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David Poland

By David Poland

20W2O: 5 Days To Go (aka The End Is Nigh)

Next Oscar season has already begun.

Jobs are being discussed and by the end of March job offers will start being made for real. Studios like Paramount, relatively quiet this season, will continue strategizing the new Jason Reitman movie’s release… and the new Scorsese. We’ve got new Ridley Scott and Richard Curtis and Bill Condon and Alfonso Cuarón and Clooney v Clooney redux (amongst others)… and we’ll see how they all sort out in the wash. Some companies are already in talks over still-unnamed Cannes movies that might fill the awards galleys the way Sundance simply did not this year.

But I am writing about this last year, not next year. Just know that one part of the multi-level awards season game has already begun, above and beyond films being greenlit and made. This is one of those parts you aren’t supposed to be thinking about, now or ever.

Of course, strategy is intertwined with the festival infrastructure of the year. The festival dynamic changed dramatically this year. (You can wait to read about it in the LAT or NYT next year at this time or the year after.) Sundance reared its head, though credit for the awards profile of Beasts of the Southern Wild has to go to Fox Searchlight, not Sundance.

Cannes was the next big stop and Sony Classics came in owning Amour, which won the Palme d’Or and won over pretty much everyone in its path. Some felt that the film had an Oscar shot from that day one. Others, not. But there could not have been a better soft launch. Sony Classics also had Rust & Bone, the next film from Jacques Audiard after the surprisingly successful A Prophet. I, personally, am still stunned by the failure of voters in any group to reward this forever performance by Marion Cotillard with at least nominations whenever possible. But the level of emotional challenge, combined with Audiard’s love of twisting genre, didn’t take. (Note that the stunning performance of Niels Arestrup in A Prophet failed to be nominated as well.) Sony Classics also picked up the market sensation, No, which is now nominated for Foreign Language, at the fest.

Summer came, as it inevitably does. There was a new Woody Allen that wasn’t the last Woody Allen. Searchlight rolled out The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel after sitting on it for 8 months, hoping to fill Allen’s Paris spot of the year before. And The Weinstein Company fumbled the release of the monster worldwide hit, The Intouchables… and it still got to $10 million domestic. But none of these films would be in play by year’s end.

In fact, the only pre-Venice/Telluride/Toronto film to be nominated this season was Beasts. The next earliest release date was October 12. Still, only two of the movies that got nominated for Best Picture were released in the Labor Day festival cluster; Argo and Silver Linings Playbook. The other hot Best Picture title at that time was The Master, which played Venice, but not Telluride. Others, like the two Focus films (Hyde Park & Anna K), took lumps at TIFF, and another, The Impossible, got unexpected momentum from the fest.

Meanwhile, New York Film Festival, which had its first opening/closing/tentpole World Premiere in decades with The Social Network a few years back, shifted strategies to focus on premieres… and got four. Life of Pi, Not Fade Away, and Flight were the official World Premieres and Lincoln, committed to premiere in Los Angeles at AFI in November, got a “sneak peek” that truly served as its world premiere, even though the film went back into hiding for a while afterwards. Shockingly, NYFF scored as well as Toronto with 2 BP nominations for its World Premieres, matching TIFF’s 2 (Argo and Silver Linings Playbook) and 1 (Amour) for Cannes.

That left three more films to arrive—Les Misérables, Zero Dark Thirty, Django Unchained. None opened at film festivals… all scheduled for release December 19 or later.

But before we get to that, perhaps the key moment of the entire season took place the day after TIFF ended, September 17, as The Academy announced—without warning the studios of their thinking and for reasons still not honestly admitted—that it would move Oscar voting into December for the first time ever, attempt electronic voting for the first time ever, and close the nomination voting two days after the long New Year’s weekend.

Classically, this was not only the most significant event of the season, but the least reported… for all the reasons why things don’t get well-reported during The Season. 1. It is very hard to quantify. 2. Media outlets, often dependent on the generosity of The Academy, are afraid of crossing The Academy.

