Way back before the Stone Age, Oscar buzz used to mean, well, Oscar buzz. We all know that so much has changed in the past twenty years, in terms of how the Oscar race is run, how the awards themselves are handed out, the timetable, and even the makeup of the voting members of the Academy. In short, almost everything has changed. The term “Oscar buzz” is still used, albeit mostly by muggles. An entertainment reporter will say “so and so is receiving Oscar buzz” for their performance. But no one who knows about the inner workings of awards campaigning would say that to another person who covers the race. I would never walk up to Greg Ellwood and say “Roma has Oscar buzz.” I wouldn’t say that because first, he wouldn’t need to be told that, and second, the term itself, “Oscar buzz,” has almost completely lost its meaning. What Greg and I would say to each other would be more along the lines of “Wow, that was great. I bet they’re going to go for it in a big way.” Or, Gregory, who hedges his bets more than most, would say something like “It’s great but I wonder if they’ll go for it.” “They” meaning Oscar voters.
Advocating for movies did not used to be the norm for those who covered the race. Those who wanted to be respected as journalists, for instance, would cover the race to monitor what WILL win, rather than what SHOULD win. Now, it’s difficult to find anyone who covers the race who actually covers it like what WILL win, or be nominated, rather than what SHOULD. Despite how often I disagree with him about his picks, for the most part the Hollywood Reporter’s Scott Feinberg is a good example of someone who covers it as objectively as possible. Although he had a hard time with the golden rule of Oscar predicting (and writing as it turns out): to “murder your darlings” — that is, to let go of a movie you absolutely love even when you know logically it can’t win.
But more and more, those who used to pride themselves on being objective aren’t as objective anymore. The term “Oscar buzz” now means, more than anything else, what people who cover the Oscars either like a lot or think Oscar voters will like a lot. That’s a far cry from what the definition used to be, which was actually buzz generated by Oscar voters themselves about what they liked.
Here’s an example. Oscar buzz was once an occasion when voters famously danced in the aisle after watching Chicago and then talked about it. Oscar buzz was rumblings that Titanic had become too big to ignore. Oscar buzz was various Academy members writing about how much they loved Moonlight, even some publishing articles about it. Oscar buzz was not pundits losing their shit over La La Land in Telluride. You see, we who write about the Oscars don’t, try as we might, actually make the Oscar buzz. The best we can do is help to move the movie to the top of the screener pile. You know, like the promise of nudity also sometimes can.
What we do, what critics can sometimes do, is put the movies we think are good in front of voters. We can help do that. What we can’t do is make voters vote for what we like. We are not, despite our best intentions, generators of Oscar buzz. Sure, we try. Studios sell us that way on blurbs for movies. In the end, when you’re talking about thousands of voters, Oscar buzz comes from those voters seeing movies and loving them (like Argo or, sadly, The King’s Speech).
That’s why we are often surprised when the Golden Globe nominations come down and doors start slamming, one after another. Or when we’re really surprised when a movie that no one thought would get in gets in, like last year’s Darkest Hour. If you paid attention to the coffee klatch hive mind on Twitter you would not have predicted Darkest Hour to get in for Best Picture, and you certainly wouldn’t have thought Gary Oldman was going to win.
Someone said to me on Twitter that If Beale Street Could Talk was so beloved that it was going to be a “major contender across the board.” That might turn out to be right. It is certainly worth considering. But folks losing their shit at a film festival, I promise you, does not Oscar buzz make, not until we get more intel on that. Ditto with almost all of the movies in the race. That is why it is so hard to predict right now. We have a lot of options but not a lot of direction. We have a lot of noise on Twitter, a lot of people covering the race, a lot of fans of certain films and performers who want them to get recognized but not a lot of votes clarifying things.
And we have a long way to go. Today’s AFI announcement shows you how far we have to go. If someone said to me on Twitter, as they did today, that the supporting actress category was too crowded already and Amy Adams would not be able to get in, I would think how funny it was that people really thought that right now. We have no idea if it’s crowded or not, what it’s crowded with. We have a lot of people who want it to be crowded with their favorites, and maybe a few names people think might go all the way but nobody knows for sure. The race is ever-shifting, especially now.
The upcoming big beats for the race are:
New York Film Critics (late November)
National Board of Review (late November)
Golden Globe nominations (early December)
If a big movie that’s supposed to win Best Picture misses out on Globes director – well, that happens but it’s rare. It shuts things down pretty quickly. That’s a hard stat that goes all the way back to Crash. And yes, stats can be broken, of course, but if you miss out on this one early on it’s going to be a weird, unpredictable year for the movie in question. But a movie missing out on New York or NBR? Doesn’t matter quite as much. Especially New York. They operate more as influencers than predictors.
Then we get to the big ones. By this point, most things will be pretty much set, give or take a title or two:
SAG (mid December)
You can only hope that, after all of the hype, when the voters put the movies on their screeners over the holiday break, that they are as in love with the movies as the rest of the awards watching community is. If they think it’s overhyped, it won’t do well. Some movies can withstand the hype, others can’t.
But it’s too early to be saying what is and isn’t a “major awards contender across the board” because we just don’t know what movie will soar and what movie will sink. What movie will get hit with hive-mind hysteria and be exiled out of the village, which movie will become the battle cry of voters across the board? Which pick will make them feel better about themselves and their world at large?
So many films already have their advocates. A Star is Born, Roma, First Man, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, If Beale Street Could Talk and Black Panther all have advocates at the highest levels of Oscar punditry. We just don’t know, and can’t know, how much of it is real and how much of it is wishful thinking and an extension of fandom. We won’t know for a while yet. But one thing you can be most certain of is that real bona fide “Oscar buzz” has not yet begun.