MCN Columnists
David Poland

By David Poland

19 Weeks To Oscar: Season of Less

There were a lot of questions about the role of the festivals when Venice, Telluride, and Toronto didn’t offer the award explosion that media has been hyping into a frenzy for the last few years. In the lull between the end of the New York Film Festival and the Jolie-Pitt-driven opening night of AFI, it’s clear that there is more writing about awards, earlier in the season than ever… but a lot less to write about.

Literally half the films anticipated at the top of the “Festival Run” chart by Gurus o’ Gold are, for all intents and purposes, out of the game. The other half doesn’t seem to have a strong frontrunner argument in any writer’s view. Everyone likes and respects Spotlight. Everyone likes The Martian. Big fights over Steve Jobs (which for me, personally, is still the frontrunner, as what makes people argue is what makes it great). And a lot of expressed reservations about everything but the performances in The Danish Girl and Suffragette. Add in Bridge of Spies, which ended up playing the New York Film Festival, to the positive-with-reservations list.

The one surprise out of the fall festivals was Room, an A24 picture with a dead lock for a Best Actress nomination at this point, and a legit shot at four to seven nods. A lot of the power the film has—above and beyond its quality—is that it is a surprise and is a rising underdog. A lot of the other movies started as such overdogs that they are being unfairly undercut, as though they aren’t good enough. Many of them are… but perception is reality.

Even the winner of the last two Oscars for Best Picture, Fox Searchlight, has got two films that were from pre-fall festivals (Brooklyn from Sundance and Youth from Cannes), and are – for me – wonderful films that are going to require a lot of pushing the ball uphill to actually score the big nominations.

Two more waves are coming. The By The SeaConcussionCreedBig Short wave and then the JoyRevenantHateful Eight wave. Anomalisa is a movie that many of us would love to believe will be in the Oscar race… but… well…

In that first wave, no one seems to believe in anything but Concussion, though everyone is intrigued by The Big Short. And even Concussion is soft on perception. Screenings of both movies can change that in an instant… long before Academy voters really start seeing the films in numbers. And a film like Creed, which is rumored to be “not very good,” could well be a commercial success and hit a note that becomes very viable for Oscar. Meanwhile, all the presumption of genius for last year’s Angelina Jolie movie is being held against this year’s Angelina Jolie movie, which looks to be much more in the vein of Mike Nichols (any film should be so lucky to be put in that company… RIP to a legend).

The second wave is where a lot of focus is being put, Oscars already being put on the shelf for The Revenant, nominations seemingly assured for The Hateful Eight, and Jennifer Lawrence still an Undeniable for Joy. But chickens, counting, hatching, and all that.

One thing is apparent. It’s a lot of single-award-film studios this year… and Fox. How did Fox end up with three strong candidates for Best Picture nominations in one season? Fate is a funny thing. And Fox (big Fox) has not been the best about pushing awards in recent years… not their focus… they like to hit at the box office and leave awards to Searchlight. So that one studio is in the position of being doubted as to whether they can deliver nominations for 3 different movies. But never forget… sometimes the movies are bigger than the campaigns.

There will, no doubt, be enough hoopla to choke a massive horse. But when measured more finely, there will be less. The expansion of L.A. from a town that barely needed one trade magazine to a inside baseball town of four trades pushed budgets and diffused the value of everything. This could well be a season in which we start to see a serious contraction of that paradigm. No one is getting out. But almost no one is in quite as deep as they once were.

Meanwhile… enjoy the quiet. Enjoy Bond’s opening weekend. And then get ready for the noise to begin. It will be deafening for about a month. And then something serious will happen. Oscar ballots will go out. And awards types will have one of the most nail-biting-est Christmases ever. Ho ho ho. (“Not another lump of coal!”)

13 Responses to “19 Weeks To Oscar: Season of Less”

  1. jack says:

    What do you think about “In the Heart of the Sea”?

    I am surprised that it isn’t in the AFI Fest line-up. Why Warner Bros don’t show the film in film festival? Especially “In the Heart of the Sea” has a terrible release date (one week before “Star Wars”), and definitely need more buzz…

  2. Daniella Isaacs says:

    So nobody is holding out any hope for STAR WARS? What if it’s really f–ing great? Nostalgia factor ought to help.

  3. Kevin says:

    I’m thinking STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS could be nominated if it’s great.

    If you add THE MARTIAN and (fingers crossed) MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, this could be the most sci-fi Best Picture lineup ever.

  4. Bob Burns says:

    I’m interested whether Universal will regain its Oscar punch. Universal was a serious rival to the Miramax/Harvey machine…. and then they weren’t.That’s one of the reasons I agree with you about Steve Jobs. Hunger. A desire for glory to cap off the best year the studio has had in a long time.

  5. movielocke says:

    I feel like the narrative of the 2015 awards season is going to be the year of the big movie. 2014 was extremely deep up indy films own asshole and the pendulum swing to a year of populist and major studio films may be surprisingly s3levere and unexpected for the pundits that push the same status quo small films every year.

