One of the best scenes, and main points, in Jim Brooks’ unforgettable Broadcast News is when Aaron (Albert Brooks) says wryly out loud, “Let’s never forget, we are the story.” Broadcast News predicted what news would become only if we underestimated it. When I first started covering the Oscars there was no such thing as blogs. Opinion news had not yet overtaken actual news. I started my site to mimic an actual news site and I tried to make my own identity hidden and irrelevant. Most people didn’t even know I was female for many years. But when the blogs began to rise, injecting one’s personality became key to survival. Suddenly, anyone and everyone could be an expert. On anything.
When I first started, the only outlets that covered the Oscars seriously were Variety and the Hollywood Reporter. They did this as some sort of hybrid of PR and editorial. No other newspapers really covered the Oscar industry, even if they did offer year end Oscar predictions, like Premiere or Entertainment Weekly. Blogs like mine, specifically mine, launched coverage of the Oscars year round. Eventually the trades and newspapers would catch up, having their own year-round coverage and eventually getting their own Oscar bloggers. I remember being shocked when the New York Times got one — my dear and departed friend David Carr.
My objective, when I was just getting started, was to answer the question about why Citizen Kane did not win Best Picture. I thought if I could follow the race from start to finish I could understand the race. We debated what we called “sight unseen” predictions — that is, predicting movies and contenders before they were even seen by anyone. Some, like Anne Thompson, still refuse to predict anything they haven’t seen but it is an uphill battle, that. Turns out no one really cares, or at least values, that kind of integrity.
I spent a lot of time tracking the previous awards, like the critics and the industry. More and more groups sprung up to announce their nominees and winners. In my mind, which admittedly was immature and ignorant on a great many things, I believed then that the critics knew better than the Oscar voters. After all, back then the Oscars were mocked for their choices. Some film critics, like Manohla Dargis, used to disdain the Oscars, or at least not respect their choices. I believed that the closer the Oscars got to the critics, the closer they’d get to an institution that would have rewarded Citizen Kane.
I no longer believe this is true, partly because there aren’t really film critics anymore as such — there are dozens of them, even hundreds of them but they represent an aggregate. Sure, some still draw readers interested in what they have to say. There are plenty of new voices that speak from a different perspective other than “straight white male” and those are, no doubt, of value to people looking to see the awards race from an alternative POV. But as far as being tastemakers, they should not decide what the Academy should choose.
When the Academy pushed their date back by one month, from late March to late February, it pushed everything back by a month. So November became the new December and October the new November. Oscar season, then, was mostly a film festivals thing and not an audience thing, give or take a few Big Oscar Movies here or there. It is good to have the public involved. After all, movies are mostly made for them. It is good to have the critics involved, but Oscar nominees should not only represent that particular hive’s taste.
But things have changed yet again where blogging and journalism are concerned. While bloggers were once the outspoken ones, the ones willing to puncture the status quo and say what couldn’t be said, now they have become hamstrung and silenced out of fear. If, say, Scott Feinberg or Kyle Buchanan or even Anne Thompson ever dared speak out about the things all of us see going on in the industry and film — if they ever started to puncture the status quo the way bloggers used to do way back when, they’d be out of a job by the end of the day. If Next Best Picture’s Matt Neglia or Will Mavity stepped outside of the Twitter ideology for even a minute both would be viciously attacked and eventually put in the shunned pile. In 2021, your platform is your work and your identity. Most believe they must survive on Twitter because that is where their identity is defined. Many do very well there, as Twitter is a haven specifically for voices that could not find an audience otherwise.
No one in the real world cares all that much about their online platform but if you work in any kind of media, content or entertainment you have to. You are under the thumb of the hive mind. You have only one option: total compliance. “When they have you by the balls, your hearts and minds do follow.”
Not only is dissent not allowed in film coverage, it is not allowed in news at all. Even if the regular person out there doesn’t pay attention to Twitter, what they’re seeing around them is shaped by Twitter – CNN, MSNBC, the New York Times, the Washington Post — all of it is under the thumb of the tiny minority of Twitter users who control 80% of the content. They are purists. They are strident and they will come for you if you slip up even once. Sure, you can offer the withering apology. That is always an option but in general, they will keep coming at you, scrutinizing your past for any offense and going in for the career kill.
