MCN Columnists
David Poland

By David Poland

20 Weeks To Oscar: Season of a Different Color

I don’t know if this will be an #OscarSoWhite year. But even if Denzel Washington and Octavia Spencer are nominated, it will be the same way as two seasons ago… and as likely as not, two seasons into the future (give or take a season).

The problem is not how many nominations people of color get from The Academy. The problem is that we have such a small group of “movies of color” for Academy members to consider. And the issue is not only the overall number, but the details of films up for consideration. Any film with Denzel Washington or Viola Davis is taken seriously. Octavia Spencer gets attention in an array of genres. Barry Jenkins creates a high alert when he directs now. Ava Duvernay has people waiting for her next “serious” movie. Steve McQueen is a high-art director, before and after 12 Years A Slave and will continue to be. Lee Daniels got left out even with a classic Oscar-style movie (The Butler), although his name still draws a look.

So when those six individuals of color aren’t involved… where is Oscar looking?

In the year of #OScarSoWhite, movies with Academy potential that didn’t get in were Straight Outta Compton, Creed, Concussion and Netflix’s first Oscar try, Beasts of No Nation.

I loved Straight Outta Compton, and felt sure it would never be nominated because of its content, even before seeing it. And nothing that has been nominated since (or before it) suggests that it is the kind of content that would get nominated any other year soon. The violence in the film is strong enough that only Iñárritu and Scorsese could get it nominated. It is also about rap. There is relentless cursing and nudity. And yes… it is about black culture, which is one area where a change in mindset is possible, by degrees.

Concussion just wasn’t good enough. Will Smith was great in the lead, but the movie grounded him.

Beasts of No Nation was not only very, very tough, but it was Netflix and there remains a bias against films that don’t do a true theatrical release. There are great performances and it is a movie that should have a legacy of excellence as time goes by.

Creed is a film that should have been nominated for a bunch of awards, including Best Picture. It’s mainstream, familiar, but original and excellent. But as noted before it opened, Warner Bros didn’t treat the movie like it deserved that status until late in the game, when it got enthusiastic press feedback. There was time for Stallone, who had the head-start of being Stallone, but not enough for the movie to get what it deserved. But this timeline issue would be true of any movie like it, regardless of the color of its stars or director.

This season, Netflix is pushing hard on Mudbound, directed by a woman of color, but led by white actors. The black family that parallels their story is central, but if one of the white actors got nominated and Jason Mitchell or Mary J. Blige did not, there would be bad vibes. And this is still a Netflix movie without a true theatrical release.

Detroit is a movie with a lot of talent of color, about a historic moment in black American history. Annapurna is fighting to get it back in the game (which I applaud, as it is a brilliant, albeit difficult, movie). But getting any movie perceived as a box office failure is harder to get into the awards game by a factor of 10.

Get Out has been slotted into The Golden Globes as Comedy… which was a straitjacket for The Martian, though it did get the Best Picture nomination, which is the real ambition of Universal on this one.

And of course, there are the two actors who are Oscar beloveds.

Denzel is brilliant in Roman J. Israel, Esq.  and will likely get a nod.

The Shape of Water is a beauty and may or may not generate a nod for Octavia Spencer (and another Oscar favorite, Michael Shannon).

So… if Oscar is So White again this season, you should understand that it isn’t because of old white men in The Academy or a failure by new Oscar voters or because The Academy has not yet met its 2020 goals.

I am in favor of the diversity efforts of The Academy, but irritated by the notion that all progress at The Academy is driven by women and minorities and that the “old white men” are a force for regression. What stats never seem to tell people about The Academy is that like the industry it represents, The Academy is a heavily liberal organization that has a pretty positive record at the Oscars, given the marketplace. No question, the organization’s liberalism is a liberalism steeped in the 1960s and 1970s, when most of the membership came up. There is a degree of lingering racism and sexism. But it is the kind of “ism” that dismisses the kind of deeper progressive thinking of the last 20 years, not one that seeks to keep people of color and women in its place.

“Old white men” voted for the winners of color and women and non-Americans too.

Its also worth noting that the only variation in winners from Oscar in acting categories in the five years prior to 2016 at the very liberal, much younger, much more diverse Independent Spirit Awards, as regards people of color, came in the “OscarSoWhite” year in which the three Oscar winners didn’t get ISA noms because the films didn’t qualify.

Last year, in the crazy logic of Indie Spirit Nominations, all three Oscar winning actors of color were not nominated in their categories… even though Moonlight won in all five categories in which it was nominated. This cleared the way for three white people to win those acting awards. I am pretty sure no one in the media mentioned this.

