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David Poland

By David Poland

17 Days To Oscar: Just Keep Swimming

We’re just treading water now.

Warner Bros is still shoveling money upon Inception… which could well end up being the winner of the most Oscars this year… and which has virtually no chance at taking home any of the high glamor awards. (Really, the likely take for the film is Oscars for Sound Editing and Visual Effects. Sound Mixing, Cinematography, and Art Direction are likely to go with the Best Picture winner, for better or worse.)

Some are still pressing the case for Annette Bening… the same case that’s been made since the summer, when she was handed the win on the basis of a solid performance (hardly a career best) and popularity inside The Academy. Whether this led her to think she could win Best Actress without making any public effort or if this was her idea, she is suddenly turning up everywhere in this last couple of weeks. Well, not everywhere. When the season ends, her appearance count will still be under 20. She could win. Black Swan remains as divisive as ever and The Portman Express has been slowed by her pregnancy and her disinclination to play on the pregnancy to her benefit. But probably not.

The air has gone out of the The Social Network balloon, though anything could happen. Reports of The Fighter being a hard charger are wildly overblown… as they have been from the start. Good movie. Not a Best Picture winner. Take your two Oscars and be very pleased. The real question right now is whether The King’s Speech will win four Oscars or nine.

And here is my Social Network statement. Not winning Best Picture is not a tragedy. Obviously, everyone connected to the film would love to win. But in what I believe are honest conversations, I feel that the team involved with the film never saw this as the epic movie of the year, as much of the media has painted it as such. They wanted to make a strong movie, based on a strong script, with a strong director, and great acting. And that, they did.

The reason I have been saying forever that The Social Network was not going to win – and could still be proven wrong – is not the vagaries of the Oscar season, but that the appeal of the film is to a very specific group of people… who happen not to be the majority of people who vote in The Academy. Circumstances often lead the awards season in unexpected “couldn’t happen” directions. But The Social Network, Inception, The Fighter, Black Swan, and 127 Hours were never likely to win. Toy Story 3 always had a nearly impossible road because of Academy vagaries (the animated feature category). The Kids Are All Right had to become a cause… and even if it had, cause movies that are not December releases are prone to “cause exhaustion” and that is a lot to overcome.

If there was going to be a Hurt Locker this year, it would have been Winter’s Bone… but there is no Avatar to play against. Last year’s win – for a movie that deserved to win – is one of the greatest flukes in Oscar history and will, I believe, be seen in that perspective even more as time passes. Oscar just doesn’t choose their winner from the bottom 40% of the nominees. There are two exceptions in the last 30 years, from 1982 (Gandhi) and 1987 (The Last Emperor). Both were the #4 grossers of the 5. Both – 23 and 28 years ago, mind you – significantly outgrossed Hurt Locker. Both were period epics loaded with British accents.

Hmmm… a period piece with Brits… hmmm…

Moreover, in that same 30 years, only three more titles, making 5 total not from the top 2 slots, won Best Picture from the #3 box office slot. In other words, in more than 83% of the races, until we expanded to 10 nominees last year, one of the Top Two grossers won.

Obviously, 10 nominees changes the dynamic. This year, #1 and #2 are Toy Story 3 and Inception. I would argue that those two films are beneficiaries of the expanded field and were unlikely to be nominated in a 5-film race.

And that leaves us… in terms of eliminating other titles and considering the Academy’s preference for commercial success… your #3 grosser, True Grit, and your likely winner and #4 grosser, The King’s Speech, both of which play quite well with “the Academy demographic.”

And why isn’t True Grit your likely winner? Because, in my view, the pressure from producer Scott Rudin, who also produced The Social Network, was not laying heavily on Paramount. The studio, by almost everyone who covers the race, leaned towards The Fighter early and often. It also makes it harder when your writer/director/editor is not widely available for press, your third lead – the one real box office star in the film – is shooting another film and is mostly unavailable, and your male lead is carrying around last year’s Oscar and is also opening a big action film in the same period and has too many media demands on him. That leaves an awful lot of pressure on a 14-year-old girl to carry a movie to a Best Picture win.

