Exhale: Lessons from the 2013-2014 Oscars season

A week ago the 86th Academy Awards wrapped up what was one of the closest Best Picture races in history. An awards season full of unexpected distractions, pretenders and results came to an end. Many in Hollywood could finally take a deep breath and exhale.

No matter how long you've covered the game there is always something to learn over the course of a season. Here are a few lessons that have been percolating in the back of my mind, something to take into account as we (eventually) segue into the next Oscars campaign. And yes, it's really not that far away.

Never doubt the Academy's resolve to do the right thing
This past weekend I randomly caught up with two Oscar voters who volunteered that they voted for “Gravity” (although they did expect a “12 Years a Slave” outcome). It was a reminder that the vote was likely still as close as we thought, but in hindsight there is little doubt “12 Years” likely won Best Picture on first place votes. The Academy membership of 2014 picked a great film and they chose it for a multitude of reasons. And, frankly, I'd rather have this group of younger, (somewhat) more diverse and cognizant voters than the membership class of 2006 that chose “Crash” over “Brokeback Mountain.”

If you open in December you aren't going to win Best Picture
Statistics are an incredible reference tool until, of course, the data changes. It used to be that opening your film in December was the perfect pathway to winning the Best Picture Oscar. The current trend says that isn't the case. The last December opening to win Oscar's top prize? “Million Dollar Baby” nine years ago.  The best public openings — whether limited or wide — are currently in October or November. So, before you put that frontrunner tag for next year's top prize on Angelina Jolie's “Unbroken,” just remember it hits theaters on Christmas Day.

The definition of an awards bait movie has changed
“Saving Mr. Banks” would have been a great Best Picture contender in 1998. Maybe even in 2001 or 2003. Those were the days of “Chocolat,” “Finding Neverland,” “Life is Beautiful,” “The Green Mile” and “The Full Monty.” In 2014, it simply was not. Disney made a number of strategic mistakes with the opening of the film, but its Oscar fortunes lived and died on the fact it simply was not “special” enough to earn a nomination in this day and age (although it certainly could have made more money). Frankly, “Philomena” could have easily been a real contender back in that era, but these days it takes the sheer will power of The Weinstein Company for it to get the four nominations that it did (and that's even with Academy members liking it).

Stop whining, Toronto: Telluride is the kingmaker
The powers that be at the Venice and Toronto film festivals hate it, but there is no argument anymore.  If you're not able to screen your film at the Telluride Film Festival (and preferably before it goes to Toronto) you're not a serious player to win best picture. Five of the last six Best Picture winners all had either their world premiere, er, “sneak preview,” at the Colorado festival, or, in the case of “The Artist,” its North American debut. In that same time frame, “Black Swan,” “127 Hours,” “Gravity,” and “The Descendants” also made Telluride their first (or almost first) stop. Now, those films are all from The Weinstein Company, Fox Searchlight and Warner Bros. The three companies who have won the last four Best Picture Oscars. Guess they realize it too, huh?

You have to seriously campaign now to win Best Documentary Feature
“20 Feet From Stardom” went slightly overboard with it this season, but since the category was opened for all members to vote on it, something has dramatically changed in the documentary race: you have to campaign. This year's winner was inevitably helped by the fact that it was the highest-grossing doc in 2013. However, it could not have won without all the performances and subsequent press breaks those wonderful ladies have contributed over the past seven months after the movie was released. The producers of “The Square” realized it, too. Netflix, which had non-theatrical rights to the film, even had billboards supporting the doc running in high-traffic areas for Academy members and touting its nomination (all that was missing was the “For Your Consideration” tagline). Documentaries are inherently a small margin business. They will never have the budgets their narrative brothers have. That being said, look for more of the contenders to try and take advantage of all the publicity they can get for both their box office and Oscar aspirations by holding their “real” release dates until closer to the heart of awards season.

More members watch before they vote than you'd think
This year the short categories were also opened up to the entire membership and they received screeners of all the nominees. One of the reasons “Mr. Hublot” surprised in the animated short category is because most pundits (including myself) assumed voters would take the company line and vote for the Disney-produced “Get a Horse!,” which also played in front of “Frozen” across the country. Yes, many members watch films (including “Frozen”) on screener or in private screening rooms, but it still got a ton more attention than any of its counterparts. Instead, “Hublot” won.  Why? Because a larger number of members made sure they watched all the films and shorts before voting. This is a core group of the Academy that takes their responsibilities very seriously no matter what branch they are in and it's why everyone always has a chance to win.

