Everybody wants to rule the world.
Maybe the worst thing about the Oscar race is how we build up contenders to impossible heights before the season has begun. I feel it necessary to remind everyone this time of year what Oscar predicting used to be and what’s it’s become. I can do this since I showed up right at the beginning, fifteen years ago when the only Oscar predictions online came from Zeusefer, Tom O’Neil’s Gold Derby and the print happenings, including Kenneth Turan at the LA Times, and probably Anne Thompson when she worked at Premiere. Siskel and Ebert also famously did them.
The difference between then and now, other than Oscar season “starting” the March after the Oscars, is that many pundits freely predict films that not only they haven’t they seen, but films that no one has seen. This creates, year after year, unrealistic expectations for films out of the gate. The reason being, it sets up the dynamic for the scrappy underdog to win the whole thing. To me, that seems to defeat the whole purpose of rewarding “best.” The big win has very little to do with the film that will have the best chance at a lasting legacy heading into the future but, rather, with a kind of a virus that catches hold and doesn’t really pass until the Oscars end.
To that end, the job of publicists and studios now is to “manage expectations.” Because once anyone starts even mentioning films “in the conversation” that translates to “Oscar buzz” and before you know it, people are walking around saying “I hear that movie is supposed to be big with the Oscars this year — huh, really? THAT?” You can see how fast word travels and how expectations rise too high too fast. No film can really live up to them unless they’re Schindler’s List or Return of the King. Even Titanic, after all, had lowered expectations heading into the race.
That’s why the hype machine is being tamped down a bit on George Clooney’s Monuments Men. The word is that it’s a jaunty, breezy thriller like oh, I don’t know, another movie that was a jaunty, breezy thriller that, oh, I don’t know, WON BEST PICTURE LAST YEAR.
Add to that, Clooney, Nazis, a period piece, you can see how that movie would zoom right to the top of the the lists of Oscar watchers. Clooney opted out of directing Argo to direct Monuments Men. Though he’s been hit and miss with garnering enough Oscar favor to bring one of his films to a win, if he passed over Argo for this you have to figure it’s a good one. Moreover, Clooney and Co. had the HFPA out for a set visit, as well as Jeff Wells, which means it’s going square to the heart of Oscar season. But I don’t think Clooney, or Sony, would be wrong to try to tamp down expectations. This is our own problem — and one filmmakers shouldn’t really have to deal with — but they do now have to manage our expectations. It’s an unfair aspect to an ever evolving industry but it is a reality.
No one is going to enjoy The Monuments Men much if they think it’s going for Oscar’s big win. In fact, that is almost a surefire way to get people to think your movie ain’t all that. The movies that tend to take the race are those that (supposedly) no one sees coming. The ideal model for this is Slumdog Millionaire, which had the added benefit of having an “Oscar story” that had it nearly going straight to video before audiences could see it. This almost happened with Silver Linings Playbook last year. But once it hit Toronto the hype machine went into overdrive, effectively killing its chances to be that little movie that could.
So the Oscar race went like this: Spielberg’s Lincoln, the film that should have won, but voters, for whatever reason, didn’t “like” it enough so they looked for an alternative. Zero Dark Thirty? Yeah, no. Silver Linings Playbook? Nope. Life of Pi? Almost, but no. Argo? Bingo. They anointed it around the time the Broadcast Film Critics and Golden Globe voters did, which was exactly the same time the Academy “snubbed” Ben Affleck. The narrative, plus the likability of the movie, plus the underdog status of the contender equaled Oscar gold.
How to make that work in your favor this early is very nearly impossible, but Clooney and Co. are doing what they can to thwart those expectations. Meanwhile, The Monuments Men might show up a little later in the year but doesn’t look to be positioning itself on the fest circuit.
Another reason Clooney might not be trying, or wanting, to crowd the Oscar race prematurely is to make more room for Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity. It just seems like something Clooney would do, especially since he was deeply involved with making that film a success, meaning, he took time to work through script issues with them long after he’d stopped working on it as an actor. I just have a feeling he might not want to cock-block Cuaron’s film, which he might want to see earn Oscar recognition.
