MCN Commentary & Analysis

*Oscar Lessons

The greatest lesson of this *Oscar season is… how little imagination is now brought to Oscar season.

There are literally hundreds of very smart people focused on the season for distributors, every one trying to figure out the next great thing to do, the key to opening the hearts and minds of The 10,000.

Since the great John Boorman turned to sending out VHSes at his own expense in 1985 to get attention to The Emerald Forest, we have had screeners. Harvey Weinstein used his marketing genius (and that of his remarkable team who still dominate awards consulting to this day) to turn VHS and then DVD into a ubiquitous tool of success in the season.

The absolute mantra of Oscar season was, “Get them to see the movie.” How a movie played on the big screen and how it played on your TV were the point of deviation. And Home Entertainment offered a better chance to grab eyeballs than to get voters out to their twentieth film in a screening room in a month.

Then access to talent became The Tool of Choice of the next moment. Bring out a star – actors or director – and you could fill what would otherwise be quarter-full rooms and get your movie not only a screening, but an intimate experience with talent they were passionate about.

Obviously, a meal with that talent in a smaller room -100-150 guests – was all the more valued and targeted influential Academy members.

And the intimate (300 or less) experience with the musicians and actors that you loved in Film X with a buffet and some access around the bar afterwards… nirvana.

Then there was the performance art of constant availability… or the perception of such. Put your key player who isn’t part of the Hollywood family – if they are willing – in the Four Seasons for three months and while they are doing press in the bar or having drinks with friends at the bar or taking meetings in the restaurant and BOOM! they are part of the family.

Controlling the media has also evolved over the years, but hasn’t really changed that much. Twenty-one seasons ago, DreamWorks made the Toronto International Film Festival the center of its Oscar launch of American Beauty. And it rode the wave from there to a Best Picture win. In 2007, Fox Searchlight (RIP and welcome to Burbank) turned Telluride into The Launchpad with Juno. A24 went from relative obscurity to a Best Picture player at Telluride with Room, with Brie Larson arriving in Mountain Village as a little-known indie actress and ending up with The Statue. And the party/competition continued into the 2019 Telluride, with Renee Zellweger launching in a movie, Judy, that didn’t have much of a chance of anything but Best Actress and taking that single opportunity wire-to-wire.

Merde Classic took the form of The Hollywood Film Awards, an absolute scam in which one man handed out awards for many years, but continued to be supported by studios because there was no other major press event in October, so it acted as a media bridge. (Dick Clark Productions bought the shit show and got it on air once before it became a November in-person event that never added a voting group even as legitimate as HFPA, which is not… terribly legitimate.)

AFI took November, as a platform for late-entry titles (first big moment, the premiere of Charlize Theron in Monster in 2003). Post-Thanksgiving went to critics groups and the Gotham Awards. December was loaded with announcements, including the Globes nominations. And Oscar voting started around Christmas.

And of course, the meeting of voters and media has long been represented by advertising, primarily in industry outlets.

This season, almost every “normal” tool has been unavailable, or insignificant.

Not only are the tools in dry dock, but the way impact is measured is significantly different. Consultants continue to seek the most possible numbers of ears to the ground (aka direct contact with chatty voters). But this was always an iffy methodology.

The truth is, assessing the mood of The Academy has always been hard, but is now exponentially harder with the expansion of the organization by thousands of new voters, many of whom are outside of the United States and London window. It is more like tracking weather with an ancient radar set-up and this season, the radar is broken.

That said, everything old is new again.

Who has the biggest advantage, no matter what they spend of what efforts they make? Netflix. Easy. Of the 10,000 Academy members, how many don’t have Netflix already hooked up to their TVs? I would venture to guess that fewer than 10% of the membership doesn’t check into Netflix a few times a week (at least). As they say in football, the best ability is availability.

So not only is Netflix getting the press element for all of their movies and as high profile a release window as is possible in a year without movie theaters in NY & LA & London, but they are getting a billboard for their movies that has the ability to just click and watch.

In the Pandemic Year, Amazon Prime is getting better penetration, as is Hulu, HBO Max, AppleTV+, and Peacock. But not the same as Netflix, which people have had as part of their daily media diet for years now.

So compare any of the Netflix hopefuls to the much-critic-loved First Cow. It premiered at Telluride last year (2019). It had a release from A24 on March 15, 2020. It hit pay VOD last July. It hit Showtime in November 2020. Love Showtime, but it isn’t Netflix or HBO. And even on Showtime, the film was put in second place behind series. So if you are going to see First Cow, which 95% of critics would suggest you do, you are going to have to do some work. At least it was one of the first titles on The Academy Streaming Site. But even then, there are so many titles available there, voters need a bit of a shove. Those same voters flick on Netflix every weekend and within three rows of suggestions, they are pitched Mank or Chicago 7 or Ma Rainey, often multiple times. Repetition is a key to any kind of marketing.

So… what did the always-clevers at Searchlight do with Nomadland? They pushed the agenda back in August/September at what there was of the festival circuit. And then they put the danged thing in mothballs. Every month or so, they would take it out for a ride and air it out. Critics groups helped keep it in RAM memory. But then, back into the mothballs. And now, it has “premiered” in “theaters” and on Hulu. It won’t gross $2 million. But now we are choking on the Fran McDormand Experience (ironically, handed to some of the hackiest writers imaginable) and the magic of Chloé Zhao and good promotions and terrible promotions and it’s like brand new again.

