It isn’t just the Oscar race where everyone is an expert. We talk about movies now like we’re beat reporters at old-school Variety. Or assistants to producers having coffee and casually talking about the potential failure or success of a film. Or publicists, who talk shop about what can and can’t make it to the Oscars. The internet opened everything up, evened things out so that anyone can have a blog, write film reviews or box-office reports, gossip, script development, and yes, Oscar “potential.”
The rub: The Oscars are mostly where the money is. Even the most respectable sites that wouldn’t have deigned to cover the Oscars in the past now cover the Oscars. They have to — otherwise, how are they going to make any money? Sure, you can rely on the movies themselves to take out coming soon ads on your site. But any film site, large or small, independent or bought, needs the Oscar revenue. After all, Deadline.com, built up as an insider’s media site has all but turned itself inside out now to be the one-stop shop for Oscars. The Hollywood Reporter, once on shaky ground, has Huffpo’d its way back into the game and brags about its Oscar reach. The Oscar game is still the game; those who cover the Oscar race know it’s where the action is.
When Tracy Letts was interviewed by the Daily Beast he said the following about the Oscar race: “Man, this obsession with the Academy Awards in particular, who fucking cares? It drives me nuts. How the fuck are you going to compare Gravity with August: Osage County? Could you have two pieces any more different in every conceivable way? They’re both in color and they both have George Clooney involved with them [who is a producer on August], and that’s it. So I don’t know how or why you’re supposed to compare these things.”
How do you compare them? You measure them by the standard for which they appear to have been designed. August: Osage County was considered to be on the Oscar trajectory since it was first announced. That it stars Julia Roberts and Meryl Streep, to name a few, only adds to that package. That it preemed in Toronto with Roberts there to do publicity meant it was being served as a main course in the Oscar race. So, while Letts has a great point, this might not be the best project to use as a way to diss the Oscar race. But welcome to the jungle.
Journalists, self-made and schooled, bloggers and the new species of Oscar pundit, all pour into Toronto for the sole purpose of sussing out the early Oscar contenders. Sure, some still go for the movies, man. But mostly, Toronto is seen as a breeding ground for the year’s Oscar contenders.
Granted, it must be frustrating for Letts, or any writer, director, actor or artist, to have to create something great and then have the critics and journalists measure that greatness by the tastes of 6,000 or so mostly old, mostly white men.
“I liked it but what will THEY think?” “The Academy isn’t going to go for it.” “It’s too dark.” “You can’t relate to any of the characters.” “It’s not as good as the play.”
When I first heard the rumblings about Osage County they were very much in keeping with Lett’s assessment; the question wasn’t whether the film was good or not. The question was, did it have Oscar potential? Every time I hear that phrase it makes me wince. I have never been of the belief that one ought to dumb down one’s taste to think like Academy members. Rather, I’ve always felt, in my own self-made career as a bottom-feeding Oscar blogger, that voters will rise to the occasion once they hear how great something is.
And of course, the trick is not minding. We all know by now that you can’t force them to like anything, no matter how many great reviews a film gets. You can only make them look at it, separate it from the pile. They make their own choices about what they “like” and what they don’t. If you’re in the business of predicting what they will like then by all means look at a film like August: Osage County through the lens of your typical Oscar voter. Or, as Dave Karger likes to refer to them, “Joe the Sound Guy.”
[As a sidenote, throughout my own travels I have met smart sound guys — they tend to be smarter than actors, the largest branch in the Academy. Fear the actors. Don’t fear the sound guys/girls.]
“People will think…” “What I tell them to think.” – Citizen Kane
When critics start measuring a film’s worth by its Oscar potential they deflate any power they have to influence the Oscar voters, if they ever had any at all. It is not the job of critics, or shouldn’t be, to even make that call. It might be the job of the predictor, upon seeing a film, to decide whether or not it can “go all the way” but we still need people who know what makes a great film to keep their eye on the ball. Dumbing things down to a consensus vote, especially one that big, is a mistake.
