I assembled a group of smart Oscar watchers, critics, bloggers and journalists to kick off our 2012/2013 series of Oscar Roundtable. It’s a bittersweet resurrection, without the captain of our ship, the dearly departed Damien Bona. We’re heading into an unpredictable year with two forces speeding directly towards one another: the best year for Hollywood and independent film alike, and an uncharacteristically early Oscar ballot deadline, before either the PGA or the DGA announce their awards.

Our panel includes:
Brad Brevet – Rope of Silicon
Phil Contrino – Box Office
Clayton Davis – Awards Circuit
Mark Harris – Grantland, Entertainment Weekly, New York Magazine
Pete Howell – The Toronto Star
Craig Kennedy – Living in Cinema
Guy Lodge – In Contention, Variety
Tom O’Neil – Gold Derby
David Poland – Movie City News
Steve Pond – The Wrap
Katey Rich – Cinema Blend

1. If you accept the notion that studio films are better this year than they were last year, do you think that means the smaller films like Beasts of the Southern Wild, The Sessions and Moonrise Kingdom might have a harder time standing out?

Brevet: I assume by studio you’re talking about the majors because I’ve come to look at Weinstein Co., Fox Searchlight and Focus as close to being majors as you can get, especially come Oscar time. I think Beasts, Sessions and Moonrise have very good chances at Best Picture noms, Beasts will get an acting nom and Sessions will likely get Actor, Actress and then some. Yet, your next question does pose some worries.

Contrino: Absolutely. When you have the likes of LINCOLN, ARGO and LES MISERABLES in the race, it’s going to be very hard for small films to stand out.

Davis: When it comes to smaller pictures, the stars and the films need the critics to back them considerably.  What hurts Beasts of the Southern Wild and Moonrise Kingdom is not so much there cinematic scale but a rather mute talk-of-the-town at the moment and an early release date.  Both films, though completely worthy of citation, have not sustained the way the studios would have hoped.  Big epics like LincolnLife of Pi, and Flight have either a high-profile actor/director attached or beloved source material.  I think the small scale films will have a hard time staying afloat with the studios raising the bar for themselves.

Harris: I think that in a strong year for studio films, smaller movies would have a harder time standing out if they didn’t have marketing and campaign money behind them–but that very clearly will not be a problem for Beasts of the Southern Wild, Moonrise Kingdom, or The Sessions. Given that, I believe that movies in the Oscar race stand out because of many things–originality, emotional impact, a stunning performance you need to see, a subject that shakes you up. Precious was a “smaller” film. So was The Hurt Locker. But they were big films for the people who loved them, which is what mattered.

Howell: I’m not sure if studio films are necessarily better this year than last.  There are good and bad films in every year.  Maybe there are just more indie films that are clamoring for awards attention. I’d love to see Holy Motors get on more Oscar radars.  In any event, I don’t think Beasts of the Southern Wild, The Sessions and Moonrise Kingdom will have a harder time than they might otherwise.  It’s still early going, and I don’t see any slam-dunk Best Picture winners yet.  Lots of potential nominees, but no obvious winners.

Kennedy: I do think it will be hard to compete with big, easy-to-like crowd pleasers like Argo, Silver Linings and Lincoln in the running. Smaller movies have a greater chance of coming through the filmmaking process with their unique rough edges and personal quirks intact. These are the kinds of things that inspire both passion among their fans and criticism from their detractors. The passion can be more intense, but it risks being less wide spread. I predict it’ll be harder for those movies to break through when there are so many movies that seem to be well liked if not loved by lots of people.

Lodge:  I’m not sure I do accept that notion, but then I’m also not entirely sure what counts as a “studio film” these days. Take a film like Magic Mike: for my money it’s the best film released this year by one of the Big Six studios, but it was more or less independently produced. Okay, so that’s barely in the Oscar frame, but even a potential big studio kahuna like Les Miserables is only being distributed, not produced, by Universal. I personally don’t think the studios’ in-house productions have been up to much this year, though there are those who insist the Academy would do themselves proud to nominate uninspired blockbusters like The Avengers or The Dark Knight Rises. (Skyfall, which is far better than either, will have similar cheerleaders in the blogosphere.) With regard to the Oscar race, voters respond to what they respond to — I don’t think they see independent film as a back-up plan for when the studios don’t deliver. A film like Beasts of the Southern Wild, whose appeal is directly emotional, would hook the same band of fans in a weak or strong year for major releases.

