Adapt or die. That is how things work in the natural world amid shifting circumstances that threaten survival. Those who depend only upon whatever worked before often find themselves unable to function in the world that required they change along with it. What once worked well in the Oscar race might not work in ten years time. Not if things keep going the way they’re going. While many film critics and cinephiles are clinging to the past — trying to preserve what came before — fresh technology is obliterating old norms, moving much faster than our sentimentality can keep up. The problem is compounded by the truth that younger people, e.g., Millennials, aren’t really much into movies – certainly not movies they have to pay for, and not the sort movies they see appearing again and again in movie theaters. They’re more drawn to offerings on Netflix, VOD, and yes, free and illegal downloading. Not a big deal for them to watch on their laptops or even their phones.
There are still a healthy portion of them that will pay to go out to the movies, but it has to be something big, something spectacular, or something interesting to them for a specific reason. There is not now nor has there ever been any obligation to shape Hollywood product to suit the coming generations, but it won’t really matter much if there isn’t any audience left for the kinds of movies Oscar voters like to choose for their year-end awards.
Several films have come out this year that are testing the limits of how that future might look. Two of them will be massive blockbusters that dwell in territory that makes Oscar voters generally uncomfortable. A superhero movie has so far been off-limits for Best Picture, and so would a movie with performance capture chimps dominating. Of course, Jim Cameron’s Avatar was the first movie with performance capture characters featured as at least 50% of the cast, if not more. Cameron’s massive and groundbreaking achievement looked like it might win all of the Oscars in 2009. But that was the first year of the Academy’s decision to expand the Best Picture race and the preferential ballot was put in place. Even if The Hurt Locker had not won the DGA and the PGA it still seemed on track to win Best Picture.
The Hurt Locker did not represent any breakthrough technological advancements, but it did represent a cultural shift as it was the first (and remains the only) film directed by a woman to win BP. That shift was a much bigger deal than Avatar’s spectacle. And besides, the narrative that year pitted man against woman, husband against ex-wife, visual effects-driven filmmaking against nuts and bolts filmmaking. Given that dynamic, if the contest were held today, The Hurt Locker might still win. Kathryn Bigelow’s march towards making history was unstoppable once it got rolling. Sometimes in the race there is a sense of good will that takes hold — like Ben Affleck winning for Argo or Martin Scorsese finally winning with The Departed. Once it’s done it can’t be undone.
There is some talk online about whether Wonder Woman would be eligible for a Best Picture nomination. So here’s what people need to know about Best Picture. Voters do not get ten choices or nine choices or eight choices. They get five choices to nominate for Best Picture. The Academy then counts the ballots, weighs the top vote getters to see if they pass the required thresholds, and then decides how many nominees there will be — between five and ten, theoretically. So far it’s only ever been eight or nine. That means that most Academy members would have to name Wonder Woman in their top five and a good number of them would have to put the film at number one, their top favorite film of the year. This is why for any “genre” film, but most especially for superhero films, it’s nearly impossible to crack the top five since most of the open slots on ballots are filled by traditional, moving dramas or beloved dramedies or even musicals.
A quick history primer for those who do not know how it works: the Academy named more than five Best Picture nominees up until 1945 — the number varied wildly from year to year. After WWII, they reduced Best Picture to five nominees every year until 2009. In 2009 and 2010 they had ten spots for voters to fill in on their nominations ballot, and ten nominees for Best Picture. During that time, animated films like Up and Toy Story 3 and genre films like District 9 and Inception were nominated. Films about women, directed by women all got in. In 2011, the Academy switched back to five nomination slots after many Academy members complained that they didn’t feel like putting down ten. Due to the way the ballots are now tabulated, movies like Tree of Life with small but passionate support have an advantage while films with broader but shallower support among voters may be at a disadvantage. The new system gives us more than five nominees for Best Picture, but it seems that they are a bit more homogenized than the lineups in 2010 and 2011. What you see now are more of the same kind of movie without the surprising bold dashes of diversity like Precious or Winter’s Bone.
Give its massive box office take, there is little doubt Wonder Woman would be in if there were ten nomination slots for voters to fill, but with five it’s nearly impossible. Wonder Woman is still part of a franchise and it is still a superhero movie. To many of the traditional Oscar voters, that’s two strikes against it.
