Here’s what I think happens. A film is seen. It’s genuinely loved. Like minds attract and in the intimate atmosphere of a film festival, the love grows. But with the love comes a desire for others to love, too. So the selling starts. The passion takes hold. And soon, even defenders of the film are damaging it, taking defensive positions, not allowing it to breathe freely and make its way unsuspectingly to fresh eyes like it did theirs.
This, I think, happens every year. And I’m not above it. A number of films are getting the advocacy treatment early on, siphoning precious gas needed to run the course. And favorites are being chosen, aggressively, by those fortunate enough to get the early, taste-making look. But fans of “Argo” won’t concede the film’s thinner-than-most thematic structure while knocking “Life of Pi” or “Silver Linings Playbook.” Fans of “Silver Linings Playbook” won’t concede its formulaic rom-com tendencies while knocking “Argo” or “Life of Pi.” And fans of “Life of Pi” won’t concede its clunky framing and extraneous elements while knocking “Argo” or “Silver Linings Playbook.”
The result is an identity for a film established before it has really developed one. It’s a small world with a tight radius, so the entertainment industry feeds on these morsels and voters in all sorts of bodies have something presented to them with certain notes and proclamations when it finally crosses their bow. And it just drowns the spirit of the thing.
If you’re waiting to unveil later in the season, you’re all too happy to see this. You want to know what the campaigns for “Lincoln,” “Les Misérables,” “Flight,” “Hitchcock,” “Zero Dark Thirty,” etc. are thinking? They’re thinking they’ll gladly concede this turf for now, because it’s a load blown early. You hold onto whatever mystery you have until it’s your turn to go. Meanwhile, if you’re one of the films with all the current buzz, your fingers are crossed that the other guys don’t have the goods, because you know — particularly with this crop — that you don’t have the sort of home run that will blow through a season unscathed.
Harvey Weinstein did it two years in a row, but he had undeniables. “The King’s Speech” faced what looked on the surface to be stiff competition from “The Social Network,” but it was all a mirage. “The Artist,” meanwhile, held up to “Hugo” because it was a discovery throughout the fall. Both films were crowd-pleasers, and so is “Silver Linings,” but the latter won’t have much support from the crafts branches and it may be outed soon enough as an oversold commercial film.
Warner Bros. has done well when playing the non-campaign campaign, and “Argo” is the perfect kind of film for that strategy. But a Telluride bow and the applause that met it makes it hard to creep through the season, while the early buzz (which carried into Toronto) allows for harsher scrutiny of what some see as merely a tight thriller from a movie star.
Fox has bobbled campaigns in the past but has rarely sported a major player in the early months. Now they have Ang Lee’s first contender since he was, many would say, screwed out of a Best Picture Oscar in 2005. But a film like “Life of Pi” is the toughest sort to keep afloat for so long, as it provides such an opportunity for cynicism and small-picture-obsession to fester and sink the ship (no pun intended).
Somewhere in all of this is “The Master,” the highbrow entry, praised to the heavens, which paved the way for a “what’s the big whoop?” response from many. Luckily its spotlight was stolen by the other three, which could keep it in the background long enough for the passionate base to form around it (particularly as other films open and, inevitably, disappoint). But it’s the critics’ favorite, and as the old maxim goes: critics don’t vote for Oscars.
What I’m saying is I don’t think we’ve seen a Best Picture winner yet. And I could absolutely be wrong about that. A lot of these campaigns haven’t really shown their hand yet. But my instinct, for whatever it’s worth, is that this year’s engravee has yet to take a bow.
After all it is — as of today — just October. So let’s all just slow down a bit.
Check out my updated predictions HERE and, as always, see how Guy Lodge, Greg Ellwood and I collectively think the season will turn out at THE CONTENDERS.