Eight lessons learned from the 2012-2013 Awards Season

An unlikely awards season ended where it started.I had the pleasure of attending the first public screening of “Argo” at the Telluride Film Festival in September. Five months later, “Argo” pulled off a historical comeback to win the Best Picture prize many of us predicted it would take that sunny Labor day weekend. In the half a year between those moments, Hollywood managed to release six $100 million-plus-grossing best picture nominees (unthinkable at the beginning of the season) and make past controversies such as Melissa Leo’s infamous for your consideration ads seem as inconsequential as a playground fight between two 5-year-olds. This season was serious and a battle of mammoth egos that won’t long be forgotten. Thankfully, however, there are always lessons for pundits, studio executives, their likely still-stressed-out consultants and, most importantly, the powers at be at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Open up your books to page one, students, and let’s review…

Politics is too nasty a game for Oscar
It’s been a few years since the Best Picture race turned as nasty as this one did. Whether it was the bi-partisan criticism from U.S. Senators about the torture scenes in “Zero Dark Thirty,” which conveniently occurred just as the film was getting traction (and from politicians who hadn’t even seen the movie), and then (dear lord) an investigation into “Thirty’s” access to the CIA (which amazingly ended the day after the Oscars), or anger from a Connecticut congressman over misrepresenting his state’s votes for the 13th amendment in “Lincoln” or Canadians’ continuing lack of satisfaction with how their contributions to “Argo” were depicted, the politics of Washington had way too much influence in the race. Most damaging was the press release, er, letter from Sen. Fienstein (D-CA) and Sen. McCain (R-AZ) that effectively scuttled “Thirty’s” Best Picture hopes. “Lincoln” was already in trouble when its controversy started and most Canadians are rolling their eyes at anyone who thinks they didn’t get enough credit in the eventual Best Picture winner. Nevertheless, scuttlebutt about competing campaigns being involved in each others’ “issues” made the entire race feel like a presidential election instead of an artistic endeavor. Sadly, where there is smoke there is likely fire in many of the “he did this” “they did that” accusations, but bringing elected political officials into the mix was just ridiculous. They’ve got enough to fix in Washington rather than have their Hollywood donors drag them into this circus. Let’s hope this isn’t a sign of things to come.

Oscar’s Best Director category may need some tweaking
In any awards situation there will always be someone on the outside looking in. The Best Picture field has already been expanded to up to 10 nominees (more on that later), but more than ever, too many deserving directors were left in the cold. In other years, Ben Affleck, Kathryn Bigelow, Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson and even Tom Hooper could have easily been nominated by their peers. Now, no one is saying there should be 10 nominees, but the ability to honor up to seven or eight seems like a fair compromise, no?

Don’t release in December if you want to win
It’s always somewhat cyclical, but the last Best Picture winner released in December was “Million Dollar Baby” almost 10 years ago. Yes, you can snag a nomination by debuting in December. History shows us, however, that the last six winners opened in June, September, October or November.  At one point, revealing yourself to voters “last” was seen as a potentially winning strategy. Many other factors came into play this season, but “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Les Miserables,” “Django Unchained” and “The Impossible” arguably were harmed by the late dates. First, it can provide little time to battle any potential criticisms or controversies thrown against your film (see “Zero Dark Thirty”). Second, it hurts a film that really needs strong word of mouth within the industry (see “The Impossible”). So, unless you’ve got a box office slam dunk no matter what (“Les Miserables”), if you can’t make a November date it may just make more sense to push to the following season.

Don’t try to force a movie into being an awards player when it isn’t
The awards season game is primarily about box office. It’s not about winning no matter what a studio or filmmaker may say (Ben Affleck bluntly noted this backstage at the Oscars). However, three distributors made costly mistakes in trying to force a square film into a round awards season hole. Fox Searchlight took a gamble on releasing “Hitchcock” at the last minute and the critical response was worse than they ever could have expected. The drama ended up grossing just $5.9 million domestically when a Spring or Summer 2013 release could have played to a kinder $10 million-plus cume. Focus Features moved Gus Van Sant’s “Promised Land” into the season where it also found little traction with a costly marketing campaign. “Land” was never an awards player and would also have benefited from less competition in the spring. It was a tough December for Focus as “Hyde Park on Hudson” reached only $6.1 million after Bill Murray’s nomination hopes were nowhere to be found. IFC shockingly also released “On the Road” at the end of the year. The indie studio seemed to think there would be some awards traction for Walter Salles’ Cannes drama. A September or October debut would have been potentially more lucrative.

