Venice, Telluride and Toronto are done for another year, and that means we’re firmly in the grip of what’s come to be known as awards season. Running a frankly ridiculous six months (it normally begins with the kicking-off of the Venice Film Festival, when a major movie like “Birdman” or “Gravity” gets its first airing), to Oscar night at the end of February (the 22nd, in 2015), and dominating much of the conversation in the movie world throughout that time, it’s no wonder that many approach this time of year with a heavy heart.
The self-congratulation, the red carpet glossiness, the overlooking of tons of rewarding work, and many similar complaints begin as soon as the major contenders begin to land on the festival circuit. Indeed, within the echo chambers resonating through bars at film festivals and the movie twittersphere, it sometimes feels like pretty much everyone hates awards season, that it’s a dark shadow cast over the thing that we all love —cinema. And that marks our cue to take an unpopular position: we believe that, despite many problems, awards season is ultimately a force for good.
As many have pointed out —most recently A.O. Scott in an excellent essay last week about the infantilization of culture— multiplex screens are dominated for much of the year by comic book movies (and it’s worth noting that a majority of the audience for much of these films are over the age of 25, in part because that’s the age group that still buys comic books), nostalgic sequels or reboots, mega-budget actioners literally based on toys or theme park rides, and adaptations of young adult novels like “Harry Potter” or “The Hunger Games” read as widely by adults as by teens. Even in R-rated comedies, the overwhelming theme —from everything from “Knocked Up” to “21 Jump Street” to “Neighbors”— has revolved around grown men acting like children.
In the summer months (which now apparently lasts from February to August), it’s rare for a mainstream theater to play anything that doesn’t fall into one of the above categories, with counter-programming reduced to arthouse theaters, or the occasional, often unsuccessful, gamble like this summer’s “Jersey Boys.” And yet the landscape looks very different in the fall and the winter. There’s four-quadrant blockbuster fare, of course: “The Hobbit,” “The Hunger Game,” “Big Hero 6,” to name but a few that are on the way in the next few months. But some of the most high-profile studio movies to come in the next few months are a David Fincher adaptation of a bleak, complex thriller, a World War II POW drama with a mostly unknown cast (but a very famous director), another war picture about a tank crew, an expansive science-fiction tale about environmental disaster, and a Warner Bros.’ film version of a Thomas Pynchon novel. Thomas Pynchon, guys!
If the last few years are anything to go by, films like “Gone Girl,” “Unbroken,” “Fury,” “Interstellar” and “Inherent Vice” could end up grossing tentpoles-sized numbers. Last year, “The Wolf Of Wall Street” made nearly $400 million worldwide, more than “G.I. Joe Retaliation.” “American Hustle” took only $9 million less than “The Lone Ranger.” Even “12 Years A Slave” took $190 millIon worldwide, nearly ten times its budget. In some of these cases, the films might not have been successful to the same degree (and hence, encouraging more such films to be made) without their brace of Oscar nods and their presence in the lengthy awards conversation. And most of them probably wouldn’t have been greenlit if their studios or financiers didn’t think there was a chance of award recognition.
In part, it’s about ego. On some level, everyone wants to feel that their job isn’t just creating financial success, but doing something important. Oscar nominations and wins not only earns the average studio suit bragging rights at Soho House, but also makes the soul feel a little less tarnished when arranging for “Untitled DC Movie 14” to be placed on the 2021 release schedule. But it’s also about finding a way to sell movies to a demographic that’s often underserved the rest of the year.
The Academy Awards have, from their very beginning, essentially been a marketing tool: Louis B. Mayer came up with the idea of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as a way to improve the image of the industry, and the annual awards became a way of highlighting the films and performances of which the industry was proudest, especially once the ceremony began being televised in 1953. And that remains true to this day. When film nerds like ourselves talk about movies with laymen —family, non-cinephile-friends, the vast majority of people who go to the movies a few times a year, rather than a few times a week— the Oscars tends to be a major topic of conversation.
For all of the flaws of the Academy Awards (to say nothing of the Golden Globes), Oscar nominations and wins are prestigious to the world at large to win. It’s a stamp of approval that still means something at a time when views from critics beyond a Rotten Tomatoes score don’t necessarily hold the sway they once did among the public. Oscar nods aren’t necessarily a golden ticket to box office success (not least if a film is released months in advance, like lowest-grossing Best Picture winner “The Hurt Locker”), but they help enormously with ancillary markets if a film’s release has been tied to coincide with the awards season, and perhaps even more importantly, in terms of getting another picture greenlit.
