MCN Columnists
David Poland

By David Poland

10 Weeks To Oscar: Work It!

It’s December 17. Ballots don’t go live for another 12 days. (The Academy has turned the corner on digital balloting this year and the vast majority of voters will vote digitally unless there are serious problems when they go hot.) This is the moment when marketers go limp or get serious.

And ironically, there is almost nothing left that can be done to change the narrative on their films. And I mean inside baseball narratives, not the ones that Academy voters will consciously consider. However, as in the movies themselves, Academy voters will feel the pull of these narratives, not necessarily every realizing or knowing why.

What movies seem like they are playing above their station this season? Room? Brooklyn? Spotlight? What do they share?


All three films have been working their asses off since September–albeit Spotlight has had meager time from its movie stars–and are still working their asses off as we head into the Star Wars holiday.

People were dubious about Carol’s prospects until… taa-dah!–Cate Blanchett landed in L.A. and the entire team was suddenly pushing and pushing hard (including actors, below-the-line and even some who don’t do a lot of press for their movies) and all of a sudden, it seems like an across-the-board lock. In Paris? Christine Vachon happened to be there… and did a Q&A. In LA? Phyllis Nagy has been a Q&A machine. Working it.

Bridge of Spies has lingered. It’s a modest box office success and since it premiered at NYFF, the principals have done almost nothing. It might be in. It might be out. (Spielberg and his work long ago earned the benefit of the doubt about such things.) But what is the giant sucking sound in the middle of the film? Mark Rylance, who should be a mortal lock to win Best Supporting Actor, but has been on stage in the UK and not in LA doing anything. And now, his shoulda-been-easy win is a shoulder-shrugger for many. The performance didn’t change. The guy–a genius who steals the movie–just hasn’t shown up. You get nominated that way. You don’t win that way unless you are Sean Penn, with decades of work behind you.

Mad Max: Fury Road has gotten hotter as a title in the last few weeks of critics awards. Deserved. Maybe the best American film of the year… certainly Top 5 for many. But while George Miller has been here a few times, where is Charlize Theron, grabbing a surprise nomination for her role? Invisible. So… not happening.

Flip side, Charlotte Rampling, who is still not a lock, shows up for a few days in NY and LA and BOOM… she is a media favorite and has a chance of being nominated for a movie from a tiny distributor with no money that will gross a few million when it finally opens next week on a few screens before going to VOD.

Steve Jobs is still my personal favorite of the season… but Universal has bailed on it since it crashed going wide. You would never know they were still in the race. Of course, they don’t have Michael Fassbender to parade around. Kate Winslet worked her butt off around the NYFF premiere and after and will likely get a (completely deserved) Supporting Actress nomination as a result. Fassbender might get nominated too, as he is not only brilliant, but in the groove.

And I am still rooting for Creed, though WB still has a problem getting Oscar voters to put the damned thing in the DVD player. The movie, Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, and writer-director Michael B. Jordan should all be serious, serious contenders in their categories. But the machinery has been slow coming to life. The studio, it seems, just didn’t understand how much of a crowd-pleaser the film is. But even more… where have Michael B. Jordan and Stallone and Coogler been? Why aren’t we drowning in stories? (I am headed to a lunch for the film–the first I have heard of–after I finish writing this… but it’s December 17, man.)

Then you have a movie like The Hateful Eight, where the team has worked hard for the movie and have an interesting story to tell and a movie that a lot of audiences will enjoy (especially as a 2 hour, 47 minute experience, with due respect to Quentin’s passionate push for the roadshow version), but which may not get the full love of The Academy. The Revenant may be just as violent, but it is serious about itself, which sometimes does the trick. Or perhaps it will be the opposite and the movie that has fun with exploding heads will heat up… happens (if only for Quentin).

The one story of the season that has a great performance and a legendary actor who has generously worked his ass off for his film and his cause and may not make the cut is Sir Ian McKellen. My personal take is that he still may shock and surprises many on Oscar nomination morning. But maybe not. And that would be a shame… and a contradiction to much of this column. But life is filled with contradictions, no more so than during award season.

On a macro level, I have a feeling – which may seem self-serving and which may be self-serving – that in the 4-trade universe of the last few years, we have reached a point of hype saturation (not unlike the problems in media these days) where the old “things you have to do” have become stretched beyond the point of value.

If you felt your film/talent had to be a part of a Hollywood Reporter roundtable in 2013 and needed those Variety covers and those Deadline special issues, you prioritized them and still did a lot of other stuff.

