THB #217: The Five Stages of Oscar (Phase I)
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I’m doing my very best Elisabeth Kubler-Thalberg today. I was tweeting along yesterday when suddenly I realized that the process of getting through Oscar season is a lot like dying, annually.
The reference to Kubler-Ross’ Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance was clear. The order was not. As a movie person, I had Anger first, then Denial. Thanks, Bob Fosse and Cliff Gorman. (You can’t trust anyone!)
My version… Deciding, Exposure, Reshuffling, December, Acceptance
Those are my stages of Oscar in the period that can start years before any given Oscar season and ends with nomination morning.
The road is long with many a winding turn. It ain’t heavy. It’s my Oscar.
Deciding is already happening for next (2023/2024) season, some about movies in process and some for movies that haven’t started shooting yet. It happened for this season mostly in the winter, spring, and summer, while no one was looking. And I’m not talking about “it took me a decade to get this passion project made.” I’m talking about the decisions by distributors to push something towards or into the Oscar race. Decisions were being made before this last March’s Oscars.
Every contender has a journey. Some start by having no focus on awards at all and get pulled in because someone falls in love. Some are funded specifically because dreams of sugar plum non-gendered magic-enhanced size-challenged flying humanoids dance in the heads of the funders and/or filmmakers. Some are purebreds from studios writing a big check. And some are movie bastards, the children of a gnarled and knotted series of funders from across the globe and in medical offices anywhere.
Some decisions are early. Some are very late (the legend of Slumdog Millionaire, pulled from the direct-to-DVD junkpile to Oscar in 7 months being as dramatic as they come).
A place like Netflix is fielding an entire race full of titles all by themselves, balancing the egos of filmmakers and what a small group of actual decisionmakers really believe the potential of the potential awards films are. There are always surprises down the line, but the opportunity to really be in the game at all comes as early as a director’s cut on some films.
Lisa Taback at Netflix is as much an air traffic controller as anything else at this stage. And really, no one else has that job. Top awards consultants choose what they will work on and offer clear opinions about what can be marketed for what awards at what spend. But in Lisa’s role - and the choices are not 100% on her - there is a big pot of Netflix film choices she has to manage in terms of awards, she has to work with companies like Paramount and Sony that are willing to sell off certain titles, and she has to pay attention to the sales festival world, looking for both features and especially documentaries that can become “Netflix Originals” for the purpose of Oscar season. Acquisitions usually engage Marketing in choices… but Netflix’s annual possibles is a mountain compared to most other distributors.
Small indies like A24 or Neon are working from a much smaller pot. But they too are committed early in the game. Whether it’s clearing the deck or starting a cascade with a festival or getting Michelle Yeoh awards and appearances for no apparent reason… they are the cool kids because they do a lot of work and planning to look cool, hipster knitting needles to Netflix’s sledgehammer.
Point is… none of this is a surprise in September, except to the audience (whether the public or Oscar voters). The magic of Hollywood. It is best, in most cases, for people to feel like these films are a discovery of some kind.
The illusion that the Toronto Audience Award is just what the real people of Toronto love and doesn’t start the festival with 2 or 3 realistic possibles and that if something else wins, it is a freak… and not one that benefits TIFF. The only real surprise in the last 15 years of the TIFF Audience Award was Nadine Labaki’s Where Do We Go Now? (وهلّأ لوين؟) in 2011. It was a double surprise, as it was in the same season as Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation. Asghar took home the Best Foreign Language Oscar and Nadine didn’t make the nominations. But aside from that blip, in 15 years, the TIFF Audience Award Winner delivers 5 Oscar Best Pictures and 14 of 15 were nominated.
Of course, the idea that there is a causal connection is, simply, delusional.
Not coincidentally, last year’s Best Picture winner, CODA, was the only film in the same 15 years to not premiere at a fall film festival. Another fluke. CODA is one of those cases where they were just happy to get the film made and then Apple swooped into Park City and made the film a high priority. Every film has its journey.
This season, coming off of The Pandemic, major studios came out swinging through the summer and as a result or as a dividend, Elvis and Top Gun Maverick are something we haven’t seen in a while… movies in contention from the summer that were considered “commercial first” if not in toto. Baz Luhrmann has done well with Oscar in the past, so there was always some sideeye there… but money first, thanks. (The Great Gatsby was at Cannes, successful commercially, and got 2 Oscar nods, winning both... but no Picture nod.)
