This column was inspired by some smart people arguing that somehow the expansion to as many as 10 Best Picture nominees is a failure and worse, is dragging down the entire Oscar franchise. I disagree. And I set out to offer my quite simple, quite positive argument why in Part 1 of this column.
Smart Person 1 is Mark Harris, whose book “Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood” is an instant classic and who has written a number of things about the Oscar season over the years with which I disagree strongly. His piece on the issue on Grantland is titled, “The Nolan Effect: Why the Larger Best Picture Pool Is Actually Shrinking the Number of Oscar Contenders.”
The piece is less offensive than the absurd headline.
Though I disagree with Mark’s assessment of the mood at The Academy four years ago: “a misplaced panic about the show needing to become “relevant” to the young, fear about falling ratings (even though the ratings weren’t actually falling), and terror that if the Oscars continued to recognize movies like Milk but not the ones that were grossing half a billion dollars in the U.S., they would soon be doomed.” I know that when this idea was hatched, it was not done in hysteria… which is not to say that some Academy Governors weren’t going along because of hysteria.
However, Mark’s leap to “it’s time to admit that the experiment has failed” is missing one key element… an agreed-upon notion of what success would look like.
I concur that ratings have not improved (or changed at all) because of 10 nominees. I concur that the expansion of the number of nominees has not led to the highest grossers of the year getting a bye into the tournament (most would see that as a win, methinks). But the expansion has, unarguably, given more access to the Best Picture opportunity – aka, the only one that really matters to the box office – to a wider selection of quality movies.
As for the drama around the Northwestern professor who “tweeted a jarring statistic,” that in the Picture, Director, and Acting categories, only 11 films were represented, it’s an interesting thing to note. But “jarring?” Not so much.
I started to look for examples and 2006 came up in a magic Google-y kind of way… so I ran the numbers. Traditional old five-nominee set. Sixteen films represented in the Top 6 categories, as opposed to 11 this year. Where are the differences?
Well, for starters, there were no unexpected players. The 11 movies with acting nominations (because the directing nods were usually a match, almost invariably, 80% of the time) and no Best Picture nominations were from Paramount, Fox, Weinstein (2), Warner Bros (2), Universal, New Line, Sony Pictures Classics, and Focus Features (2). Nothing foreign. Nothing far out of the box. Nothing not aggressively campaigned.
And I see this… none of the 5 Best Picture nominees that year (Brokeback, Capote, Crash, Good Night, Munich) had an actress in contention for Lead Actress. As a result, all 5 of the Best Actress nominees were from movies not nominated for Best Picture. This year, 3 of the 5 Best Actress nominees are from Best Picture nominees. Is that a bad thing?
In Supporting Actress, only 2 nominees came from movies with Best Picture nods. There were legitimate candidates from Crash, but not really from Munich or Good Night, & Good Luck. And again, this year, 3 nominees came from BP nods.
All 5 directors matched the 5 Best Picture nominees that year and 4 of the 5 Best Actor nominees came from those same 5 pictures.
My point here is, statistics don’t tell you that the films that were nominated this year have much better roles for women than the ones nominated for Best Picture in 2006. But that is the case. And that is the history.
I then went on to 2000. In that year, those top 6 categories represented 16 films again. And in that season, again, there were only 2 performances of 8 nominated actresses that were from the Best Picture nominees (Anette Bening and Toni Collette). And again, this year, there are 6.
So please, tell me where the disconnect is. Is the system of 10/9 Best Picture nominees a problem or should we be celebrating the great roles for women in films that get Best Picture nominations?
Mark Harris’ explanation: “It represents the encroachment of an all-or-nothing mentality that has, I would argue, been fueled by the Academy’s misguided approach to its biggest prize.”
Huh? Maybe you can explain that all-or-nothing thing to Harvey Weinstein, because I am pretty sure he didn’t expect to get 2 acting nods for August: Osage County and still get shut out of the 9-picture Best Picture race. The tradition has been, long before the expanded BP grouping, that you can build a Best Picture nominee from support in the widest variety of Academy branches, the most powerful being the actors. But hey… in 2000, Boys Don’t Cry got two acting nominations and no Best Picture slot. Sweet & Lowdown too. I guess that is a good thing to some people. Same deal with North Country in 2006. Good thing?