The Best Original Song category rules are beyond screwed up
Not even sure where to start with this. The fact that “Alone Yet No Alone” could even make the top five is laughable. This pundit (unlike Mr. Tapley) had no problems with how the Academy handled it. And while the four remaining nominees were some of the best contenders this past decade, there are still too many rules hindering the process. The branch's insistence that each potential nominee be judged in the context of the film itself has hampered most songs that play over closing credits or that play over “montages” in less prestigious fare. In general, it has limited many songs that the public and even industry associate with those films and deserve to be rewarded. Perhaps there needs to be more diversity in the music branch membership or the nominations process needs to be opened to the entire Academy (a long shot suggestion at best). Nevertheless, it's an ongoing problem. One year of “Happy” vs. “Let it Go” ain't gonna make anyone think the system is working.

Guild honors foretell Oscar love except when they don't
In general, guild honors are still the bellwether for nominations and eventual Oscar winners during awards season. You can point to the fact that every single SAG Awards winner won his or her equivalent Oscar honor (we're not equating ensemble honor to Best Picture). Alfonso Cuarón won both DGA and Oscar director awards. Spike Jonze took the WGA and the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Adapted screenplay scripter John Ridley wasn't eligible for WGA, but would have won it (likely) if he was. And the PGA tie foretold the tight race between “12 Years a Slave” and “Gravity” for Best Picture. What a number of us misread was the idea that the overwhelming below-the-line support for “Gravity” would help it win. Because guilds can predict the big honors, except when they don't.

You can't decide you want to win after the nominations are announced
You have to have a lot of sympathy for Leonardo DiCaprio. If Martin Scorsese was able to deliver “The Wolf of Wall Street” early enough to make its original Nov. 15 release date, he might have a Best Actor statue in his hand today. But the loss is also in DiCaprio's hands. He did the minimum required during the first phase of the Oscar campaign and opening the film itself. He supported “Wolf,” but he wasn't out there like fellow nominees Matthew McConaughey, Bruce Dern and Chiwetel Ejiofor were (and the latter was even filming another movie at the time). After the nominations, and somewhat eyebrow-raising to most industry journalists, DiCaprio became more available and more visible at awards season events than any time over the past decade. Paramount even centered most of “Wolf's” phase two campaign around DiCaprio's Best Actor chances. It was a valiant effort, but it was all too late. Political insiders will tell you the presidential election is won during the primaries. The same can be said for a major Oscar. In general, unless it's a transcendent performance (see Cate Blanchett this year), if you don't campaign in phase one you likely won't win.

Pretenders can have a lot to lose at the box office
The number one goal of awards season is to make money. It sounds like competing agendas, but the attention received by films branded “Oscar contenders” gives them a tremendous amount of publicity outside of their traditional marketing campaign (this hits a peak in November and December). For numerous political reasons, studios often have to play the “game” for films they know in their hearts are not Oscar players. This year's two major pretenders were “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” and “Lone Survivor.” I can only speculate how Fox and Ben Stiller decided that “Mitty” was a Christmas release with an upscale awards season marketing campaign centered around it (including a highbrow New York Film Festival bow). The blow-by-blow details might make a nice term paper for a graduate student studying movie marketing somewhere, but it put the film in a terrible release window to try and make back its budget. It's a fine and entertaining film, but it was never, ever a real Oscar player. Fox, however, wanted to maintain a healthy relationship with Stiller (cough, “Night at the Museum 3”), played the game, and got burned. Universal also likely had no doubt that outside of some craft categories, “Lone Survivor” was not a real contender. On the other hand, they also knew they had a movie that audiences liked and could make money at the box office. But Mark Wahlberg and Peter Berg thought it was Oscar-worthy. Wahlberg even talked publicly about how he was hoping the performances by his co-stars would be recognized. And since Universal has an important relationship with Wahlberg (cough, “Ted 2”), they did what they needed to do to make the talent happy, and still set themselves up for a massive box office opening during a less competitive January frame. Universal was smart, but a little lucky at the same time.  You can also argue the former scenario for “August: Osage County.” Outside of a few acting nominations, the film was a weak Best Picture contender after its Toronto Film Festival debut. Unfortunately, The Weinstein Company hinged the release campaign on major awards season attention (a strategy which has worked many times for the outfit in the past). This year? Both “August” and “Mitty” were textbook examples of how easy it is to get burned when you don't have the goods.

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