MCN Columnists
David Poland

By David Poland

20 Weeks To Oscar: One Week Left

In Phase II, no one can hear you scream.

On Saturday night, the final guild award that is seen as a major, WGA, was handed out. The Grand Budapest Hotel (over Boyhood, but not the DQ’ed Birdman) and The Imitation Game (over American Sniper).

On Sunday, Birdman then took ASC (cinematography) and Birdman and American Sniper were honored by MPSE (sound).

And maybe these are a reflection of what will happen next Sunday… and maybe not.

It’s an odd feeling being so unclear this late in the process. We’ve been with Boyhood for over a year now. Whiplash too. The Grand Budapest Hotel has just passed its one-year premiere-aversary. The Imitation Game and Birdman and The Theory of Everything for five months. You’d have thought the “industry” would have made up its mind by now. It really hasn’t. Even with the results next Sunday, nothing so definitive that I will ever feel that it is The Answer for the year… just An Answer.

The quagmire hasn’t changed a ton since the nominations were announced on January 15. Obviously, so companies and their films stopped chasing altogether. But as noted in the last paragraph, most of the nominated movies had been in the swim for 4 months or more by the day of nominations. The couple that hadn’t, American Sniper and Selma, have mostly been seen by the voters weeks ago… for most, probably more than a month ago.

I expected a much more aggressive Phase 2 fight with some movie, maybe two, asserting dominance. But almost everyone seemed frozen by the success they already had. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it… too much.

We eventually got some new slogans. “Risk. Above all.” “One family’s life. Everyone’s story.”

Lots of ads.

I make my living off of awards season ads. Not nearly the amount of ads or dollars as the four trades or the LA Times, but award season ads keep the machine going here at Movie City News.

That acknowledged, it feels like the overall work of award season is constipated at the moment.

I have to admit, The Hollywood Reporter, for all its intentional limitations, has become the best method of infecting “Hollywood” through the award season. It is as glossy as Vanity Fair, as densely knit an entertainment news outlet as any out there, and well-designed enough to not ever seem as desperate as the other three “trades” currently out there.

This model of entertainment journalism is all about vertical integration. The goal is get paid or to have advertisers pay for pretty much everything, making journalism that almost exclusively serves its subjects a financially viable enterprise.

This is not a new trend. Variety, under previous ownership, decided to focus on events as the financial core of the brand, throwing up paywalls and trying to establish an exclusive club. Others followed with their variations.

But The Reporter was sold. Variety was sold. Deadline grew and added print for award season. And The Wrap somehow survived this scrum and keeps coming. Variety was thinned out into a larger version of Deadline, albeit with a more elaborate Special Issues element.

But The Reporter went somewhere else… somewhere more magazine and less trade. And as it grew (and became a weekly), the other three started doing more to emulate its path. But THR is, because of Janice Min, born of a different kind of view of Hollywood.

Regardless, the money has found its way back to the trades (and LA Times, where older people still get information off-line) and this season, things got to what feels – to me – like the tipping point of diminishing returns.

The fever begins in August, as the festivals gear up. There is a brief dip of intensity from mid-October to mid-November, but then it’s a 6-week sprint to Oscar nomination voting ending and there seems to be new noise every single day (though Christmas/New Year’s week goes a bit quiet).

And the question that is posed in Phase II these days, in part because The Academy rules of engagement change, is can the bar really be moved in Phase II anymore or are voters so worn out that inertia sets in?

Of course, maybe that is a good thing. Maybe “inertia” means that voters are just voting their preferences without interference.

But I think there is something of real value to being able to reset the message for Phase II in a real way. After months of chasing, how do the nominated films and talent see themselves?

I am in the odd position of getting the opportunity to talk to a lot of the talent that have been nominated about the work. They tell me what they were up to… or what their ambitions were. If every Academy member could have that kind of conversation, the Oscars would be simple. It would be very personal to each voter.

But the primary tool is now advertising. There is nothing that isn’t advertising… or doesn’t feel like it. Every “precursor” is now advertising. And in the end, after months of being assaulted daily by advertising, can voters actually hear the message? How much noise can voters engage before it all starts to sound like Charlie Brown’s teacher?

