Every year, I like to touch base by macroing and metaing out a bit with you all. It is as good a time as any to “explain” how the clusterfuck works, why it exists, what it does, who controls it, how it started, and where it stands now. I get to do this because I was here mostly first. With a few notable exceptions, Tom O’Neil being one of them, I got here at the beginning of it all, not just Oscarwatching as an industry, but the whole thing: the blogs overtaking print media, opinion swallowing up actual news, clickbait ruining our ability to tell truth from fiction, and eventually social media swallowing up the internet overall and becoming the only way people mostly interface through the most powerful communication tool ever developed.
I started out by creating a website called Oscarwatch back in 1999. The objective was to watch the Oscar race from the beginning to the end of the year to figure out why it seems to be in conflict with what film critics and historians called the best. The main question was why didn’t Citizen Kane beat How Green Was My Valley for Best Picture? After twenty years tracking the race, watching how people vote and why, I know the answer to that question beyond any doubt. I’ve attempted to explain it to you all each year I’ve been at this.
Generally, the reason comes down to one thing: consensus voting. There is a big difference between someone like Pauline Kael sitting down to figure out what is the best film of the year and thousands of people trying to agree on what that is. Once you get the concept of what a consensus is, you can then start to understand why polls work in politics, or why controversies can derail contenders, or why buzz can carry a film to a win even if it isn’t that good and over time is proven to be a subpar winner. It is all about “Miss Right Now” as opposed to “Miss Right.”
Specifically, with Citizen Kane vs. How Green Was My Valley, John Ford had won Best Director twice before but never Best Picture. He’d already won for The Informer (which lost Best Pic to Mutiny on the Bounty) and The Grapes of Wrath (Rebecca), but when How Green came along, it really was time to at last reward him Best Picture too. Add to that, there was all-out scorched earth warfare aimed at Orson Welles – he went up against William Randolph Hearst and Hearst set out to destroy his career. Citizen Kane remains among the best films ever made by any standard, but its quality had zero to do with the Oscar race itself.
Consensus voting tells you much more about the voters than it does the film itself. Take Argo. Argo’s victory was less because people liked the movie, and more because they liked the Ben Affleck story at the time. They liked that he was a comeback – someone who went through a career lull in the early 2000s who then rebounded as a director making serious dramas. They liked his marriage to Jennifer Garner. They liked him because he’s a charismatic actor and they liked his scrappy underdog Oscar story, especially after the Academy overlooked him in the Best Director category. Very little of the momentum behind Argo’s win had to do with the movie itself, although the movie was certainly right in the wheelhouse of what a consensus likes: a movie that makes you feel good about voting for it. More than that, it started a wave of excitement that people either wanted to be a part of or not. Most did.
How Green Was My Valley was a personal film for John Ford, and the John Ford story was alive and well that year. It was sentimental, beautifully made, and emotionally moving. Kane, by contrast, was just brilliant satire on every level, cold as ice, and told us harsh truths a consensus doesn’t really like hearing about itself. The consensus wants to feel good, for the excitement to build, so everyone can feel like they’re part of something hopeful as opposed to something grim. Citizen Kane is a film I return to again and again and is one of a few I can count on one hand as a perfect film that has no flaws. Psycho is another. Taxi Driver is another. The Social Network is still another. I’m pretty sure No Country for Old Men might be still another.
In the early days, before the Academy pushed the date of the Oscars up by one month from late March to late February, before the blogs, before the “Oscar watching industry,” before Rotten Tomatoes, box office tracking sites, and Twitter, the Oscars were a different kind of industry. Mostly, journalists didn’t much write about or think about the Oscars until the end of the year when critics like Kenneth Turan and Roger Ebert, or more specifically Dave Karger at Entertainment Weekly and Anne Thompson at Premiere would write their year-end Oscar prediction pieces. Back then, no one was in the Oscar tracking business as such. No one was out there writing pieces in June about Best Picture, for instance – the very idea would have been ludicrous back then. No one really thought of the Oscar race as a game or an event that needed tracking in terms of odds. “Oscar movies” were usually sweeping epics released at the end of the year. Or occasionally sweeping epics released earlier in the year. Or occasionally movies people loved that weren’t sweeping epics but somehow became the most-known and beloved films of the year.
