Excuse us if we go out on a limb here, but something tells us the collective brain trust at The Academy is glad this awards season has mercifully come to an end.
After an incredibly diverse 86th Academy Awards ceremony, where “12 Years a Slave” took Best Picture, a Mexican filmmaker won Best Director, Lupita Nyong'o earned a Best Supporting Actress Oscar and John Ridley won Best Adapted Screenplay, the Oscars appeared to take a step back in 2015. It wasn't just that “Selma” was snubbed in a number of major categories. The #OscarsSoWhite hashtag became a historical footnote that will haunt the Academy for years (and, trust, it will be back again if the public wills it). But it had more to do with all white nominees in the acting categories than just “Selma” itself. This also brought to light that it was yet another year without a female nominee in the Best Director category, thanks to the lack of women helming major motion pictures. And how about that telecast?
The 87th Academy Awards broadcast succeeded when Lady Gaga sang (though why at 11:15 PM EST is a reasonable question to ask), Common and John Legend performed and the winners stepped up to the microphone with some mighty impressive things to say (not always the case). There have been some articles over the past few days asking “How do we fix the Oscars?” Well, like any yearly program, the ratings are always going to be cyclical (anyone notice the lack of real star power this year?), but bringing on producers who emphasize laughs over musical numbers is always a smart idea.
The talent, filmmakers and studios vying for awards season dollars also saw some new trends in the always shifting landscape. It's debatable, but films such as “Selma,” “A Most Violent Year,” “Cake,” “Still Alice” and “Two Days, One Night” could have earned more if they had opened earlier or gone wide before January. Some films might have picked the wrong festival for a premiere (“Inherent Vice”), some might have benefited from a festival debut (“Interstellar”) or a summer release (“Whiplash”) or a spring 2016 opening (“The Gambler,” “Big Eyes”), and we're still not completely sure why some movies didn't make more at the box office than they did (“Top Five,” “Foxcatcher,” “Pride”).
As always, there were lessons to be learned and some new rules to live by as the daunting 2016 Oscar season begins to make its way from Park City to Hollywood's executive suites and on to Cannes. Let's review, shall we? (Don't worry, you won't be quizzed on this at the end.)
Expand the top seven categories with the same nomination rules as Best Picture
Want a surefire way to help solve the Oscars' increasingly serious diversity problem? Expand the four acting, screenplay and directing categories to up to seven nominees. Qualify the number of nominees with the same percentage rule the Academy has used for the past four years for Best Picture. Not only would it make sure that overlooked performances in incredible years don't get shortchanged (like Best Actor snubs Jake Gyllenhall and David Oyelowo), but it would encourage studios to make sure other contenders get their due.
Do you think there would have been a bigger campaign for “Beyond the Light” and “Belle” star Gugu Mbatha-Raw if the Best Actress category could have expanded to six or seven nominees? Would Chadwick Boseman and Viola Davis have gotten more serious consideration for “Get on Up?” Would Carmen Ejogo have a shot in Best Supporting Actress? Would Gillian Flynn have made the Adapted Screenplay cut? Maybe, maybe not, but at least some of those deserving talents would have been recognized. The Academy has proved the new rule works. This year, after three years of nine nominees, the membership voted for just eight Best Picture contenders. Why not try it in the other major races?
We're not kidding: It's time for Tina and Amy
First off, and it goes without saying, the reign of Craig Zadan and Neil Meron as Academy Awards telecast producers needs to end now. Last year's ratings were due to the fact that blockbusters like “Gravity” and “The Wolf of Wall Street” were seen by the public as legit Best Picture contenders and big stars including Leonardo DiCaprio, Sandra Bullock, Jennifer Lawrence and Matthew McConaughey earned nominations (among others). Neil Patrick Harris would have been a fine host three years ago, but at this point his shtick was predictable and he couldn't charm this room (bad jokes didn't help). People want to be entertained while watching the Oscars and laughter is a big part of it.
It's an open secret that many of the Academy's top picks to host the show routinely turn the job down. The perception is that it's not worth the effort because you can never make enough people happy (although Billy Crystal, Hugh Jackman, Steve Martin and Whoopi Goldberg certainly seemed to). It might be a fanboy dream, but it's time to bring Tina Fey and Amy Poehler into the fold. Their work on the Globes was more relevant and smart and they treated the audience at home like they were in on the game. They are no longer contractually bound to NBC and are coming off the high of hosting three great Golden Globe shows (historical note: the word “great” associated with “Golden Globes show”). When Academy institution Meryl Streep is bemoaning the fact Amy and Tina won't be at the Globes in 2016, you have an opportunity. Are we suggesting Meryl could single-handedly convince Fey and Poehler to host the Oscars next year? Well…
Comedians with hosting experience need to host the Oscars (and if they are former “SNL” cast members, that works too)
If Fey and Poehler really are a pipe dream then the Academy needs to find a producer who realizes that comedians with improv skills or comedic actors who have previously hosted awards shows are the way to go. Anyone catch how great Andy Samberg was hosting the Spirit Awards two years ago? It was a huge improvement over his MTV Movie Awards gig. It was clear he learned a lot and it helped turn the Spirits into a real show. Team him up with someone like Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Amy Schumer or Melissa McCarthy and you might have something. What about former SNLers and current movie stars Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader? How about bringing Chris Rock back? Or, here's an idea: Jon Stewart appears to have some free time on his hands at the end of the year. Maybe third time's the charm? Personally, I'm not a fan of Jimmy Kimmel, but at least you could sleep well knowing he'd produce a funny three-hour show. Oh, and some actual comedy writers on the staff wouldn't hurt either.