As I keep writing, I am fine if you hate the 10 nominees idea. But you can’t take statistics and prove that it is some kind of failure or drain on the overall Oscars. Not only are stats malleable, but things simply change.
You want to know the single biggest anomaly over the last two Oscar seasons, in terms of this perception being pushed by Mr. Harris? David O. Russell. Just take away his two movies and the statistical analysis gets a lot harder to argue. Throw Spielberg out of last season along with Russell and the “stat of the week” falls apart completely. Silver Linings Playbook and Lincoln alone ate 7 of the 20 available acting slots. Damn good thing that Zero Dark Thirty didn’t get another nod or two, that Life of Pi was shut out of acting, and that damned Jean-Louis Trintignant didn’t mess up the entire Oscar season by being nominated for Amour.
What is “success” and what is “failure?”
Mark Harris writes, “Some might argue that all the difference demonstrates is that this year, all of the talent was concentrated in a small handful of movies —but that’s true in a bad year, not in a good one.”
Based on what? Because I don’t see any serious support of that notion in the article.
Moreover, the personal element of this argument is blatantly acknowledged by Harris himself when he offers: “(E)nergetic, far-reaching voting was absent this year, when, for instance, James Gandolfini (Enough Said), Daniel Brühl (Rush), David Oyelowo (The Butler), Paul Dano (Prisoners), and John Goodman (Inside Llewyn Davis) might all have credibly served to represent movies that were otherwise almost completely shut out. In their place, the five Supporting Actor nominations all went to actors who costarred in Best Picture nominees.”
Don’t undersell, Mark. All of those movies missed out on the Oscar party overall. And those are 5 excellent performances. So who do we kick out of Supporting Actor to “correct” this situation? Are you making the call to Bradley Cooper or Michael Fassbender or Jared Leto? The first-time movie actor and former limo driver Barkhad Abdi doesn’t count because the movie he is in made Best Picture? (Maybe someone needs to tell Paul Greengrass about that “all or nothing” thing, by the way.) Jonah Hill didn’t do enough for you to qualify as energetically supported?
Here’s a stat to chew on. In 2008, right after TIFF, Gurus o’ Gold had 4 of 5 Best Picture nominees in its Top 5. The one nominee left out was The Reader, which was predicted at the time by only 2 of the 14 Gurus.
In 2013, right after Toronto, Gurus o’ Gold had 4 out of the Top 5 Best Picture nominees… 2 more in the Top 10, 1 more at #11, 1 more at #16, and one not yet on the chart (Her).
Falling by that early wayside this season were Inside Llewyn Davis, Saving Mr. Banks, The Butler, Blue Jasmine, and August: Osage County. They all pushed hard. No one can claim that they were left hanging because not enough Academy members saw them. The “prioritizing” claim in Mark’s article just doesn’t fly. Three of those five listed shut-outs were available widely since September or earlier. Osage premiered at TIFF in September and the writing was on the wall from then on. And Banks was one of the most aggressive campaigns out there, heavy on Emma Thompson and Richard Sherman, a film “they” all pretty much saw.
The backloaded season argument is closer to interesting, but still pretty weak. The waves of “what’s in” change annually.
Why was The Butler released in late August? Because The Help was released in late August. It worked pretty well financially for Butler, but no nomination. Can’t blame the system for that.
The Woody Allen movie in 2011 (Midnight in Paris) was released in summer, did great business and got nominated. Blue Jasmine was released in summer, didn’t do as well, got an acting nod (while Midnight got none), and missed Best Picture. Can’t blame the system for that.
And the choices of distributors are not and should not be about indulging The Academy process. If you have a commercial movie that may be an Oscar movie, like The Help, August is great. You slot in early. Voters get used to your actors. There is time to meet-and-greet and Q&A without work schedules creating nightmare conflicts. But if you have a movie that is expected to do less business and you hope use Oscar as a tool to greater grosses, opening in September or October means keeping the boat afloat for 5 months, which is very expensive. Mark knows this… writes about it. But it seems to be a floating issue, not really impacting his central argument.
