Lessons learned from the 2011-2012 Awards Season

Before we take a long view of the lessons of this past awards season, it’s time to do some housekeeping. A little shindig called the Academy Awards were Sunday and some pretty statues were given out.  I’d made some predictions a few days before and — like many pundits — I got my share right and wrong.

– Overall I predicted 15 correctly and 9 incorrectly (eke, I was 21 out of 24 just a few years ago).
– I correctly predicted all three short categories (no easy task mind you).
– I was blinded by my dislike for “Hugo” and believed “The Artist” would take art direction and “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” would take visual effects (the latter being a particular travesty among the awards).
– I did say  the same film would win both sound categories. Unfortunately, I picked “War Horse” which went home empty handed like “Moneyball” (correct prediction by the way on the baseball favorite).
– There is a reason the documentary rules were changed for 2013 last month and “Undeclared” is the perfect example. Fine doc, but you’ve seen it on ESPN 300 times. It turns out the 80 old ladies who had time to sit through all of the nominees to vote on the honor (a requirement) had not.
– I had Viola Davis for actress, but was rooting for Meryl Streep to win.  That really doesn’t mean anything except that I screamed for joy when she won. Don’t worry Viola, your time will come.

Now, does this mean you should stop following this Oscar campaign veteran? Bite your tongue before you answer that! Anyone can predict an awards show, a major sports league draft or a political race.  The insight comes in being able to see how everyone got from point a to b and how that will affect the next campaign.*

*As I steal this writing motif from Sepinwall for a moment, basically it means most of us prognosticators have so much behind-the-scenes info about what’s actually going on and how one move affect another it can make us blind to a particular outcome.  Often, like in Streep’s case, no one really knows (besides a few select pundits who made the gutsy call such as David Poland and Mark Olsen).  

So, before we start pondering if Quentin can finally win a best director or picture Oscar for “Django Unchained,” if Tom Hooper can go back to back with “Les Miserables,” if Ang Lee can make a comeback with “Life of Pi” or if Joe Wright can turn Tolstoy to Oscar gold, let’s review some of the lessons of last seven months of awards season.

Marty is the new Clint
With five Oscars including a surprising visual effects statue, “Hugo” looked like it was going to pull off an upset and win best picture.  That didn’t occur, but the Academy’s over-the-top love for the 3-D family film was mostly a reflection of their adoration for the great master (whether they want to believe that’s the reason why or not).  For years, many wondered when Scorsese would ever win his first Academy Award.  At this point, the question is how soon till he wins his second.

None of us get why ‘Dragon Tattoo’ won editing either
Maybe the members just remember that great teaser trailer? I mean, we assume they saw the movie right? (If so, this would be the first time in history a movie has won an editing award thanks to its original marketing campaign. It’s just as bizarre as Melissa McCarthy winning an Emmy for “Bridesmaids” last September).

WB should be worried about Oscar embracing ‘The Dark Knight Rises’
Christopher Nolan really broke through with Academy voters last year when “Inception” landed eight nominations including best picture.  It won four, but only in tech categories such as cinematography, sound editing, sound mixing and visual effects.  Nolan landed a screenplay not, but was shockingly left out of the director race. “The Dark Knight” was one of the most critically acclaimed films of 2008 and also landed eight nominations.  However, it didn’t make the best picture field and Nolan received neither a writing or directing nod.  And while many remember the posthumous Oscar for Heath Ledger, it’s easy to forget the Academy used the “Dark Knight” omission as one of the examples of why it needed to go to 10 nominees. Those rules have changed slight with the new 5% kicker, but nine films still got in this year. If the final film in Nolan’s trilogy, “The Dark Knight Rises,” lives up to its predecessor this summer critically, will Oscar reward it and/or Nolan?  It’s likely the last thing WB wants to think about now, but considering how the Academy almost completely rejected their attempts to recognize the brilliant last “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Pt. 2” they are going to have to deal with it a some point. Because, believe it or not, the first best picture frontrunner is actually opening on July 20.

We’ll never know how close Meryl/Viola was

Yes, Meryl Streep’s win over Viola Davis was an upset. Sure, she’d won BAFTA (more on that later), but Davis had seemingly taken the more influential SAG Award with a wave of goodwill and support.  While the Academy did honor Davis’ “Help” co-star Octavia Spencer, the film only had three nominations and two of them were in acting categories. The third was best picture.  While the acting branch is the largest in the Academy (approximately 20%) the fact it was honored in those three categories signaled that the film had almost zero support in any of the other branches (credit where credit is due: even if I’d already realized it myself, Anne Thompson made this point publicly first on the Oscar Podcast yesterday).  And while a makeup nod may not seem significant, at least “The Iron Lady” had additional support somewhere. It all points to just how close the vote must have been.  And…

BAFTA and International voters show their influence
It’s rarely been felt so overtly, but the few hundred members who live outside of the U.S. (mostly in the UK and Europe) may have made their voices heard by voting for Streep.  “The Iron Lady” was more positively received in Britain than it was stateside and BAFTA responded by giving Streep their best actress award (worth noting it was also a big hit across the pond).  There is definite crossover in AMPAS and BAFTA membership and the fact “The Artist” won best picture, director, screenplay and actor over Gary Oldman and the U.K’s beloved “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” was a huge red flag regarding its Oscar fortunes.  It won’t happen every season, but this was another example of why determining the winner by polling voters just in Los Angeles or New York just won’t due.

