MCN Columnists
David Poland

By David Poland

13 Weeks To Oscar: Movies and Pundits and Airs, Oh My!

(New Charts Late On Thursday)

The Oscar season for 2010 is marked, so far, less by the movies that are competing than by the coverage of the competition.

In The Beginning, there were The Trades, driven heavily by Oscar ads for decades, but also interestingly above the fray. Yes, they would pander via Special Issues. And there’s nothing wrong with a profile of a Production Designer or awkward attempts to anoint the next big actor. Even better if someone read them. But punditry was frowned upon and with the exception of the widest possible stage setting, The Trades were not there to instigate and certainly never narrow the field.

And then, this damned interweb thing happened.

The first serious iteration of web analysis of the Oscar season started on bulletin board sites, where anyone could offer an opinion. But the beaches there were policed, as it were, but the Super Posters, who engaged the opinions of others with strong opinions and challenges to the thinking. There was a strong smell of “fan,” as so much of the conversation started before movies were seen and were often driven by Mainstream Media accounts of the films, starting with publicity efforts called features and then with responses to the films themselves.

Next came a small wave of Oscar Pundits (this is where I came in) who actually saw the movies in the first group of viewers and who swam in the stream of the industry professionally. The possibility that Awards Season was a business model for the web was becoming real.

Soon, these two versions of internet know-it-alls started to merge and blur. Super Posters were given access to those early screenings. Some even moved to Los Angeles or New York to participate in the fun. And the attitude of the boards came to The Professional Class. The false notion that the Oscar game is an objective one and that there was a “right” and a “wrong” set a rough tone. Every notion started to be taken too seriously. But really, if all that was there to be reported on was a small event here and a small event there, how would all those digital column inches be filled?

And then, it started getting experimental. The LA Times, barely able or willing to fill out the Calendar section with content, launched The Envelope, with the singular goal of generating more specific ad revenue. Variety started trying to keep up with the daily rounds of “Oscar Buzz.” The New York Times created The Carpetbagger, launching David Carr as a personality journalist, which he quickly and without much design, used to become on of the paper’s living legends.

But it was when investors came to play in the internet pool, which would lead them to the failing print businesses with great brand names, that things lost all sense of perspective. Now, everyone needed an Oscar expert to stay in the Oscar advertising game, as it remained the best bet in town.

(All those internet ads you see every week for the current movies coming out pay very poorly. They are part of big web-wide budgets, which are spread across the web by companies that keep 40% – 60% of the revenue for themselves. With the big media companies, sales team handle off-season buys and can get a better price without the ad aggregators, like DoubleClick. But except for the very largest standalone websites – most of which really aren’t standing alone, having been bought by bigger companies – online businesses have a hard time making a working wage on those ads.)

The need for every site – including The Trades – to now prove their expertise in the awards season in order to attract For Your Consideration ads has lowered the level of expertise in that world considerably. It’s not brain surgery. But you learn the beat by being on the beat, same as any other. You don’t see The New York Times taking Bill Carter or David Carr off of media and embedding them with soldiers in another country. It is true that a good reporter can do the job of reporting under any circumstances. But given that there is almost nothing to actually capital-r Report in the awards season, the coverage is given to mostly analysis. And Analysis is not something you can just drop into a situation and start doing. Reporting facts and measuring them are different skill sets.

As the frenzy to be experts grows, more and more history-ignorant stories seep into the soup. Just yesterday – and this is not meant to offend the specific authors of these pieces, but examples help – there was a story about DGA moving their event to the Hollywood & Highland ballrooms… with no mention and certainly no reporting on why this was allowed, given that part of The Academy’s deal with H&H and The Kodak was that no other movie awards shows are allowed to use those facilities during the course of the Academy’s contract there. Now, that rule may have been dumped… The Academy may have made an exception for DGA since DGA was in a bind… it could be a distinction made because DGA is not televised. I don’t know. (Honestly, don’t much care.) But it is a significant part of that story… if you are running that story.

Likewise, there were words written about the screening schedule for True Grit. And I like Tim Appelo a lot… MCN has happily linked to his work for years… but his Grit screening piece had all the earmarks of someone who was new to the Oscar beat and suffering from being part of the cluster. First, it was reporting on pundits. Weird. Then it was peevish – “For your consideration — but only if you’re one of the cool kids.” And then it went to utterly outside this box people for quotes… except Mark Harris, whose issue (media as publicists) really has nothing to do with Appelo’s story and could well be a story unto itself. (Of course, Mark’s hands aren’t exactly clean either. Not only was he a key player in building up the publicity-driven Entertainment Weekly, but he works for NY Magazine now, where “Culture Vulture” has been reduced to “Vulture” with good reason. Mark’s book on 1968’s Oscar nominees is reason to love him, but EW and NYM focus on creating the curve, not following it.) And then the piece closes by laying down for How Do You Know, which hasn’t been shown beyond some long lead and friends of Jim Brooks, and as far as I know, hasn’t been scheduled to be seen by awards groups.

Oh yes… and the most basic thing… first week of December is pretty much standard operating procedure for the last couple movies of the year. As odd as the screening roll-out of Grit is, it’s not nearly as cloak-and-dagger or last minute as films have been over the years. Within 2 weeks or so of its first media screening, before the end of next week, most media in NY and LA will have had a chance to see the film. Many of us will have a chance to see the film twice, or more times, if we so wish. I remember shuttling, just a few years ago, on a cold (for LA), wet December night between screening rooms across town to catch the last couple movies… and there were no options for when to see the films or to see them again. One of them got a Best Picture nod, in spite of some tough reviews out of that evening’s rush to judgment. Munich. Another film that year that also had odd, late screening intensity was The New World. It didn’t get in. But then again, there was a second version of the film that ended up being what was released. A third version of the film is available on DVD. And the film that won? Crash… released theatrically in May, 9 months after it had screened in Toronto, where Lionsgate picked it up.

History teaches us that there are no hard rules. Of course, we all get caught up in the moment and yeah, the history. The Hurt Locker overcame the biggest of Oscars biases – box office success or lack thereof – to win last year. And this season may be the least clear in many years. There is not a single lock to win anything so far… and we may well be guessing right up until the envelopes are opened.

But one thing is a lock… there will be no shortage of opinions and opinions about opinions and opinions about opinions about opinions.

Me? I’m trying to stay out of it… not even above it… just out of it. But as Madge once famously told a client, who was unaware, you’re soaking in it.

3 Responses to “13 Weeks To Oscar: Movies and Pundits and Airs, Oh My!”

  1. Sam says:

    The unpredictability of this year’s Oscars makes it pretty intriguing. You’re right — there are no locks yet. I suppose that will change when the guilds start weighing in, but so far it’s pretty refreshing.

  2. chris says:

    I haven’t seen the Appelo piece and can’t seem to find anything too controversial on the net by him, but “True Grit” certainly is screening. Just saw it, loved it and still can’t understand how anyone could seriously consider Hailee Steinfeld’s performance “supporting.” I believe she is literally in every scene. Although, in supporting, she probably will win it.

  3. Bob Burns says:

    the part that does not get reported is the interplay between the publicists and the analysts. the reader is left in the position of having to guess where all the conflicts of interest may be affecting the copy. Lots of good people calling it straight, but as you say about the era of the trades, what gets covered and what doesn’t is as important as what is actually written.

    good essay – enjoyed it, btw.

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