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The State of the Race – “Just Make us Look Good”

The Academy has a problem. It’s a big problem. It’s a problem that is hurting American film, dividing movielovers from the industry, setting itself up to be no more relevant to the changing world at large than the Tonys, a niche awards show that only people who are interested in theater care about. Great if you care about theater. The Oscars are now becoming that. The reason? Their choices for what they like has become so limited they are literally writing themselves out of film and cultural history as we speak. The Golden Globes matter more. The Critics Choice, dare I say it, matter more. Why? Because they do not continue year after year to confirm the notion of the outmoded “Oscar movie.” We all know what that is. People joke about what that is. Yet, they can’t help themselves. They pick what they like and what they like, now, are movies about people they like – and that means, more and more, it comes down to movies about white men.

Last year, Harvey Weinstein brought forth Fruitvale Station and The Butler. He dressed Ryan Coogler up in a nice suit, gave him the full Weinstein treatment with the best publicity money could buy. The Butler made money. It was a film about civil rights, a subject not often brought into the Oscar race. Sure, the critics were MEH on The Butler but they liked Fruitvale Station, not that it matters much. Not that it ever matters because all it took was a return to form for the Weinstein Co with the pre-packaged for Oscar Imitation Game. Importance? Check. A persecuted gay man. A period film involving Nazis? Oh, yes. CHECK and CHECK and CHECK! Heartfelt story with a man who overcomes obstacles? CHECK. Disability? CHECK. So the Weinstein Co. rises once again after being taught an important lesson about what kinds of movies Oscar voters like. Lesson learned. If you want to rise to power in this town, you mostly have to make a movie that makes the white guys who dominate them look good.

Still, nothing could really prepare people for the weird stuff that happened with the Oscar announcements – some of it good (Marion Cotillard, Song of the Sea, Beyond the Lights, Selma for Best Picture, Bennett Miller for Best Director) some of it unbearably bad and disappointing, so many doors closed, so many missed opportunities.

Just make us look good.

What you are seeing play out is the damage the preferential balloting system the Academy put in place in 2011 because voters complained that they could not find 10 films to honor in the years when they offered voters ten slots for nominations. That should have been their first clue something was deeply wrong. If they couldn’t even find ten movies they liked as the independent and foreign film world exploded around them. Because the industry enables Oscar voters in every way, from dumbing down our own choices in the pundit world to fit “The Oscar Movie” mold, to the way the Academy, a respectful and well-run establishment, deals with its members. You can see how dramatically their choices have impacted the Oscar industry by looking at the years when they had ten slots to fill for nominations — where they could step outside their comfort zones and vote for films that weren’t necessarily in their “wheelhouse” and the years since. Read it and weep, folks.

You can see that the new system never includes any animated film, nor does it include, except for Gravity, any genre movies. It reinforces the worst character weaknesses of the Academy’s voting body by emphasizing them, highlighting them, creating an unfair landscape to compete because voters picking five is the same old way voters used to vote for decades, you know, back when Oscar movies weren’t only about white dudes? Expanding to ten nomination slots allowed them to move with the times at least, to pick movies that didn’t exist simply to confirm that they’re well meaning good guys who overcame obstacles to succeed.

Choosing ten opened up the possibilities, not just for women filmmakers but for subject matter. Do you think in the new system Winter’s Bone would have gotten in? How about District 9? Not a chance in hell. Not even Inception, probably. Every so often a movie cracks through and breaks the mold because frankly, their directors are kings in Hollywood, like Scorsese, like Tarantino, like Eastwood. But do they really want it to be a boy’s club? Did they not like having An Education, The Kids Are All Right, Winter’s Bone in the mix for Best Picture? What in god’s name is the plan here?

It’s one thing to have shut out Kathryn Bigelow in 2012 for Zero Dark Thirty. After all, the Academy already did the “woman thing” in 2009 – giving her Best Director. What more did women want? It’s a whole other thing to shut out Ava DuVernay for Selma, who would have been the first black director to not only hit really big with critics, not only tell the story of Martin Luther King, Jr. but also to really break through and attempt to build a bridge between black and white audiences. The Academy found it in their hearts to give Selma a Best Picture nomination, which it richly deserved. But in almost every way down the line this morning they went with the white guy/good guy dynamic, shutting out all sociopaths – Foxcatcher, Nightcrawler and Gone Girl. Complex narratives about complicated people. They like good people who make them good, which partly explains why Marion Cotillard, playing someone heroic in Two Day and One Night took the place of Jennifer Aniston, playing a not so likable character.