Even the little bit of pushback I have been doing has essentially blackballed me from Film Twitter. David Poland has been likewise purged and shunned from Film Twitter for having slightly controversial views. Jeff Wells has been stripped of his Broadcast Film Critics membership and Gold Derby for posting an anonymous conversation that was deemed offensive. I have to wonder what David Carr would make of today. Would he pander to the hive mind out of fear? Would he be outspoken? Would he be fired?
Wells and Poland were among the few who helped launch Oscar blogging in the early days. It isn’t that they have stopped writing what they think. They still do. It’s just that Twitter pays little attention to them because what Twitter wants from them is something they can no longer give, and it’s something I can no longer give: total compliance. It’s just not happening for those of us from a different generation who remember what it was like to get noticed for being controversial.
What I personally think might be happening right now is that people are craving courage more than they are craving yet another person or movie or news story that parrots back the narrative and tells readers what they want to hear. I imagine this is why Ben Shapiro’s podcast remains consistently in the top 5 or 10 of podcasts at iTunes. That tells me he has a much broader audience than many would admit out loud. People are listening to him and there is no way only those on the Right are. Not with those numbers. I could be wrong but that is my forward looking point of view, which is why I hope that Oscar coverage can start being a little more daring, a little more truthful and a little more controversial.
I imagine the next evolution of blogger will be those who are unafraid of stepping outside the bubble and speaking to a wider group of readers, not just those who exist inside of it. Call it the Howard Beale hypothesis:
To that end, I also think that artists who can do what Network here did at the time, or producers or studios who are willing to start examining what is really going on right now will likely make a bigger mark than those who make movies that comport with the status quo. But to do that they have to stand up to Twitter. Can they? Who knows? I guess we’ll see if anyone has the courage.
How to Widen the Circle of Oscar Coverage
From the beginning of this year on down, it was obvious that some of us were forcing the narrative to be what we wanted it to be rather than what it might have organically been. We could do that this year because there was no market deciding success or failure. True, the Oscars exist outside the market requirements, but here there weren’t even publicity events to counter the chosen narrative. This year, it was decided early on, we would make change in an industry resistant to it. It almost worked. In the end, the voters still chose the lead actors they wanted to choose, no matter how many chips we put behind the actors of color we wanted to win.
But we who cover the race can adjust our methods a little bit. It was once suggested by Mark Harris that we not so overtly winnow down the choices in anticipation of what the Oscar voters MIGHT like. He might not have been talking about movies that reach or move or entertain the broader public. He might have been talking about more independent fare, or more inclusive fare. Either way, the concept is right. Our circle needs to be wider. We have to be able to consider movies that might not seem like “Oscar movies” out of the gate, or even on paper.
I feel partly responsible for shaping the Oscarwatching industry and now I feel it necessary to help shift things back to where they were before I started – as a more organic process of finding the best of the year. What defines best can’t just be what an insulated group of people thinks it is. We have to be aware of what movies are being made that don’t fit inside the box. That is going to mean expanding our ideas of what a Best Picture is. If theatrical is dead because the studios only make franchise movies now, then films released on streaming must be considered valid, especially if they reach a wider audience than any of the theatrical movies do.
If the Academy and the Oscars want to continue down the road they’re on they might have to give up being a network television show. And you know, that isn’t the worst idea either. The days of depending on ratings sort of run counter to the idea of finding the highest achievements of the year. After all, the Grammys and the MTV awards are about how popular the music is, not necessarily how good their awards broadcasts are. An Oscars that doesn’t have to depend on ratings can really do whatever it wants.
But if they do care about ratings, and they do want to be a television show then they must, and we must, widen our circle. I plan on starting immediately to do that. With ten nomination slots this year it should not be hard to find movies that draw from both the critics and the public. I am not going to pretend it will easy. Standing up to Twitter is nearly impossible but stand up to it we all must — corporations, institutions, media outlets, critics and yes, Oscar voters.