If you’re watching the reviews come down on Film Twitter you are going to be tempted to draw conclusions about some movies. Twitter has become its own ecosystem that distorts reality. What happens on Twitter only sometimes impacts real life, if the media depends on Twitter to shape its opinions and that trickles down to the general public. But if you want to be able to see things more clearly, you have to step back from Twitter and look at the bigger picture.
Premature Oscar splooge is at an time high. That shit is everywhere. On everything. You can’t touch any surface without accidentally putting your hand on it. The splooge starts in Sundance and carries through all of the festivals and even lasts, sometimes, through the guild awards. What is Oscar splooge? It’s conclusions drawn from unnatural settings. A natural setting is simply, audiences watching movies. Crowds of industry voters watching movies. Unnatural settings are insular groups watching movies. Their sentiments are going to be different. More personal.
The problem with Oscar watching is simply this: premature conclusions about movies seen by any rando. This isn’t really a problem in general, not until you use those one or two or three opinions to extrapolate the larger opinion. If you want to know how a large group of people is going to vote, or a consensus, you first have to figure out the average. Who are they? What is their economic status? What is their motivating force in voting? Are they rich, poor, young, old, black, white?
For instance, polls tend to work in America because they take a sample of the same kind of people in similar circumstances. Democrats or Republicans or Independents. Even in these instances, you might not get accurate results because the people being interviewed might be embarrassed to say that they are voting for someone or they aren’t voting for someone.
So if you are trying to predict the Oscars and you’re using the intel from the loudest Twitter members you’re probably not going to get an accurate read. Let’s take the two movies from last year, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and One Night in Miami. Twitter, and film criticism in general, told us these movies could not lose.
But when we ran our polls here on the site, neither film made the Best Picture cut. Which is odd, considering our readers are very likely in the same group as Film Twitter. It wasn’t that they didn’t like the movies, or hated them, but they liked other movies more. As in:
But the Oscar twitter people would have been bullish on these two titles last year because they knew the Academy was trying to be as inclusive as possible. They figured Regina King is popular enough with actors that she would get her movie in as well. We all believed this last year. Another perplexing example of this is Inside Llewyn Davis, which was coming on strong with film critics and Oscar bloggers and seemed like a sure bet. But in the end, it wasn’t.
It can get confusing, however, when you’re looking at movies rejected by the general public for being too insular, too opaque, like Mank:
Had Mank played the festival circuit, and people in Toronto or Telluride had given it their thumbs down (honestly, I can’t even remember last year’s roll out of any movie), that would have done two things. It would have given the movie a slightly more difficult time getting into the race, but it would also have been misleading.
KNOW YOUR VOTERS
To know why Mank would do well is to know your voters. In this case, a film like that is not going to be ignored by them. As Anne Thompson says, how do you build a Best Picture contender? Branch by branch. Probably the biggest sign Mank wasn’t going to WIN Best Picture was when it did not get a SAG ensemble nomination. That showed appreciation for that film was going to be more director based than actor based. It’s harder for a film to win if the actors don’t push for it. BUT anyone who was writing off Mank early on, and many were, including a very high profile blogger at a major magazine, did not know their voters. There was NO WAY they were going to overlook Mank, which remains a masterpiece and they are smart enough to recognize that.
After Life of Pi played at the New York Film Festival, word was that it wasn’t an Oscar player and that it wasn’t going to do well. By that time, however, I’d been watching the Oscar race long enough to know, and this wisdom I am now imparting onto you, you have to take festival reactions — good and bad — with a grain of salt. Of course, Life of Pi, thanks to strong advocacy by Anne Thompson, myself and others, went on to win a boat load of Oscars, including Best Director.
Why, because the Oscar race is fluid, not static. Life of Pi gained in esteem as Ang Lee made the rounds, more people saw it, more people talked about it, love was spread around and that amounted to a strong showing at the Oscars, even without the actors.
