The first thing you have to know about the SAG nominations is that this isn’t an example of lack of diversity — no other guild has been more diverse in their choices – SAG nominated The Butler and 12 Years a Slave last year, for example. They awarded Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer and The Help in 2011. I would be the first person to bang my fists in the air if I thought shenanigans were going on — but the truth of it is that Selma, one of the strongest contenders in the race, played extremely well for the SAG voters but the nominating committee, which is randomly selected from all over the country, did not get screeners of the film and could not see it.
This is another reason why I’m always carping about late comers to the race. All of this stuff starts really early — which is why Telluride is the place you want to be when the Oscar race kicks off. It’s doubly hard to break in once things get rolling – it can be done but it’s tough.
That said, their choices reflect our early consensus of the race, you know the one where everyone started calling it boring and predictable? You know, the one where everyone kept saying Oscar pundits didn’t know what they were doing by placing the same films over and over again? It’s true that there are films that creeping in from the sidelines that pundits are likely overlooking, like Nightcrawler. But for the most part, the Oscar train is the Oscar train, which is why some of us – ahem – champion things that are iffy early on.
We knew that Best Picture was led by the foursome – we knew this out of Telluride:
The Imitation Game
The Theory of Everything
Every Oscar pundit out there – from the boring traditionalists to the wacky outsiders to the advocates. It’s just the core of the thing – each film pushed by the most powerful Oscar publicists in the business. Two of them are the champions — Oscar’s Best Picture almost always goes to one of three: and they’re almost always the same publicists who come up every year – I don’t think I’ve seen a movie win Best Picture without one of the big name strategists behind them. One of them has two movies this year, Birdman and Boyman (or Boyman) and though people look at those movies and think Fox Searchlight and IFC Films what they really are is being managed by Oscar strategists hired by the studios. These four films have been carefully carried like eggs starting way back in September.
If you don’t have one of them on your movie you aren’t going to be placed in the race. It’s as simple as that and most people don’t know it.
Still, you can have a badass strategist, push really hard and still not get in there. The reason the big ones get on these particular films is that 1) they know they have a film Oscar voters will love (see how easy it is to play this game?) or 2) they are connected to the studio and required to push their films. You can get lucky or unlucky that way. My MVP vote for best volley in the wake of impending disaster are the two badass teams behind Interstellar and Unbroken. You want to see publicity played well with an iffy film? There you go.
Gone Girl does not have an Oscar strategy team behind it pushing it. You notice that there is no publicity but for a few FYC ads? That’s a non-campaign, likely because pundits think it isn’t good enough (insert 95% of my year’s coverage here). The Oscar race is built for people who want it, and need it, either for a power grab or a career boost or because they are just plain happy that so many people want to award their film. It’s always a mistake, though, to infuse the game with any more meaning that what it is – a consensus vote. Sometimes great things can happen. Sometimes it all goes according to plan and this looks like it’s one of those years. But to me, writing only about that would be akin to repeatedly banging my head against the wall like Channing Tatum in Foxcatcher.
Selma has one of the best teams in the business but if you don’t have screeners ready in time for SAG, you don’t have screeners to send them. They had the same problem with Wolf of Wall Street last year.
The harder job is pushing “fringe” films into the race – which many of the best and the brightest have done all year long. You can push and push and push (All is Lost, Inside Llewyn Davis) and still be met with voters who are fickle around the holidays and wanting to watch movies that will entertain the whole family. They’re sitting around their crackling hearth fire and do they really want to watch movies that they have to think about or are in any way uncomfortable or cold? No, they want the cinematic embodiment of that line in It’s a Wonderful Life — “to my brother George, the richest man in town.”
Of course, movies that don’t give the hearth glow can win sometimes if the win itself creates its own hearth glow – the first woman, the first film by a black director, etc.
The last film in the lineup is The Grand Budapest Hotel, which earns its ensemble nod with one of the best casts of the year by far. They fall under the Fox Searchlight banner, though they don’t have the key strategist on this movie that’s on Birdman but they have been pushing it as hard as possible. It’s one of the best films of the year and deserves the push. Say what you will about Scott Rudin after the now infamous Sony hack but he’s behind Grand Budapest Hotel and Inherent Vice – two of the year’s most exciting offerings.
Our MVP players for this morning’s SAG awards goes to the team behind The Judge – a tireless, faithful campaign. And it’s best described by this Facebook exchange.
I think Chocolat was a stroke of genius but I really would have to put The Reader up as the biggest Weinstein coup I’ve ever seen – and lest we never forget, credit to Weinstein’s former strategist Lisa Taback.
To that end, my friends, the fix is always in where these big awards are concerned. People maybe think they drop out of the sky but they don’t. I always think about that line in Citizen Kane — “People will think…” “What I tell them to think.” Many times, the movies sell themselves and need a good push to put them over the edge, like Slumdog Millionaire or The Artist. But for most of the movies that appear in the consensus by pundits and in the nominations you see today are part of a much larger machine that picks and chooses which movies they know voters will like. Telluride, Venice and Toronto are good testing grounds for this. If you have an audience favorite you know you can push it – in that way, it is like the horse races.
But if you have a movie people keep saying “they” won’t like, a difficult sit or a challenging, divisive work? No amount of publicity can get those movies in. And that is why the Oscar race is merely a reflection of publicity and popularity, that sometimes gets lucky in rewarding great works of art and great performances that stand the test of time.
When nominations come out, we pundits always think about the publicists involved – to us, they are the ones who get rewarded but for very few moments of surprising brilliance that come out of nowhere.
So don’t worry so much about the lack of Selma love here – all you need to know is that it played extremely well at the SAG screening.
All these SAG noms did, for the most part, is confirm what we already knew about many things. Jake Gyllenhaal took David Oyelowo’s spot but I’m not sure the same dynamic will play out for the Oscars. Jennifer Aniston took Hilary Swank’s spot but I’m not sure the same will play out at the Oscars. You know what you’ve known for months. That is part of what makes this year so rote.
The thing you should know about St. Vincent and The Judge, though? They are enormous crowd pleasing films that pundits forgot. Why? Because neither has the “cool” factor. They are like the kinds of movies the Oscar race used to honor before the critics started getting so heavily involved and shaping the consensus more towards the cool factor and away from traditionalism. That Imitation Game and Theory of Everything show up so strongly here, along with The Judge and St. Vincent, reminds me how the game used to look way back when. And it’s making me a chuckle a little, have to admit.
Since it’s just a confirmation, there doesn’t seem to be much to get excited about. I know it will be a thrill to see Boyhood and Patricia Arquette win. If there ever was a film that deserved to win awards because of the hard work involved, it’s that one.
My Best Picture predictions:
The Imitation Game
The Theory of Everything
The Grand Budapest Hotel