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Oscar Roundtable 2011 – Take One


Welcome to our annual roundtable, third year running.  We pose some questions to some of the writers and bloggers we know for insight.  The participants this time are Inside Oscar‘s Damien Bona; The Oscar Warrior at Coming Soon; Edward Douglas;  Deadline‘s Pete Hammond; Grantland‘s Hollywood Perspectus columnist, Mark Harris;  The Toronto Star‘s Oscar columnist, Pete Howell;  EW‘s Oscar-watch columnist, Dave Karger;  Living in Cinema‘s Craig Kennedy;  In Contention‘s Guy Lodge; Cinemablend‘s Oscar columnist, Katey Rich; Gold Derby’s Tom O’Neil;  The Wrap‘s The Odds columnist Steve Pond; The Film Experience‘s Nathaniel Rogers.

1. It’s either a sign of our collective sanity or insanity that it is now normal procedure to predict films that haven’t yet been seen for Best Picture and performances that haven’t yet been seen. It’s one thing to think maybe they will be nominated, but to win? Do you think that this helps or hurts both our enjoyment of these films and their chances in the Oscar race?

Bona: This actually is not something new. I remember in late summer/early Autumn 1995 feeling dispirited about the Best Picture race and thinking it was not going to be any fun because everybody KNEW that “The American President” was a lock to win the top Academy Award. One thought sadly of the other movies opening that fall and holiday season and how those forlorn films needn’t even bother with Oscar campaigns; better the studios give ballyhoo money to charity. As it turned out, The American President received a total of one nomination, for Best Original Musical or Comedy Score. On the other hand, Paul Newman’s victory for “The Color of Money” was a foregone conclusion long before the picture opened. That one did pan out, even as the movie itself did turn out to be somewhat of a disappointment, so what seem possibly to be foolhardy pronouncements are not necessarily a sign of insanity. (Then again, four years earlier “The Verdict” had been seen as Newman’s pre-ordained Oscar winner, but that was before we were all blind-sided by “Gandhi.”)

I don’t think getting labeled the year’s inevitable winner should affect our enjoyment of a film, although, admittedly, such Oscar buzz can raise undue expectations and lead to a letdown. It is more fun for audiences to discover movies for themselves, but in today’s world of über-high-profile Oscar p.r, the emergence of genuine sleepers is a rarity. Being declared an unstoppable force also opens a movie up to a backlash, since taking glee in toppling pedestals is simple human nature; let’s face it, there is great satisfaction in “proving” experts wrong. This attitude surely extends to Academy voters, who must take umbrage at being told by the entertainment media that it’s already irrefutable who and what is the year’s best, something the producers of “The Social Network” can readily attest to.

Douglas: All this does is set higher expectations and make it important that the movies the studios are holding until December are as good as they think to be able to stand up to those expectations as well as the stronger competition that comes with movies released earlier in the year that have been seen and discussed for a lot longer. We’ve seen very few movies come in at the last minute and win it all–Million Dollar Baby and Chicago–but that becomes harder and harder each year. The best bet is to show your stronger movies at film festivals and get support and then hold their release until November or December, which was the key for movies like Slumdog Millionaire, No Country for Old Men and The King’s Speech, as well as many Oscar acting winners. It makes sense that the discussions start in September because that’s when the film festivals start and if you have a case like this year where people get through the season without a clear victor in any category, then of course you’re going to have people optimistically making presumptions that the best is yet to come.

Hammond: I have often said I feel sorry for the filmmakers whose movies open in the last four months of the year. There is such undue pressure on them now and everyone, media and blogger wise, goes into each film assessing its Oscar chances rather than just its worth as a MOVIE. Yes, I think it is all a sign of our collective insanity.