Focus is trying a late push for Promising Young Woman. But it’s a film that splits people and the studio and its consultants have done nothing to engage the conversation in a real way. They are treating it like it’s an obvious nominee and likely winner… which is suicide this season. Promising Young Woman is a punch in the face and they have managed to turn it into a Hollywood movie. (Note: Personally, it is my #1 movie for the year – 2020 – and Carey Mulligan should walk away with the Oscar like no one else is in play. But that is not happening. And there is no indication that the movie’s team is doing anything to move that bar.)

One Night in Miami had its chance months ago. Regina King is still directing that Cadillac ad. And Sound of Metal has become the hot film in the Amazon line-up. Meanwhile, Sacha Baron Cohen, who is a likely multiple nominee, is working his butt off to bring attention to both The Trial of the Chicago 7 and Borat Subsequent MovieFilm, but because of the balance of *Oscar power this season, much of his effort accrues to Netflix, whereas a non-traditional film like BSMF should be drawing more attention in this weird season.

Will Minari really have enough of a constituency to bring home a bunch of nods? Maybe. It is, clearly, the gentlest flower in the field. Is it Nomadland for people under 50 or is Nomadland Nomadland for people under 50?

Will traditionalists save News of the World? It’s the kind of movie that is unique in this season… but it’s hard to make that point with ads. And what happened to Tenet? I don’t think it’s the movie so much as the release in September that has taken it off the guessers’ table so far.

Latecomers The Little Things, Judas & The Black Messiah, and The United States vs Billie Holiday are trying to do what only Spielberg and Scorsese have been able to pull off in the past… latecomers who got nominated anyway.

So… what is the lesson?

Well, marketing basics are always in effect. Rinse. Repeat.

But the lesson that is now hitting me hard in the face as we are still more than two weeks from the nominations voting beginning and two full months from *Oscar: The Home Game, is that these incredibly smart marketers have been doing this so well for so long that given a nuclear bomb going off in the film business and isolating most of us for over a year, are still doing the same old shit.

In a way, I can’t blame them. All the late-night hosts are funny and charming and really unequipped to have a serious conversation or interview with anyone. This is not their skill set. Talent can bring great stories and tell them well. But while I revere Trevor Noah, am impressed how well they have converted The Daily Show to The Daily Social Distancing Show and watch every episode, he has the interviewing skills of a fan. Fallon is the adult, moneyed embodiment of Wayne’s World. Colbert always seems disinterested in anything but getting to the next card or finding a joke to tell. And Kimmel has found the best balance, but it always feels like he is having fun with pals… which is a great skill, but doesn’t make for good serious interviews. The thing about Letterman was that he could be a prick, but if he wanted to discuss something, he found a way and impact was made. That’s not a thing anymore.

The New York Times has turned their efforts in this area into Vanity Fair. Vanity Fair has turned into W. And W has become Instagram.

Where can one have a serious discussion of Nomadland or Promising Young Woman or Judas & The Black Messiah or even News of the World and what is heartwarming and what is horrifying and everything in between?

Nowhere. Because without having a way to control the conversation, you are putting your talent in a compromising position.

So everything remains on the surface. There may be political postures that embrace any given film. But those tend to be preaching to the choir.

The whole system is set up to be publicity and/or marketing. There is no room to breathe. Even in a crazy year like this.

So I propose to the underdogs, who don’t carry the cudgels… let it rip. do something different. Take a chance at letting your talent appear to be human and not just cogs in a machine. Get off the old narratives. Stop being afraid to look like you and your filmmakers really give a shit. (I recall being told once that a filmmaker feeding the homeless seemed “too hungry.”)

The Oscar Industrial Complex is filled with very smart and hard working people. But award season is dying. It was dying before the pandemic. The Oscar ratings this year will surely set an all-time low and perhaps a dangerous low that will be explained away by the circumstances.

Someone is going to launch the next generation. Just as Harvey did. Just as Terry Press did. Just as Cynthia Swartz and Lisa Taback have.

Perhaps before anyone consciously changes the next generation of Oscar, we will have to deal, in terms of Oscar, with the reality that letting streaming networks compete with theatrical movies will kill whatever Oscar has been, as the advantages to streamers in this marketing system are massive.

This season, marketing is the only hoop these movies – after being qualified by their own internal hiveminds – will have to jump through… movies that will never be seen by 10% of academy voters or any other audience on a theatrical screen. Movies that are not subject to the social circumstances of The Academy… or for that matter, the media.

And what is the response? Batten down the hatches. Do the same old, same old. Do less.

Every day we all discuss how crazy this all is… and yet, in the end, *Oscar is likely to prove to deliver something awfully familiar, the one or two obscure nominees notwithstanding. In the end, it seems that the only gun that gets put to the head of the O.I.C. is the next great idea. But it’s getting harder and harder to create change because there is such an investment in what has been.

Some revolution.

7 Responses to “*Oscar Lessons”

  1. Bob Burns says:

    great column.

    the awards season is an historic reinactment….. like Southern debutants in hoop skirts at the local Greek Revival mansion.

  2. Movieman says:

    “Latecomers…are trying to do what only Spielberg and Scorsese have been able to pull off in the past… latecomers who got nominated anyway.”

    And Clint.
    At least in 2004 (“Million Dollar Baby”) and 2006 (“Letters From Iwo Jima”).

  3. Bradley Laing says:

    —Should Mondays box office reflect last nights winners at the Golden Globes, or not?

  4. David Poland says:

    What box office?

  5. Bradley Laing says:

    I mean Mondays box office totals on “Box Office Mojo,” when they are put on that website on Tuesday. And those will show that lots of people will buy a movie ticket on Monday night to see “Nomadland” because of the Golden Globes TV show on Sunday night.

  6. David Poland says:

    Nomadland is on Hulu now, Bradley.

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