Brian Grazer is the new Laura Ziskin…at least in terms of Oscar producing
While critics and the media were disappointed by Billy “really old old school” Crystal, you heard little complaints about the fast moving show itself. Granted, it wasn’t the most creative program and there were sound problems, but it was classy and avoided any of the uncomfortable or awkward moments of the last two years. Grazer came in at the last minute and proved that unlike previous producers Adam Shankman and Bruce Cohen he can join Bill Condon and Laurence Mark as successful show producers who can put a show on the Academy will be happy with. In many ways, Ziskin provided the same stability in her two runs as show producer in 2002 and 2007.  She likely would have produced again, but a battle with cancer cut her life short. Don’t be surprised if Grazer ends up producing again in a year or two.

Surprise: Polarizing films will polarize the Academy

The LA Times’ investigative report into the demographics of the Academy weren’t that surprising. We knew they were white and old, we just didn’t know they were that white and old.  The results also were pretty obvious considering that films with possible nominees such as “Shame,” “Young Adult,” “Drive,” “Martha Marcy May Marlene” and “We Need To Talk About Kevin” landed zero nods (OK, “Drive” got one sound nod, like that makes up for it). Many studios, pundits and members of the general media may have been falsely duped into thinking the Academy was broadening its definition of recognizable work with nominations over the past few years for films such as “Juno,” “127 Hours,” “Milk,” “Brokeback Mountain,” “Black Swan,” “The Wrestler,” “Precious,” “The Kids Are All Right,” “District 9” and “The Hurt Locker.” Frankly, that may be more a testament to the marketing smarts of Focus Features and Fox Searchlight. Instead, what the Academy rejected this years will give many studio execs pause about whether or not they play the awards season game for certain films in the future.

If you didn’t go relatively early you shouldn’t have gone at all
Besides “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” and “War Horse,” which opened on Christmas day, every best picture nominee this year was in at least limited release by Thanksgiving. And they’ll never say it publicly, but if DreamWorks had a second chance they would have moved “War Horse” much earlier so it wasn’t the “second to last” Oscar film and their campaign could have been stronger. Focus absolutely should have released “Tinker Tailor” in October and they also, sadly, know it. That thriller is going to be the new “Children of Men.”  You’ll hear people raving about it when they watch it on HBO and wonder “Why didn’t that get nominated for best picture?” Because it was film that needed more time to resonate with the Academy. It happens. Better to go early than late though. That should be the new motto.

Cannes is the new Sundance…for now

As Guy Lodge noted – and beat me to the punch – Cannes made a major comeback this year with “The Artist,” “The Tree of Life” and “Midnight in Paris” landing best picture nods.  This comes after a long, long dry spell where only “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon,” “The Pianist,” “Babel” and “Inglourious Basterds” were the only Cannes world premieres to land best picture nominations over the past 11 years. In the same period, Sundance had made major inroads across the board and premiered two best picture nominees for both the 82nd and 83rd Oscars. This season, on the other hand, was a disaster for the festival with only “Margin Call” landing a major narrative nomination in the screenplay category.*  2012 won’t be any better as the festival has really only one best picture contender in “The Surrogate,” but that’s like a best actor play for John Hawkes. Cannes? We’ll find out in May.

*It’s worth noting Sundance docs have dominated the best documentary and documentary short categories for the past decade and that won’t change in 2013.

Don’t keep your eye off the ball in the second phase

A majority of Academy campaign dollars are spent in what is called phase 1.  These are the for your consideration ads you see between November and when nomination ballots close in the middle of January. Phase 2 traditionally begins when ballots are sent out in February.  If you really think you have a shot at winning a category you spend for it in phase 2.  If you don’t – say Glenn Close in “Albert Nobbs” – you spend as little as you have to without embarrassing your nominee.  One studio that backed off from spending in phase 2 significantly was 20th Century Fox for “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.”  While Paramount Pictures went the extra mile trying to get “Transformers” at least one technical Oscar (an embarrassment no matter what the Academy thinks of the film’s screenplays), Fox appeared to think it had visual effects in the bag.  This was somewhat surprising considering the memorable print ads they created juxtaposing the ape Caesar’s head on Andy Serkis’ body during phase 1 created a lot of buzz.  Meanwhile, “Hugo” was spending across the board chasing a best picture win vs. “The Artist.” So, what do you know?  On Oscar Sunday “Hugo” upsets “Rise” in the category (a travesty considering what WETA accomplished) and Fox is wondering what happened to their “lock”? So, if they land a slew of nominations next year for “The Great Gatsby,” we’ll see if they learned their lesson for phase 2.

Sacha Baron Cohen is in danger of becoming the next Jim Carrey
What to know a secret? Sacha Baron Cohen wants to win an Oscar.  Like he really wants to win one. That’s why he’s done films such as Scorsese’s “Hugo” and is planning on playing Freddie Mercury in a biopic about the former Queen singer.  Now, no one in Hollywood will argue that the infant terrible is a comic genius. His characters have succesfully played both to sophisticated and lowbrow audiences.  However, with his stunt on Sunday he’s in danger of becoming a persona non grata when it comes to awards recognition. Dressing up as “The Dictator” and then making a scene on the red carpet (something he promised he wouldn’t do) did not endear him to those in the Hollywood and Highland complex.  And if you think the Academy should just get a sense of humor, that’s fine, but this ain’t the MTV Movie Awards. The Academy doesn’t want the story to be about someone’s movie coming out in three months even if it’s a fun sight gag.  And when you cross the line of their willingness to play along? Watch out.  Jim Carrey still hasn’t been forgiven for his Golden Globes speech 13 years ago.

What big takeaways do you have from this year’s awards season? Share your thoughts below.
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