Harris: I’m not sure I’d chart it on the sanity/insanity spectrum. But it does seem a little like the equivalent of the comment-board guy who posts “First!” and then has nothing else to say. Obviously, it’s naïve to think that quality is the only thing that figures into an Oscar win. But it’s just as naïve to assume that quality matters so little that you can make a judgment without even seeing the movie. Isn’t half the fun of writing about the Oscars the chance to write about the movies themselves? Why deprive ourselves of that?

I don’t think it makes any difference to a film’s chances to predict a win before it screens; creating a premature aura of inevitability can lead to a backlash as often as not, so it’s really a toss-up. As for enjoyment, I speak only for myself when I say that walking into any film with nothing more than its potential nominations in mind is a crappy way to treat the movie and a crappy way to treat your own viewing experience.

Howell: I think it’s fair, reasonable and fun to speculation on the Oscar nominees. It can also serve a useful purpose, to help people in narrowing their choices or broadening them — the latter by seeing a good film that perhaps they’d missed.
I think it gets destructive when people start declaring winners this early in the game, which is arrogant and foolish. Could anyone have predicted in September a few years back that The Hurt Locker would eventually triumph over Avatar? Predictions on winners really shouldn’t start until the Oscar nominees are announced.

Karger: It’s definitely unfortunate (and I say that as someone who makes early lists without seeing the lion’s share of the holiday-season movies). I do think there should be a moratorium on predicting an Oscar WINNER until at least mid-November. Is that too much to ask?

Kennedy: (sticking fingers in ears) lalalalalalalaitstooearlytoothinkaboutthislalalalalalalalala

Lodge: As for whether it inhibits our enjoyment of the films, I suppose that’s up to the individual: I find it very easy to keep my personal feelings about a film separate from my projections for its future. If I’m predicting something will score with the Academy, I’m not necessarily predicting I’ll love it too. Similarly, I can often thoroughly enjoy a film while being quite aware that it won’t work for many. Oscar potential is a secondary consideration, as it should be for anyone who really loves cinema.

O’Neil: Speculation about films unseen is fine — it builds interest. Is it unfair or does it hurt a film? No. The speculation is always always positive. Lots of people right now are predicting great Oscar things for “War Horse,” but who in the blogosphere is predicting the film will fail? Nobody. The reason that early speculation is an issue right now is because the studios have recently pushed back the release of Oscar films till late in the year. After the Oscars moved up on the calendar in 2004, studios moved up release dates to October, but now they’ve returned to late November and December so all we can do is speculate. That’s fine. And it’s fun.

Pond: As somebody who has done exactly this, I guess I can’t really complain about it. Look, I know it’s nuts to predict winners that you haven’t seen, and I try to be very up front about that when I do it. I’m just trying to be entertaining — and if it hurts your or my or somebody else’s enjoyment of these films, then we’re taking all of this too seriously. Of course, taking it all too seriously falls somewhere between an occupational hazard and a necessity in this line of work.

Rich: I’m not sure I’m noticing any more insanity than usual this year– we’ve always had to reserve tentative spots for late-season entries that seemed like likely contenders, whether or not they turned out to be worthwhile (True Grit) or not (Nine). You can put together your Best Actress lineup all you want based on what’s out here, but you have to acknowledge that Meryl Streep is at least in the consideration and with a significant likelihood to knock out someone you might already have seen. It’s not insanity to me–depending on how it’s executed, of course– but just an acknowledgement that it’s early days yet.

Rogers: Being seen as a Future Nominee ahead of time 100% helps you if the achievement is somewhere in the wide fuzzy area between “sure thing” and “for your consideration” because you can take on a sheen of “nominatable” or “worthy” that you might not have earned on your own. It’s really not that much different from the advantage of being a proven brand like a Streep or a Scorsese or whomever. You don’t have to earn a place on the board with your new work. You’re already a game piece. You just have to worry about winning. It’s taken as gospel that we as viewers are supposed to assume that some filmmakers and some actors are just brilliant every time and our only job is to decide “very brilliant” “somewhat brilliant” or “not one of their best but still brilliant”. I’m only half joking. This is a very real problem I think in honest discussions of merit.