By the way, I might address another comment in Mark’s piece, about the length of the season. (Ironically, my first real argument with Mark was over a piece of his, years ago, calling for a longer season.) It will get longer next year. The completely worthless – except as a publicity tool – Hollywood Film Awards, a mockery of a travesty of a sham if ever there were one, becomes a TV show next October. And while studios and consultants will complain day and night about the added work and pressure, the only reason it is happening is because they willed it to happen. They participated in the con so completely and with such gusto that Dick Clark Productions saw an opportunity. And now, whether Carlos de AhLoveYourMoney cleans up his act or not – no longer pretending that he has an advisory board that controls picks, but actually having one – there will be another event with a national platform in October… which means spending more money competing for position more than two months away from Academy voting.
Mark writes, “And as the numbers rise, distributors are increasingly unwilling to risk wasting their money and effort on a movie that might yield only a Best Supporting Actress or a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination.”
Same as it ever was.
There was a moment, in the heat of the DVD frenzy, when there was a financial benefit connected to any Top 8 nomination. That time passed. Oscar campaigning got steadily more expensive during that period, too. And while there is some profligate spending, budgets seem to be a bit tighter in the last few years… having nothing to do with The Ten. Last season was a classic situation, with some tight spending, then a bit of a free-for-all in the first weeks of Phase 2 when, suddenly, all the nominees decided they had a shot at winning.
Of course, the funny thing to me is that early in the piece, making one argument, Harris writes, “For movies, but also for the reputation of the Oscars, one major nomination truly is better than nothing.” And later, he explains another, somewhat conflicting truth, that no producer/studio really wants to pay for one major nomination they have little chance of winning.
I think the world of Daniel Bruhl and his performance in Rush, which is really a co-lead. I thought the picture would do business and that his performance, his new face, and the added kick of another buzzed performance in The Fifth Estate, he was one of those actors who would be locked in – maybe even to win – by the end of the Toronto International Film Festival. But the air was out of the balloon by the week after TIFF wrapped. The Fifth Estate opened TIFF and got soft buzz against the heat on 12 Years A Slave and Gravity out of Telluride. Moreover, Bruhl was really a supporting character here. He was the second lead, but he was really dwarfed by Benedict Cumberbatch’s Julian Assange. Then, Rush opened to $10 million. And Bruhl, who gave a performance in Rush for the ages, was a non-starter.
The funders or Universal or even Imagine Entertainment could have kicked $5 million or a little more into the kitty to get Bruhl – who by the way, started production on a movie in Italy in October – back in the game. But this is the double-edged sword of it all. Harris argues, reasonably, that you shouldn’t have to spend a ton to be in the race… but that you kinda have to… so if you don’t, you’re screwed… and someone screwed you. In the ecosystem of the season, Daniel Bruhl had his chance, the movie buried him, and he was done. After that, you are spending in hope of a resurrection.
Michael Fassbender, on the other hand, was even less accessible than Bruhl, and got nominated. And on the third hand, Fassbender was more accessible for Shame, but not endlessly, and didn’t get nominated last year… with the same team pushing him. Rules are for fools.
Harris – “It is obliviously high-minded to assume that with a little effort, voters can all render themselves invulnerable to the very loud noise that studio money can make. The same titles are being shouted in their faces week in, week out. How can anything else hope to be noticed?”
The problem with this argument is that the loudest shouting often goes nowhere. Philomena got in this season, but The Weinstein Company had 3 or 4 movies ahead of it on its shouting list. The movie’s serious traction with older voters became more apparent as hopes for other movies faded and Weinstein pushed hard for this film in late November and December. But this was not their first choice by a long shot.
Perhaps the loudest and most beloved push was for Inside Llewyn Davis. The film put together live concerts that are now legendary. People were ecstatic. The video of the NYC concert was spread to every corner of the awards landscape and even broadcast repeatedly on a cable network. And the movie had the great Coen Bros pedigree. And it had an emerging, charming-in-person star in Oscar Isaac, an award fave in Carey Mulligan, a great turn by John Goodman, great and memorable music revived for boomers, and generally great reviews.
Saving Mr. Banks was also loaded for bear, though I had misgivings about the release and awards campaign from early on. Who was the movie for? What age? The Mickey Mouse shadow on the one-sheet was clever, but confusing. The Disney logo too. And after that, all there was out there was that odd close-up of Thompson and Hanks that told you nothing about the movie. Weak at the box office, though no car wreck. And no matter how well-loved their awards events, no traction, as it turned out.
