The Trouble With the Oscars


Cole Clay // Film Critic

oscar_statueWith yesterday’s Golden Globe nominations announcement, awards season is underway and the countless tweets and reviews, forecasting the Oscar winners has already become a grating process that’s going to painstakingly last until the 87th Academy Awards. Maybe that’s a little strong, because awards season is intended to be the one time in a calendar year when we as film lovers get the chance to convince the mainstream to talk seriously about film. And it’s undoubtedly an exciting time each and every year. The problem with this is the overkill of predictions and perhaps studios have figured out a way to game the system with films known as “Oscar bait.” In this case, breaking down this term can be a bit tricky since we are using it in a negative connotation, but here is one interpretation of the term.

Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.) plays a gay priest in order to win an Oscar.

Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.) plays a gay priest in order to win an Oscar in TROPIC THUNDER.

Oscar bait is when a studio acquires a prestigious property, cast a few acting heavy-weights in principle roles and present the film in one effervescent package in the disguise of an elite movie. This isn’t a novel concept by any stretch and was famously satirized in TROPIC THUNDER some years back. Sites like GoldDerby have been at this for years by already putting up their (very) early predictions. Fans have been creating their own ballots with a group of film fanatics on Hollywood’s biggest night to see who has the most industry moxie. But, does this predictability take all the fun out of awards season?

The format working at its finest has the ability to move viewers and voters alike to seeing a great film they may have not noticed otherwise. Case in point, last year’s 12 YEARS A SLAVE was spectacular movie that garnered lots of positive attention using this marketing method. So it’s not all bad, but Oscar bait at its worst is nothing more than a ploy for studios to rack up the tickets at the end of the year. I understand that it’s called show business for a reason, but maybe I am just being naive and idealistic in my sentiments.

Steve Carell in this year's FOXCATCHER.

Steve Carell in this year’s FOXCATCHER.

Over the past decade social media has become buy and large the most prominent voice within the film community. Everybody has a voice, whether the voices are influential or just somebody who got an (early) September look at FOXCATCHER during Telluride and frivolously declared the film an Oscar frontrunner nearly six months before the ceremony. It’s agitating having the central reception of the film relate to its Oscar contention while analyzing the subtext becomes nothing more than a peripheral concern. This is the time of year when we, the world, are the most vocal about film. And if all we get to talk about is acting performances and how it fits blueprints to get an Oscar, than so be it. It’s hard to beat a conversation debating whether or not Steve Carell’s prosthetic nose should warrant him an Oscar nomination. Problems arise when the opinions become so convoluted with pretension that the voices get amplified and may or may not have a subconscious affect on the Academy voters.

We have the tendencies to sift through tweets, articles, and magazines that predict the winners until the bubble finally bursts. It makes it extremely difficult to form our own opinions about a film this time of year. I’m not here to analyze the effects of social media on the entertainment industry, it’s here to stay and even though it has the ability to skew and sometimes even pervert popular opinion, it’s a valuable tool and only a singular variable.

ben-affleck-memes-2A recent memory was the hype following 2013 Best Picture winner ARGO, which upon first viewing had all the makings of a great film. But upon repeat viewings, the film was nothing more than a watered down piece of Oscar-fare masked as a intelligent piece of filmmaking with borderline offensive politics. Even so, good for Ben Affleck. He gave a helluva an acceptance speech. These films just don’t hold up to the standards they are given within that 4-6 month build up to the Oscars.

Take a look at Best Picture winners of recent years, 2010 saw THE KING’S SPEECH win over THE SOCIAL NETWORK and BLACK SWAN. Our buddy, Ben Affleck, beat out SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK, ZERO DARK THIRTY and LINCOLN in 2012. All of these films listed have the criteria to be put into the pantheon; however, the Academy keeps making lateral moves with its winners. And the shocking reveal that CRASH beat out BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN in 2005 (voters still receive loads of backlash from journalists and fans claiming they picked the wrong film). These poor Academy voters are constantly caught in a catch-22. It will form an incredibly interesting dichotomy over the next few decades when millennials start occupying the votes within this prestigious club.

When we inch towards the early morning nominations and onto the big night it has been so ingrained within the fabric of the community that this is going to be the clear winner that voters will ultimately lean one way. This happened last year with Jared Leto’s marvelous Best Supporting Actor win last year for DALLAS BUYERS CLUB. It’s hard to know if anybody else every stood a chance in the popularity department.

Max von Sydow in as The Renter in Warner Bros. Pictures' drama EXTREMELY LOUD & INCREDIBLY CLOSE.

Max von Sydow in as The Renter in Warner Bros. Pictures’ drama EXTREMELY LOUD & INCREDIBLY CLOSE.

I picture several big tobacco style lobbyists from prominent studios campaigning for attention from a panel of judges who will ultimately decide who gets the nods and as a result gain the box-office numbers. Odds are the payola style of reviewing films does not exist (at least studios haven’t approached me with a handsome fee in order to give a positive review). Take a look the 2011 Best Picture nominee EXTREMELY LOUD & INCREDIBLY CLOSE. Sitting at 46% aggregate on RottenTomatoes, there is no way this film received a nomination unless somebody was owed a favor. Who knows how this sub-par film actually slipped in, but point being, even if mediocre films keep getting nominated I can attest to the fact that there still is a lot of integrity within awards season.

Now, I haven’t seen Angelina Jolie’s upcoming film UNBROKEN, but star Jack O’Connell’s performance is already earning praise, possibly even Oscar talk. Earlier this year, O’Connell was the leading man in the U.K. prison film STARRED UP, a wonderful film that showed pain, heartbreak and had some heart amidst the violence. How come nobody is doing their due diligence to get this film noticed? One reason is because it’s not presented in a pretty enough package for the Academy to market the film. Plain and simple.

It seems that Richard Linklater’s BOYHOOD is going to be ordained as the clear winner this year. This film has been hyped since its premiere at Sundance back in January, but hype can perpetuate some backlash that this inherently great film doesn’t live up to standards. What worked for a film large in scale like ARGO has the potential to hurt a smaller film such as BOYHOOD. Odds are it won’t hurt the film, which has been given universal acclaim (minus two negative reviews on RottenTomatoes), but the hype-machine certainly turns this extremely personal project into a completely different entity.

With that being said, there is no way that a reporter can indeed predict ALL the winners, especially if the voters fail to change their minds after reading Variety’s weekly Oscar race update. So, on a positive note we can’t know for certain who the winners will be until those all important envelops are opened. In Vegas, bookies don’t place bets for the Academy Awards and for obvious reasons, but they do post odds from categories raging from Best Picture to Costume Design. It’s all for fun, but casinos prohibit wagering on entertainment events that have known outcomes, even if it’s only known by a few suits in Los Angeles. In closing, the Academy Awards are an incredible celebration that bring fans/industry types together, and it’s safe to say this is the best system for choosing the winners because we all know how exciting The People’s Choice Awards have been over the years.

And of course we wouldn’t leave you without providing a list at possible 2015 Oscar Nominees.


About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction ( as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.