The problem is everyone tends to fear being wrong so they play it safe with regard to so-called “Oscar potential.” That, I think, does the films and the Academy a disservice. On the one hand, sure, you know they were never going to go for a film like Cloud Atlas last year. But does that mean the film ought to be written off? Hardly. You see, the Oscar race is a mirror that reflects back not at the film community, not at filmgoers or film critics — but at the Academy themselves. The game isn’t about whether the movies get it right enough to win Oscars, but rather, whether the Academy themselves gets it right. Most of the time, they don’t.
In my humble opinion, “Oscar potential” is a meaningless phrase. The Oscars are fluid, not fixed. What’s that great saying that if you don’t like what people are saying change the conversation? The Oscars are a conversation. They are based on nothing so much as the fickle cloud of perception. We learned that last year as the perception for Zero Dark Thirty dropped only to be picked up by Argo, which eventually won. It wasn’t a question of which film was better, or even a matter of comparing the two. It was about how people felt when they voted.
The dirty little secret about the Oscar race that has always been true — nobody knows anything. Except maybe Harvey Weinstein. He knows a little something. Any idiot can watch a crowd respond to a film and conclude that the movie has “Oscar potential.” What are the Oscar voters but a crowd of people who happen to work in the industry. Their tastes aren’t that different, as it turns out here in 2013, than the people in the Producers Guild or Directors Guild. People are people and when you form a decision based on a consensus the results are often the same. That’s why audience testing and focus groups help sell products and movies as well as they do. Shakespeare in Love was audience tested, for chrissakes.
Is Tracy Letts right? Of course. Will that change anything in the short run? Probably not. As one of the first to start this whole ugly Oscar blogging affair I can say that I never would have predicted Oscar watching would end up becoming the main pageant many now use to judge movies. It didn’t start out that way for me.
When I started oscarwatch.com in 1999 it was borne out of a curiosity about why some films won (How Green was My Valley) and why some didn’t (Citizen Kane). I thought if I could watch the films being released from the early part of the year on through Oscar season, tracking the critical acclaim, box office take and “buzz” of each one, I could crack the code, I would know why some films didn’t appeal and others didn’t. What I have discovered along the way is that Oscar watching has less to do with a film’s quality and more to do with understanding Oscar voters. Once that truth kicked in I no longer was interested in simply predicting how the Oscars would turn out. To me, that’s as boring as being a weatherman — and even the weather can be more unpredictable than predicting the Oscars.
Now, when I watch the Oscar race, it’s becoming harder and harder to rely on film critics because many of them are also in the Oscar game and are often judging films in terms of how “those people” will vote. Therefore, the critics have become almost as obsolete (save for a handful of good ones that remain) as the Oscar voters. It has become a snake eating its own tail, with the Best Picture winner often being the one with the least amount of baggage, the easiest sell, the one that no one can complain about. Surely that’s no way to go about finding “best.” That’s how you go about finding unilateral agreement.
An exceptional writer like Tracy Letts deserves better than the Oscar race will give him. His film has no doubt divided people and we who work in the Oscar race know that divisive films never fly, or rarely fly, with a consensus vote. The least divisive, the better. Here’s to hoping that Tracy Letts never wants to win an Oscar and so never has to pare down what makes him stand out in order to appeal to that group.
Thing is, I think the Oscar voters are plenty up to the task of handling a script like August: Osage County (which I have not yet seen) — the gatekeepers dumb it down FOR THEM, without really giving them a chance to decide for themselves, much the same way parents protect the big, bad world from their children by not allowing them to see sex or violence until they are older. These voters have lived through the 1970s, many of them. Theoretically, that means they have a pair — enough so that they chose The French Connection and The Godfathers to win Best Picture.
What will happen this year is the same thing that happens every year. Once the smoke clears and the films nestle into DVD and Live Streaming land, people will slowly discover all of the films from the year, not just the ones Oscar shined a light on. That is how you build a legacy, not by winning awards. Good movies shine on through the hysteria and perception of the season.