The reason that it’s hard to quantify the impact of the early Academy dates is that the Academy is a closed club that allows no data from which one can extrapolate anything with any honest hope of real accuracy. One of The Great Lies of any Oscar season is that any of us really know what the situation with a majority of the voters at any point in the race. We do not. Nor does The Academy. Nor does Harvey Weinstein. What we do know is that there are a lot of people sampling the body temperature all season long—some more reliably than others—and that the general reports can be used as a wedge to manipulate other members into rethinking their potential votes. And that is how the game is really played. That and choosing to focus attention on an influential circle of people to help shepherd the rest where you want them to go.

But Academy dates are not just Academy dates. Does anyone really believe that sheer coincidence was responsible for the directors of 2 of the 3 late releases, both nominated by DGA for Best Director, not being nominated by The Academy Director’s branch? Another possible influencer is that DGA allowed screeners to be sent to DGA membership for the first time this season. But something odd happened there. With the same date for the close of voting, the DGA membership nominated 2 of the 3 December releases and the 369 members of the Academy directors branch picked no nominee with a December release.

Taking a step back… away from the theories about how this season got so screwed up… there is something not that unfamiliar about this Oscar season. It tends to be said in dismissive ways… but the Academy race does tend to be a race to the middle. The middle may be excellent. It often is. But what I have often called “love” in the Oscar season is, it seems to me, really “comfort.” More an old, stable marriage than a honeymoon. Just look at the list of winners for the last number of decades. There are oddities, the most startling one being back-to-back wins for The Departed and No Country For Old Men, which were exceptionally violent, but also had a ton of pedigree.

Does it make you feel good about the industry? Is it likely to embarrass you in any way?

These are the two key mainstreaming questions.

The Academy just wasn’t ready for Brokeback Mountain for all the reasons that Brokeback was so important to many people. And honestly, it would be worse off if it came out today, as all the homophobia is still ingrained in people’s hearts, and the issue no longer rallies people (at least in the big cities) as something on the cutting edge.

Dianne Feinstein killed Zero Dark Thirty by signing off on that letter… simple as that. OUR Democratic Senator for 20 years and she is suggesting that something is morally wrong with liking Zero Dark Thirty. The truth—which she did not tell—means nothing once the specter of public embarrassment and controversy (something neither Departed or No Country created, btw) rears its head. Fuggedaboudit.

The reason that Chicago is the only musical to win Best Picture since Oliver! and one of only two to be nominated in that same span (Cabaret… and some would count Moulin Rouge! or All That Jazz… not I) is that these movies are not seen as important and they are potentially embarrassing. I feel that Les Misérables was the great launch of 2012, making the best of a problematic situation—deservedly problematic or not—and maximizing every element that could be maximized under the circumstance.

Life of Pi is… a movie about a kid on a boat with a tiger, kinda, who embraces life’s greatest lessons. Too cutesy for The Academy. Truly, it was an honor just to be nominated. It’s gotten the kind of momentum in late January and early February that it needed in December and early January to have a real shot at winning. Even people who love the movie seem to forget to include it in the conversation of serious candidates for the win. And I don’t think there was a thing Fox could do about it. Enjoy the worldwide success and enjoy the party on Sunday. Maybe you’ll take home a few statues that will surprise a lot of people. But not the big ones, I don’t expect.

Silver Linings Playbook is now what it always was… a terrific, offbeat romantic comedy with a great performance from Bradley Cooper and a confirmation of Jennifer Lawrence’s superstar status. From the very beginning, in Toronto, there were whispers about the JL character as a “sex addict” or “whore” falling for an older man, thus serving the fantasy life of male critics over 40. And from the beginning, I have said, “Bullshit.” The fact that Lawrence ages up to Bradley Cooper’s character without giving the pedo feeling is part of her genius and David O. Ruseell’s fine work here. The desperation of these two people to make some sort of solid connection couldn’t be clearer from meet not-so-cute until the end.

It’s not that you are, somehow, not allowed to dislike this film. There are other things that some people just won’t connect with, as with any film. But that is pretty much guaranteed with a film as loaded with oddity as this one. The extreme arguments for and against this film, however, seemed to get oddly personal and off the point of the film itself.

