Tomorrow night, the premiere of Alexander Payne’s “Downsizing” will open the Venice Film Festival — and with that, the festival portion of the awards season begins with Telluride this weekend, Toronto next week, and New York at the end of the month. All told, there’s 186 days between the “Downsizing” premiere and the March 4 Oscars broadcast. That period should be the Super Bowl for movie-lovers — a six-month debate about which films are the year’s best, and the opportunity to shine a light on smaller titles otherwise eclipsed by those built for global box-office domination.
This is not what happens.
The fever of awards season now runs so hot and so early that fall festival premieres increasingly serve as a focus group that narrows the Oscar landscape months before films reach a wider audience, including most voters. The judgments aren’t based purely on being a good film; the ultimate commendation is it’s an “awards film.”
Social media, articles, and sometimes even reviews assess if a film is a strong candidate for Oscar nominations based on the Academy’s history. When the early discussion distinguishes quality from awards potential, it becomes self-fulfilling prophecy.
Months before nomination voting begins, distributors make decisions on which films, and which categories, they will back with expensive FYC campaigns. Early festival buzz plays a key role in how they’ll allocate resources. This places a great deal of importance on experts and insiders who are quick to distinguish a film they think is good, but that they believe Oscar voters will find “too edgy,” “difficult and challenging,” “arty and slow,” or “not serious enough.”
If awards are about rewarding the best films, the label of great, but not Oscar-material should be an oxymoron. Of course, the Academy does have a history of picking milquetoast “important” (“Oscar bait”) films that are often dated by the next year’s ceremony, but pigeonholing the awards race based on this tradition is counterproductive and works under the condescending assumption that Academy voters can’t recognize great filmmaking.
An Oscar campaign is the polar opposite of a political campaign for elected office, which must reach the widest-possible population and targets voters who don’t pay close attention. Instead, awards publicity experts spend large sums to target the few thousand people who have dedicated their professional life to making movies. The idea that top directors, actors, and producers, along with casting directors, cinematographers, editors and other below-the-line talent (who make up the vast majority of the Academy) lack the insight to properly judge a great film outside these narrow parameters is ridiculous. IndieWire has interviewed hundreds of these filmmakers, and I can promise you that “Forrest Gump,” “Crash,” and “Dances with Wolves” don’t often come up as the films that influenced their careers.
Of course, watching studios and the Academy determine which films represent Hollywood’s best is revealing in itself, and following the horse race is both deeply entertaining and educational. There are a number of top pundits whose early reporting helps read the tea leaves. (Of note: IndieWire’s Anne Thompson, unlike some of her peers, won’t assess a movie’s chances until she’s seen it.)
The problem isn’t their reporting, but rather the flood of early speculation based on little more than a preconceived notion of what is “awards worthy” and how long the audience at the Princess of Wales Theatre claps. Unless you have a calibrated noise meter, with comps based on levels from other screenings and a seating charts of voters in attendance, I’m throwing a Nate Silver red flag and calling this useless “noise.”
In the 27 weeks between now and when Jimmy Kimmel walks on the Kodak stage to host the 90th Academy Awards, there will be plenty of time for the speculation, horse race analysis, and handicapping, but for now — just the first two months — can’t we all agree the best evidence as to what should be considered the best filmmaking is on the screen? The glorious smorgasbord that fall festivals offer should be about discovering and celebrating the true cinematic delicacies of 2017, rather than coming up reasons why smart filmmakers will not vote for them.
As someone who believes “Moonlight” is one of the best films of the 21st century, I would like to believe it won last year because it was the best film. Unfortunately, the Academy’s history doesn’t back that narrative and there’s reason to believe it was the right film at the right moment. What we do know is there was little reason to consider “Moonlight” a serious Best Picture candidate when it premiered at Telluride a year ago. Not only was it a low-budget indie directed by an African American that featured gay protagonists — all of which were firsts for a Best Picture winner — but also Barry Jenkins’ filmmaking lineage is distinctly from the European and Asian arthouse traditions rather than Hollywood’s.
There are so many elements that might have contributed to the “Moonlight” victory. You might ascribe it to Trump’s election victory, “La La Land” backlash, the funky way Best Picture ballots are ranked and tabulated, the Academy’s efforts to become younger and more diverse, a brilliant campaign by A24 (with Jenkins and his cast somehow being insightful and charming even after interview #923) — or was it simply that good?
This is what we do know: When the film premiered a year ago at Telluride, and continued to wow festival audiences in Toronto and New York leading up to its October release, there was little ink spilled on why or why not the film would be a serious awards contender. Instead, there was a parade of insights about why the film was so brilliant and a thirst to pop the hood on the film to know how it was made.
Maybe the lesson that should be taken from “Moonlight” is that it won not only because it was considered the best film, but there also wasn’t any early discussion as to whether or not it was an “awards film.” If we want another “Moonlight,” discussions of quality must trump the horse race that follows a film’s premiere. In the wake last February’s improbable Academy Awards, we have already seen a horror film (“Get Out”), a comedy (“The Big Sick”), and an overtly sexual gay love story (“Call Me By Your Name”) emerge as potential contenders. It may be time to allow for the possibility that the concept of what is an Oscar film is, finally, evolving.