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Oscar Bait Is Dead: 5 Reasons to Celebrate a New Era of Awards Season

This year's nominees speak to a major shift in the kind of movies considered typical Oscar contenders.

Loving movies can mean hating the Oscars. The very concept of the season inspires a Pavlovian disdain for the cavalcade of red carpets and fake smiles that have nothing to do with the art of cinema. While that hatred usually stems from a place of profound naivete — after all, the Oscars may be a superficial barometer for quality, but they also elevate careers and empower businesses, while evaluating craftspeople, foreign-language filmmakers, and documentarians on even footing with Hollywood’s biggest names. Still, for a long time, the haters had a point.

The concept of “Oscar bait,” those movies reverse-engineered to win the gold, only accelerated over the past 25 years. It doesn’t help matters that the most famous character behind that phenomenon is now the most notorious sexual predator in modern history. But while Harvey Weinstein’s legacy shrank from kingmaker to has-been to Arizona refugee, the identity of the Oscars moved on without him.

When panic and confusion spread through the Dolby theater in the final moments of last year’s ceremony, as the producers of “La La Land” ceded the stage to “Moonlight,” the entire fabric of Oscar season collapsed in the process. It was a paradigm shift: Obvious Oscar frontrunners no longer existed, or at least that they looked a lot different now. As we approach the 2018 ceremony, now we know: The rules have changed. Oscar bait is dead.

Of course, some traditional rules do apply when it comes to prognostication. Pay attention to those guilds, the timely themes, the loudest FYC campaigns, and you might do fine in your office pool. But there’s no doubting that the bulk of this year’s major contenders simply look different from traditional Oscar-season movies, and they stand apart from each other, as well. Here are some of the developments that confirm a new, more exciting chapter of Oscar hype has begun. Cynics, take note. 

Low Budgets, Big Ideas

By the time Envelopegate cast an unexpected new spotlight on the Academy Awards, the 2018 season already had one of its major frontrunners with “Get Out,” an innovative horror/comedy/social thriller that fused the racial insights of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” with the paranoia of “Rosemary’s Baby.” It was the directorial debut of a former sketch comedy star and premiered in a secret midnight slot at the Sundance Film Festival. Most significantly, it was made for $4.5 million — more than “Moonlight,” which at $1.5 million was the cheapest best picture winner his history, but still an astounding figure for a movie that would go on to gross $255 million worldwide and garner major nominations across the board. The Blumhouse production felt fresh, but nobody predicted that the modern-day equivalent of a B-movie would go this far. 

“Get Out”

They should have. Frugality invites risk, and in the case of “Get Out,” fresh ideas. As studios focus their energies on tentpoles, the cost of investing in traditional Oscar bait makes little business sense. A younger, more inclusive Academy membership is less keen on those movies anyway, and none of most expensive titles in contention this year are clear frontrunners. The stodgy Spielbergian history lesson “The Post” ($50 million) landed only two nominations, neither of which it seems likely to win. “Darkest Hour” ($30 million) — slightly less pedantic, but cut from the same cloth — will do better, with Gary Oldman and his makeup artist among the frontrunners of its six nominations. 

But these movies now occupy the same minority position once held by the smaller movies at the Oscars. “Lady Bird” ($10 million) is a crisp coming-of-age story more authentic in every scene than most Oscar bait is in two-plus hours. It’s a rumination on what it meant to enter young adulthood at the dawn of a new millennia, and a big idea that doesn’t require costly trickery. “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” ($12 million) needs only Frances McDormand’s feminized John Wayne performance and Martin McDonagh’s pitch-black sensibility to communicate its ideas about justice and oppression in rural America.

"The Shape of Water"

“The Shape of Water”

Fox Searchlight

Even “The Shape of Water,” an adult fairy tale that channels Hollywood history through a gothic sensibility, hews to the cheaper end of the studio-budget spectrum with a price tag just under $20 million. It’s a welcome alternative to the assumption that all otherworldly storytelling requires superheroes, top-notch CGI, and bloated third-act showdowns. “Shape” is escapism fueled by vision, and its biggest special effect is a humanoid fish monster whose existence owes more to makeup and performance than digital effects.

“Dunkirk” is the exception that proves the rule. Poised as a potential best-picture spoiler and positioning Christopher Nolan as a best director contender for the first time in his career, this $100 million art film transforms the war movie into a brilliant set of overlapping timelines, frantic survival tactics, and terrified reactions; it’s a 90-minute montage that generates emotional solidarity with the frantic soldiers trapped on the French beach, and the warplanes tasked with saving them, by thrusting the audience into center of the chaos. Its near-experimental storytelling benefits from repeat viewings, and is all the more impressive because only Nolan could leverage his auteur status into getting a studio to finance it. The movie doesn’t tell you how to feel, or take for granted the importance of the events it depicts; it forces you onto a rollercoaster that gains meaning as well as momentum. It’s a costly Hollywood anomaly.

What Traditional Campaigns?

It usually goes like this: Studios spend millions of dollars on flashy “For Your Consideration” campaigns, march their talent out on late-night talk shows, and force them to seek and shake every Academy member’s hand. Boom. Oscar glory.