But then there was this… slow, slow, slow release pattern… no box office heat when some of the others were blazing to and past $100 million. Quirky comedy. And then, suddenly, in mid-January, a serious drama about mental illness. I get why TWC changed the direction of the sell. It wasn’t for the box office. It was for Oscar. They were being buried in “frivolous.” But any marketer will tell you that changing campaigns mid-stream is not likely to lead to a win. The first time I heard about David O. Russell’s son as the inspiration for the film was when he said it to me in an interview on December 14… 3 months after it became one of the front-runners at TIFF, 3 days before Oscar voting started. I’m not sure the angle would have ever worked, really. It’s not that movie. But you use what you got.

Lincoln had the weight of its weight to carry. And I think they did about the best they could. The box office success of the film is still stunning and if I were more enterprising, I would do a close analysis about where the revenue came from, because I am guessing that it wasn’t mostly from big cities and that it was from a political set much, much different than its writer or director. But a Venn diagram of the Lincoln audience and the The Passion of the Christ audience would probably have been a brutal dirty trick… and I haven’t seen it anywhere. Why? Not honor amongst thieves… lazy press.

Regardless, the theme that the campaign took itself too seriously was repeated endlessly… but can’t be blamed on consultants as there is truth to it. The first time I saw a pivot to a lighter tone in the campaign was Spielberg being feted by Marty… Short, not Scorsese, at DGA. Great way of softening things, but not televised and perhaps too little, too late. (Also, a tip of the tall hat to Daniel Day-Lewis’ light speeches at most awards events.)

Lincoln, as has been beaten to within an inch of its life now, seems to be the movie that best fit the ideal of a Best Picture winner, but, somehow, just didn’t get over the hump.

Argo was the front-runner coming out of Telluride, then sharing that status with Silver Linings coming out of TIFF. And then it got hit by Pi and Lincoln in NY. Then it opened… and did strong business. Then Lincoln opened… Pi opened strong… Les Mis stunted… Zero Dark Thirty won NYFCC… Django got a ton of chatter… and Argo just seemed to fade slowly into the distance.

But then, ZD30 got mauled, Django caught caught in a Mandingo fight over the use of the word “nigger,” Silver Linings kept not expanding… Pi just didn’t seem to catch the imagination of the public or media… and Lincoln just kinda sat there, on top of the heap, presiding, kicking ass at the box office, locking in Daniel Day Lewis for Best Actor, and seeming incredibly stable.

Did awards voters start building barricades in the streets of Los Angeles on January 10, minutes after they found out that Ben Affleck had been “snubbed” for Best Director? Not so much. (Depends which outlets you read.) BFCA gave out their award that same night and the votes for Argo and Affleck were already in. Same, at least in theory, with the Golden Globes.

The Academy’s poor gamesmanship with their dates has created a situation where BFCA and The Globes seemed to be responding to the Academy’s choices on the 10th. This, of course, is absurd on every level. Start with the directors’ branch being less than 10% of the Academy and the votes for these other two awards being in before Oscar nominations were announced. But you can keep going from there. But given that the goal seems to have been putting the other awards in their place, another abject failure for the Academy.

Would the perceived Affleck “snub” have meant anything if the movie wasn’t quite good? No. Would it mean anything if Academy voters were (though they may turn out to be) in love with Lincoln? No. But if that group of people was waiting around, kind of excited about the notion of finding any port in a storm, bored by the placid, successful beauty of the choices they had, Argo became that port.

In the Rube Goldberg machine of Oscar Season, an apparent winner finally came out of the end. And however circuitous the route, it seems now like it was oddly inevitable. (That, of course, doesn’t make me want to vomit any less when I come across the endless rationalizations of a bored and unfocused press corps.)

Does it make voters feel good about the industry? Yes. A commercial hit in a genre that studios allegedly aren’t interested in, though Oscar voters still clearly love the feature film drama.

Is it likely to embarrass you in any way? No. People got over the slight to the Canadians early and now like to pretend it was always some silly fuss. (Don’t start the discussion with a Canadian unless you have some time to kill.) And people got over the fake ending. I mean, it’s not like three Senators wrote a letter to Warner Bros demanding changes based on their soon-to-be-released political spin that Iranian airport security is not run by the Keystone Cops (with big guns). Six jokes by Letterman and Leno could have changed the whole game. But they never came… and you know, they probably never should have. It’s silly. (And in the case of the attacks on ZD30, in my opinion, nearly criminal.)

