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The State of the Race: Are We Heading into a Sweeps Year?

The past few Oscar races have been full of suspense. The sheer number of people writing about the Oscars, predicting them, attempting to influence them has tripled in the last decade, so that it’s sometimes hard to separate what’s real from what’s hype, or agenda-driven advocacy, whether for reasons of personal love or for money.

My dearly departed old friend David Carr and I used to talk about what makes covering the Oscar race great, and what can sometimes make it terrible. His first year covering the race for The New York Times was the year of Brokeback vs. Crash, and that was an exciting one. It was exciting because everyone believed we were on the threshold of some kind of history being made with a film about gay cowboys winning Best Picture. What would that have meant? Well, it would have meant the Academy’s attitudes had dramatically changed.

But Carr felt something was off about it. He’d been talking to Academy members who were planning to vote for Crash. He saw that inside the industry, Crash was a very big deal. In the world of film criticism and Oscar coverage, Brokeback was.  Although the conflict that season was brutal, nobody could say it wasn’t exciting.  But three years later, the Slumdog Millionaire sweep really disappointed David Carr. He found that covering a race where one film keeps winning everything again and again and again was a waste of his time. Even if other categories might hold some suspense, Best Picture was where the “steak and potatoes” was, he would say. He called me just after Slumdog Millionaire played for people in Telluride and he asked me, “So what’s going to happen now?” And I said, “Well, you’re about to see Slumdog Millionaire win every award.” Of course, I was behind Benjamin Button that year and really wanted to see it win but there was no stopping Slumdog. It could charm the pants off anyone, and it did.

Carr was too smart not to get that the larger issue at stake here was naming the Best Film of the Year. He knew that whining about how lackluster the coverage could be was not a particularly admirable thing to be doing — and yet, he was stuck covering it anyway, whether there was a story there or not. Carr was a real journalist and journalists chase stories. The Slumdog Millionaire year was the beginning of David Carr’s waning interest in the Oscar race. Had he hung around to do it, he would have hated covering 2011 when The Artist was winning everything, and he would probably hate 2016, because there is a good chance one movie is about to win everything.  If you’ve been following the talk in recent days, you’ll know that La La Land is that movie.

It’s too early to call it, of course. Don’t engrave the trophies just yet. Slumdog had something La La Land doesn’t have — that element of profound human suffering. La La Land is more along the lines of The Artist, minus the cute dog. All three of these films are charmers, no doubt. But no one can say for sure this is how it’s going to go. Slumdog was an unequivocal winner from the outset, not to mention the all-important likeability factor — everyone involved in it was so nice. Every time Danny Boyle got up to accept another award it was like the clouds parted to reveal sunshine and rainbows. He’s just a sincerely humble, gracious man, so no one ever got tired of seeing him win.

Ideally, the act of casting a vote should make people feel good about what they’re doing. Most people do not vote for something because it’s honorable or artistically daring. They vote because they simply like the movie, or they like the people who made the movie.  It’s a satisfying feeling to reward the people we like. It’s much harder to mark a ballot for a high artistic achievement if voters don’t necessarily enjoy the subject at hand or don’t feel attached to an aloof or unfamiliar filmmaker. Forget it. It hardly ever works that way.

At this point, the question is already being asked here and there: what film, if any, can beat La La Land? Nothing we saw at Telluride can. Next stop, Toronto, the New York Film Festival and AFI. Will anything emerge there? can an unexpected film swoop in from out of nowhere to win everything? Well, here’s the problem. A consensus needs time to build. There isn’t a lot of time in the race anymore since in 2003 the Academy pushed their date forward a month. The idea that an Oscar movie should still be released in the last part of the year has not really altered much.  But the window to build support for those year-end premieres is now tighter. Strategists now know they have to plan early.  For optimal exposure, they need to have their film out there in the conversation before October. Yes, that early. A winner needs time to be seen, loved, argued about, survive any backlash, then be loved again as the best choice.