How do these films fit into the theory of Too Many Slots?
Harris – “Films like All Is Lost, Blue Is the Warmest Color, Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Enough Said, Fruitvale Station, Inside Llewyn Davis, Prisoners, and Rush clearly didn’t have the gas in their tanks or the broad-based support from voters to get Best Picture nominations, but before this rule change, every one of them would have stood a decent chance of emerging on nomination day with one major citation — something that would make moviegoers say, ‘I really should catch up with that one.’”
Sorry… but that is fantasy. Prisoners is a terrific, hard-R movie that did $61 million domestic… a success. But who was getting behind it, aside from WB with a good amount of advertising money?
Fox Searchlight pushed hard for Enough Said and it is a really well-liked film. Julia Louis-Dreyfus put herself out for the film, big time. I am surprised the film came up empty at Oscar time. But the idea that it was a victim somehow is just bull. You tell me, which film do you dump from screenplay, which seemed like the surest bet for Enough. Hustle, Jasmine, Dallas Buyers, Her, or Nebraska. I’m not saying that I would not be fine with Enough taking one of those slots, but it’s not like the screenplay got pushed out by The Heat or World War Z. (On a personal note, Sony never did a damned thing to push This Is The End for Original Screenplay and I think it’s a damned shame. But I don’t blame The Man.)
Fruitvale Station had all the buzz coming out of Sundance that Beasts of the Southern Wild did. It opened on nearly the same date in the summer and did even more business than Beasts did. But it is a movie about a black kid, filled with people of color, and there were a lot of those movies this year. I know… it’s ugly to say in the light of day. But The Weinstein Company had three such films, all valuable and important… and one did a lot of business. The Butler. So that became the horse. Then 12 Years A Slave happened and a lot of naïve writing happened about The Year of the Black Oscar Movie. And perhaps, if Hustle and Wolf didn’t work, in a race with up to 10 slots, there would have been room at the table for two such movies… 12 Years and, probably, Butler. Mandela, which I personally think was the best of the Weinstein 3, never got traction at all, two sensational performances lost to movie history. But the last two movies on the table did work and did great business and took their place in the awards race in a major way.
All is Lost was a critics’ movie from the get-go. It did $6.2 million, just a hair less than Winter’s Bone. But Winter’s Bone was released in June and was seen by a lot of people in Los Angeles and New York because it was a very soft summer for quality movies. The movie did the awards work. And while director Debra Granik is rather press-shy, rising star Jennifer Lawrence was undeniable and her presence powered that film into the Best Picture race. Robert Redford, apparently, was waiting for Lionsgate/Roadside to raise more money to get him his Oscar. Not reality. Not a systematic failure.
And of course, there are a ton of 3-hour coming-of-age movies in French with a 10-minute lesbian sex scene in the middle that get nominated for Best Picture. Happens all the time! I love the film, but not only didn’t it ever have a real chance, but you also had The New York Times working aggressively to profile the film as sexist claptrap.
Anyway… I am exhausted with all this. There was another piece at The Dissolve, which is more specific about saying why they think the potential 10 nominations have failed. But in that case, it is so specific that, for me, there is no point in refuting. If there was a specific purpose for the change that had no other redeeming features, it would be an argument. But I don’t buy that premise. Idon’t think the Oscar prestige has been hurt by the change… other management issues over there are troubling and have allowed the carnival to get out of hand and cheesy. (But that’s another column.)
This minor sure-to-be-disproven-in-the-next-couple-years stat from the Northwestern professor is, to my eye, just an excuse to roll out all the old complaints about The 10. And really, that’s fine. I wish it wasn’t coated in all this “proof” that is pretty slippery. But if you hate The 10, more power to you. I disagree, but I’m not unhappy for others to voice their opinions as loudly as they like.
The Dissolve piece’s author, Jen Chaney (aka Smart Person 2), closes with her truth, “A slate of five is more concise, which is perfect for our 140-character culture. It makes a stronger statement about what exactly the best is. It’s much easier to remember for those of us who have to discuss the Oscars on radio and TV shows. Which, as we all know, is what really matters here. It demands careful consideration of what’s for your consideration.”
I disagree. I think a slate of 5 leaves out a lot of high quality movies that would not otherwise get a Best Picture nomination, which is, aside from winning in some categories, is the only nomination that really matters.