On the other hand, Clooney as director is way overdue for a big win. I know several high profile bloggers who are calling it right now for either Monuments Men or American Hustle. Either way, it can’t really hurt the film, I figure. It’s a win/win for Clooney.
But what can Oscar bloggers do to help stem the tide? Not much. You can’t put that genie back in the bottle. It’s already out there. Even if several of us decide not to go all in for building up sight unseen frontrunners, there are many more people who will rush in to make those predictions. Why does it matter? Who knows. The Oscars have become a profitable industry in and of themselves, beyond buying ad space on Hollywood Reporter and Variety as they used to do.
Moreover, the Oscar race now stands apart from the sea of branded tent-poles that are coming out of Hollywood. Any good movie now must be guided towards the Oscar race, whether it’s considered a frontrunner or not. The mere whiff of Oscar will drive ticket buyers to see it. Oscar buzz does still count for something, even on the smallest possible scale.
Someone on Twitter asked me if I thought there would be any surprise Best Picture nominees and the answer to that is, well, no. Not really. You either see them coming from a mile away (The Artist, No Country for Old Men) or else you see them at Telluride or Toronto. Even films that might have been deemed surprises in another time and place fifteen years ago will show up on prediction lists months before. Even a little movie like Beasts of the Southern Wild might seem like a surprise to some, but if you were reading this site you would have known it was anything but.
Last year, this is how the first ever Gurus of Gold list went:
1. Zero Dark Thirty
2. Les Miserables
4. Moonrise Kingdom
5. Beasts of the Southern Wild
7. Anna Karenina
8. The Master
9. Life of Pi
10. Django Unchained
12. Silver Linings Playbook
13. Cloud Atlas
14. Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
By September, heading into Toronto, the list was becoming clearer. Obviously, after Toronto Silver Linings would climb and Cloud Atlas would drop off. But many of these films had not yet been seen by the time this list went out. Not Django, not Anna Karenina (I don’t think), not Les Miserables, not Zero Dark Thirty, not Lincoln. I could be wrong but I suspect we all saw these films a bit later.
The year previously, the gurus chart around this time was:
1. War Horse (sight unseen)
2. The Ides of March (sight unseen)
3. The Artist (seen at Cannes.)
4. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (sight unseen)
5. The Descendants (not yet seen? Telluride.)
6. Midnight in Paris (seen)
7. J. Edgar (sight unseen)
8. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (maybe seen in the UK?)
9. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (not seen)
10. Tree of Life (seen at Cannes)
Missing: The Help, Hugo, Moneyball
1. Inception (seen)
2. The King’s Speech (seen)
3. Toy Story 3 (seen)
4. The Kids Are All Right (seen, Sundance)
5. The Social Network (seen)
6. Black Swan (not seen)
7. True Grit (not seen)
8. Another Year (seen, Cannes)
9. 127 Hours (not seen)
10. Winter’s Bone (seen, Sundance)
Quite optimistic of us to put Inception at number 1, eh? Missing from this, The Fighter.
And the year before that, the Gurus top 15:
The Hurt Locker
Up in the Air
The Lovely Bones
Bright Star (I actually did add this to my list but too late perhaps)
A Serious Man
Capitalism: A Love Story
Julie & Julia
Where the Wild Things Are
The Tree of Life
500 Days of Summer
The Fantastic Mr. Fox
Missing: The Blind Side
In looking back over these years, when the jump to ten Best Picture nominees made it decidedly easier to predict the Best Picture race, the Gurus often miss the more popular entertainment that can sometimes make the jump, like The Help, like The Blind Side.
The Gurus will be going up this year, once again, some time before Toronto. How accurate will they be?
It will probably go something like:
Wolf of Wall Street
Saving Mr. Banks
12 Years a Slave
Inside Llewyn Davis
Dallas Buyers Club
All is Lost
That is my best guess, but we’ll find out soon enough.