If you want to win Best Picture it's Venice, Telluride or bust
It sounds silly, but it's true. The last three Best Picture winners either had their world premiere at the Venice Film Festival and then screened at Telluride or premiered just at Telluride. Going back further, “The Artist” debuted at Cannes and screened at Telluride and “The King's Speech” premiered at Telluride. “The Hurt Locker” premiered at Venice, albeit a year before release, and “Slumdog Millionaire” debuted at Telluride. The last Best Picture winner to open in November or December without some sort of festival premiere? Clint Eastwood's “Million Dollar Baby,” and that was 10 years ago. History says you need to start the buzz over Labor Day weekend… until you don't.
Pitching history lessons won't help you with The Academy
One sad excuse you heard from Academy members on why they hadn't watched their “Selma” screeners during the nomination process was that it looked too much like a “history lesson.” Paramount Pictures created a campaign that largely focused on the historical impact of the “Selma” marches, but their print and AV materials may not have conveyed the emotion of those events enough. Having watched almost all of the “Selma” spots available online (and there are a bunch of them), they are punchy and avoid melodrama. The ads did a good job in getting younger moviegoers to go see the film when it went wide, but unfortunately, it may not be the best way to get The Academy's attention.
One reason for “American Sniper's” success is the fact that Warner Bros.' overall marketing campaign balanced a critical and consumer angle that always referenced that it was about “the greatest sniper in U.S. history,” but quickly sold imagery of a more emotional, personal story. When you watch the “Selma” TV spots, that's largely missing. The media helped open the movie to its core audience, but if awards season recognition was a priority, it missed out. “The Theory of Everything” and “The Imitation Game” also avoided this to a large degree in the nomination process.*
You need to vet your film like a political candidate
Attacks on a movie's historical accuracy are nothing new to Oscar campaigns. From “A Beautiful Mind” to “Zero Dark Thirty,” filmmakers and studios have been criticized by those who were there and politicians hoping to use controversy to get into the media spotlight. The difference this year was that for the first time the specific intent wasn't to hurt the film's box office, but to blatantly impact its Oscar chances. The Weinstein Company knew there would no doubt be some criticism of the events of Alan Turing's life depicted in “The Imitation Game,” but they could not have expected such a negative reaction in the United Kingdom. Sony Classics and Annapurna had to have been shocked with Mark Schultz's rant over “Foxcatcher” less than a week before Oscar nomination ballots were due when he'd personally been involved in the movie's production. Warner Bros. was lucky with “American Sniper”; the story of Chris Kyle's personal politics and beliefs didn't bubble up much in the media because at the same time competing contender “Selma” was under fire.
The filmmakers behind “Selma,” meanwhile, thought they would potentially have to deal with an unhappy response from Martin Luther King's family, but the anger from former members of Lyndon B. Johnson's administration was something of a surprise. Paramount seemed unprepared and the fact that it occurred during the Christmas/New Year's holiday week (major screener catch-up time for Academy members) only made things worse. All in all, the past season was a case study of what to do and what not to do for any studio bringing a “true story” to the awards season game. You better study your source material and be ready for any public attack at any time.
AFI Fest has secured its place as an Oscar launching pad
It may not have premiered a Best Picture winner or held a juried competition that's noteworthy (yet), but AFI Fest has secured itself as a hometown vehicle for studios to bring major players into the awards season game. In many ways it's become the Telluride or Toronto of Hollywood, and yes, there is some irony there. Some AFI premieres have had great success like “The Fighter” and others such as “J. Edgar,” “The Gambler” and, sadly, “A Most Violent Year,” failed to make an Oscar dent. This year, not only did nominated films “Foxcatcher,” “Still Alice,” “Two Days, One Night,” “Inherent Vice” and “Mr. Turner” screen at AFI, but the festival premiered “Selma” and “American Sniper” back-to-back on the same night, in the same theater. Luck had a lot to do with the latter double bill, but it was one of those nights hardly anyone involved in this game will forget.
A member of the press should be included in the In Memoriam selection committee
This is getting comical. Every year there is some member of the movie industry who passes away that is snubbed in the In Memoriam segment. It would be one thing if this didn't mean something to viewers and those in the Dolby Theater audience, but it does. The Oscars are the crown jewels of awards shows and people look forward to this segment. The Academy should bring in one or two respected members of the press who can act almost like overseers to make sure the organization, the show producers and the secret In Memoriam committee understand why you can't snub Joan Rivers during the show itself. In effect, it would be the Oscars' version of a United Nations election observer, but it's hard to imagine how it could make things worse.
Reminder Rule: If you don't campaign, Academy members likely won't notice you
Listen, the work matters. No one is discounting that and it's one reason why Marion Cotillard was a “surprise” nominee (thank you early screeners). On the flip side, Laura Dern, Steve Carell and Robert Duvall are perfect examples of how being a fixture on the circuit markedly helps your chances at a nomination. Remember how Benedict Cumberbatch was a serious threat to win it all after Telluride and Toronto? He absolutely would have been if he could have campaigned more (his schedule wouldn't allow it). Is it a surprise that the two frontrunners for Best Actor, Eddie Redmayne and Michael Keaton, worked the circuit like seasoned pros? Nope. You gotta be in the game if you want a chance to win it.
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