The only way those standing ovations for Steven Spielberg and Company don’t happen in The Princess of Wales is if Steven and Terry Press and their most trusted allies were dead wrong about what The Fabelmans is. Please be crystal clear… this is in no way a diminishment of the movie. The movie is its own thing. But the decision to show the film in Toronto… in that theater… on Saturday (after Sabbath)… to release the trailer off of the buzz from the screening… rooms in New York and Los Angeles already booked through January… events planned… ads reserved… all of that and more let to that audience explosion on Saturday night.
And there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s the business. It’s the beehive you never are supposed to see. It’s designed to make you feel, not think.
Of course, the next unavoidable step after Deciding is exposing yourself. This can be like having the video you made with your first great love put on Pornhub or like Louis CK, where you expose yourself recklessly to female co-workers, but people really want to make excuses for you and forgive you as soon as possible, or you can be the prom royalty (uncommitted to gender), loved by all.
Everyone, of course, wants the crown.
Some expect the crown and get it. Others expect the crown and are disappointed.
It is a simple truth of award season… the movie has to be there. It doesn’t have to be the best movie. But it can’t be junk.
That will not keep media from calling it junk for whatever reasons they choose. But La La Land was not junk… Green Book was not junk… The Artist is not junk… yes, even Haggis’ Crash is not junk.
Were they the best movies of those years? That is a matter of taste. Irrelevant to this conversation, no disrespect to your personal opinion.
Exposure is the scariest step. As someone in charge of a movie, you can help it be the best movie it can be, you can prepare the audience to love it, you can create all the buzz the trade monkeys will print. But people mostly react to movies with their hearts, not their brains. And once the lights go down, the movie has to do the work. The movie creates your talking points. The movie sells itself… or doesn’t.
The movie people who are running these trains are pretty damned smart. They almost always know. They may be in denial. They may have ingested enough Kool-Aid that you can see the beads of it sweating out of their pores. But at the very least, they know the boxes that the audience is likely to check off when it leaves the screening.
I’ve never seen an Oscar movie made by a screening. Too much work goes into it before it got there and after it leaves, capitalizing on a great screening or series of screenings to claim that it was all the screening. There is no perspective in any one screening. That is why you see so many raves from festivals and “idiots” counting the minutes of ovations.
The metaphor may seem crude, but it really is like sex. A great festival screening is like an orgasm. It’s great. It makes your brain spin. But it isn’t forever. Festivals - being used as marketing platforms of concentrated attention at what some hope are the best films of the year - are multi-orgasmic. Not only does it become difficult to focus on any one title, but audiences (and media, oy!) get greedy and dismissive of anything less than the(ir) highest level.
And as Mamet wrote (and I think of Pacino saying), ‘The great fucks you may have had, what do you remember about em’? I don’t know, for me, I’m saying what it is, it’s probably not the orgasm. Some broad’s forearm on your neck, something her eyes did.”
A forearm on your neck. Something her eyes did.
Like I wrote before… you have to have The Movie… you have to have “the sex.” But the thing that sticks… this is more complicated… more elusive.
And to be honest, I have had that feeling a few times from some movies that went nowhere. Because ultimately, it takes more than The Movie. At some point, the voice of the crowd of “insiders” starts taking over.
Also, if the people who are deciding to take the risk of chasing Oscar don’t see the same high value that I or others may see, it doesn’t matter how great the movie may be, to me or to others or to you. It can’t overcome ambivalence from the people selling it.
Alternately, there are movies that have always eluded my ability to understand why they are loved. If the Riskers believe and enough audience believes, my opinion means nothing. And it should mean nothing in that case. It’s not about me.
Tough lesson. It’s a less that Exposure brings in waves.
When that first big carousel of exposure stops - Wednesday of this week mostly - it is time to hold them, fold them, know when to walk away, and know when to run. New York Film Festival is coming… but having been comatose for decades in terms of Oscar, NYFF peaked in 2013 with Captain Phillips and Her premiering at the festival and going on to Best Picture nominations. Since then, the only Best Picture nominee to start there was The Irishman, in 2019.
Don’t get me wrong… lots of great movies at NYFF. Huzzah! But opener White Noise seems to have suffered a near-death in Venice, the centerpiece is a doc, and closing night is at Toronto. And as ridiculous as it is, year in and year our, Toronto has now shot its major Premiere wad with The Whale on Sunday. So the reshuffling can now begin in earnest.
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