Back then, there wasn’t much discussion at all. The studios advertised their For Your Consideration ads in the two trade magazines: Variety and the Hollywood Reporter. They spent a lot of money on these ads, but they were exclusive to the industry trade magazines. That meant that both of those magazines had a lot of Oscar publicity content in them. They weren’t really gaming the Oscar race as almost everyone does now, but they were doing profile pieces and Oscar pieces at year’s end. They also separated editorial from promotional: their film critics wrote actual film reviews that reflected an honest take of a movie, as opposed to a review designed to promote one of their advertisers.
When my site came along, Oscarwatch, we weren’t big enough to get advertising from studios. Once David Poland’s Movie City News grew in importance, he began selling FYC ads. He was the first to do it and that broke up the ad system. From there, sites like mine and eventually Kris Tapley’s and Scott Feinberg’s also received these ads. Flash forward to today, and now the entire industry online and in print is supported by ad revenue from competing studios, who can now launch less expensive campaigns because they can do it through the blogs as opposed to funneling them specifically through only the two major trades.
These campaigns can keep sites like mine and Jeff Wells’ Hollywood Elsewhere going, but it’s harder for the bigger sites to survive and thrive on the available funds, which must be split up and divided. That meant that when Jay Penske got into the blog business, he bought up Variety, Deadline, Indiewire, and Gold Derby, which are now all under the same umbrella, which means they take – or try to take – the majority of available funds. But they must compete with The Hollywood Reporter and The Wrap, not to mention the major sites that also now take ads, like the New York Times and Vanity Fair. Everyone has an Oscar blogger. When I started it, it wasn’t even a thing. Now it’s a thing, for better or worse.
With so many sites covering the race, with so many voices advocating, with so many ads floating around – Oscar watching has become a bloated industry that barely functions. The best publicists that work in this industry now know this world and know it well. They know whom to reach out to, where to advertise, where to put their money. They know what various writers respond to, what they get mad about, what they like to promote. They know that Oscar buzz can make or break a tiny indie film. Look at Beasts of the Southern Wild, for instance, or even Eighth Grade, which was shut out of the Oscar race but still made quite a name for everyone involved. They also know that the big studios don’t much care about winning Oscars anymore. Sure, they still give it a shot once in a while, but their bread and butter isn’t in the prestige picture industry anymore. It’s in international box office, spectacle, genre, and branded titles.
The Oscars haven’t become meaningless, but the Oscar game hasn’t been all that great for movies overall. If the aim is to watch a film and decide its worth based on its “awards potential,” then the whole point of going to the movies in the first place has been mostly lost. Films should not be judged on whether Academy voters will like them or not. In fact, most of the time that kind of thinking turns out to be wrong. Academy voters are people, and people will often respond to movies that are legitimately good over movies that are “awards bait.”
Now that the box office variety has greatly diminished and sequels and high spectacle superhero movies are the name of the game, the Oscar race seems to be the one place in the industry that still stands up for quality movies. At the same time, what’s getting lost isn’t the indie – the indie is doing just fine. It’s really that kind of film my old friend David Carr used to call a MOVIE movie. That is, a movie aimed at adults that is a big studio, big stars, big budget kind of thing that used to make going to the movies such a rewarding experience. Those kinds of films are getting lost in the shuffle, and will likely find their permanent home on streaming. There are still a few here or there being made, but if people don’t turn out to see them they die on the vine. Those kinds of movies don’t need the Oscars as much as the Oscars need them.
The Oscars are better when they don’t mirror a tiny insular world of art house cinema and film critics deciding their fate. They are better when it’s more communal, when the films nominated are films everyone has seen that aren’t blockbuster spectacles. But so far, it all seems to be moving in one direction and that direction isn’t back into the past, but rather straight ahead into the divided world of movie theaters, the art house, and streaming.
Part two tomorrow: the Blogs and the Making of an Oscar contender.