MCN Commentary & Analysis

19 Weeks To *Oscar

Writing this feels a bit like whistling past the graveyard, but as we move inside 20 weeks to the award show formerly known as Oscar, intensity is picking up.

We are a long way from the Academy membership settling into this season. Lots of complaining about the content on the Academy app, which suggests that many members don’t understand that this year’s “race” is going to be very inside baseball. The Great Settling has been postponed until March, when there is no organic driver of a Great Settling. It will happen… even if the nature of the moment will be driven differently.

Top Ten lists are leaning hard against Netflix… surely too much so. But film critics are, ultimately, fans. Very sophisticated fans. So if you want to go exclusively by critics at a time when no one is paying attention, amidst vaccines and electors and business closings (oh my!), expect the Best Picture nominees to be (in no specific order), Nomadland, Ammonite, First Cow, Never Really Somtimes Always, Promising Young Female, Beanpole, Palm Springs, Collective, and Minari.

I don’t expect that this will hold.

The big question, for me, is how the constituency for films that are not “high indie” will come together. High-powered studio content, which so often creates its gravity on its own, doesn’t exist this season. I’m good with News of the World, but it’s not the kind of movie they are going to launch parades to celebrate.

Screenings with Zoom Q&As are flying fast and furiously around the web, but Academy voters, as mid-brow as they can be, are sophisticated enough to want to see the movie and not just the celebrity froufrou. Q&As can create a target for viewing time , but as is ultimately the norm, it’s all about the movie, unless you can create a great narrative.

But what are the narratives this season? Inclusion and… and… uh…

Thing is, almost every candidate is inclusive of either women or people of color. Netflix has some of the only not-inclusive movies, but they also have movies in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Da 5 Bloods, and the gay-centric but problematic The Prom. Two movies have older white men protecting pre-teen silent blonde girls (one in space, the other in the old West).

The other major factor in this season looks like that the love-hate on almost every single movie is a jump ball. Every time I run into a series of voters who are positive or negative about a movie, it seems inevitable that I will run into another series of voters who feel exactly the other way. The media has written off, for instance, Hillbilly Elegy and The Prom… but I have run into multiple voters who love either or both movies. (Tellingly, they could not care less what the media told them to think.)

In many ways, The Academy is running into the story of the moment… streaming. As one result of all of the films that hope to be *Oscar nominees being seen exclusively on TV by the membership, it is all just a giant TV schedule. The Queen’s Gambit, a series not qualified for *Oscar is on the same mental line as Mank. Steve McQueen’s Small Axe pentalogy has been on more movie Top 10 lists than any Netflix movie but will not qualify for *Oscar. And just try to get a 70-year-old to differentiate Nomadland and Minari by name.

Speaking of Minari and Nomadland… how do you hard-sell beautiful, intimate movies that are all about their modesty?

And Warners has certainly killed the ambitions of Tenet with the war of words between the studio and Christopher Nolan and the general sense that the studio no longer cares about talent (which is a step beyond the actuality, much as I think The Kilar Initiative is a car wreck).

The magic trick of all Oscar seasons is that one or two movies tend to find the right narrative and the right combination of factors as we head into or just out of nominations… and we all think it’s organic. It’s not organic. It can’t be forced, but it’s like topiary, a natural plant, but very carefully shaped into looking like what is desired by the audience.

The answer for consultants could be that they get something new, late in the game, that throws over the table by appealing to the broadest audience amongst the candidates. Could that be The United States vs Billie Holiday or Malcolm & Marie? Maybe.

Thing is, the normal differentiators of an award season are out the window. There is a massive difference in impact between seeing a cool Q&A with an actor you like and the opportunity to shake the actor’s hand and have 45 seconds of small talk with a glass of wine in your hands. Just is. Can’t be recreated unless someone is going to get their talent to do Cameos for every voter in every group. And even then… “signed” notes are more old news. Unless Tom Hanks knows your kids’ names and hand writes them on the card… zzzzzz.

