With all the noisy campaigning that goes on around the Oscars — and the drums are pounding earlier than usual this year, with the Britannia and Governors Awards pulling in contenders this weekend — it’s easy to forget the simple reality of the awards process: Be seen. That’s it.
So much awards strategy seems to have nothing to do with watching movies. It’s food, it’s wine, it’s screening events that include the presence of the most alluring talent connected to the project. However, all of it points to the same destination: Watch the movie, whether it’s on theater screens, DVD screeners, or even links that can be accessed on your phone. Please, watch the movie.
Of course, movies backed by deep-pocketed spenders like Netflix have an advantage; it compensates for a lack of theatrical access by working to build word of mouth via festivals and events. However, nothing is more potent than an awards-caliber movie that generates genuine audience interest.
Here are some widely held misapprehensions about the process of scoring an Oscar.
1. Gothams nominations help.
A nomination doesn’t hurt, but the Gothams nominations are selected by small committees of mostly New York media who want to introduce American-financed lower-budget films into the awards conversation. However, “Hustlers” landing a Gotham Best Feature nomination does not improve its chances of becoming an Oscar contender. Last year’s acting winners Ethan Hawke (“First Reformed”) and Toni Collette (“Hereditary”) did not land Oscar nominations, nor did Best Feature winner “The Rider.” Academy voters are unlikely to pay the Gothams much heed, and few watch the actual award show, which streams live December 2.
That said, Gothams nominees Netflix’s “Marriage Story,” A24’s “The Farewell,” and Neon’s “Clemency” may well advance to the Oscar race via support from many other awards groups, from critics to the Independent Spirit Awards, which have more impact in Los Angeles and boast far more Academy members than the relatively small film community in New York.
2. Women, younger voters, and people of color are changing the Academy.
Despite adding a vastly more diverse group to the Academy ranks in the last five years, the Academy is still dominated by older white men. And while the percentage of women in the Academy has risen from 25% in 2015 to 32% in 2019, they tend to be older white women. The actors branch has 50-50 men and women, but other branches like directors, cinematographers, sound, editors, and visual effects remain dominated by men. For people of color, the needle moved from 8% in 2015 to 16%, a figure that includes people of Spanish and Asian descent.
So all the sturm und drang around Martin Scorsese’s anti-Marvel comments won’t hurt him or “The Irishman” with most Oscar voters; they’re sympathetic to him and cheer him on. While the industry at large appreciates Kevin Feige’s consistent Marvel output, and want those movies to succeed with theater audiences, most people are sick to death of comic-book IP dominating what gets made, and wish there were more opportunities for quality storytelling for adults. So Scorsese will be just fine.
What is changing is the global cast of the Academy: 40% of the 2019 class of members was international, bringing the total percentage of overall membership to 20%, up from 13% in 2015. International Academy members across all the branches live in 59 countries: by far the single biggest group, as ever, is the UK. That’s why the BAFTA awards are significant, and Brits tend to nab multiple nominations every year.
3. Foreign-language movies can’t win Best Picture.
Before “Roma,” 10 foreign-language films were nominated for Best Picture over nine decades, but no foreign-language film ever won. (French movie “The Artist” was silent.) Of the nine foreign-language films that scored five or more nominations, only “Z” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” had a shot at a Best Picture Oscar.
With unprecedented spending by Netflix, “Roma” scored 10 Oscar nominations, tying “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” the most ever for a non-English language contender. And Alfonso Cuaron took home three wins: director, cinematography and Best Foreign Language Feature. And Pawel Pawlikowski’s “Cold War,” with a fraction of the “Roma” Oscar budget, also delivered two nominations beyond the foreign-language category, for director and cinematography.
Spanish-language “Roma” made it to a Best Picture nomination, but it never became mainstream and that’s why it did not win. While it lasted in theaters for months (its estimated $4 million gross could have been much higher with a proper theatrical release), and is still playing in some situations around the world, the movie was viewed by most people on Netflix, which was far from the ideal way to experience this feat of immersive deep-focus Dolby Atmos cinema. (And many voters resisted giving the streaming disruptor the big win.)
For a foreign-language movie to reach a Best Picture slot, it needs to break into wide viewership via a box-office hit. This year, Neon’s “Parasite” is breaking records. It marked the biggest specialized limited opening ($376,264 in three theaters) of the year, and is the biggest platform release in three or more theaters since “La La Land” in 2016. No foreign-language film has ever opened close to these numbers. This accessible, hilarious, and disturbing rich vs. poor dramedy about a family of con artists who infiltrate a rich family’s home is performing as though it were an English-language specialized success. With $1.8 million and counting domestically, it’s already grossed $93 million worldwide. That’s mainstream.
Other movies that could get a boost from the Academy’s burgeoning international membership are Spanish auteur’s Pedro Almodovar’s elegiac “Pain and Glory” (Sony Pictures Classics), starring Cannes best-Actor winner Antonio Banderas, which could add Director, Actor and Original Screenplay to International Feature, as well as sophomore writer-director Lulu Wang’s Mandarin and English-language dramedy “The Farewell” (A24), which as an American film is not eligible for the International Oscar, but could land Wang an Original Screenplay nod as well as Best Actress for “Crazy Rich Asians” star and Gotham nominee Awkwafina.
While South Korea has never landed a foreign-language Oscar nominee, Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite” will be the first. Sure, winning the Cannes Palme d’Or in May does not mean you land a Best Picture nomination in January. But this movie will go all the way to a likely seven nominations, including Best Picture: Best International Feature Film, Director, Original Screenplay, Cinematography, Production Design and maybe, Editing. That nomination would portend a potential Best Picture winner. “Parasite” could also win because it’s a zeitgeist hit. It shows us who we are, and how we exist on this planet today.