MCN Columnists
David Poland

By David Poland

20 Weeks To Oscar: The Simple Case FOR La La Land

This is not a column about how great La La Land is, because I am not writing this because I feel a need to defend the quality of the movie. I am putting aside petty issues, at least for now.

The reason I am writing? No matter who is frontrunning… no matter who is behind… this is the time of whining about Oscar… Endless whining about Oscar.

But I can’t think of a season in which this complaint is more foolish. Feel what you want about the movies, you prefer this one to that one, you think this one is a million times more important than that one. And so on. And so forth.

Nine films are nominated for Best Picture. Only three are the spawn of a major studio. Even more surprising, the major studio Dependents (Searchlight, Focus, SPC) were shut out of the category of categories this year. (I’ll keep my tears for Searchlight to myself after they won the big prize two of the last three years.)

Of the six non-major BP nominees, the biggest budget was $45 million (Hacksaw Ridge),  about half of what it would have been made for at a studio, meaning it would not have been made at a studio. The lowest was Moonlight, with $5 million. Four of the six indie BP nominees cost under $13 million. The movie in the middle was La La Land, which saw a budget increase (to a reported $30m) fairly late in the game when more commercial talent landed in the film.

Amazon and CBS Films each had their first Best Picture nominee and A24 their second.

Lionsgate had an amazing year, both with Summit producing and as a default output deal distributor for some legit players (often with Roadside, also riding high this season). And of course, The Weinstein Co. got one through the hoop.

Does this mean the studios will be a minority player in Best Picture for years to come? There is a good chance that this will be the case, at least until there is some wave of consolidation. Why? Money. La La Land is the giddy, happy indie story here… as much as $150 million in rentals (money coming back to the distributor) in theatrical alone on a $30 million investment. A dozen people or more should reap million-dollar-plus paydays. Summit/Lionsgate could reap $50 million or more in profit as a funder and distributor.

But the other five indie BP nominees? Every one a success. But unless there is a big Oscar bump for any one of them, they will be nicely profitably in context of the production spend, but none a 4:1 cash machine like La La.

The studio play is represented by Hidden Figures, which was a nice piece of business, with or without award season. Alleged budget is $25m. But even if they are fudging a little, it was always destined to be a $100m movie. We’ll see how much Oscar helps. But that is what the studios want to gamble on… cheap that has a real shot at overperforming into real money. They don’t want to be in the masterpiece that only just barely breaks even business.

Fences was a $25m budget and the power of Denzel at the box office, as well as the relationship piece of the business. Denzel rarely does less than $75m domestic, so the movie is pretty much covered and the studio benefits from the goodwill of making a passion project.

Arrival is a $50 million sci-fi movie, which is already at $175m worldwide and is likely to crack $200 million before it is done. And what should be a very strong catalog title for post-theatrical. In other words, legit upside.

Moonlight is, by far, the biggest underdog. A little-known writer-director. A cast whose biggest names are on the “hey, that’s the guy/gal from…” level (ideally changing this month… say it… Ma-her-sha-la). $5 million budget, even with one of the biggest studio producers—Plan B—leading the way. I understand the passion people bring to this film. There is nothing less than wonderful about it.

La La Land, on the other hand, had a low, but reasonable $30 million budget, two studio-level movie stars, and 2014’s Flavor of the Year director, who personally got two Oscar nominations for Whiplash. The movie even won three Oscars.

Back in September, few believed that Hacksaw Ridge or Hidden Figures or (to a lesser degree) Lion or Hell or High Water were filling 4/9 of the Best Picture chart. So the conversation has been, for months, La La vs Manchester vs Moonlight, with some Manchester people, but with the greatest passions, La La vs Moonlight. Personally, I would not be angry if Moonlight wins. I don’t think it will, but I would not be unhappy.

Here are reasons why more respect must be paid La La Land by naysayers.

Maybe you think the La La Land producers are a bunch of awards-chasing dudes. Well, this is producer Fred Berger’s first film as producer. Jordan Horowitz and Gary Gilbert worked together on the massive award-chasers The Keeping Room and Miss Stevens, though Gilbert cut his producing teeth on such obvious hits as Garden State, The Kids Are All Right, and Ken Lonergan’s cash grab, Margaret. Yeah, Marc Platt is from the mainstream. But this is a seriously indie team with smart, young, hungry producers. (And again, the silly and inappropriate comparison, as far as profile goes, is the oft-nominated Plan B team which produced Moonlight.) Passion is a big part of the job for most hands-on producers and reducing any movie to “easy” or “Oscar-bait” is wrong-headed.

Don’t forget that this is only Damien Chazelle’s third feature. And the second grossed just $13m domestically. A musical with original music and characters is enormously rare. The list of original musicals that have grossed over $50m domestic was three deep before La: Enchanted, The Muppets, and Muppets Most Wanted. And I would say that none of the three truly qualify as musicals. They are traditional movies with songs… like Trolls (where characters sing) vs Beauty & The Beast (where story is conveyed in song). And two are based on long-established characters while the third pushed against the Disney princess machine.

An intense personal drama about finding one’s place in the world? They land in Oscarland or nearby virtually every year. Of course, that simplifies Moonlight unfairly. So does saying it is unique because the people in the film are black. But so does any claim that La La Land was “in the pocket,” an easy movie.

The “they can’t sing” pushback isn’t so much about Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire (who didn’t really sing any better than this) but about Pitch Perfect, which had a lot of great singing, much of it from actors you didn’t know sang that well. But that was not the point of La La Land, as has been pointed out from multiplexes to Saturday Night Live sketches.