But the machine keeps grinding, as close to normal as possible, because… well… people have jobs and need those paychecks. Media too.

I don’t think there should be a competitive Oscar season this year. I like and love a bunch of these movies… but awards are about the least important thing imaginable in the film industry.

Moreover, whether they admit it or not, Oscar is moving faster down a track that could end the film industry that AMPAS was built to support and honor. Not to put too fine a point on it, but making Oscar into an award for anything captured on video that is between 90 minutes and 3 hours (with a few irrational exceptions) is the end of Oscar. And for many people, that is fine with them, even preferred. Hell, I can’t say that, outside of finding a new way to pay for my life, I would lose sleep over this.

But there is a deep importance to being honored by your industry that Oscar has represented like no other film award for a long time. Even those who have been marginalized by Oscar seem committed not to bring down the award, but to be included and awarded.

Unlike the business itself, which will define its own future no matter what the media and generally ignorant talking heads say because the ultimate standard is money and money carves out its own space like water defining a forest, Oscar is built on image and a weird faith that AMPAS members are the gold standard of the industry. Gestures matter. A lot.

The way Oscar is engaged by the industry, from start to finish, can stand some change. I am not arguing that hanging out in LA for three months to glad-hand at least half the Academy membership is an Oscar-worthy act. I’m not saying that the industry embracing the corrupt-by-design HFPA as a key step on the journey is great. Etcetera.

But this year without a structure. This year with a significantly reduced competition. This year in which money will eventually overcome purity, as it inevitably does (and which didn’t last season, thrilling most of the people involved, even from competitors). This season could expose, reshape, and push from troubled, overly paranoid status into real crisis mode for The Academy.

The nominees will be good movies. The winner will be loved by a lot of people. And right down through all of the categories. This is the micro and it will be okay.

But the macro view? The line from Excalibur keeps floating in my brain. “The King without a sword, the land without a king!”

14 Responses to “19 Weeks To *Oscar”

  1. Bradley Laing says:

    —-is there any connection between federal bailout money for movie houses and the Academy Awards?

    —The United States Congresses attitude towards the movie theater industry is bothering me, tonight.

  2. movieman says:

    I’m puzzled by the late surge of mass love for “Sometimes Always…”
    I saw it ages ago, and it hasn’t stuck in my consciousness like other movies I saw early (or earlier) this year, including “First Cow,” “Sorry We Missed You,” “Crip Camp,” et al.
    The one aspect of the film that did linger was its abysmal treatment of the token male character–the nerdy kid who helps the femme duo out financially in NYC.
    Overall, I think I actually prefer Eliza Hittman’s previous movies (“Beach Rats” and “It Felt Like Love”).
    Another film whose critical hossanahs I don’t share is “Collective.” Thought it was a yawn, and I’ve been a fan of Romanian cinema since their New Wave kickstarted in the early-ish ’00s.
    A late-year documentary that did wow me was “City Hall,” but trying to get Academy voters–even doc nominating members–to watch a 4 hour/35 minute movie is about as likely as Trump ever being prosecuted for his crimes.
    Agree that “News of the World” feels like an awards non-starter despite its virtues. Just doesn’t deliver the PUNCH that, say, Universal’s 2019 Xmas Day release (“1917”) did.
    Also share your feeling that this very peculiar season is waiting for a late entry (mid-February perhaps?) that screams, “Undeniable Frontrunner.”
    Or not.
    More than any year in recent memory, nobody knows anything. Or how this will eventually shake down.
    Including me.

    P.S.= Was also disappointed in “Mank.” I guess I could never get over how offensive I found the film’s central premise: that Herman J. Mankiewicz was the sole auteur of “Citizen Kane,” a Kael-y theory debunked decades ago.
    Amanda Seyfried is wonderful, though, and richly deserves her first Oscar nomination.

  3. Stella's Boy says:

    People starving and being evicted while assholes like Ron Johnson stall or obstruct or do nothing should bother you.

