Another awards season has come to a close and boy has it been a long one. As we soak in “The Hurt Locker’s” David vs. Goliath win over “Avatar,” one of the more disjointed award shows in recent memory and Sandra Bullock’s ascension to Oscar-winning actress, it’s time to circle back and review some of the major lessons learned over the past seven months on the awards circuit.
Awards bait movies can make money without a Best Picture nod or big wins
It’s a rich tradition for studio heads to publicly complain about the expenses of an Oscar campaign and how unprofitable prestige pictures can be. Well, like NBA or MLB owners who are at fault for overpaying players within their sport’s own rules, studio moguls have long had themselves to blame for overspending when a campaign is out of reach or indulging in extravagant budgets for pictures that could be made at half the price. With the new economic realities hitting Hollywood over the past two years, that’s all starting to change. Now, Sony Pictures Classics has worked this successful model for years on a small scale, but this year five other contenders played the game and all came way with the green if not gold. Paramount’s “Up in the Air” got snubbed at the Oscars, but the $25 million dramedy is already in the black with $153 million worldwide. Fox Searchlight’s “Crazy Heart” was made for an amazing $7 million and should pass the $30 million mark this week. Lionsgate’s “Precious” was picked up for around $10 million and has grossed $47 million before hitting DVD. Apparition had two profitable pick ups with both “Bright Star” and “The Young Victoria” which grossed $4 million and $10 million respectively. Now, there are always going to be some roadkill along the way (“Nine,” “Invictus,” “Amelia,” “The Lovely Bones”) but you can still succeed with prestige if you do it right.
Negative campaigning didn’t work
Whether it was anti-Semitic criticisms of “A Serious Man,” the Nicolas Chartier E-mail scandal or gossipy criticism of Mo’Nique’s refusal to devote her life to an Oscar campaign, negative tactics didn’t really work this year. In fact, they may have backfired across the board. As this year’s Best Supporting Actress winner noted, “I want to thank the Academy for making it about the performance and not about the politics.” Let’s hope everyone — including the media — got the message.
The Foreign Language Film category needs to be overhauled
This year’s Foreign Language Film winner “The Secret in their Eyes” is not a bad movie. It’s a fine commercial thriller with some nice leading performances. That said, it is not anywhere in the same class of “The White Ribbon” or “A Prophet,” two of the other nominees in the category (and this comes from a sever critic of Michael Haneke’s Cannes winner). Another Awards commentator replied to my criticism of the Academy’s choice with a response of “Why is this bad? The Academy responded to the film that spoke to them.” The problem is that under the current rules members have to see every single nominee to vote in the category. That excludes a huge majority of the academy who just don’t have the time in their schedules to see all five films. More ridiculous is that the Academy lets members vote for numerous other awards without “checking” to see if they saw all the potential nominees. Did every member see all the Make Up or Costume nominees? Not likely, but they still get to vote on all of them. So, because such a small and older membership with more free time on their hands (sorry, truth hurts) are determining an award the entire globe looks to as an important recognition. Worse, this is the second year in a row a film not worthy of winning has walked away with the statue after “Departures” stunner in 2009. Either the Academy needs to let all members vote or they need to require all films be released in the calendar year so more members can prove they have seen them in theaters and thereby increase the voting pool. If not, history will sadly repeat itself.
The extended season was way too extended
Another solution needs to be found around how to schedule the season around the Winter Olympics which disrupt TV schedules in February every four years. With the season already well underway by early October, pushing the nominees announcement to the first week of February and the show to March 7 resulted in a race that went in strange fits and starts and an awards show that would have been anti-climactic at the end if not for the ludicrous “Lockergate” E-mail affair. It also forced numerous companies to spend more in the last month than necessary for contenders that never had a chance (shine that spotlight on Harvey Weinstein and his push for “Inglourious Basterds”).