As far as our enjoyment of films? That depends on the viewer but all of these rooting interests in unseen films and performances have made for some strange shifts in the general film conversation. rational conversations about merit.

2. Since the Academy has decided to not go with a solid ten nominees, and to favor those films number one votes only (no film with no number one votes can get nominated) doesn’t this ensure that Academy demographics will play a key role? For example, since the majority of them are white and male do we think this will inhibit films directed by women?

Bona: No, I don’t think this is a problem for the hypothesis supposes that white males – or at least most white males – will vote only for movies made by their own kind. Given the generally liberal make-up of Academy members, I assume white male voters are happy to vote for films with women behind the camera if they feel the film is of the requisite quality. In the past, a movie needed just one first place vote to remain in the running past the preliminary round – and presumably just about every film that was eligible (at least films above the level of, say, “Tooth Fairy”) would have had somebody involved with it listing it as his or her number one choice. Now a movie must receive 5% of first place votes cast. Certainly, “The Hurt Locker” and “The Piano” met this criterion. That women have been – and continue to be – under-represented at the Oscars is more a reflection on the industry itself and what gets a green light than on the Academy.

Douglas: Absolutely, and it’s one of the reasons why I think it’s important for the Academy to release more details about their membership–percentage of men to women, how the membership is broken down by age/race, just because it’ll offer more transparency on how things happen the way they do. We all assume that the Academy are old people, that they have very traditional values, but lots of the winners prove otherwise. Think about it. The Departed, No Country for Old Men, The Hurt Locker–none of these are traditional Oscar pictures, not like last year’s King’s Speech,which was a throwback. And then what about movies like Black Swan and Monster’s Ball and Monster which offered winners in the actress category? I think good movies are good movies and when you have an Academy of members who have been involved with making movies, I think they have some idea what’s a movie of quality over a movie that’s just a crowdpleaser, at least most of the time. Just remember that the new rules only affect nominations, not who they pick to win, and women directors will stand just as good a chance in that category as they have in past years and in recent years, more women have been nominated and won.

Hammond: No, I don’t believe the Academy thinks that way. I know a lot of white males in the Academy who were behind The Hurt Locker and probably didn’t know – or care – if it was directed by a woman. They just liked the film. In the end that’s what matters , particularly the passion vote for a movie. It is why Midnight In Paris stands such a good chance. Everyone still has really fond memories of it and it could translate into number one votes.

Harris: Demographics have always been a factor, but the rule that a movie needs five percent of the total #1 votes to get a nomination definitely brings demos into the foreground. Suddenly it makes more sense to campaign to Academy niches—women, old people, populists, Europeans, directors, actors, art-film lovers, traditionalists, whatever–instead of just selling the idea that your movie is “an Academy movie,” whatever that means. Presumably, that’s good for the diversity of the slate.

Howell: I’m still not sure I like the expansion to 10 Best Picture nominees, and I’m even less enthusiastic about the sliding scale we’re going to have this year. There was something pure and disciplined about sticking with five nominees. But I’ll be very interested to see what happens this year. As for women, I don’t think Academy demographics conspire against them in any serious way, aside from the obvious fact that most films are directed by men. If there were a conspiracy, then Kathryn Bigelow and The Hurt Locker wouldn’t have won big two years ago — and she’s the first to insist that gender doesn’t matter.

Karger: I’m not sure I buy this. I feel like many different kinds of films will get No. 1 votes just as they’ll get twos and threes.

Kennedy: Eh. It’ll probably inhibit several films, but that’s why they instituted the rule. To say that it will necessarily inhibit movies from a certain class of filmmakers assumes that most white males can’t appreciate movies that aren’t about them. I’m not sure that’s entirely true and probably less so than it ever was.