And so it goes…

But wait… last thought. If Argo doesn’t win Best Picture, expect weeks of rationalizations about why, very few of them based on anything but a lack of impulse control. None of the movies involved in this season – or the consultants – have embarrassed themselves on a level even close to two others: The Academy and The Media. The Academy has a chance at redemption on Sunday night if Seth McFarlane turns out to be Bob Hope, Johny Carson, and Billy Crystal all in one. (No pressure there.)

And The Media… the environment of ignorant expertise is overwhelming. You can f-ing walk on it (but be careful… it’s harder to remove than tar). Every outlet needs to be in the game these days—for whatever reasons—and every one of them has to pretend, apparently, that they have an expert. Don’t get me wrong. Some of the actual “experts” are bloody idiots as well. Some don’t care about seeing past their noses. Mostly they are bored and have nothing real to write about. Rage & ennui & anticipated post-partum depression make a rough cocktail. Get Anne Hathaway bald and half-naked and drugged and snotty singing about that and you may have… well, it wouldn’t win her an Oscar, so scratch that.

4 Responses to “20W2O: 5 Days To Go (aka The End Is Nigh)”

  1. Jesus. Ugly at the end.

  2. David Poland says:

    I couldn’t agree more, Kristopher.

  3. The Pope says:

    Great article, David. Thanks for the in-depth analysis.

    If Argo wins, I think in years to come people will look back and scratch their heads a little. It is a light film and you feel that there was an awful lot more they could have done with it. Well made, well scripted etc., but you come away with less than you were entitled to. If it wins, it will be like Chariots of Fire winning. Interesting subject but Chariots never broke into a sweat and Argo went for Hollywood which was the easier route.

    An unusual year because the nominees (with the exception of Les Mis), were all good pictures. But none of them were standout great.

    Silver Linings was good but the trick of the third act (where Cooper reads the letter and twigs it and then the movie pretends he hasn’t) was a cheat that undermined the romance of the ending. Still, few people can capture emotional chaos like Russell. If it wins, it will be like Kramer vs. Kramer.

  4. Martin Pal says:

    Unless you are just seeing Brokeback Mountain as an issue film then your statement that it would fare worse if it came out today can be refuted by its continued popularity. It’s a great film. There is an opera version of it in the works and a stage production entitled Beyond Brokeback based on a book from a forum dedicated to the film is being performed around the country, the latest being in Phoenix, AZ, just a week or two ago. Sold out screenings are regularly publiized including a great one at LACMA last year. A concert of music and songs inspired by the film was just performed in January. Last fall an exhibition of the costumes was held in London and it was part of the Out West exhibition at the Autry museum. Can you name me another film of the last decade that has spawned so many varied things of this sort? There’s something more to the film to people than just the notion of it being a cutting edge issue. But even so, your statement that it isnt a cutting edge issue belies the fact of the recent repeal of DADT and same sex marriage
    laws enacted and two cases being heard in the Supreme Court next month. I’d say all of that is pretty cutting edge.

    You move any film into another year and it may fare better or worse, but it’s not going to lessen the impact this film continues to have on those who actually see it.

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“Because of my relative candor on Twitter regarding why I quit my day job, my DMs have overflowed with similar stories from colleagues around the globe. These peeks behind the curtains of film festivals, venues, distributors and funding bodies weren’t pretty. Certain dismal patterns recurred (and resonated): Boards who don’t engage with or even understand their organization’s artistic mission and are insensitive to the diverse neighborhood in which their organization’s venue is located; incompetent founders and/or presidents who create only obstacles, never solutions; unduly empowered, Trumpian bean counters who chip away at the taste and experiences that make organizations’ cultural offerings special; expensive PR teams that don’t bring to the table a bare-minimum familiarity with the rich subcultural art form they’re half-heartedly peddling as “product”; nonprofit arts organizations for whom art now ranks as a distant-second goal behind profit.”
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