Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Oscar Cop-Out

By now, much negative press has already been lavished on this year's Oscar race and critics are predicting that this could be the most boring Oscar ceremony ever.  The academy has been accused of selling out, the nominees have been complaining that their sails do not have enough metaphorical wind to push them towards the triumph they so rightly deserve.  And yes, the awards are predictable this year.  The nominations smack of one too many "been there, done thats" but I'm not going to talk about that.  I'd like to take just a minute to point a finger at the people who are really responsible: the filmmakers themselves.  

I spent several years working in LA as a part of the Hollywood "machine" and the problem (as I see it) isn't just the kind of movies that are getting nominated, but the kinds of movies that are getting a push from the studios.  There are only two seasons in Hollywood.  Summer Movie season -- which now starts in March and why not? This is when the studios make the big bucks.  And of course, there's Oscar season, which starts as early as October and consists of no less than a full-scale marketing assault, promoting lovingly-crafted, highbrow cinema "for your consideration" via the trades (Variety and The Hollywood Reporter).

Oscar season is the time when all the executives who had the sophistication and forethought to greenlight a contending "prestige picture" pat themselves on the back and congratulate themselves -- if not others, on a job...done.  Whether or not the films live up to their pedigree is another thing entirely.  Academy members are bound to make mistakes, but the Oscars used to stand for something.  They were designed to recognize and inspire excellence in the art of motion pictures, but rather than inspire they became a means in and of themselves.  By coming back every year, writer's strike or not...the Oscars have become a comfortable old shoe that any high-minded, end of the year, Hollywood film has a chance of fitting into.  

When did this happen?  When did blockbusters and prestige pictures become mutually exclusive?  It's time that Hollywood started taking their blockbusters a little more seriously -- The Dark Knight was a major step in the right direction this year, as was The Departed in 2006.  And, likewise it is high time that the so-called "important" films became a little more entertaining.  Still, like everything important in life, the choice has to come from within.  It isn't enough to insist on retribution here and there is nothing pointing to a decline in Oscar movie marketing anytime soon.  The only chance of things improving is if all us cinephiles and filmmakers band together to demand more of ourselves.  It's time to say no more to being a pushover.  It's time to say no more to valuing earnest message films, regardless of their originality.  

The marketing of these Oscar films is insidious.  It is so effective and so relentless, that ambitious misfires like last year's Atonement suddenly start to look good to me.  Yes, I admit, after five successive weeks of Atonement ads, including full page spreads and complimentary DVD samplers, I too was willing to throw reason and my opinion to the wind and admit that I had been wrong...Atonement was in fact a masterpiece after all.  If I were still subscribing to the trades, I might be telling you the same thing about The Curious Case of Benjamin Button -- another overhyped awards darling.  Don't get me wrong, I value ambition over execution if a film has a point of view.  The problem I have is how few Oscar contenders genuinely have one.