How can anyone claim that a musical that opens with scores of people getting out of their cars to dance and sing on the freeway is “easy,” “obvious” or “made for Oscar voters?” If audiences didn’t fall in love with that five minutes, the whole picture goes down. That is a massive risk. But because it gets applause and not tears, for some, there is no street cred.

Lead male… kinda unlikable. But he isn’t given an A Star Is Born trajectory of high drama. He is suffering of his own accord, fighting to do things his way. Risky. Unusual.

Female lead… you either fall for Emma or you don’t. There is no middle.

As far as the duo’s dances, they are the way human people who love musicals imagine themselves in a musical. Ryan and Emma are not incompetent as dancers (or singers), but they aren’t polished pros either.

Even the dance numbers with professionals are a little light on the precision show-offiness. There are no ringers, like Cyd Charisse walking into the bar. It’s not movie-musical like the big numbers in Hail, Caesar!.

The tipping point is “Audition.” You want to tell me that an in-one that pushes in on Emma Stone’s face and relies on her performance, unadulterated except by music, without flashing onto something else or breaking into a dance or anything, really, besides Emma’s eyes and mouth and jaw and soul is not as daring a moment of cinema as we have seen this year? Well, bully for you. I put it up there with Scorsese’s torture and rapture, Mahershala Ali gently holding a young man just above the ocean water, the big turn in Arrival, Denzel and Viola going at it… even the greatest movie moment (for me) of the year, Michelle Williams trying to talk to her ex about their loss standing outside in Manchester, exposed in so many ways. You may like other things better. I happily concede that the level of intense personal drama in those other moments might top “Audition.” But pushing it off as “obvious” or “easy” or pandering to the greatest common denominator is just picking a fight because you feel like picking a fight.

You know what this argument reminds me of? A sports fan who thinks the superstar is inferior because he/she only wins one way. It doesn’t matter that they just keep winning. Kobe needs to pass more. Big Papi needs to hit more doubles. Serena grunts too much. You know what? You can love whatever you love. No one is judging you. You don’t need to act out.

Look, this season has tragically overlooked films. Silence, 20th Century Women, Loving, and others (you tell me). Embrace what is wonderful, successful or not. And dislike what you dislike. I don’t care.

But if La La Land was easy, someone else would have made a La La Land. No one has. It is a miracle, imperfections and all. It is not about the culture of the downtrodden or truly endanger. I get it. But give it the props it deserves and bring on the rebels, the ripples from pebbles, the painters, and poets, and plays. They count too… even if they don’t suffer as much as you’d like.

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7 Responses to “20 Weeks To Oscar: The Simple Case FOR La La Land”

  1. John Rieber says:

    Terrific insight. You have always covered the “politics” of the Oscar race, and this year is no different, although it seems much more low key. You are also correct that there are many worthy films – and your best line is this one:
    “Ken Lonergan’s cash grab, Margaret.” After what this guy has suffered through in this business, he deserves an Oscar for not giving up!

  2. Daniella Isaacs says:

    For the first year in many years, there are five nominated films that I would not be unhappy to see winning the big prize (“La La Land” included)–and I still have to see two of the nine. Some years I’m stuck rooting for the least mediocre to win. This never happens, so yeah… People need to stop whining and be grateful for a very strong season with a broad spectrum of good/great films.

  3. Jorge Arce says:

    Thank you D.P., could not have said it better. I personally loved LLL, and will be happy if it sweeps, and it wasn’t even my favorite film of 2016.

    I can’t stand all these haters, that just because this movie is happy (or bittersweet as some would say), it should not win.

    Btw, the Manchester scene, that you mentioned, is also one of my favorites, but for a slightly different reason. You mentioned Michelle Williams, but for me, that scene is all about Casey Affleck, and it is the major reason he deserves to win the Oscar.

  4. Molly's Dad says:

    Mr. Poland. This is one of the best pieces you’ve published in a while. If not the best. Your outstanding movies moments of this year matched mine, and I agree that there are many great films this year. (My underrated, under-appreciated ones would be The Innocents, The Handmaiden and A Bigger Splash.) The reason this particular column resonated with me is because it was a relief from the endless comment sections about how much money movies make, how much money studios are “leaving on the table” and tiresome tirades about which horror films are better, along with the arguments about the latest grosses of the latest superhero movies. Your love of film artistry, which felt like it had gone missing for a while, seems to have returned. It was terrifically clear in this piece. Thank you for that. You made me fall in love with movies again today.

  5. Junior says:

    Might you reference the “hate” articles which argue that 3L is an “easy” and “pandering” awards player? Otherwise, this article reads like a long argument with a strawman.

    This is a film that has done gangbusters with just about every awards body that isn’t the critics. Methinks these backlash to the “backlash” articles read like manufactured outrage. WHO exactly are these haters? And given 3L’s success of late, how much power do they actually wield?

  6. T says:

    No one needs to be making a case for that movie… it’s going to do fine. Why don’t you make a case for a movie that isn’t projected to be an Oscar frontrunner? Isn’t that the point of “making a case” for something?!!!

  7. Sam E says:

    I think it’s a good movie; I also think it’s fair to say that it’s very much a movie about and for Hollywood in the way a film like Moonlight isn’t. A similar thing could be said about any number of Hollywood classics such as Singin’ in the Rain, All About Eve and Sunset Boulevard.

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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