O’Neil: Studio films are good this year, yes, but Oscar voters display a persistent bias toward the smaller films — probably as a way of insisting to us that they’re brainier, cooler, more artsy than they really are. If they were truly kewl, they’d go  for “Dark Knight Rises.”

Poland: I don’t agree with the premise.  Only if we assume that Les Mis & 0D30 are machines that can’t be stopped, there’s Argo locked in for studios.  That is, unless you want to count DreamWorks… an independent producer… as a major studio because they release through Disney.  Don’t think that anyone did that for the Weinsteins while they distributed through MGM.

In the end, the smaller films you mentioned will rise or fall (be nominated or not) based on their own strengths and weaknesses.  I think that The Intouchables has a better chance than any of those 3 for a Best Picture nomination.  Has nothing to do with where they came from, how much they cost, or who is releasing them.  Beasts has the best chance of a BP nod of the 3 you mention because it’s a passion film, not because it’s bigger or smaller or whatever.

Pond: Oscar voters, even the old ones, aren’t biased against little movies. Isn’t that  why the field was expanded to 10, in the hopes that it’d force them to  occasionally nominate a big-studio flick? I think Beasts still has a better shot  than Dark Knight — if you’re a little film that can stir up passion the way  that one did, you’ll be fine regardless of who released your competition.

The key will be getting voters to see the little films if the voters also feel  enticed by lots of bigger studio productions. But the little guys seem to be  better at this game than the big guys, so I wouldn’t worry about them too much.

Rich: Yeah, I think that will be pretty significant, especially if the big studio movies still to come (Les Miserables, Zero Dark Thirty, Life of Pi, even Skyfall) wind up being huge hits. Neither of the three indies you list have the kind of overwhelming support that can keep them consistently afloat, though I’d argue Beasts is still in a pretty strong position, and The Sessions has its acting nominations guaranteed. It’s honestly a relief to see the studios step up to the plate with quality this year, so I’ll be OK if the Oscars reflect that too.

2. Given that we won’t know how many nominees for Best Picture there will be, but there were nine last year, do you think we’ll be seeing a big slate again since there are so many good movies this year?

Brevet:  I think to say “since there are so many good movies this year” is a bit of a misconception. We are talking about the Academy, “good” movies has little to do with it and I can’t tell if your use of the word “good” is in place of the word “great”. Some of the better movies such as Killing Them Softly, End of Watch and Magic Mike are likely to get overlooked and I’m not yet convinced Best Picture won’t just be cut off at 5, with films such as Moonrise and Beasts not even making it. Will The Master even make it at this point? It’s definitely dipping and Joaquin Phoenix’s latest comments won’t help him or the film.

 One thing that could really make it interesting is if Django Unchained proves to be a real hit and Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty ends up as much as a surprise as I hope it does. Sony has done such a great job promoting ZD30 that I hope the film is as surprising as the marketing. To not even know Gandolfini is in it until now tells me there may be a lot more surprises in store.

Contrino: 
I’d be surprised if there ends up being less than nine nominees. I could even see 10 happening. This year is full of good movies that are wildly different. As a result, you could have more variety when it comes to #1 votes.

Davis: On the surface, the obvious answer is yes.  We have a very competitive and impressive slate of films that have either been released or are about to hit in a big way.  More importantly, it’s an eclectic group of contenders which means they should appeal to different groups and demographics within the Academy.  However, I fear that the Academy could end up choosing safe, default, Oscar-bait films (LincolnHitchcockLife of PiSilver Linings PlaybookAnna Karenina) as their only Picture nominees, leaving diverse, brilliant choices (AmourThe MasterThe Dark Knight RisesArbitrage) to watch from the sidelines.

Harris: After the surprise of nine nominees last year, I’m going to say that I have absolutely no idea. To quote Bill Clinton, it’s arithmetic! Which is not my strong suit. My hunch is that a high number of nominees is not determined by the quality of those movies but by lack of consensus. Any year in which there’s not general agreement about what the 2 or 3 standout movies are is likely to yield a longer list, whether it’s seen as a good year or a bad year.

Howell:  I think this is a year when we’ll have at least eight nominees, and perhaps as many as 10.  Which bodes well for the chances of Beasts, Sessions and Moonrise getting on the BP nominees list — and maybe also Holy Motors, in an alternate universe.

Kennedy: Every time I think about the process for how a film is picked as one of the nominees, my head starts to buzz and pretty soon the buzz turns to an ache and then it’s time for a nap or cocktails.

Lodge: Are there so many great movies this year? We obviously haven’t seen the system play out for enough years to know — and frankly, I’m hoping it’s short-lived phase anyway — but my hunch is that the number of nominees isn’t relative to the year’s cinematic wealth: it’s more a matter of how many campaigns take hold, how many options the precursors leave open, how great a split there is between different demographics’ favourites, etc. Last year’s Best Picture category may have yielded nine nominees, but it certainly didn’t yield nine films widely regarded as great — War Horse and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close were blatant filler, for example. Weak years, in which few remarkable films really capture the imagination of a wide swath of voters and support is spread among average ones, are as likely to produce a large field as strong ones.

O’Neil: Since there are so many strong contenders this year and support has not rallied behind just two or three pix, we’ll probably see a longer list of Best Picture nominees. Let’s hope it s-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-s to 10 and demonstrates the absurdity of the current voting system. How can there be, maybe, 7, 8, 9 or 10 nominees for Best Pic but a strict 5 entries for directing and acting, etc.? Illogical. Ridiculous.

Pond: More good movies does not necessarily mean more nominees. In fact, I think you  could make a case that it was the lack of passion for a lot of movies that led  to a slate of nine last year — the vote was spread out because once you got  past “The Artist,” there were a lot of little constituencies.

I suspect that the more they use this system, the more nine will seem like an anomaly. But I was wrong last year and I could be wrong again.

Poland:  I don’t think anyone has any real idea.  The lack of movies with widespread support could either mean a lot of nominees… or a fight to get to 5.  No way of knowing.  None.

Rich: I hope so! As I mentally try to cull together my standouts from the year so far I’m impressed by how many there are, though some of them (The Loneliest Planet, Holy Motors, Take This Waltz) won’t get anywhere near Best Picture. But if the few mysteries still to come in the season are as strong as they look, Oscar ought to have plenty to choose from too. I always liked the 10 Best Picture nominees, so the more the merrier I say.

3. The Oscar ballots will be turned in before the PGA or DGA announce (there is one day crossover) do you think predicting the Oscars will be easier or harder or does it not matter at all?

Brevet: I don’t think it will matter when it comes to nominations. I see the stuff from the guilds  only helping, really, with predicting winners. Then again, the whole thing has become rather predictable as of late so, no, doesn’t matter.

Contrino: Could be harder. The Guilds have a tendency to change the conversation in a big way. Oscar pundits can weigh in all they like and discuss which movies they think are the favorites, but that can all change in a second when the guilds chime in.

Davis: I’m not sure if it makes it necessarily harder but it may be more interesting what we wind up with as nominees.  Whether that’s a good or bad thing remains to be determined.  What will likely end up happening SAG, Golden Globes, and Critics Choice will be the PGA, DGA, and WGA tellers of the season.  They’ll look to them for either validation or choose something completely off the cuff.  Films like Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close and The Blind Side surprised in their respective years.  Maybe we get two or three “Blind Sides” in the lineup.

Harris:  I’m sitting out predicting this year but my guess is it won’t matter that much either way in terms of guesswork.

Howell: I do think it’s going to be harder to predict the Oscars this year,  without the DGA and PGA as signposts.  But it will also be more interesting, and maybe even more fun. We could always use more fun, right?

Kennedy: It will be harder because it’s two fewer pieces of information each voter would’ve had to make their choice that we can know. I’m sorry, I tried twelve times to make that sentence make sense and that’s the best I can do. The DGA and PGA still have predictive value because I think they can reflect a general sentiment, but they will not directly impact the votes this year.

Lodge: I don’t think it makes much of a difference — the PGA and DGA lineups don’t routinely turn up conversation-changing surprises, after all — though I welcome any change that encourages a bit more good old-fashioned guessing in our Oscar predictions.

O’Neil: It’s gonna be fun this year — when we finally see how much (or little) overlap there will be between guilds and Oscar voting because academy members won’t be influenced by the precursor prizes. Of course, there will be less agreement than usual and thus Oscar voters will be unveiled as thieves in years past.