Lodge: I think people are overestimating the difference this rule-change will make to the composition of the Best Picture field — it’s not like it was ever possible for a film to be nominated without a sizable portion of number-one votes. Similarly, you could argue that the Academy’s demographic makeup has always been an obstacle to, say, female-directed, non-white or foreign-language films in the Oscar race, with or without the rule change — that’s why so few have been nominated, after all. So what’s new? I do, however, think it’s a little reductive to assume people deliberately side with their own demographic when voting — if plenty of white men hadn’t voted for Kathryn Bigelow and Geoffrey Fletcher last year, Oscar history wouldn’t have been made.

The bottom line is that people vote for the films that move them — those often happen to be the films they most identify with, which in turn are often about, and made by, people much like themselves. (And it’s not always strictly a demographic issue — a lot of people are going to be voting for The Artist this year, not because they’re French or were alive in the silent era, but because they’re artists, and the film taps into their own career insecurities.) That’s insular human instinct, albeit not without exceptions — but certainly not something that a slight statistical change is going to affect one way or another.

O’Neil: Films from a female perspective seldom get respect from Oscar voters. Yeah, “Black Swan” did well last year, but would it have prevailed without those steamy sex scenes that surely titillated the academy geezers? This year they face their ultimate test: “The Help” — it’s not only about women, but black women and it’s not about sex. Will they embrace it?

Pond: I think demographics probably had more impact under the old system (when more second, third and fourth place votes would end up counting) than the new one. This new system rewards passionate minorities — you don’t need a big consensus to get nominated, you need a small group who’ll put you at the top of their ballot. Smaller factions within the Academy can have a very strong voice now, as long as they can muster 250-300 votes.

Now, if only those passionate minorities had some films directed by women to vote for…

Rich: The “films directed by women” part of your prompt is sadly irrelevant this year– unless Phyllida Lloyd developed serious directing chops between Mamma Mia and The Iron Lady, or the Academy suddenly takes a shine to the amazing Kelly Reichardt, no films directed by women will really be in the conversation. But otherwise, I don’t see how this number ones rule change really alters it that much. The Best Picture nominees have always been the most widely liked, not the best, films seen by the collective Academy, so movies that are weirder and darker will get less love from the old-skewing Academy. If there’s some really weird outlier in this year’s nominees we might have cause to worry, but I’m not expecting much of a shift this year.

Rogers: Academy demographics have always played a key role. Though it’s hard to imagine AMPAS voting collectively for a new Terms of Endearment or whatnot they voted for it at the time and back then they were even whiter and even more male. I think it depends on the film. All things are cyclical… at some point “women’s pictures” will have to come back in fashion. Though Kathryn Bigelow herself, the only female winner, already decimates the notion that women directors automatically make “feminine” films.

3.Should the Academy go back to five Best Picture nominees, return to ten, or keep throwing shit at the wall to see what sticks?

Bona: Clearly, the 10 nominee experiment was a failure. Oscar ballots contained movies that had no business competing as finalists, with the unfortunate side-effect of such obvious fillers as “The Blind Side” and “A Serious Man” now forever having the phrase “Academy Award Nominee” linked to them. This new voting process should, logically result in a slate of nominees which accurately reflects the collective opinion of the Academy as to what truly constitutes outstanding contemporary filmmaking and as such will offer a much more incisive glimpse into the Hollywood mindset. As for people who love predicting the nominations – which means just about anyone who comes to Awards Daily – the new procedure makes the game more challenging and more fun. In the previous two years no one could claim bragging rights in doing well with predictions because there were no more than a dozen genuine contenders – whittling the list down to 10 was no special accomplishment. But to try to figure out what films have engendered the passion now necessary for a nomination, and how many such movies there are, well, that will be a major challenge and I expect it to be great fun.

