By David Poland firstname.lastname@example.org
20 Weeks To Oscar: The Beginning Is The End
You know it’s already over, right?
No, I’m not saying we know who is going to win Oscars this year. We don’t. But we know who is realistically in the running, and who is not.
To use a sports metaphor, we are in the playoffs. But teams still have to play the games.
Upsets will happen. But only among the “top” 10% or so.
And the Independent Spirit Award nominations and the Gotham Awards and the BFCA Critics Choice Awards and the National Board of Review Awards… none of them will mean jack-excrement to what gets nominated for Oscar in six weeks.
Palm Springs and Santa Barbara? All about sweeping up the last 5% of the vote late in the game… if there is even that much sweeping to do.
Ten years ago, there were statistical regularities that could be counted on. The expansion to “as many as” 10 nominees changed all that. In the eight seasons of an expanded Best Picture field, including this season, there will have been only ONE major studio winner. Argo.
The wins went to Lionsgate/Summit twice, Weinstein twice, Searchlight twice, Open Road (!!!), and one Oscar to WB. Even including Searchlight as a studio entity (and both wins began as a Big Fox production deal), that’s only a 38% clip for the big studios.
Before the BP expansion, there was Crash in 2005. And before that, you have to go back 15 years to 1990’s Dances With Wolves and Orion Pictures to find a Best Picture winner that was not from a major or a Dependent. And from there, back to 1986 and Platoon, also from Orion. And then just keep moving backwards to a time before indies.
The expansion was revolutionary in that it allowed smaller films with smaller budgets and shorter pockets to get into Phase II (that is to say, to get nominated), where the battle is now about the actual movies, and not about elements that used to be the norm.
For instance, my most repeated stat is that The Hurt Locker, in the first expanded year, became the first film in a decade to win Best Picture without being one of the Top Two grossing nominees. And winning while being one of the least box office successful nominees was unheard of. But it won. And the Oscar winner has not been one of the top three grossers amongst nominees a single time since the expansion. That may not be a firm predictor… but it is a sea change. And exactly the kind of change that people who are high-minded about the art of cinema should be thrilled about. (Instead, most seem to want to go back to the five… because they are more into nostalgia than a broad system of rewards based on the actual movies.)
Could La La Land actually be the movie to break the current trend line? It doesn’t look like there will be a Best Picture nominee at or over $150 million. Some are predicting a La La Phenomenon, sending it to that shockingly high figure. $100m+ domestic grossers (current or projected) that have a shot at a Best Picture nod include Sully ($125m), Arrival ($63 million and going strong), and the Christmas release, Hidden Figures, which is likely to both get nominated and do big box office. Unless Rogue One or Passengers become surprise BP players, that is the entire high-grossing field. And it certainly wouldn’t be a shock to see La La Land end up as the fourth-best grossing nominee, just under the $100 million mark.
But the point is… it doesn’t much matter anymore.
In my never quite humble opinion, La La Land, Manchester By The Sea, Moonlight, Jackie, and Arrival are now sure bet BP nominees That’s five.
After that, I would bet Hidden Figures, Loving, and Fences as the likely next three. That’s eight.
But you have Silence, Lion, Sully, Hell Or High Water, and Hacksaw Ridge nipping at their heels… with the possibility that two of those five get in without knocking anyone else out.
And hell, there could be a shocker. 20th Century Women is great enough to find a strong constituency, much as I think Hell Or High Water may already have established.
But that is the entire field as we close November and The Gotham Awards tell us – GASP! – that Moonlight is a powerhouse and we have NBR tell us that – GASP! – people love Manchester. The reality is, we knew both of these things three full months ago at Telluride.
How many free lunches does it take to get to where we already are and have been for so long? And does any of that habitual dance of voter romance make any difference in a season where voters have lots of easy access and a process that so completely narrows the field before they have to seriously consider nomination choices?
Of course, one of the brilliant things about Oscar is that while everyone (paying attention) knows… nobody knows the details. Did last year’s Best Picture win in a landslide or by two votes? Same with all the other categories. There is that sense that 100 Academy votes can swing a win and certainly a nomination. So how hard do you work for those 100 votes and when does that effort become a form of insanity.
The irony of all ironies is that #OscarSoBlack this year. At least, I expect it to be. If four of the movies that I expect to make the Best Picture cut do, in fact, get there, “black movies” could be half of this year’s BP nominees. That is every bit as much an anomaly as actors of color being shut out last year. And in my opinion, not a single one of those “black movies” will have gotten there because of their racial make-up. Each has a different journey.
Moonlight is a deeply personal and intimate story, that happens to be about a black gay man, directed and adapted by a straight black man. Hidden Figures is a great little-known story, told in a very commercial way, with big pop songs and familiar, likable actresses. Loving is half-black, I guess… a lesson from history about how we treat others. And Fences is an award-winning stage work by a legendary playwright, starring two big names with strong Oscar histories.
Color is at the heart of each of these movies. But these are not movies that lean on our passion, guilt or fear of The Other. They are all, in their very different ways, about more than that. None of these films is a movie you have to vote for because it’s good medicine. There just happen to be four very strong stories from four very committed distributors with people of color in leads this season. Next year, it would be no shock if, once again, there were none. Because it’s not about The Academy. It’s about the industry. And there is only one Denzel and one Barry and one couple named Loving and one magic period fun with race movie every few years.
In the acting categories, there is a bit more fluidity, but less than you would think. one slot after Emma, Natalie, Annette, and Amy in Lead Actress. Two slots after Casey Affleck, Gosling, and Denzel in Lead Actor. One slot in Supporting Actress after Viola, Michelle, Naomi, and Nicole. And the most roomy place is Supporting Actor, with three whole slots still legitimately in play after Mahershala Ali and Jeff Bridges.
The cake is pretty much baked.
And until actual nominations land, no one will truly know how to strategize against the specific cards drawn in each category. But mostly, it will be about making a beautiful place for those who you really believe can win in a competitive race.
What will make the difference, for instance, in Best Actress? Well… the movies matter. Do the categories feel right? What are the big moments. But ask me and I will tell you a 1000 times that it is the stickiness of the performance. Two weeks after seeing the performances, what moments do you remember? Is it Natalie’s verbal gymnastics and stillness? Is it Annette’s grounded, salt-of-the-earth mom considering the changes to the world around her? Or is it Emma Stone singing “here’s to ones who dream” and taking one last look at her first true love?
We have all become very cynical about the Oscar process. And there are many reasons to be. (That was this week’s column until I found myself choking on the bile flying from my fingers.) And there are exceptions to the thought I am about to offer, but…
Academy voters vote the way most of you would vote. With their hearts and minds.
And there is nothing the consultants and publicists and the spends and free food can do about it. In the end, there are many things about The Academy that are flawed and antiquated. But it is a group of professionals who work and have worked in this business and almost every one I have ever met loves movies… like you love movies… just not necessarily the movies you love.
They will let you bribe them until the day is done. But everyone is bribing them… so no one is bribing them. The perks cannot be the standard. (That’s HFPA… and even they are so overloaded with bribes that the effect is now dubious. The group is still mostly unqualified to be taken seriously. Different issue.)
Love is the standard.
I believe that.
Of course, many of us shape the field before it really gets to the Academy voters. But not with the hysteria of the next two weeks of votes and nominations and awards. It was shaped for the groups voting this early December, too. Months ago.
The season is already over.
Long live the season.