The game continues, but the rules have changed. “Get Out” began its awards campaign the moment the movie lit up Sundance crowds, before the studio even realized what it had. Audiences around the world catapulted it into a broader conversation about representation, casting discussions about race relations in a whole new light. Without that popularity, its FYC ads would have seemed trite.

The same goes for “The Shape of Water,” an unlikely Oscar movie thrust to the front of the race by the sheer force of its director’s personality. The globe-hopping Guillermo del Toro has transformed the Oscar campaign into another vessel for his grinning insights into the nature of his process. Filmmakers could learn from his ability to weaponize charisma in service of his art.

“Phantom Thread”

Meanwhile, “Phantom Thread” found its way to six nominations, including a best director nomination for Paul Thomas Anderson, who barely campaigned at all. The coolest kid in the class who doesn’t have to fake anything for the cameras, PTA hovers above the superficial niceties, tinkering on his own terms and finding bountiful rewards as a result. That’s always been his case, but it’s particularly notable this year; his delicate romantic drama landed so many nominations with such little effort. McDormand, a frontrunner for best actress who only did a handful of interviews in recent months, stands in solidiarty with the PTA approach — if you have something to offer, let them come to you. No begging necessary.

Diversity as an Applied Science

Two years after the #OscarsSoWhite debacle, the industry still struggles with the pressure to diversify. However, this year’s nominees reflect the idealized outcome, with genuine ideas about the struggles of different people.

Though “12 Years a Slave” was brilliant, it was another historical tale of black persecution — Oscar bait in a nutshell, if an exemplary version — while “Get Out” offers a truly unexpected narrative experience, one that proves that weighty subjects can take on any number of shapes and don’t have to make it easy on the audience. As the industry and society as a whole works to amplify female voices, “Lady Bird” has become a movie of the moment. But it’s not exclusively about that struggle so much as it offers an authentic window into a singular young woman’s plight, sans political context.

“A Fantastic Woman”

The diversity of this year’s race extends well beyond the biggest categories. Foreign-language nominees include “A Fantastic Woman,” Sebastian Lelio’s vivid, nuanced look at a transgender woman contending with everyday life, and sits alongside “On Body and Soul,” an expressionistic romance from Hungarian director Ildiko Enyedi, making her first feature in 18 years. Then there’s the documentary category: Transgender filmmaker Yance Ford delivers a harrowing look at the aftermath of his brother’s murder in the innovative personal documentary “Strong Island,” the legendary Agnes Varda caps a career of exploring everyday people in “Face Places,” and Feras Fayyad’s “Last Men in Aleppo” brings the daily struggle to survive in Syria into jarring focus.

These movies don’t tackle diversity as a singular concept; they collectively represent what diversity can look like as an applied science. After years of clamoring for change at the Academy, we finally have a window into the options that were hiding in plain sight.

Genre Rules

Horror and fantasy movies have been with us as long as the movies themselves, but Oscar bait tends to treat them as second-rate (you know, for kids). “Get Out” and “The Shape of Water” changed that conversation, hopefully for good (“Baby Driver,” which landed several technical nominations, deserves some credit as well). These movies are in the minority among this year’s nominees, but they still speak to a shift toward the possibilities that genre-based filmmakers can offer in confronting complex themes with original, exciting framing devices, otherworldly settings and visceral experiences.

For a long time, genre directors might delight midnight crowds, and even generate box office, but they were marginalized on the basis of a cultural disconnect. How could something exude entertainment value, veer off in weird directions, and still accumulate great importance in our culture? Well, we live in strange times, and as always, the movies are one step ahead of us. The time for celebrating genre movies on a bigger scale has arrived.

A Generational Shift

As the Weinstein era recedes, the entire landscape of major Oscar players has changed. Fox Searchlight, which has carried “Shape of Water” and “Three Billboards” so well, started the season as a struggling specialty arm of a media powerhouse that didn’t know what to do with it; now, it’s a Disney property. Meanwhile, disrupters A24, Netflix, and Blumhouse continue to explore ways of sustaining unique filmmaking that other studios won’t gamble on. As a new guard takes shape, the kinds of movies pushed into the Oscar race have evolved with it. 

Sam Levy and Greta Gerwig on the set of "Lady Bird"

Sam Levy and Greta Gerwig on the set of “Lady Bird”

A24

Meanwhile, the filmmaking establishment has started to look more like the people who go see their movies. Last year, 31-year-old Damien Chazelle became the youngest best-director winner in history. This year’s category has plenty of youthful spirit, with Gerwig (34) and Peele (39) epitomizing the emerging new identity of Academy membership (and moviegoers). The eternally youthful Del Toro (53) and Nolan (47) have settled into new roles as industry heavyweights, while Spielberg — an essential Hollywood institution, no doubt — looks more like a creature from another era.

As the mixed response to “The Post” proved, The Academy doesn’t only want good-natured history lessons from the movies; it wants surprise, provocation, and genuine creative intelligence. If this year’s nominees represent a new Hollywood breed, the Academy will likely follow. Of course, this is a utopian reading, and Oscar bait could rise from the grave at any moment. No matter how much the nature of the race changes, the drama remains intact. 

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