It’s hard to believe we’ve done eight of these already. In this installment, the participants are:
Damien Bona, Inside Oscar
Susan Wloszczyna, USA Today
Pete Hammond, Notes on a Season, The Envelope
Mark Harris, New York Magazine, Pictures at a Revolution
Kris Tapley, In Contention
Michelle McCue, We are Movie Geeks
Ryan Adams, Awards Daily
Craig Kennedy, Living in Cinema
1. As we head into the last weeks of Oscar balloting, do you think that it’s possible to turn around the position of a particular film with last-minute publicity pushes? Avatar is coming on strong here in the final weeks where it wasn’t really pushing hard to win before. Do you think that kind of thing works, or does it smack of desperation?
Wloszczyna: In Avatar’s case, it is almost necessary since it is no longer racking up records at the box office and it is no longer the source of much cultural water-cooler talk. So I think Fox is being smart. Whether it works or not depends on whether it is too late to block The Hurt Locker push and sudden Basterds surge.
Harris: My guess is that the vast majority of voters made up their minds a while ago, and that last-minute hustling doesn’t do much except give all of us in the guess-osphere something to chew on. Avatar may win, but if it does, it won’t be because James Cameron has attempted to prove that the movie is good for the environment or announced on Charlie Rose that while he doesn’t “need” another Best Director Oscar he would like one for Best Picture. And if Inglourious Basterds wins, it won’t be because voters are being told by the Weinstein Company that they must vote for it because it’s fun, or because it’s a Holocaust drama, depending on the day. All this jockeying doesn’t feel desperate to me, but it does feel pointless.
Bona: Supporters of Avatar have to be seeing this recent push as a positive and energizing development ‚Äì akin to the glee Obama supporters have been feeling of late, now that the President has been kicking ass in finally spelling out the successes of his Administration during its first year. The Avatar folks ‚Äì like Obama and his advisors ‚Äì have apparently realized that it‚Äôs a miscalculation to expect voters to be appreciative of accomplishments without calling to their attention just why they should be enthusiastic. For any Academy members who have no love for Avatar, though ‚Äì and backers of other movies ‚Äì the recent uptick in ballyhoo probably does seem evidence of panic, now that the dynamics of the race have changed and The Hurt Locker ‚Äì due to its awards haul ‚Äì has taken the up the mantle of frontrunner. As for any Oscar voters who still haven‚Äôt made up their minds, the current push for Avatar can serve to help them recall what they admired about Cameron‚Äôs achievement, and that can only be a good thing for the movie‚Äôs chances. Let‚Äôs not lose sight, however, that the current push for Avatar isn‚Äôt nearly as overwrought as the recent surge of Inglourious Basterds hype, with Harvey Weinstein making like the Harvey Weinstein of the 1990s.
Hammond: I don’t think it smacks of desperation, I think it “smacks” of timing. Now is crunch time and most of these campaigns know if they feel they have a realistic chance NOW is the time they have the attention – finally , in this long season – of the Academy. I think the switch in emphasis from technical breakthrough to environmental champion for “Avatar” is the right way to go and just may turn some heads that were resisting a sci-fi film so taking out those Variety covers touting it’s worth as a message picture just might be effective in a close race.
Tapley: It’s possible in a race as close as this one seems to be, because any slight tip of the scales is significant. But of course it smacks of desperation. Then again, desperation tends to win Oscars.
McCue: I get the sense of despondency floating around Cameron. He‚Äôs about to get the double gun salute from AMPAS and its put him on the offensive, hence his recent heavy duty promotional stumping for AVATAR. He may have injured himself when he, ahem, arrogantly declared to the world, ‚ÄúGive Best Picture To My Team – But Give Best Director To Kathryn Because “I Don’t Really Need Another One.” He and his ego are doing more harm than good with AMPAS voters. Kathryn Bigelow‚Äôs triumph over her ex-husband with a Best Director and Best Picture win, leaving AVATAR to go home with some of the technical awards…. that notion alone has to stick in his craw. You can act in desperation, and still pull off a win.
Adams: I’ll keep my answers short, because I’m turning in my homework late. I think the Avatar team wishes it were “coming on strong in the final weeks” but don’t really feel much heat aside from hot tempers on blogs. The only last-minute hopes I see are for the two lead actors who won this weekend at the BAFTAs. If there’s any chance at all for Firth and Mulligan to come from behind, dashing up the inside track, now’s the time for their studios to crack the whip.
Kennedy: It’s hard for me to believe that voters haven’t already made up their minds, but if anyone was on the fence about Jim Cameron as a person before last week had to be swayed by his performance on Charlie Rose. I know I was. He might have been coached, but he seemed genuine. I don’t thnk there’s anything about Avatar that seems desperate. It’s easy to act humble and magnanimous when you’ve pulled in over 2 billion dollars.