  4. Stella's Boy says:

    Abysmal treatment of the male character lingers. LOL. Classic movieman.

  5. Bob Burns says:

    The Oscars have been becoming The National Book Awards for years. The fortunes spent on Oscar campaigning directed toward a very small number of people (Academy members, guild members, bloggers and other influencers) have blinded that group from seeing their increasing disconnect.

    When one of the actor-driven dramas makes $100m theatrical, everyone in the bubble, it seems, feels confirmed in their cultural relevance….. which is just silly. The general public is almost as likely to be able to name the winner of the National Book Award, as the BP winner.

    I have long said the women and minorities will gain some control of the Oscars and the Academy when the rich white guys don’t care anymore. This year has given us a glimpse of that future.

  6. movieman says:

    Self-righteous comments like that are one of the reasons I’ve been a relative stranger to the Hot Blog in recent months.
    Sorry/not sorry to have once again failed your Woker-Than-Thou standards of moral purity, SB.
    Happy New Year to you, too.

  7. Stella's Boy says:

    LOL I hope your new year’s resolution is to look within and consider how you could watch a movie like that and your only takeaway is that a male was treated poorly. It fails basic human standards but of course you’d attribute it to wokeness. Thanks for dropping by Tucker Carlson.

  8. Bradley Laing says:

    —Steven Bach, in his book “Final Cut: Dreams and Disasters in the making of Heaven’s Gate” claimed that in 1946, the audiences behavior towards going to the movies had changed because of changes caused by World War II. And, he wrote, that “the Studios” would have adjusted and gotten everything back on track again, when the Supreme Court mess up everything by ordering “the Studios” to sell off their theater chains.

    —If COVID 19 lasts three years, as the Spanish Influenza epidemic did, I wonder what changes will happen to the *audience*?

  9. Glamourboy says:

    Movieman–please don’t take Stella’s Boy comments to heart–out of your whole list of comments about several films…that is his only take-away? He’s doing exactly what he is accusing you of. You have always been one of the best reasons for me to come to this discussion group–I don’t always agree with your assessments but I’m always impressed by your love of movies new and old…please know that for every snarky comment, there are probably many who enjoy your reviews and discussions.

  10. Jermsguy says:

    This is a depressing year to even think about Oscars. But I would hope SHIRLEY is not forgotten.

  11. Bradley Laing says:

    By CAITLIN EMMA and MARIANNE LEVINE

    12/20/2020 10:26 PM EST

    Updated: 12/21/2020 12:18 PM EST

    Pandemic-ravaged small businesses would see a total of $325 billion, including $284 billion in loans through the Paycheck Protection Program, $20 billion for businesses in low-income communities and $15 billion for struggling live venues, movie theaters and museums — a major priority for Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. The small business aid is only expected to cover less than three months of payroll costs, however, while many employers don’t expect to resume normal operations for more than six months.

    https://www.politico.com/news/2020/12/20/details-stimulus-package-omnibus-bill-449499

    —If there is an Oscar television show in 2021, will they thank Congress for the movie theater stimulus money, during the TV show?

  12. Stella's Boy says:

    I like movieman. I really do. He’s often very insightful and he sees a ton of movies, giving attention to a lot of lesser-known titles. But I make no apologies for calling him out. Too often recently his comments have shades of Tucker Carlson. He loves to throw around “woke” as an attack and there are times when there’s no difference between what he says and what my Rush Limbaugh-loving father-in-law says. If you watch a movie like that and your one reaction is a male was treated badly, that says way more about you than the movie. You sound like a white guy on OAN claiming white guys are the real victims. Not sorry for saying as much. I haven’t seen News of the World or City Hall so I have nothing to say about them.

  13. Pete B. says:

    Just think how much cinematic knowledge Movieman could spread if he averaged over 4 million viewers.

  14. movieman says:

    Thanks, Glam.
    I decided to peek into the HB on New Year’s Eve just for the hell of it.
    Not a whole lot going on, but that’s 2020 for you.
    Here’s to a total reset in 2021.

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