We like to play this game, many of us, as if there is some cold, calculating logic to what amounts to matters of the heart. We play the game anyway, despite it all. To my mind, thinking conventionally is about the most boring thing you can do where art is concerned. So I tend to stir the pot continually. I hope you won’t mind too much.
What I’ll be looking for this year are what kinds of currents run through the popular Oscar movies because that is often how our time and place is reflected back at us. The Oscar race is at its most compelling when it celebrates films that say something new, that thrill us and move us in unexpected ways, no matter what genre they’re in or how much money they made. And when they do that we, in turn, celebrate them.