  6. Chris L. says:

    Yeah, damn straight. Those small indie filmmakers need to be taught a lesson and their run of cultural and economic dominance brought to an end. If an overlooked gem like Star Wars can’t find a seat at the Oscar table, all of its billion$ might as well have been for nothing. The sooner these awards stop being a meager incentive for funding “status quo”-minded hacks like Todd Haynes and Charlie Kaufman, the richer all of our lives will be. Preach!

  7. Daniella Isaacs says:

    “If an overlooked gem like Star Wars can’t find a seat at the Oscar table, all of its billion$ might as well have been for nothing.”

    WHAT? Where do I begin?

    1) We haven’t seen it. It might NOT be a gem.
    2) Who really thinks “billion$” don’t count as success if a film doesn’t get Oscars? Seriously??? With that logic, the academy should just hand out awards to the top grossing film every year and save people the trouble of seeing the films and voting. Jeezus.

  8. Chris L. says:

    Sarcasm font obviously should have been utilized. My bad. The logic was borrowed from the comment above mine. Jeezus.

  9. Daniella Isaacs says:

    I was going to say your parody is too close to the real thing, buddy, but in retrospect, I feel like an idiot. :/

  10. benutty says:

    where exactly are the SEVEN nominations for Room supposed to come from? beyond LOL

  11. Rhett Gamlin says:


    4 nods: Picture,Director, Actress, Adapted Screenplay

    9 nods: Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Production Design, Film Editing, Cinematography

    9 is the absolute ceiling, but very, very unlikely (Cinematography and Production Design are least likely, but not impossible). 3-5 is the more likely scenario.

  12. benutty says:

    @Rhett, I agree with you that 3-5 is a possible scenario, though I digress in that I don’t think it’s likely. I think we’re looking at one for Room–Larson. Production Design and Cinematography are LITERALLY impossible projections. Those branches go for much more lavish productions–something as contemporary and simple as Room is not even worth considering as a dark horse. Editing and Supporting Actress are fringe bets at best and will only happen if Room reaches Whiplash levels, which it won’t. Supporting Actor is also pretty unlikely, all things considered.

  13. Rhett Gamlin says:

    I think you’re underestimating how well it’s playing. Trying to state definitively which nominations are impossible (remember the Sound Mixing nomination for The King’s Speech?) or trying to say what level it will get to at this point in the race is absurd. Maybe don’t be so dismissive.

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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.

“One of the fun things about seeing the new Quentin Tarantino film three months early in Cannes (did I mention this?) is that I know exactly why it’s going to make some people furious, and thus I have time to steel myself for the takes.

Back in July 2017, when it was revealed that Tarantino’s next project was connected to the Manson Family murders, it was condemned in some quarters as an insulting and exploitative stunt. We usually require at least a fig-leaf of compassion for the victims in true-crime adaptations, and even Tarantino partisans like myself – I don’t think he’s made a bad film yet – found ourselves wondering how he might square his more outré stylistic impulses with the depiction of a real mass murder in which five people and one unborn child lost their lives.

After all, it’s one thing to slice off with gusto a fictional policeman’s ear; it’s quite another to linger over the gory details of a massacre that took place within living memory, and which still carries a dread historical significance.

In her essay The White Album, Joan Didion wrote: “Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969, ended at the exact moment when word of the murders on Cielo Drive traveled like brushfire through the community, and in a sense this is true.”

Early in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, as Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt’s characters drive up the hill towards Leo’s bachelor pad, the camera cranes up gently to reveal a street sign: Cielo Drive. Tarantino understands how charged that name is; he can hear the Molotov cocktails clinking as he shoulders the crate.

As you may have read in the reviews from Cannes, much of the film is taken up with following DiCaprio and Pitt’s characters – a fading TV actor and his long-serving stunt double – as they amusingly go about their lives in Los Angeles, while Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate is a relatively minor presence. But the spectre of the murders is just over the horizon, and when the night of the 9th finally arrives, you feel the mood in the cinema shift.

No spoilers whatsoever about what transpires on screen. But in the audience, as it became clear how Tarantino was going to handle this extraordinarily loaded moment, the room soured and split, like a pan of cream left too long on the hob. I craned in, amazed, but felt the person beside me recoil in either dismay or disgust.

Two weeks on, I’m convinced that the scene is the boldest and most graphically violent of Tarantino’s career – I had to shield my eyes at one point, found myself involuntarily groaning “oh no” at another – and a dead cert for the most controversial. People will be outraged by it, and with good reason. But in a strange and brilliant way, it takes Didion’s death-of-the-Sixties observation and pushes it through a hellfire-hot catharsis.

Hollywood summoned up this horror, the film seems to be saying, and now it’s Hollywood’s turn to exorcise it. I can’t wait until the release in August, when we can finally talk about why.

~ Robbie Collin