The reason it’s harder for movies about unlikable characters to get into the Oscar race now is the preferential ballot. It’s really time for them to dump it and go back to five, or preferably a solid ten, just to encourage them to overcome their own ingrained preference, which is the thing that is killing them from the inside out. They are selecting themselves out from the broader culture at large by sticking to the traditional “Oscar Movie” model which doesn’t reward daring, nor does it allow for them to reward films about the darker sides of the human experience. So they are, in effect, one big Stanley Kramer award for heroic films about heroic people. They no longer lead the industry. The industry must coddle, placate and enable THEIR choices. They set certain movies aside for their older white leaning voters and they go about their business making films the public likes.

Imitation Game and American Sniper will make money. And for a while it will look like everything is running as it should. Until you bend down and look closer and see how it all really works. Then you start think, huh, what is really going on here? What’s going on? The “Oscar movie” continues to thrive inside an industry that accepts their limitations.

The preferential ballot has actually make the Oscars a less daring and interesting group than the Hollywood Foreign Press and the Critics Choice. We also know that it’s more profitable to win a Globe than an Oscar — see this stat:

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The two awards shows that are really showing up the Oscars these days – The Golden Globes and the Critics Choice have an advantage because they aren’t beholden to the preferential ballot, for one thing, and because their members are tapped in to what’s happening around them. Very little in the Oscar race this year, in the Best Picture lineup, is going to tell you a single thing about American culture.

They are cut off from the ticket buyers because — except for movies like Gone Girl — the industry has given itself over to tent poles that play well in South Korea and China – places where they’re making their own movies at home that are independent or romance or dramas but from America, they mostly like the popcorn movie. They are competing with an international market that wants movies to be amusement parks – can you blame them, really? I certainly can’t. Why should they give two shits about the turmoils of the American experience? They make more money off people who only go to the movies to escape and have fun.

They are cut off from the changing demographics pulsating through American independent film and foreign language films — which are kicking our ass. One of the best things to happen to the Oscar race this morning, not that I agree with the Jennifer Aniston snub, was Marion Cotillard in for Two Days, and One Night. Why does it matter? Because the Dardennes made a film where a woman is the hero. She is the one who really drives the plot and she does so not because she’s married to a guy but because she’s fighting for her job and the survival of her family. The film manages to explore the crippling economic woes in Europe while giving a woman the chance to actually show that she’s a human being first. That’s incredible. And rare and certainly hasn’t happened in American film in a very very long time. Probably the reason Cotillard got in are all of the Europeans that make up part of the actors branch in the Academy.

The Best Picture race is a sad and sorry affair, I’m afraid to report. Only one Best Picture nominee has a Best Actress nominee in it and that’s The Theory of Everything. Gone Girl would have been the other, Wild might have been another, but no. Forget it.

The demographics don’t change much because you see this slate of nominees today? Count the demographics for the ugly truth – more of the same…

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They closed the door on the first black woman to be nominated for Best Director, and the first woman to adapt her own novel into a screenplay, something that has never happened in 87 years of Oscar history. Gone Girl made $168 million at the box office. It brought adult ticket-buyers out to the movies. It had everyone talking. It made an impression. It showed that the shrinking world of adult dramas at the movies aren’t dead, that it isn’t only about tent poles. It gave women like me – grown women with thinking brains – something to think about. Why did it get shut out? Because it was the cinematic equivalent of a kick in the balls, because it made men feel small, because they could not buy Ben Affleck staying with Rosamund Pike because they don’t want to admit what they all live with every day. They want to escape from that to a world where they can matter.

When you are born into white male privilege you are taught from birth that you matter. Movies reinforce this by always putting the under-confident loser in the winner’s seat. That plays out again and again in Hollywood movies. Ava DuVernay made the mistake of making her film Selma about the black savior for once, not the white savior. In fact, her movie was perceived as diminishing the memory of LBJ while celebrating the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr. She was “punished” for breaking the code of “make us look good.” All of the movies that ever get in to the Best Picture race mostly make the white guys look good – look what happens if you don’t: Do the Right Thing, The Color Purple, Fruitvale Station. But if you do? Mississippi Burning, Gone with the Wind.

The preferential ballot with 5 to 9 nominees has failed. It’s failed the Academy. It’s failed women. It’s failed people of color. It has cost them their reputation as the American public has just gotten one step closer to writing them off.

If voters have the option of reaching beyond their “previous 5” they will surprise you with what they’re capable of honoring, I promise.

And now, on to the race for the win where Boyhood will stare down Birdman and the Imitation Game will rally to upset them both.