Festivals love giving out prizes like they’re candy. Palm Springs and Santa Barbara put a spin on this, giving out prizes to Oscar contenders for being Oscar contenders. This has become such a dominant quality of both festivals that it's what they're both widely known for on the international festival circuit. (When I told a Norwegian producer that I often attend both events, he said, "Oh, yes, those Academy Awards festivals.")
Most festivals select honorees, tributes and subjects for focus -- such as the New York Film Festival's massive focus on the entire filmography of Jean-Luc Godard or AFI Fest's honoree/guest programmer Agnes Varda -- based on programing taste (the former was a top mission for NYFF director Kent Jones in his first year) or any combination of factors (Varda is an AFI Fest fave, a lover of all things Los Angeles and the subject of a major LACMA show).
The ongoing roster of Palm Springs and Santa Barbara "winners," now being announced in a roll-out of press releases, reads like a contenders list in the trades: over in Palm Springs, here are Sandra Bullock, Julia Roberts, Steve McQueen, Bruce Dern and Matthew McConaughey; up in Santa Barbara, in come Cate Blanchett, Oprah Winfrey, Forest Whitaker and Emma Thompson, with many more Oscar hopefuls waiting in the wings.
How these names are picked is a closely-held process, but be certain that they result from lengthy negotiations between the studios backing these contenders' movies, the contenders' handlers and the festivals. Often, like the choices for festival galas, it comes down to availability as much as design. It's a messy business, full of compromises, something that can make festival directors want to tear their hair out at the end of the day.
But behind it all is an mutual back-scratching bear hug: Festivals raise bucks off the parties held in the "winners'" honor, the studios and the contenders get good publicity. Win win.
Not so fast. Both Palm Springs and Santa Barbara give the impression that they're picking favorites in the Oscar race. What does it mean, as Palm Springs has done, to name McQueen "director of the year"? So Alfonso Cuaron, a director contender for "Gravity," is chopped liver? Alexander Payne, in the race with "Nebraska," is an also-ran? Especially when, as is often the case, that none of the movies in the race actually screen at the festivals?
This is a classic case of festivals placing their carts before their horses, allowing outside interests to dictate and create conditions. It can ruin a festival's look.
PUT OSCAR IN HIS CORNER
Can't ignore Oscar, especially in Southern California during winter. So what to do with the little naked guy?
AFI Fest practices one good idea, also adopted by the Denver Film Festival and in an even more severe way at the Mill Valley Film Festival, all events appearing at the start of the Oscar season: sector them off in their own corner, and let the rest of the festival run at its own pace.
AFI filled its 2013 Gala and Special Screening slates almost entirely with already established contenders (such as "Saving Mr. Banks," "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" or "Her") or new ones ("Lone Survivor"), while all of the other non-glitz sections were pretty much contender-free.
Denver informs its audience up front that its special presentations section includes "some of the year's best cinematic, Oscar-worthy films," which this year included "August: Osage County," "Nebraska" and "Philomena." Oscar fever isn't permitted to spread beyond that point.
Mill Valley pared it down further this year, slotting contenders strictly for opening ("Nebraska") and closing night ("Walter Mitty") and a pair of "spotlights," on "Dallas Buyers Club"supporting actor Jared Leto and "12 Years a Slave" director McQueen with star Chiwetel Ejiofor.
Of course, Denver and Mill Valley can easily manage to keep Oscar craziness to a low volume, being physically far enough away from Oscar Central. AFI Fest's discipline is perhaps more impressive, given its Hollywood Blvd. location.
In all three cases, audiences can get an early taste of the Oscar season if they wish, or can simply ignore it. They can do this because these festivals know where to put Oscar: In his corner.