2. If Avatar wins Best Picture, it will become the first film to win Best Picture without any writing or acting nominations. No film has won the Best Picture Oscar without either or both since Grand Hotel won in 1931. Do you think this is a year when all bets are off because of the ten picture lineup? Or do you think Avatar cannot overcome such a fundamental weakness?
Wloszczyna: The technical prowess and the breakthroughs in 3D technology so outweighs anything else about Avatar that I don’t think it will matter as much. And the voters still haven’t wrapped their heads around the fact that there were actors giving those performances onscreen, not blue puppets. That will change in time, I think, but not now. So in a way it is less of a weakness than the nature of this unique beast. If it were a straight drama, then no acting or writing is a major problem.
Harris: I think all bets are off–because in almost every Oscar year, some kind of precedent is broken, so why not this one? Sure. Avatar would have to overcome perceived weakness of support from the actors and writers, but The Hurt Locker would have to overcome its low box-office and the fact that no Best Picture winner has ever been directed by a woman. Stats like these were meant to be bulldozed. The wild card here is really the ridiculous preferential ballot system–I think that’s going to be a much bigger deal in the best-picture race than historical precedent will.
Bona: In the first few weeks of its release, Avatar enjoyed likely-winner status, but it has been hurt by the elongated voting period. Because Cameron‚Äôs film is such a visceral experience, the more time that passes since one has seen it, the more its primordial impact fades from memory. As for its lack of acting nominations, Avatar is an unusual case in that for much of the running time, the actors are performance-captured and providing voices to animated characters; the Actors branch is hardly ready to honor this type of performance alongside full body work. Writing has never been James Cameron‚Äôs strong suit, so a screenplay nomination was a long-shot from the get go. But because the emphasis of Avatar is on its technical advances, awe-inspiring effects and ingenuous emotionalism, a lack of acting and writing nominations isn‚Äôt the Oscar death knell it would have been for a more conventional film.
Hammond: You can always go to “Grand Hotel” as the stopper for just about any Oscar scenario. How many years are there going to be when a movie ONLY gets a Best Picture nom and then wins. That’s why we have to go to 1931 for these scenarios. It doesn’t apply anymore. “Avatar” is its own unique story and it will write its own rules, just as Cameron did in the making of it. Yes it can win without Acting and Writing noms, but it may be a victim of its own brilliant use of Performance Capture. Actors , the biggest branch, doesn’t understand the process and worries about it . They could reject Avatar in unison and there goes “Avatar’s” chances for Best Picture.
Tapley: I think all bets are off but not because of the 10, because of Avatar. It is the sort of film that manages to transcend such built-in handicaps. The only film I can recall that had as many nominations as it does but managed to miss with the actors and writers was Master and Commander (10 nods), but that wasn’t a film that clearly captured the imagination of the Academy and was ever even in a position to win.
McCue: A justified comparison nonetheless, but the Oscars are different machine today. In 1931 when GRAND HOTEL won, except for Best Picture, there were only 3 or 4 nominees in each of the 12 categories. As the story goes, the judges were still tabulating the ballots up at the front table in the Ambassador Hotel during the ceremony. Academy President and Host Conrad Nagel even went over to nominee Wallace Beery and told him he lost by one vote to Frederic March, but according to the rules, it constituted a win for both men. Last time that happened. But I digress. As in the past, the only thing that might give AVATAR a Best Picture win is the Box Office crown it now wears ‚Äì due in large part to the IMAX revenue. But those guild losses, the PGA, the DGA, and especially the ACE, are just too glaring to ignore. They embraced THE HURT LOCKER.
Adams: I saw Grand Hotel for the first time ever on TCM last week. Terrific performances. It deserved to have some acting nominations. Avatar does not. No, I don’t think it can overcome that weakness.
Kennedy: I know this question is about Avatar, but I just don’t think there is a reasonable argument for The Hurt Locker losing the Oscar so I can’t really answer it as asked. You can predict all you want how voters will fill out the middle portions of their ballots, but to me this is an unknowable and an unprovable. All signs point to The Hurt Locker. It may still lose, nothing is carved in stone, nothing is ever certain, anything is possible, though honestly I think the preferential ballot favors Hurt Locker as much as it does any other film. It certainly worked out well for it at the PGA. Avatar’s lack of writing and acting nominations are just two of the many weaknesses it faces. The Hurt Locker is the biggest one. The 10 picture line up is really just a 5 picture line up with 5 extra “It’s nice to be here” nods. I don’t think the double nominations will have an impact. Having said all that, I’m the guy who refused to believe No Country had it in the bag until the award was announced.