Of course, it’s easy to sit here and make such proclamations. After all, I’m not the one who is putting anything on the line. Getting the Oscar race wrong is nothing compared to sitting down to write something, or invest years of your life getting something made. If these awards can somehow help keep filmmakers motivated to keep making movies then have served a greater good.
I will be seeing August: Osage County this week. I will report back my thoughts on the film and I promise never to mention its Oscar potential. The only question should be, is it good or isn’t it.
When I make my Oscar lists now I keep one lazy eye on what “they” will do, but I’m more concerned with what stands out so far as the year’s best, based in part on my own opinion but also the opinions of those who don’t judge films on their Oscar potential, but rather on the films themselves.
A conversation came up recently among a few of us Oscar bloggers at a party. The question was whether Gravity would win Best Picture. According to those present, they’ve rarely heard so much enthusiasm for a film. It has been proclaimed on Twitter (by Kris Tapley and others) that it will win Best Picture. The naysayers felt that the cast wasn’t big enough; no film has ever won Best Picture with so small of a cast — “Until now,” those who believe in its chances would say.
Can Gravity win Best Picture? You bet it can, even with a small cast. Its chances are lessened by that. Every film this year will have to answer the even bigger question, though: can anything beat 12 Years a Slave? Relying on such a big consensus is risky endeavor when it comes to a film like 12 Years. This is where the Oscar soup begins to cloud. My fellow bloggers are sensing hesitation, “problems” with the film and its “Oscar potential.” They will think it “can’t win” because it is too harsh, not an uplifting film with a cheery message, doesn’t spit you back into the world feeling good about yourself. And herein lies the Oscar trap, and herein is where Tracy Letts and August: Osage County starts to lose ground; without brave advocates pushing these films voters will ultimately do exactly as predicted.
We still don’t know if that movie is Gravity. It certainly has much going for it – $200 million domestic take so far, that rare film that stars a woman who is almost 50, a chance for the Academy to finally embrace 3D technology and effects-driven filmmaking (because this one is strong on acting, with no performance capture to be found). One pundit said at the party, if the Academy is looking for a way out, Gravity gives it to them.
The third film in the mix is still Captain Phillips. I am the only one, it seems, with confidence in Alexander Payne’s Nebraska as a very strong contender — and why is this? Does it still have “Oscar potential” after wowing them at Cannes? Ditto, Inside Llewyn Davis. Why do I continue to keep them atop my lists? Because they are that good.
To that end, here are the films that came out this year that I think are WORTHY of Best Picture, not the ones that have “Oscar potential.” They are, coincidentally, also my current predictions.
1. 12 Years a Slave
3. Captain Phillips
5. Inside Llewyn Davis
6. All is Lost
7. The Butler
8. Fruitvale Station
9. Blue Jasmine or Dallas Buyers Club
Hovering on the fringes:
Still to come and will likely bump those:
Saving Mr. Banks
The Wolf of Wall Street
Out of the Furnace
Films that I haven’t seen yet but that can’t trust what anyone says about them either:
August: Osage County
Saving Mr. Banks
Films that came out this year that are brilliant – but will need strong advocacy but still could get noticed in the acting or writing categories:
Blue is the Warmest Color
The Bling Ring
Short Term 12
It’s a year to feel grateful for the kinds of films that have found their way through this year – in the past, movies like these would be made just for the sake of it. If Tracy Letts was sitting in front of me I would tell him how I’ve seen Hollywood change in 15 years. I would say that we had the luxury once upon a time to really gut the Oscar process, to say how useless these awards are and how demeaning it is to art to make it a contest. All of that is still true. But the difference is, the Oscar race is much of what green lights many of these films at all. It isn’t just the Oscars now — it’s the awards industry. There is Oscar island and everything else that gets made for mostly profit.
The film industry needs writers like Tracy Letts, and filmmakers like David Lynch — even if their films don’t have “Oscar potential.” Their unique, raw talent is rare indeed, particularly here in American culture. While we’re handing out awards to the films everyone can agree upon, let’s raise a glass to those who make movies hardly anyone can agree upon. They dig into us in untouched places, their ideas and voices echoing through time, even if their time isn’t Oscar Night.