But in 2015, there a at least two roundtable video shows and actor stunt video shows and the NYT vanity shoots and whatever The Wrap has going on and so forth. You have Guild screenings, but many other screenings sponsored not only by the 4 trades, but the LAT and below-the-line groups, etc, etc. You don’t just buy 2 trade covers, but you are somehow obliged to work toward at least 4 trades covers, in multiple, and the LAT and Indiewire and the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal and Wired and on and on and on. And you need to drag out talent for the marketing presentation from Deadline, The Contenders, then show your asses for The Hollywood Film Awards that no one sees or cares about, and then you get to dress everyone up and get Rick Baker to plaster on your best Joker smile for 5 hours of Academy Governors Awards, the Country Bear Jamboree of events that are actually important but have been turned into circuses.

At some point, you are obliged to so much that you can’t stretch the time you have with your key talent out over the obligations, much less the rest of the parade of media outlets (like myself).

Well, you can. But you have to make hard choices and push a camel through the eye of a needle you’d find in a sewing kit in the Four Seasons.

A few years ago, blaming the personal publicists was the norm…. and felt realistic. There was a distinct tightening in the availability of key talent. And there is still truth to it. If I had $10,000 for every time I heard about an actor only giving the studio two hours, I could stop selling award season ads. And most of the time, that complaint is sincere.

But… it is also true that the key talent is expected to jump through more hoops for more months than ever before. Some talent likes playing beer pong with Jimmy Kimmel, some do not and some like being challenged with real questions AND playing beer pong with Jimmy Fallon. It is a marathon. A grueling marathon where even sincerity lies about itself after a while. And this talent is chasing Oscars, not Tonys.

Then you get a movie like The Big Short, which has three actors who tend to be press shy (Pitt/Gosling/Bale) and one who will work it (the ever-lovely, non-pain-in-the-ass Steve Carell), and it has a hard row to hoe. Writer-director Adam McKay has had to carry much of the weight for the film’s award push because while his talent did junket, the trio aren’t going to do a whole lot. (Their personal publicists, you can be sure, are complaining about doing as much as they have done.) The film is perhaps the most ascendant of the late entries, but will it get over the hump without more profile? Hard to say. It probably has to shove past Bridge of Spies and The Revenant to get there… and all three have a similar talent problem. If there is a lead in Big Short, it’s Christian Bale, whose Oscar potential has been underestimated before. But like Spotlight, it is an ensemble. So Carell in Supporting… in part because he has been more accessible? Possible. So you get the actors on board the film and the writers and people in other branches who just like the film and maybe Best Picture is happening… and if it does, maybe it becomes one of the films that people think can seriously challenge for the win.

See… it’s that easy.

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6 Responses to “10 Weeks To Oscar: Work It!”

  1. Bob Burns says:

    thanks, again.

    more of this, please.

  2. vladdy says:

    I am sure when you claim that Mark Rylance does not have “decades of work behind [him],” you mean big-budget, mainstream film work. If you don’t, you might want to google him and find out who he is. Also, I am pretty sure Michael B. Jordan didn’t write or direct Creed.

  3. Gab says:

    Call me naive but I’ve never understood how all this campaigning actually works aside from the direct interactions with academy members/branches. Do voters seriously see Actor A in Variety or NYT & only THEN decide to actually watch the film he’s in? Does it really take that much to make them sit down & watch a film they’ve been sent a screener of for free?! And on the flip side if the film isn’t something that appeals to me, the topic isn’t an interesting one for me (The Big Short & Creed are prime examples here for me) no amount of interviews or whatever with it’s cast is going to make me watch it because the basic plot/topic of those films has zero interest for me, I don’t care how good they are or who they star.

  4. Jay Kaplan says:

    As a movie fan, I hate to think voters might be like Gab and only watch what they are predisposed to like. If preconceptions rule, give me the vote instead.

  5. Stephen Holt says:

    I think Ryan Coogler directed “Creed” and not Michael B.Jordon.

  6. movielocke says:

    So star wars is now competitive in the top ten of contenders, I would guess, for picture, director, script, score, cinematography, editing, art direction, and supporting actor, and the three techs. It somehow didn’t qualify for makeup. And I feel like it’s working it, with the huge volume if screenings available to voters. If the movie really is a phenomenon, daisy ridley gets the nomination she very much deserves as well.

    Why is star wars going to murder the guilds and academy? Because for the last forty years, people have emigrated to Los Angeles and started careers because of star wars. The academy is old, but star wars is forty, and the haters have mostly died. You probably have to be in your eighties to dislike star wars in the classic snooty way we expect. There’s a lot of people in their 70s in the academy, but people in their 30s in 1977 were contemporaries of Lucas et al, wanting to join them in busting into the stuffy old edifice. And everyone in their 60s and younger will be voting for star wars throughout their ballots.

    Funny thing, history is repeating itself, Annie hall was a surprise, Stat wise, Zinnemans “Julia”–about the search for a lost lesbian lover–was the awards frontrunner. Julia, Carol, lesbians vs star wars. Hah!

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