Meryl Streep’s losses are beginning to become an industry embarrassment
Hollywood, you have a problem. Everyone in this town loves Meryl Streep. She is one of our nation’s greatest living artists and over the past five years has made a slew of money for almost every studio in town. However, something has to be done about this cycle of Academy Award losses over the past 25 years (and really Steve and Alec, did you need to rub it in her face again?). Unfortunately, this pundit has no magic solution. It appears Streep can withdraw her name from consideration in future years, but since we all know she more than deserves a third Oscar (or four) why should she? Luckily, for her sake, she has no films on the immediate agenda for 2010 which means a well-needed break from the Oscar game. But at some point, this town needs to stop taking Streep for granted and give her the third Academy Award she so justly deserves.
You don’t need the traditional trades to wage an effective campaign
In yet another sign the town’s trade papers like Variety and The Hollywood Reporter are in big trouble, awards campaigners proved you didn’t have to spend millions in print to get the word out. Who benefited? Online outlets, TV, outdoor and old fashioned publicity. On a side note, today’s departure of longtime critic Todd McCarthy is evidence of how poorly Variety fared during what is usually its most lucrative time of the year.
Summit is now a true awards season player…if it want to be
Like Lionsgate’s improbable run for “Crash” in 2006, Summit Entertainment has gone from the “Twilight” studio to Academy Award winning distributor in an incredibly short time span. The question is whether the studio wants to continue down this road. It’s a huge boost to their creative reputation with films such as “Locker” and “Ghost Writer” in the fold, but unlike other companies they haven’t perfected the profitability formula for limited releases (although “Writer’s” fate is yet to be determined). Moreover, while they have worked hard to try and acquire acclaimed features (most notably “The Kids Are All Right” at this year’s Sundance Film Festival), they have been mostly passed over for the Focus Features, Fox Searchlights and even Weintstein Company’s of the industry. After “Locker’s” big win that should change considerably.
The ten nominee system worked – big time
While ratings were actually down 3% among 18-34 year olds (which might have more to do with the older-skewing Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin as hosts than anything else), the ten nominee innovation proved it could recognize the best Hollywood has to offer by including both critical and audience favorites. And after a year where the studios who were still fighting off the effects of the 2008 Writer’s Guild strike, the chances are much more likely that next year’s studio crop will provide more true contenders. That doesn’t mean flicks like “Star Trek” will break through anytime soon, but certainly more hits along the line of “District 9” and “Avatar” which is only a good thing.
Festivals matter more than ever
Hollywood has always used the Venice, Telluride and/or Toronto Film Festivals in the early fall to launch the campaigns of potential Oscar players, but this year proved that with a ten nominee Best Picture protocol, the Sundance and Cannes Film Festival are as possibly just as crucial. Out of the nominees for best picture only “Avatar,” “The Blind Side,” “Up” and “District 9” didn’t premiere at one of the world’s major festivals. And that doesn’t count a slew of other players including “The Messenger,” “The Cove,” “The White Ribbon,” “A Prophet,” “A Single Man” and “The Last Station” that all debuted on the festival circuit.
It’s all about the work, but you better be humble
The industry has a long tradition of rewarding the “good” guys (or gals) in this town. There are many talented “jerks” (and they know who they are) both in front of and behind the camera, but unless they create some sort of masterpiece they’ll need to do some serious public rehabilitation before the Academy throws them any love (Anyone remember how friendly Tommy Lee Jones and Philip Seymour Hoffman were for short periods of time?). That’s one of the main reasons Sandra Bullock’s Best Actress win for the commercial melodrama “The Blind Side” was so easy for the Academy to swallow. However, the last thing this town likes is anyone who thinks they are entitled to anything let alone become increasingly arrogant of their success. So, with no disrespect to “Precious” screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher, the Academy made a point by turning their nose up at expected winner Jason Reitman of “Up in the Air” fame for Best Adapted Screenplay (and sadly, his classy co-nominee Sheldon Turner suffered because of it). Reitman’s loss is one of the main talking points in everyone’s post-Oscar chatter Monday. Personally, I always thought Reitman came off a bit like a jerk, but was stunned by the venom I’ve heard second hand from people in the studio, production and media fields who are overjoyed he lost (and most aren’t fans of his father either). Mr. Reitman is a talented guy, but he may need to take a good look in the mirror before making his next move.
Look for more post-Oscar and Indie Spirit Awards analysis in the days to come before we start to focus on good old fashioned summer movie season. Are you looking forward to the prestige break? This pundit certainly is.