And there is this… Harvey Weinstein pushes hard and the top of his team from The King’s Speech have worked their asses off. Colin Firth has been on display for five months. Tom Hooper, once he started spending a lot of time in LA in November, has been a constant and gracious ambassador for the film. And the not-front-running Geoffrey Rush has flown to the US for a few days here and there and then run back to Australia, where he has been in a stage show for the last few months. Helena Bonham Carter, who could win an Oscar on personality if she wanted to, has held back a bit, not anxious, I imagine, to be disappointed again.

Jesse, Andrew, and Sorkin have put it out there for Social Network. Justin Timberlake made a real effort. And Fincher, who really doesn’t want to sell, has been shooting another movie through most of the awards season. And he’s still done a fair amount of stuff. So has his team. Even Scott Rudin has been more available for media than usual. They have made the effort. But it just doesn’t seem that they have The Movie for the “academy demographic,” even if the movie is utterly respected by every Academy member to whom I have spoken.

And in the end, after all the shouting, it is about The Movie and The Academy Demographic. It is forever tempting to see The Academy as a monolith. It’s not. 5800 people is a lot of people. But the basic principles of movie marketing apply. Flukes happen, but there are movies that appeal to certain demographics and not to others. And The Academy, big as it is, has certain kinds of taste. They also nominated District 9 last year. So one can’t be too rigid about making assumptions.

One more thing… it’s been a pretty principled race. There have been a few brickbats flying about. But basically, the King’s Speech Nazi thing was not a factor and was not forced into being a factor. An even sillier discussion of misogyny in The Social Network never took off and was not pushed forward. I expected Speech to be attacked for not being weighty enough… but that claim never took air. No one felt a need to target Inception or Toy Story 3. The Fighter was not overanalyzed.

The biggest complaint was that Sony wanted it too much. Yawn.

Moreover, it was one of the nicest years for nominees that I can remember. There are always a few people who seem to have the wrong attitude. Not this year. It’s a young, smart, rising group of people in many categories. And that makes for a gentle journey. Hooray.

And once the ship has sailed at this late date, it’s usually gone. And if some of these races are legitimately within 100 votes between the winner and second place, there is still a tiny sliver of room to maneuver.

One of the nice things about The Academy is that idiots like me can theorize all day and the only empirical data that The Academy offers is the winners. “Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming, swimming swimming. What do we do? We swim, swim, swim.

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12 Responses to “17 Days To Oscar: Just Keep Swimming”

  1. “Reports of The Fighter being a hard charger are wildly overblown… as they have been from the start.”

    Not true.

  2. Rman says:

    Just for the record, “Inception” is not nominated in the Best Editing category. And I don’t think the film will win a lot.

  3. David Poland says:

    Not true because you don’t think it’s true?

    Obviously, I am offering an opinion based on the net I’ve thrown out. But I’m not sure you can quite claim “true” or “not true.”


  4. Bob Burns says:

    curious myself.

  5. Candice says:

    The Fighter love feels pretty real to me.

  6. I’ll buy that, but I’m not the one stating a definitive about the film and it’s Oscar chances based on my “net.”

  7. So call it “not true” to the definitive tone.

  8. movielocke says:

    eh, this year is already decided, the frontrunners are locked in, only the below-the-line categories are less than definitive.

    In the meantime, Christopher Plummer plays Fun, Old and Gay in Beginners which just had a trailer drop. Other than Tree of Life it looks like the first performance of 2011 that even hints of an oscar possibility. And it’s entirely possible that Tree of Life won’t get any oscar noms for performances, just technicals and Picture/director.

  9. jake says:

    JUST ANOTHER REASON THAT THE OSCARS SHOULD MOVE BACK TO MARCH — there will be no suspense in these oscars because the same people will win.

    I hope that Annette Bening and amy adams win.

  10. Joe Me says:

    I know the King’s Speech is getting this hard puch of late to be the oscar winner come awards day, but I’m still certain that The Social Network wins for best picture.