3. In the Meryl Streep vs. Sandra Bullock Best Actress race, do you have a sense that a different actress might upset either of those two? Or do you think Sandra Bullock has it in the bag?
Wloszczyna: Gabby, Helen, Carey? I am just not feeling it although Mulligan is the only one with a teensy chance. What sentiment exists out there right now for one of those ladies to pull off a sideswipe? Sandra feels like a certainty to me.
Harris: I defer to sharper handicappers on this question. My sense from chatting with voters is that it’s very close between Bullock and Streep, and Sidibe and Mulligan are both getting support from people who feel like voting for a promising newcomer (which probably cancels out the possibility of either of them sneaking in to upset the two frontrunners).
Bona: Although both are highly admired, neither Carrie Mulligan nor Gabourey Sidibe has created the kind of overwhelming pop culture impact that is necessary for a newcomer to take home an Oscar. Helen Mirren is just along for the ride this time, the nomination indicating just how respected she is. From the time it opened, there had been rumblings that Julie & Julia was too slight a vehicle to provide Meryl Streep with her third Oscar. Then surprisingly, she, began winning critics’ award after critics’ award and with potential competitors pulling up short, Streep looked good for the win. But lo, suddenly, there appeared Sandra Bullock. Being named the country‚Äôs number one box office draw in the Exhibitors‚Äô Poll; the prominence of several late season awards (Critics Choice, Golden Globe, SAG); a film which has turned into a sleeper box-office phenomenon ‚Äì all signs point to this being Sandra Bullock’s year.
Hammond:I talk to lots of voters and am getting lots of support for Gaby and Carey. I think this thing is really being split up. Lions Gate’s owns survey shows Sandy and Gaby . Sony Classics thinks it could be Sandy and Carey. Big Sony is spending big to bring it home for Meryl. Warner Bros is happy people are voting for all of them and not just Meryl. They think that benefits Sandy. This one is really a nail biter.
Tapley: I think the writing was on the wall for Bullock as soon as The Blind Side landed a Best Picture nomination. The momentum is completely on her side while the Meryl camp has seemingly withered away.
McCue: If there was ever a category ripe for an upset, it‚Äôs this one. The fumes from the 2002 Adrien Brody Best Actor stunner for THE PIANIST are still in the air. He‚Äôs nominated for everything under the sun, and swoops in to take the Academy Award away from Jack Nicholson (ABOUT SCHMIDT) AND Daniel Day-Lewis (GANGS OF NEW YORK). They both ‚Äúhad it in the bag‚Äù too. Carey Mulligan is poised to do the same with a Best Actress win. It so feels like a ‚ÄúBrody‚Äù all over again. Always be on the lookout for what the BAFTA‚Äôs have to say this weekend. Yes, yes, I know Bullock (this year‚Äôs Julia Roberts) isn‚Äôt in the mix, but the British branch of the Academy have a funny way of making their presence known. Tilda Swinton‚Äôs BAFTA and subsequent shocking Best Supporting Oscar win, anyone?
Adams: No one but Carey Mulligan can save us now. Godspeed, my prayers are with you, Carey.
Kennedy: I think Bullock has it in the bag. I don’t see a situation where they’ll steal votes from each other and allow someone else in. I think Streep is taken for granted and that most people assume she has more awards than she really does and that Bullock has campaigned perfectly. She’s been adorable, she’s been humble, she’s acted like she doesn’t deserve it without seeming indifferent. Plus, critics be damned, a lot of people liked her performance and her movie.
4.¬† Do you think this year’s Best Picture winner will be a broader statement about the future of films? On one hand, you have 3-D, performance-capture, huge budget and giant returns – and on the other hand, you have what has more commonly been popular within the Academy: great writing, acting and directing – low budget, modest return? Or do you feel that voters don’t even consider the bigger picture and just vote for what they like?
Wloszczyna: he extremes are so great in both cases, they almost work in their favor. They have turned into an easy David vs. Goliath story and the media is eating it up.
Harris: I don’t really believe in “statement” voting as a Best Picture phenomenon. Voters who are already inclined to vote for Avatar may bolster their case for it by viewing their vote as a nod to the future of movies, but I doubt that voters who like another nominee more are going to cast aside their own taste and reluctantly vote for Avatar out of some sense of obligation to its perceived symbolic importance.
Also, I don’t see this as a choice between traditionalism and innovation. I’m not ready to write off a movie as uncompromising as The Hurt Locker– an independent film about the Iraq War starring a near-unknown and directed by a woman–as safe, old-guard Academy fodder. Avatar, if it wins, will follow in the firmly established tradition of Forrest Gump, Titanic, and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King as a high-grossing, technologically innovative blockbuster that takes the top prize. Eight out of the last ten Best Picture winners have grossed at least $100 million domestically, so The Hurt Locker would actually be the bigger departure from Academy history.
Bona: Whether or not Avatar wins Best Picture, its huge impact on the future of cinema cannot be denied (just as the non-nominated 2001: A Space Odyssey and losing nominee Star Wars incontrovertibly affected the subsequent technology, content and vision of the movies). As usual, voters will simply decide what nominated picture they liked best, and on Oscar night we’ll see whether as a collective whole they were more impressed by Avatar‚Äôs hi-tech wizardry, or by the more classical narrative virtues of one of the other nominees. There‚Äôs no formula for forecasting what way Academy members will go, as both scenarios have played out numerous times in the past ‚Äì for example, Lawrence of Arabia defeated To Kill A Mockingbird in 1962, while Annie Hall bested Star Wars in 1977. Whichever preference voters have this year, we‚Äôll always have each kind of picture, both in theatres and at the Oscars.
Hammond: I think subconsciously voters are choosing the direction they are comfortable with. Avatar and Hurt Locker represent not only the widest gap ever in grosses, but also in what voters what the Academy to say about their industry. Do you want to drive the flashiest new fully-loaded car or do you want a reliable one others have driven and liked , the safe choice? Again, they may not THINK they are making a statement about the future of the industry but in fact, they are.
Tapley: I don’t think voters consider “big picture” stuff when filling out their ballots. There are a few things you can always count on. They won’t be bullied into doing what they’re “supposed” to do and, for the most part (except where block-voting in studios is concerned), they simply go with the heart. This year, with the preferential ballot, things could slide this way or that, so the ultimate winner will be a consensus, which doesn’t lend itself to a “statement,” per se. That having been said, when (yes, when) The Hurt Locker wins this thing, it’ll be a great irony. The lowest grossing Best Picture winner of the lot takes it in a year when the process and the telecast are so disgustingly geared toward ratings and the populace.
McCue: There‚Äôs definitely the appearance of widening appeal, but when it comes down to it, in this year‚Äôs field of 10, there are only 3 films that can boast an Oscar nomination in the editing, writing, directing and acting categories – THE HURT LOCKER, INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, and PRECIOUS: BASED ON THE NOVEL ‚ÄòPUSH‚Äô BY SAPPHIRE. It‚Äôs the nature of the beast to try and wow the movie going audiences and it‚Äôs been done ever since showman PT Barnum filled the seats in his tent with people just wanting to be entertained. The Michael Bays and James Camerons of today are Barnum personified and there‚Äôs no denying it ‚Äì their films are what the masses will continue to clamor for in the future. There‚Äôll always be gimmicks and right now its 3-D. Special effects and pizzazz will never be a substitute for a good story. That being said, I have no doubt AMPAS members will certainly vote for what they like and what represents them as a whole. They‚Äôll either vote for epic, sweeping films such as BEN HUR, LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, OUT OF AFRICA, and even GLADIATOR or such smaller fare as CHARIOTS OF FIRE, MARTY, and ROCKY. Those are all feel good movies and like all of us, they were thrilled or moved as the credits rolled. How else do you explain the case of when CRASH won? Despite all the foreboding of A BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN win, they secretly were enamoured by CRASH and awarded it with the Academy Award. Possibly AMPAS voters will once again go with another feel good movie, this year‚Äôs Best Picture nominee, THE BLIND SIDE.
Adams: From what we’ve heard, a good number of Academy members were more wrapped up in sorting out the new ballot demands than they were about the future of cinema. (“What do that want from us?!”) Due respect to AMPAS, but I can do without ambitious mission statements. Just try navigate the profound puzzle of how to rank 10 things from best to worst. You’re not choosing “Buzzed Actress” or “Buzzed Picture.” It’s pronounced “Best.”
Kennedy: Call me old fashioned, but I don’t think great writing, acting and directing will ever go out of style. At least I hope they won’t. 3-D is a fad that will keep theatrical presentation of blockbuster movies viable for a little while longer. Motion capture is definitely the way of the future for a certain kind of film, but I don’t see voters responding to this kind of thing when it comes to handing out awards. People vote for Avatar because they like it. Though the technology is the main reason it was so successful, people are responding to what was on the screen and not the technological leap that made it happen. Avatar is a technological progression (It’s only a “game changer” in that it’s convinced every bean-counting studio stooge that 3-D is a panacea for shitty filmmaking) that is happening whether it wins an Oscar or not. It’s hard to imagine someone who didn’t like it voting for it just because they respect the technology.