The Best Picture nomination voting process isn’t working
The change from allowing 10 nominations to between five and 10 depending on a percentage of first place votes is starting to bite the Academy in the behind. For the past two years we’ve had nine nominees. This year, the Academy got lucky that six of them grossed over $100 million by the time the Oscar telecast aired. Unfortunately, the voting is still leaving more populist films out in the cold. “Skyfall,” which landed five nominations, was a $1 billion global smash, but also a critics darling with an 81 on Metacritic (higher than “Life of Pi” and “Les Miserables,” equal to “Django Unchained” and “Silver Linings Playbook”), but 007’s Best Picture hopes were arguably hindered by a lack of first place votes. In the former system, you could bet money “Skyfall” would have made it. Moreover, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2” or “Bridesmaids” could have earned the 10th slot under the previous voting system. Would you argue those three films weren’t worthy of a top 10 field? One “Blind Side” mistake should not ruin the honor for all the other worthy nominees next year or in the years to come.

Globes aren’t sucking Oscar enthusiasm, guild awards are
There has been much speculation that one reason the Academy wants to keep moving the Oscar telecast date earlier and earlier is to grab the awards season spotlight back from other shows, most specifically the Golden Globes. I’d argue the Globes aren’t what’s really sucking up the season’s energy. Instead, it’s the numerous guild honors that flood the Los Angeles event calendar during January and February. These awards won’t be going anywhere any time soon, but by getting in front of them (SAG especially), the Oscars could bring a tremendous amount of suspense back to the individual races.

September festivals help more than hurt
Studios like to reference the few supposed awards season casualties of the early Telluride, Toronto and New York Film Festival circuit the past few years in explaining why they didn’t take their potential contender. They’ll tell you expected major Academy players such as “Up in the Air” (no Oscar wins), “The Descendants” (one Oscar win), “The Ides of March” (one Oscar nomination), “The Master” (three Oscar nominations) didn’t benefit from being part of the season for so long. A later debut would have strengthened their chances of winning or landing nominations. Well, perhaps that’s just the case for movies that George Clooney stars in or directs? Because those four pictures appear to be the exception and not the rule. “Life of Pi,” “Silver Linings Playbook,” “The Social Network,” “Hugo,” “Argo,” “Moneyball,” “The Artist,” “Black Swan,” “127 Hours,” “The Kings Speech,” “Slumdog Millionaire,” “Brokeback Mountain” and many more have used the early fall festivals to kick off their awards campaigns. In fact, if you really have the “goods” you could argue you’re at a serious disadvantage if you don’t.

Keep it real
One of the biggest mistakes any potential contender can make is allowing the media or industry to think you want that Oscar win much or, even worse, that it’s somehow “deserved.” This can come back to haunt a nominee (Bill Murray, Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte immediately come to mind) and sometimes they get away with it. There was no way Kate Winslet was going to lose Best Actress for “The Reader,” but ever since then her acceptance speeches for her Emmy, SAG Awards and Golden Globe-winning turn in “Mildred Pierce” have became the subject of ridicule for how rehearsed and insincere they seemed. A multiple winner needs to continue to seem as humble as possible during the season or it can haunt them for years. Anne Hathaway dangerously landed in this category after winning the Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress for “Les Miserables.” From SAG to BAFTA and finally to Oscar, the snarky public ridicule regarding Hathaway’s seemingly pedestrian and unemotional speeches has grown into a chorus of disdain coming from all sides. The fact that Best Actress winner Jennifer Lawrence has continued to appear honestly shocked over each win has only compounded Hathaway’s last few weeks. Who thought you’d need public relations damage control after winning an Oscar? Hathaway certainly does. In any event, it’s a huge lesson for other actors and nominees to learn from.

That’s all for now, students. Classes will resume in just six months in August. Hope everyone took good notes. You’ll need it to survive next season.