Douglas: I’m interested in the new policy to see how many movies get into the Best Picture race before deciding. When you think about it, getting 5% of the voters to make a movie their #1 choice isn’t that hard, especially when you’re considering there may be up to 10 Best Pictures. If any one single movie gets more than 10% of the voters picking it as their #1 then that means there’s a chance there being one less BP nominee, but if you think about how many movies are released and how different people’s opinions are, there seems to be plenty of room for people to love one movie over another. One assumes that this rule would knock out movies like The Blind Side or District 9, but it’s easy to thin that of 6,000 Academy members, at least 350 of them may have seen and loved those movies. Last year’s BP choices could have easily had members split on their favorites because King’s Speech, Social Network, The Fighter, True Grit, Inception, Black Swan, 127 Hours etc. were such different movies. So are The Artist, The Help, Moneyball, The Descendants, Drive, The Tree of Life, etc. Heck, some Academy members may have already decided one of the four of those that have been seen is their favorite movie of the year and no matter what comes out, that won’t change.

I think the only thing we can all agree on without any disagreement is that Pixar is not getting into the Best Picture race. 🙂

Hammond:  I liked ten. Still do.

Harris: Well, they’ve been throwing shit at the wall to see what sticks, and all it’s gotten them is a shit-covered wall. So, yes, I’d love a return to five nominees. Expanding it to ten made last year’s best picture nomination race really boring, and though it may have broadened the definition of “best,” it also lowered the bar. I’m an Oscar traditionalist—I think every time the Academy chases relevance or youth or higher ratings, it fails. That said, I appreciate the element of suspense they’ve added this year, because anything that makes our job as prognosticators harder is fine with me. On nomination day, I want to be surprised as much as I want to be right.

Howell: Expanding on my answer for question 2, I would say that I’m in favour of one more year of experimenting with the Best Picture number. If this year’s event doesn’t produce a demonstrably more interesting race, then the Academy should go back to five Best Picture nominees.

Karger: I’m already on the record as a purist, so I say five is plenty.

Kennedy: The Academy should keep doing whatever it thinks it needs to do to remain relevant, to the extent that it is even still relevant. If something doesn’t work, they need to be ready to tinker with it or toss it out.

Lodge: At this point, it doesn’t matter much to me what number of nominees the Academy decides it wants — seven’s a lucky number, why not go with that? What concerns me is that the frantic adjustment and re-adjustment of the rules in the last two years alone indicates an organisation with no sense of consistency or confidence in itself. Solid, well-run, influential institutions don’t keep shifting the goalposts like this. This is supposedly the most senior, prestigious collective of film professionals in the world — they should be calling the shots, but instead they look desperately concerned about how they’re perceived. Make it five, make it ten, but stick with it and exert some authority.

O’Neil: Oscar should have a Top 10 list just like everybody else, but he should be consistent — have a Top 10 list of directors, writers, actors and actresses too. Where’s the logic in having 10 or 8 nominees for Best Picture, but 5 nominees for Best Director? That’s ridiculous.

Pond: I had big reservations about 10, but I didn’t hate the two years of it — I’m glad most of those extra films got nominated, and I only think one of the 20 nominees was completely undeserving. Yes, eventually we would have had a year with some really cringeworthy nominees, and the new system might prevent that and might prove to be a decent way to fix something that wasn’t particularly broken. Sometimes, throwing shit at the wall makes pretty patterns.

That said, five is more elegant and the nominations mean more. In the long run, that’s probably where it belongs.

Rich: I’m annoyed by the total vagueness for this year, not knowing how many nominees there will be until they’re right in front of you, but it could still make for a more interesting race. I’d be happier if they’d just stick to one thing– the switch away from the 10 after only 2 years is embarrassing– but if this sliding scale winds up being what works, I’m perfectly happy to keep it.

Rogers: Ten had the interesting bonus of painting a fuller picture of the year but it also robbed the nominations of so much speculative drama. A changing number each year should fill all charts and statistics lovers with terror… there’s just no symmetry. Decades and decades and decades of history suggest that five was just fine so my vote is “Retreat! Retreat!” Who knew that Batman could wreak such a long crisis of confidence on an institution that predates him and that doesn’t even care about superheroes!