The War for the Planet of the Apes is a slightly different story. Here is a trilogy that, it could be argued, deserved a Best Picture nomination each time out, with Dawn and with Rise and now with War. All three are as good as it can get with performance capture, storytelling and yes, acting. Andy Serkis’ work as Caesar is unquestionably great acting. I know the actors branch won’t see it that way; their bread and butter is their face. They are never going to nominate an animated or performance capture unless it has its own category.
These two films, Wonder Woman and War for the Planet of the Apes, represent the best ideals of the effects tentpoles that will dominate Hollywood’s future. There will be many more of these kinds of films and at some point it’s going to be awkward for the Oscar voters to keep choosing outside the bounds of effects-driven films. If they had a separate category for Effects-Driven Best Picture contenders, they might edge closer to catching up with how things are changing. Right now, however, they are still sifting through the pile to find the movies that Oscar voters like — and it’s not all that different from what they liked in the 1960s, or 1970s, or 1980s. Every so often an experimental film slips through, like Birdman or The Revenant or Mad Max: Fury Road, but for the most part they still go for ‘important’ and ‘dramatic’ and ‘character driven,’ preferably ‘white-male driven.’
When you think about what kinds of films will be nominated for Best Picture, you have to imagine large groups and consider what film best represents those large consensus groups. Sure, you’ll have help with the Producers Guild and the Directors Guild, and the Screen Actors Guild. But for the most part, the trick is imagining which films will pull in around 300 number one votes as best film of the year. Which one do they define as best? Picking the winner is a whole different conversation, but for nominations we’re looking for pure love. Or career appreciation for an industry vet.
The trick is that most of the movies Oscar voters respond to are having a hard time making it in theaters, and it gets worse every year. Yes, we have films like The Martian and Arrival that make money and make the cut. Best Picture winners like Moonlight and Spotlight aren’t movies that necessarily need to be seen in the theater. This debate came to a head in Cannes this year where attendees were grumbling about the rise of Netflix, saying it isn’t “cinema.” Well of course it is. The stunning film that Netflix released this year, Okja, is most certainly cinema. Though it wasn’t shown in many theaters because it was made available on Netflix right away, far more people saw it than they would have otherwise, so much so that it instantly became a viral conversation. Other films like The Big Sick, The Beguiled, and Ghost Story, all of which are in theaters only, have sparked some discussion, but because of their limited distribution some have been talking about these films without being able to see them on a nearby screen. The conversation about film is a global one now. The hive mind is curious and it doesn’t like exclusivity or lack of accessibility when it comes to content. Okja was easy to see and the others weren’t. Films on fewer screens had to settle for think-piece influencing rather than first-hand accounts.
All of this is to say that films like Okja feel more like the future — it feels like the freedom of convenient digital music as opposed to the more rarefied realm of vinyl record albums. Sure, there will always be purists who prefer the needle and turntable. But most don’t. You can’t stop this kind of change. It happens and that’s that.
The Big Sick, The Beguiled, Lady Macbeth and Ghost Story are all great films that deserve to be seen on the big screen. But most of us know that outside Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco or other major cities, most won’t see them until they hit VOD. Everyone wants to see them, everyone who loves movies wants to keep them alive and thriving, everyone wants movies like these to be made. But that doesn’t change the fact that most will see them on VOD.
Okja is a marvel, as is in its own way Beatriz at Dinner, another film that indicts human beings and their relentless destructive progress. It’s only July and already the riches are many, the duds are few. Get Out has been the real surprise of the year, along with Wonder Woman, because no one saw it coming. And it remains, in my opinion, the most likely Best Picture contender so far of those we’ve mentioned here.
I’m excited for both of the Hollywood futures we have before us — after all, what’s the point in fighting over two paths to brilliance? Save your lament for the future for something that deserves your fretting, like climate change which could kill us all. This is just the way it goes. Entertainment technology moved fast in unpredictable directions. Now it’s a shared market with lots of product available for people to watch every second of every day. You have to wonder – what is the incentive anymore to actually go out to a movie and pay around $40 for two? Well, spectacle is one reason: War for the Planet of the Apes and the upcoming Dunkirk should make bank for that reason. Date night, sure – they might go see The Big Sick. Seniors are reliable ticket buyers, as are women, and most especially kids and parents of kids. That market isn’t going away because trust me, as a mom, you’re always looking for something to do with the kids. Kids are targeted heavily when movies are marketed, and this begins from the time they can crawl. Kid movies will always be big bucks. Always.
I don’t see the point in punishing Netflix or Amazon when all they are really doing is opening up the all too rigid distribution system and giving projects a shot that would probably not otherwise have an opportunity to move the needle in terms of cinema and the Oscars.