    I understand that you are closer to the Academy’s murmering and can probably interpret all of it much better than i can. But to me, the feeling that i’m getting from most of the articles i’ve read and from the interviews i’ve seen is that the Social network is still the favorite and that the current uprising of buzz for The King’s Speech is just the latest in a long line of desperate pushes this year for a more “adult” movie, one that knows it might have come up just short to the “movie with all the kids”, to try and take over The Social Network. (The King’s Speech already tried this earlier only to fade back down the list, as did True Grit, The Fighter, and even to a lesser extent, Black Swan)

    I also believe that possibly your personal feelings may be getting too much in the way of your professional view, causing your objectivity to become blindness. (Though this may be happening to me as well, but we’ll see) Because as you mentioned in the above column, Last year District 9 was nominated in the top ten, and thus you’ve pointed out that there is a strong wave of “younger” voters crashing upon the Oscar shores as of late. I feel this years overall crop of movies gives a perfect example of that “younger voter” uprising, giving reason to think that the Academy’s voters are right in line with The Social Network’s demographic. Let’s look at the field:

    THE SOCIAL NETWORK – The main characters are 18-25ish. Young audience wins.

    THE KING’S SPEECH – A stuffy old people movie. One for the enemy.

    THE FIGHTER – A middle of the road movie that hits both demographocs. But i’ll give it to the adults to make it a fair fight. Get it?

    BLACK SWAN – A story of a young girl being smothered by her mother. One more for the young crowd.

    INCEPTION – Action, good looking people, The Juno girl. One more to the youngins.

    TOY STORY – Appeal to all, yet a kids movie at heart. A draw at best.

    127 HOURS – A young 20-something overcoming great obsticles. Which crowd does that lean towards?

    TRUE GRIT – An old persons movie, yet lead by a young teenage girl. I’ll give this one to the oldies just because it’s a western and the nostalgia of the John Wayne version hanging around it. But a young lead shows it touches that crowd too.

    THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT – At first glance I’d give this to the oldies. Any movie with Anette Benning and Juliane Moore in it together would lend you to believe this. But then they play Lesbians? And the main story is about the kids finding their sperm doner father which shakes up the family? I’ll say it’s a draw on this one at best.

    WINTER’S BONE – A young girl trying to save her family from ruin. A draw at best, but i think the youngins get the nod on this one too.

    Final Score:
    Young demo – 5
    Oldies – 3
    Draws – 2

    I think The Social Network is right in line with the voters and wins when it counts. But this late attempt by The King’s Speech will make the oscar night exciting with the edge of the seat moment of will the Old People film actually edge out the better film?

    Thanks for the great colums David.

  11. Joe Me says:

    By the way, here are my picks for Oscar night. Hope I’m not made to look like a fool.

    BEST PICTURE – The Social Network
    BEST ACTOR – Colin Firth win’s to give THE KING’S SPEECH something on the night.
    BEST ACTRESS – Natalie Portman easy!
    BEST SUP. ACTOR – Christian Bale
    BEST Sup. ACTRESS – Melissa Leo
    BEST DIRECTOR – David Fincher
    BEST ORG. SCREENPLAY – Inception
    BEST ADP. SCREENPLAY – The Social Network
    BEST FOREIGNER – In A Better World
    BEST ANIMATED – Toy Story 3
    BEST DOC. – Inside Job
    EDITING – The Social Netwrok
    ART DIRECTION – the King’s Speech
    COSTUME DESIGN – Alice In Wonderland
    ORIGIONAL SCORE – Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross – THE SOCIAL NETWORK
    ORIGIONAL SONG – We Belong together – TOY STORY 3
    ANIMATED SHORT – Day and Night

  12. anonymous says:

    That is my dream Oscar winning list, actually.
    I used to be against Inception because I thought it was a bit pretentious as a screenplay, but after The King’s Speech triumph at the Guilds, I am hoping Inception will pull an upset win over The King’s Speech for original screenplay.

Quote Unquotesee all »

It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon