MCN Columnists
David Poland

By David Poland

3 Weeks To Oscar: Exposing The Wizard

Stop me if you’ve heard this…

A Jew, a balding rich guy, two Cubans, and a cocky woman go into a pizzeria in Iowa at 9am…

Wait… wait…

An anxious woman, one-and-a-half Cubans, a cranky rich jerk, and a Jew who seems a decade older than he actually is go into a pizzeria in New Hampshire…

Uh… hold on…

A cocky rich guy who thinks he is already President, a slightly broken woman, an energized old Jew, a Cuban and a mainstream Republican go out for grits in South Carolina…

Am I talking about politics? It doesn’t seem like an Oscar column?

Okay… give me a sec…

The Gotham Awards: Spotlight

“Suspicions confirmed”

Golden Globes: The Revenant

“Whole new ballgame”

BFCA: Spotlight

“Whole old ballgame”

PGA: The Big Short

The Big Short is now the obvious frontrunner.”

ACE: The Big Short and Mad Max: Fury Road

“Confirming the power of The Big Short… non-event for Mad Max, though it makes some nervous”

SAG: Spotlight

“Well, maybe not… but SAG doesn’t mean the same statistically as…”

DGA: The Revenant

“Yes, it’s obviously The Revenant again…”

Sound familiar?

So how is it that the person who gets their finger on the nuclear button, and some group of producers who get to take home the coolest swag in Hollywood, are on the same short-term-memory track?

It’s tempting—and lazy—to say, “The world has changed. People are just different now.”

It has. They are. A little. But the horse race of… EVERYTHING… is a function primarily of the media. It’s not only how we write stories, but how we have allowed the way we communicated to one another in the past, in private and conscious of the bubble in which we live, to also become our present idea of good, public, professional discourse.

But there is nothing magical about a 6-month horse race…

Another form of covering the Oscar race is the deep embrace of the “Add It All Up” fallacy. This is understandable when it comes from, say, the FiveThirtyEight blog, which is where their primary focus is on polling. But when journalists who really pay close attention to The Award Season run this kind of narrative, they do a disservice to the Academy Awards.

For instance, PGA has matched Oscar’s Best Picture for 8 straight years. That must be significant. Well, yes and no. In 5 of those years, the eventual Best Picture winner was absolutely, undeniably locked down by the time the PGA voted for their Best Picture… not because the precursors built a case, but because the feelings of “the town” were clear from almost every angle. And the other three contests? All two-movie races (Avatar vs The Hurt Locker, 12 Years A Slave vs Gravity, Birdman vs Boyhood). And in those three cases, PGA may have had some influence. But in reality, the field shrinks by the time nominations land or soon after… either a clear, strong frontrunner or a two-horse race.

This season, we have neither. And so, logically, the “rule” about PGA and the delusion about the influence of other “precursors” is more a non-issue than ever.

Also… there is nothing magical about a math problem…

It gets more complicated when you look at addressing something real, like the under-representation of women and people of color inside The Academy. Real issue. Genuine issue. For The Industry more than for The Academy (which follows and cannot lead), but no one can make a legitimate argument that The Academy should not make a real effort to find a more reasonable, modern balance.

That said, the conversation about representation inside The Academy is loaded with false arguments, starting with the one that came from The Academy itself, claiming that The Exclusionary Rule was significantly a part of finding a more fair level of representation within The Academy. As I wrote earlier, it is not.

But there are other false ideas out there that make for better headlines and stories than they are in service of reality.

There is the idea that this change in The Academy will change the outcome of the nomination process. But there is no clear indication that a 7% – 9% increase in people of color in The Academy, unless those new voters somehow vote in alignment – which would be the expression of a new bias in The Academy – that it will produce any more nominations for movies related in some way to people of color. If you look at Straight Outta Compton and Creed and Concussion this season… if they split the vote amongst an increased group of Academy members of color, that would not be enough to get any of them into Best Picture… that is, without the support of “the old white men” who are seen as a hindrance.

Having 40%+ women voting in The Academy is a good goal. But would it have pushed Carol into a Best Picture slot, given that perceived “women’s movies” Brooklyn and Room got in, and it seems obvious that many women would support “gender neutral” or “male” films, including Spotilght. The Martian and Max Max: Fury Road, which is a boy movie with a strong female lead in a significantly feminist story.

Would resetting the Best Picture group to a flat 10 movies instead of a confusing, mathematically-convoluted mess that changes the number of nominees annually—in service of… who the hell knows?—mean more Best Picture nominees focused on lives of color or women? Inside the bubble, we live in the imagination space of thinking we know what this year’s #9 and #10 would have been… but we are guessing. Guessing exactly the way many of those who supported an expanded group of Best Picture nominees were guessing that an expansion to 10 would bring more hugely commercial films into the race, presumably increasing TV ratings. Well, the fact is, this worked… sort of.

In both of the years that had a flat 10 nominees, an animated film and the highest grosser of the year were nominated. (in 2010, one film was both… Toy Story 3.) Since the changes were made to make it more difficult to get in, we have had three years of 9 nominees and two years of 8 nominees… only one #1 annual grosser has gotten in (American Sniper) and no animated B.O. nominees.

As for the other additional slots… smaller independent-minded movies. Lower-grossing movies.

So if you want to know what films benefit from the expanded (from 5) field, it is mostly smaller movies. And there is a clear change in how The Academy holds the standards for winners, as box office success has become a non-factor, whereas it was critical in the decade before these changes.

And if you want to know what films would benefit from going back to a flat 10 nominees… well, if you trust history, it would have been Inside Out and Star Wars: The Force Awakens this season, not Straight Outta Compton or Carol or Creed.

Would a slightly younger, somewhat less white, significantly more female voting base in The Academy change what gets nominated? Well, change makes change. So, yes. But how would it change the results? That is an unknown. The details of how movies are distributed and promoted would, logically, be far more influential on that outcome than the demographic changes on offer at The Academy.

Change is a powerful thing… but there is nothing magic about minor incremental change that doesn’t necessarily change the clear public outcome…

All three of these areas of how we look at The Oscars end up connecting to one another. The urge for the horse race, the idea that opinion can be reduced to precursor math, and the desire for real changes that should be made but might not have results as clear as are hoped for by many, leads to a destructive whirlwind for The Oscars.

Well… destructive in town. The truth is, the rest of the world (99.999%, which is probably understating it) really doesn’t care about the ebbs and flows of working Hollywood. That it, until these ebbs and flows come to define what “real” people find entertaining.

No one is tuning in to The Academy Awards for reality. It is the illusion of reality. It is a magic act. Even the deep, sometimes explosive emotions of Oscar winners… these are still people on a stage, many of whom are professional performers.

I am not arguing against change – real change – inside The Academy. I am not arguing that analysis of all kind is of interest to some people and that any competition will lead away from amateurism (see: Chariots of Fire), whether it is intended or not. The proliferation of The Awards Season Industrial Complex is not in the interest of anyone, least of all the studios spending small fortunes on these efforts. But it is the nature of most humans – and most certainly, the film business – to follow a leader for fear of being left behind. And so we have a race. And an increasingly financially competitive journalism business means we have media hysteria as almost every outlet of size dances to the tune of the racers (aka The Spenders). And people looking for social justice see this forum’s public profile as an opportunity to make a legitimate point, turning a mostly apolitical event into one in which politics are almost always the lead for month after month.

But do any of these groups want to drown the baby on the bathwater?

Or more gently, is it in anyone’s interest to keep exposing The Wizard (a little old white man) behind the curtain until the suspension of disbelief is destroyed?

Because, you know, folks… it’s just an award… an award that is not The Answer… an award whose history is loaded with “shouldas”… an award given by a group of wealthy, successful people to a group of wealthy (or soon to be wealthy), successful nominees.

Either you want The Academy Awards to be perceived as important or you don’t. If you don’t, bless you, and see you somewhere else (maybe screaming about the Super Bowl or the Indie Spirits or NASCAR or whatever your own irrational kink is). But if you do, you have to respect the illusion. You have to demand inclusion in that illusion. You have to push back against the urge to simplify and make the illusion less interesting. You have to stop making every shift in the wind seem as important or more important than the actual result.

Look at the movie business itself. What do you call a movie that keeps changing its marketing focus from first trailer to opening day ads? Almost always, you call that a flop.

Yeah… the organization can be improved… in many ways. Do that. Don’t make it a public event. Don’t pretend you couldn’t be silent when in reality, you acted because some big movie stars told you they wouldn’t be presenters on a show surrounded by racial controversy. Don’t exclude one group to make room – kind of – for another. Stop being distracted by shiny objects.

You have to embrace what you are… a celebration of MOVIES… not music, not stand-up, not TV… movies. Love the movies. Love the nominees. You need to stop trying to be Glenda the Good Witch and a Munchkin and The Scarecrow, etc… just be your deep dark Dorothy and try not to forget that you have been wearing the magical shoes the entire time.

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2 Responses to “3 Weeks To Oscar: Exposing The Wizard”

  1. Mark F. says:

    So, who the hell is winning? 😉

  2. YancySkancy says:

    Wait — you mean all these changes to the Academy’s rules and membership might not have the desired effect? But I thought good intentions were always enough!

    I do hope people realize that this might be the case, and that a real change in results could still take a few years, regardless of voting and membership changes. If not, I guess we’ll get conspiracy theories about vote tampering. I can just hear some dimwit saying “It stands to reason that if the Academy is now 10 percent more diverse, then the nominations should be 10 percent more diverse. But they’re not, so what’s REALLY going on?”

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