Films like Zero Dark Thirty that open too late may have everything you could ever want or imagine but then be targeted and taken down with no notice with no time to recover.  If you think of it like the Democratic primary, you can see that there was no way Bernie Sanders was ever going to get enough votes to win the nomination. It wasn’t the DNC’s fault for “conspiring.” It wasn’t Hillary’s fault for (insert your favorite hideous slur here). It was no one’s fault except that America is a country full of 300 million people and building a consensus is hard. Sanders did well, considering, but he never had the ground game — his campaign barely knew the rules of the game to urge voters to register on time or to get the people who gathered at rallies to show up at the polls. Hillary had been doing it longer, knew the game a lot better, played it better and got 4 million more votes. She had the consensus because she was better at building it. If you want a consensus in the Oscar race, your movie has to be out early.

On the other hand, surprises can always occur. They’re surprises because you don’t see them coming, obviously. Thus, no one out there ever knows if we are in for a year where an early movie beats a late entry. Even last year, that rule applied — and most of the pundits out there forgot about it. They thought The Revenant would have to win Best Picture because it had the momentum and it had the buzz. In the traditional way the Oscar race works that would be true. But with more than five nominees for Best Picture, with the preferential ballot and the shortened awards schedule, there was no way The Revenant could have won Best Picture. What if the release pattern had been reversed? Let’s say The Revenant had been seen in Telluride and Spotlight was the later released film trying to rally enough support and buzz to win. Well, if The Revenant had been seen in Telluride it would have gotten a better start because it would have built word of mouth. Still, if people felt as divided on it then as they did when it opened, probably The Revenant would never have entered the race as the frontrunner. It still doesn’t win because it was so divisive. People loved it or they hated it.

So what if Spotlight had landed late and not in Telluride? I think we all know it would have gotten swallowed up in the hype of the last part of the year and probably would not have won. So what would have won? It’s hard to say. Maybe something completely different from either those two or even The Big Short. Maybe Brooklyn would have won. Who knows? The point is that everyone loved Spotlight in September, even if it wasn’t the most exciting choice.

Even Gravity, which opened early, had the buzz, had the excitement, and had the consensus heading in couldn’t beat 12 Years a Slave in the end — and that you have to put down to the preferential ballot. Gravity, like The Revenant, is a number 1 movie more than it is a number 2 or 3. Spotlight is a number 1 and a number 2 and a number 3. It’s always going to score high on many of the ballots. Not so with films that people passionately love, because the flipside of that passion can be hate.

As of now, we have our frontrunner. The only thing that can really work against La La Land is that it’s slim on gravitas. After The Artist won we know that gravitas comes second to charm, if there is no viable competition. I give a lot of credit to the people backing these movies. They likely know because they’ve seen all of the competing films whether they have a winner on their hands or whether there is any movie to worry about.

Remember two things about La La Land. 1) It’s not an uplifting film particularly. It’s sad. Nonetheless, the sensation of spirited joy it leaves you with is going to be hard to beat. Any film that beats it will have to have something more to offer.  I think if it were me, the only movies I’d be really worried about would be Loving and Moonlight — because both deal with slightly deeper issues than La La Land tackles.

Other movies to worry about would be: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Fences, and Silence.

The problem is, there is a lot of time left. There are a lot of awards to be handed out and things are going to begin to change quickly, week to week. With so many journalists and bloggers covering the race, they are going to need to chase stories. With no stories to chase, there might have to be stories made up. In the end, though, it always just comes down to people sitting in a theater watching a movie. Telluride is a great indication of how that goes. The demographic of the attendees mirrors the Academy and in fact, many Academy members do make the trek to Colorado. Right now, as we speak, the consensus is building around La La Land. Friends are telling friends to see it. Whatever movie challenges it has to be able to undo that. Not an easy feat to accomplish in a very short amount of time.

Deep breath. We’ve only just begun.