But it’s not even getting Oscar nods or wins that help. Sometimes it’s just being in the conversation. The mere fact of being an awards movie isn’t free publicity: it can cost as much as $10 million or more to push a movie successfully to the Oscars, but with sky-high marketing costs for a wide release anyway (one of the reasons mid-budget movies have fallen mostly out of fashion with the studios), the awards season machine keeps your film in the atmosphere for something like a bargain price.
To put it simply: if the Oscars and the cottage industry surrounding it disappeared tomorrow, we’d likely see even fewer movies being made not aimed at teenagers, or teenagers-at-heart. We’re already at a point where many of these films are getting only brief theatrical releases, and simultaneous rollouts on VOD are going to happen more often, not less. And as has been endlessly noted, many filmmakers are skipping theaters altogether and heading to the world of TV. It’s easy to imagine that “The Godfather” would be produced today as an HBO miniseries rather than being released in theaters, and would retain every bit of its cultural impact.
Some name filmmakers —Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese— would remain, as their brands are as important to their marketing as whether or not they perform at the Oscars (though it should be noted that even those two have to work with A-list movie stars to get their projects financed in a way that they might not have to a decade or two ago). But whether it’s giving a risky, borderline-experimental big budget studio movie like “Gravity” added kudos, or elevating the profile of a tiny movie like “Winter’s Bone” to the point that more people might check it out, or even highlighting something like “Dogtooth,” “Bullhead” or “No” thanks to the Foreign Language category, the awards season still has an impact on the mainstream that can’t be matched.
As cinema fans who want to continue to see films made for grown ups in giant movie theaters, and who believe that there’s a middle ground between oblique arthouse pictures and big dumb tentpoles, this is ultimately why we remain wholeheartedly in favor of this whole ridiculous season. Is it problematic on many levels? Of course. Given that the Oscars are voted for by 6000 people, the winners and nominees are beholden to sentiment, politicking and laziness.
And to say that a movie is worthy because it’s in the Oscar race would be a total fallacy. The awards season is far from a pure meritocracy, Academy members’ tastes lean to the middlebrow, and something doesn’t receive inherent value by being greenlit with the idea that it’ll result in awards —we’d rather watch “The Lego Movie” or “Guardians Of The Galaxy” over “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” any day of the week. There’s a question as to whether the awards-prognostication cottage industry plays a part in this, though. As Mark Harris pointed out on Twitter, pundits falling over themselves to “be right” talk up the safer choices, and exclude more interesting films from the narrative right from the start (that said, given Academy demographics, all the flag-waving in the world wouldn’t get “Under The Skin” a Best Picture nomination, for example).
Then again, this year isn’t necessarily going to be full of safe choices. Sure, “The Imitation Game” and “The Theory Of Everything,” two films that follow the biopic playbook in many ways, have dominated conversation in the last week or two. But they are films from the directors, respectively, of “Headhunters” and “Man On Wire,” so have their own quirks, and “Imitation Game” in particular is a downer in some ways, rather than an uplifting “King’s Speech“-style crowdpleaser. And of the films that are already seriously in the conversation, there’s Bennett Miller’s bleak, uncompromising look at American values, “Foxcatcher” (which some, perhaps condescending to the Academy, have suggested is too dark, but we think will be fine), Alejandro G. Inarritu‘s bold and raw “Birdman,” and Richard Linklater‘s experimental epic a decade in the making, “Boyhood.” And movies like “Inherent Vice,” “A Most Violent Year” and “Gone Girl” are still to debut and unlikely to be considered “easy” fare either.
Of course, they may not win: historically, not everyone agrees that the Best Picture is necessarily the best picture. But cinema is, or should be, a broad church. The tentpoles, obviously, will survive. More esoteric arthouse fare —the three hour Turkish movies, challenging documentaries, films appealing to the hardcore cinephile crowd— is no more or less popular than ever, and will remain as such, and there’s an audience for interesting lo-fi genre fare. But we’re already losing scores of talented filmmakers to endless Marvel movies and “Star Wars” spin-offs, and if the prestige, manufactured or not, of the awards season means that filmmakers like Alfonso Cuaron, Spike Jonze, Steve McQueen, Paul Greengrass, David O. Russell, Kathryn Bigelow, Ang Lee, Michael Haneke, Bennett Miller, Terrence Malick, Lisa Cholodenko, Darren Aronofsky, David Fincher, the Coen Brothers, Gus Van Sant, Ava DuVernay, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Richard Linklater, Paul Thomas Anderson, J.C. Chandor and more get to continue to make movies on their own terms, and sometimes on big, bold canvases? Then we’re all for it.