Pond: Won’t matter at all. PGA and DGA will still announce their nominees before the Oscars do, so we will have their results to show us the tendencies of those groups of voters before we have to make our final Oscar-nom predictions. It would only be harder if you believe that the PGA or DGA noms affect rather than reflect the thinking of Oscar voters, and I don’t believe that they do.

Poland: The alleged precursors have never been important to Oscar nominations.  Aren’t this year either.

Rich:
 Best Director is going to be really tough to predict with so many previous winners in the mix, so I wonder if that might make things more interesting. I guess it depends on how much consensus has emerged by then.

4. Do you think the early date is better for the Oscars or worse?

Brevet: Eh, don’t really care. I would only be more interested if they pushed it farther out giving audiences more time to see the movies, but that will never happen.

Contrino: Better. The Oscar race always feels drawn out every year.

Davis: The Phase 1 portion of the Oscar season is the most important.  Voters have a hard enough time seeing small films that were released in May, now they’re going to be scrambling to see big, prestige choices like Les Miserables and The Hobbit, which would have been seen anyway under normal circumstances.  We won’t really know what the collective voice of the Academy thinks if films like Les MiserablesZero Dark ThirtyOn the RoadAmour, and Django Unchained get left off.  Will it be because the Academy truly didn’t like them or because they didn’t have enough time to see them?  That makes the process all the more frustrating.

Harris:  I think the early nomination-voting date is worse for the Oscars because it’s worse for the voters. Voters need more time to watch prospective nominees, not a longer post-nomination window, because by then, they’re supposed to have seen the movies already! A big pile of unwatched screeners and a long list of end-of-December movies is going to lead to ruthless time-management viewing decisions and a lot of “Gosh, no, I heard it was good but I just didn’t get a chance to see it in time” conversations. The point is for Oscar voters to see everything they feel they need to see before they make their nomination decisions. Any decision that makes that more difficult dishonors the process and fails to do justice to the prospective nominees.

Howell: Right now, I think earlier is better.  But ask me again when the Oscars are over.

Kennedy: I don’t know, but I think Oscar needs to quit rearranging deck chairs while its relevancy hits an iceberg and sinks. Trying to juice the numbers by shuffling dates and tweaking rules isn’t going to change anything in the long run. It just makes it harder for voters and the studios and the publicists to do their jobs when each year something is different. No one outside the bubble probably really knows or cares. If movies they like are nominated, they’ll watch. If they’re not, they won’t.

Lodge: I welcome any early moves to shorten what has become a bloated and monotonous season, but I’m concerned it won’t leave voters enough time to see worthy films. The Academy claims the wider gap between nomination day and the ceremony will make it easier for members to see all the nominees, but that doesn’t sit well with me — surely it’s more important that they have more viewing time at the nomination-balloting stage, when they have a far larger and less widely publicised pool of films to consider.

O’Neil: Earlier voting is bad because it’s being done for the wrong reason —  Come on, AMPAS just hates being upstaged by the guilds & Globes, so it’s muscling ahead. Now academy members will have very little time to see late-year releases — just when they actually MORE time than usual so they can cope with the challenges, fear and confusion over new electronic voting.

Poland: The early date for nominations is an unmitigated disaster.  it’s bad for voters seeing films on screens.  it’s bad for smaller films.  It’s 100%, undeniably bad.  They have sped up voting with online ballots, but then reduced the amount of time to see ALL the movies.  And the spin, that it will give 2 more weeks for people to see the nominees, is just ridiculous.  Less time to see, say, 50 films, so you have more time to see what will by then be as many as 10 unseen nominated movies is ass backwards.

Pond: Worse. It gives Oscar voters lots more time to see the 30-40 movies that will be nominated, but far less time to see the 250+ that want to be nominated.

I’m worried that it’ll be much harder for a late surge like the one that helped Javier Bardem get a nomination for “Biutiful.” I think that one started after he was bypassed by SAG and the Globes, and I’m afraid that there’s not enough time anymore for a deserving dark horse to make a move. It’s also gonna be a killer for any December movie that doesn’t immediately make itself a must-see for voters — because once the holidays arrive, the game is almost over.

Rich:
  I’m really dreading a longer period between the nomination announcements and the actual awards. It’s much more fun to be predicting the nominees, whereas the march to the ceremony just starts to feel so stale and repetitive after a while. I have no idea if that can negatively affect the actual winners, but as someone who writes about the Oscars, I’m dreading how stir-crazy I’ll be come mid-February.