Critics and many Oscar bloggers take their intel from reactions at film festivals that play well on Twitter. Many of them have their own agendas, and have their own platforms to defend and build. Their platforms are always on notice for one slip-up so they hedge their honest opinions, not because they are afraid they won’t get ads from studios (although some of that is in play) but because they are afraid of being attacked or abandoned on Twitter.
To be a good Oscar watcher, however, you have to understand why Twitter only sort of, sometimes matters. There are ways it can really mess with the Oscar race (and all good things) – mostly in bad ways. Sometimes in good ways. I think Parasite’s win two years ago had a lot to do with the fans on Twitter and major Hollywood voices using Twitter to influence votes. Parasite, like Nomadland are films that help people build up their platforms. If you criticized either of these movies you would be destroyed on Twitter. I never even criticized Parasite but I did criticize its fan base and it was one of the many swarms I had chasing me. I know it sounds absurd. It is just a weird world you have to experience to understand.
All of this to say that you aren’t necessarily getting an accurate read of how a movie will do by how a handful of people at a film festival review it.
Twenty years ago, being a film critic was a hard job to get. Not everyone could be one. You had to have experience watching and writing about films. Your analysis mattered because you were a seasoned professional. Even the young upstarts way back when, like Manohla Dargis, had a history and knowledge of film. That isn’t to say the critics today don’t, but there isn’t any requirement to being a film critic now, no real standard like there used to be.
For example, if you had, say, 30 of the top critics evaluating movies and the list was: Roger Ebert, Kenneth Turan, Owen Gleiberman, Stephanie Zacharek, Richard Schickel, Manohla Dargis, AO Scott, etc., that same list would evaluate movies in a given year. That was the standard. We would wait on Thursday nights before the Friday that movie opened to hear what the critics had to say. We knew their tastes and we knew their experience and that gave us a general impression of what “the critics” thought about a movie, more or less. Now, a movie is reviewed, tweeted about, evaluated, chewed up and spit out by a small but loud hive mind long before it gets anywhere near hitting theaters.
The only real problem with this process is that it makes an already insular and cut-off world even more insular and cut-off. If movies are written off out of the gate by the early reviews, or conversely they’re overhyped out of the gate, that can sometimes do more harm than good — making the Oscar pile much too thin. And a lot of the time the early reviews can be wrong.
Anyone can imagine anything happening – they can imagine Jennifer Hudson’s prominence is fading and a few tweets later that is their accepted reality. They can see a couple of people give The Last Duel bad reviews and that is supposed to mean something. They can see Kristen Stewart’s performance dazzle Venice but then watch Penelope Cruz win Best Actress instead and then take that to mean Stewart won’t win. There are just a few things you can take from festivals that should influence how you view these films. Granted, we don’t have the Golden Globes this year as a palette cleanser away from this insular group think, but still. Given that the voting doesn’t even start until the end of January, this is all very very early.
What matters to me:
What wins the People’s Choice award at Toronto (depending on the movie). Previous winners: Nomadland, Green Book, 12 Years a Slave, The King’s Speech, Slumdog Millionaire, American Beauty – all went on to win Best Picture.
What wins Best Director at Venice (Jane Campion, The Power of the Dog) – previous winners, Chloe Zhao, Alfonso Cuaron, Guillermo del Toro, all went on to win the Oscar.
And we have Michael Patterson’s Telluride list that he compiles every year. His list this year looks like this:
1) Marcel the Shell with Shoes On (4.44)
2) The Power of the Dog (4.32)
3) Belfast (4.30)
4) Spencer (4.27)
5) Red Rocket (4.22)
6) The Rescue (3.93)
7) King Richard (3.92)
8) Bergman Island (3.79)
9) C’mon C’mon (3.65)
10) The Lost Daughter (3.48)
11) Cyrano (3.46)
12) The French Dispatch (3.05)
13) Encounter (2.71)
The winner for Best Picture is either at the top or in the top three going back to 2012. Green Book didn’t play Telluride so that is why it was missing. It would be interesting to see where it landed if it had.
So, my friends, just remember – we still have many more months to go. Try to take a deep breath and not take all of this all that seriously. At least not right now. It will be a different race four months from now.