This season, only Harvey Weinstein has had the guts to throw his cards on the table. “Honor The Man. Honor The Movie.” This may go down in history as one of the craziest campaigns ever… unless it wins… in which case, others will try things like that in years to come.

Birdman and Boyhood have both shifted their advertising in a significant way in Phase II this season. But both seemed to wait until voting started to make their big adjustments. American Sniper has just ridden its massive success. Grand Budapest has pushed its below-the-line talent hard, but there is no real story about the film being told by the studio, beyond “It’s great and people really like it.” And the other three just seem to be floating along, trying to build on what already has worked nicely for them.

All of this is a long way of saying, “I don’t know.” All of the traditional rules could end up being proved correct, in which case look to Birdman as the big winner next Sunday. But I don’t know anyone who really feels that it will be that simple. At least three of the four acting slots seem to be locked down. But aside from those, it feels like a smorgasbord more than a feast for one or two films. Or not.

Every publicist involved with this season has been trying to figure out how to break the clutter. Of course, they have spent most of the fall trying to build the clutter, pushing their films and talent just ahead of the others.

So the question… is it the failure of the system that there isn’t more clarity… or the genius?

Only time will tell.

One Response to “20 Weeks To Oscar: One Week Left”

  1. Bob Burns says:

    The Academy has been the story this year.

Quote Unquotesee all »

“The important thing is: what makes the audience interested in it? Of course, I don’t take on any roles that don’t interest me, or where I can’t find anything for myself in it. But I don’t like talking about that. If you go into a restaurant and you have been served an exquisite meal, you don’t need to know how the chef felt, or when he chose the vegetables on the market. I always feel a little like I would pull the rug out from under myself if I were to I speak about the background of my work. My explanations would come into conflict with the reason a movie is made in the first place — for the experience of the audience — and that, I would not want.
~  Christoph Waltz

This is probably going to sound petty, but Martin Scorsese insisting that critics see his film in theaters even though it’s going straight to Netflix and then not screening it in most American cities was a watershed moment for me in this theatrical versus streaming debate.

I completely respect when a filmmaker insists that their movie is meant to be seen in the theater, but the thing is, you got to actually make it possible to see it in the theater. Some movies may be too small for that, and that’s totally OK.

When your movie is largely financed by a streaming service and is going to appear on that streaming service instantly, I don’t really see the point of pretending that it’s a theatrical film. It just seems like we are needlessly indulging some kind of personal fantasy.

I don’t think that making a feature film length production that is going to go straight to a video platform is some sort of “step down.“ I really don’t. Theatrical exhibition as we know it is dying off anyway, for a variety of reasons.

I should clarify myself because this thread is already being misconstrued — I’m talking about how the movie is screened in advance. If it’s going straight to Netflix, why the ritual of demanding people see it in the theater?

There used to be a category that everyone recognized called “TV movie” or “made for television movie” and even though a lot of filmmakers considered that déclassé, it seems to me that probably 90% of feature films fit that description now.

Atlantis has mostly sunk into the ocean, only a few tower spires remain above the waterline, and I’m increasingly at peace with that, because it seems to be what the industry and much of the audience wants. We live in an age of convenience and information control.

Only a very elite group of filmmakers is still allowed to make movies “for theaters“ and actually have them seen and judged that way on a wide scale. Even platform releasing seems to be somewhat endangered. It can’t be fought. It has to be accepted.

9. Addendum: I’ve been informed that it wasn’t Scorsese who requested that the Bob Dylan documentary only be screened for critics in theaters, but a Netflix representative indicated the opposite to me, so I just don’t know what to believe.

It’s actually OK if your film is not eligible for an Oscar — we have a thing called the Emmys. A lot of this anxiety is just a holdover from the days when television was considered culturally inferior to theatrical feature films. Everybody needs to just get over it.

In another 10 to 20 years they’re probably going to merge the Emmys in the Oscars into one program anyway, maybe they’ll call it the Contentys.