Scene One: A few Oscar bloggers were at an event in Santa Barbara. One said, “I hear that movie is moving to next year.” The other one said, “But that’s just a rumor. Can’t be trusted.” The other one said, “Well, what if it’s true? Is the movie in trouble?”
That movie turned out to be Joy. The rumors persisted, both on Twitter and in a few columns here or there. But the movie was coming as planned; that seemed to be the confirmation.
Scene Two: Kyle Buchanan’s tweet about Best Actress:
Funny thing is that there’s no overwhelming Best Actress frontrunner yet. Is everyone simply getting out of J Law’s way?
— Kyle Buchanan (@kylebuchanan) October 5, 2015
(Sidenote: In reading Kyle’s feed I learned he loved Danish Girl, soft on Bridge of Spies).
Scene Three: A person from AwardsWatch.com (not to be confused with Oscarwatch that became AwardsDaily) attends a test screening of Joy and sends an over the top rave to Jeff Wells at Hollywood-Elsewhere who then posts it on his site.
In a few short days, Joy went from a movie that might not even be coming out this year to the frontrunner to beat, for Best Actress at least, but maybe for other categories. What are we to make of all of this?
I appreciate people who aren’t as jaded and experienced about how the Oscar race really works. Those of us who have been in the trenches a long time know that Oscar movies aren’t built on one random guy walking out of a test screening. They aren’t necessarily built on a more qualified person’s opinion either. The race is mostly run by those who get paid to run it. In some sense the fix is in but it’s only in because the hired guns know the films have the stuff. Occasionally they can get a stinker in on reputation alone but usually they’re peddling a good product that they know Oscar will like. That is, if they can. And here are the two more important words you need to know about the Oscars: “manage expectation.”
There is only one thing that can kill an otherwise formidable Oscar contender and that’s hype. And right now, hype has never been harder to control. The reason? Test screenings are incredibly easy to crash if you’re “in the industry” even in a peripheral way. I could go to any of them any time I wanted, for instance. Once a movie is seen, the reactions are pitched to various websites or splooged on Twitter. Jeff Wells is the go-to guy right now for these kinds of reactions. He posts them, no matter who sends them.
Two steps take place in the process before voters fill out their ballots. First, critics have to see it. Granted, critics ain’t what they used to be. Any old person can be a critic and get on Rotten Tomatoes and have their voice counted as legit. Therefore, the line is blurred between what used to be a vast expanse of difference between your average test screening person and your average critic. They are kind of the same now. The critics have lost a lot of their power except in the aggregate — a CinemaScore-esque measure of evaluating thumbs up or thumbs down.
The second step is that voters have to see the movie. If you walk in to see Joy as your average person in a test screening, especially on the heels of a rumor that the movie might get pushed to next year, you are going in with LOWERED EXPECTATIONS. But if you’re an industry voter going in with the expectations that this is finally going to win David O. Russell the Oscar and that Jennifer Lawrence is definitely winning her second lead actress Oscar in a few short years? Your will be watching it with HEIGHTENED EXPECTATIONS, thus laden a film with unfair baggage that must then live up to those expectations, meet or exceed them.
Very few films can meet expectations when positioned in the Oscar race now. Because of the hype machine that starts early there are a lot of hungry mouths to feed and nowhere near enough food to go around. This is likely the reason the Best Picture winner is often the overlooked girl next door that no one is expecting to win rather than either the frontrunner or the overhyped films that come out later in the year.
People send Jeff Wells their screening reports because they know he will value them almost as much as a regular review from a legit critic. That’s one hell of a power boost, no? The reason I don’t post them is because I’ve seen them be so wrong so many times I feel it wastes time and artificially inflates or deflates expectations. All those reactions tell me is that a particular kind of person saw a movie and either liked it or hated it. But those people aren’t usually the kind of people who vote on films. That probably makes me a stick in the mud but I’d prefer to dwell closer to ground.
Hype destroys perfectly good films. It often results in comments like, “It wasn’t THAT good.” How do you measure enthusiasm? You measure it by looking more at what a lot of people think versus what one or two people think. Oh if only the Oscars were about what I personally thought.
That said, there is a good chance the sploogfest is right on the money for once and that Jennifer Lawrence WILL win and that the movie is a slam dunk Oscar contender. There is no reason to think it won’t be, considering David O. Russell’s recent run of nominations with no wins. They — the industry — clearly like him and his movies. It’s not outside the realm of possibility.
It’s just that the one lesson I’ve learned in the 16 years I’ve been at this game: the less the hype machine focuses on your movie, the better. The best strategists know that you fly under the radar and keep out of shooting range. That isn’t going to stop the hype machine. Nothing will stop it. It is only October, after all.
That said, I’m really looking forward to seeing it at a screening.