My point is not to excuse some racist tendencies in The Academy. Back before #OSW, I seemed to be the only one who publicly noted racism, sexism and homophobia as occasional features of the organization. Now I seem to be the only one interested in discussing the idea that it’s not just racist old white men at issue.

We tend to fix on an idea and then, like the proverbial hammer seeing only nails, there is no shades of gray allowed. Not one… not fifty.

But The Academy is changing. And again… not primarily because of the change in the membership. The biggest change combines a change in strategy by the major studios and the broadening of Academy thinking created by the expansion of the Best Picture nominations from five to… well, more.

In these last eight seasons, there has been more ethnic and racial diversity in Best Picture winners than there has been box office diversity.

For years, MCN did year-end charts of film critics Top 10s that showed a consistent choice by Academy members of titles that were in the Top 20 of the year on Top 10 lists, but with winners that were never in the top slots. We stopped producing those charts a couple seasons ago, but I suspect nothing has much changed. The critics’ beloveds were and are “too good” for Oscar. But Oscar voters lean to the best of the middlebrow.

For two decades, before The Expansion, voters leaned toward the top two grossers to find their winner. That has not been the case since The Expansion.

In the last eight years of the expanded Best Picture race, six of the winners grossed between $17 million and $57 million. Two have grossed $135 million.

So where would you put your bet on the Best Picture winner?

$135 million seems to be enough to impress, but not enough to disqualify a picture as “too commercial” in the unspoken discussion.

Just as The Hurt Locker was an extreme game-changer with only a $17 million domestic gross when it won Best Picture, La La Land would have been a major change of speed if it had won with $150 million in the domestic bank. I’m not suggesting Oscar voters were checking the box office charts before voting. But there were months of media discussions suggesting that La La Land, based on its shockingly strong box office, was frivolous. This is not meant to diminish Moonlight as this logic could have led to a win by Manchester By The Sea or Lion… but it didn’t. Two ideas in one thought… La La Land lost and Moonlight won. They are not mutually exclusive notions.

This season, Dunkirk and Get Out seem to be the only potential nominees that will have grossed over $100 million domestic when nominations are announced. Only one Oscar year since the expansion to more than five Best Picture nominees has seen just a single $100m+ domestic nominee. That was 2011 and that high grosser was The Help.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and The Shape of Water have the backing of the mighty Fox Searchlight, though neither feel like movies that will be successes, just not  nine-figure successes.

Darkest Hour, Phantom Thread and Victoria & Abdul may be three movies with passionate followers for Universal’s Focus division, but hard to see mega-grosses for them, either.

A24 has Lady Bird and The Florida Project, which may crack the all-time domestic gross for the young distributor…but that’s $30 million, not $100 million.

Sony Classics has Call Me By Your Name. Amazon has The Big Sick. Mudbound is a Netflix film, so won’t have any true box office.

And there is The Post. Will it be a big hit? Could be. We’ll see in 72 hours or so.

What I look at this list, what jumps out at me is the likelihood that Billboards, Darkest, Shape and Lady could all land right in the $35-$50 million box-office sweet spot. And while I don’t believe it is a strictly causal connection with Oscar, but I think it does matter.

Of course, there is one more contender floating. If All The Money In The World is great, it will also be The Movie That Did The Right Thing About Sexual Harassment. In this environment, that could be a positive.

In the meantime, the industry has homework: Make more movies with leads of color and stories about non-white culture, so that The Academy can stop getting punched in the nose for limited imagination. Actors and directors and audiences will be your partners in this… promise… Then we can start thinking about movies only for the content of their characterizations.

Whomever is nominated, it looks like the winner of Best Picture and a high percentage of nominees will be movies we can all be proud of as nominees. Taste is taste. But I don’t see a single loser out there threatening any real chance of contention. And that is thanks to all of the Academy, the new and the old.

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2 Responses to “20 Weeks To Oscar: Season of a Different Color”

  1. Brainy Pirate says:

    Sasha Stone at Awards Daily has been talking about AMPAS sexism, racism, and homophobia for years as well.

  2. Bob Burns says:

    Thank you, and the site, for posting all the harassment stories.

    It hasn’t just been the Academy. it’s been the Oscar press and the critics, too. There’s been a race to the bottom where films are routinely set aside from serious consideration because they don’t fit the stereotype of an Oscar film. And the studios, especially Weinstein, pander to their stereotype of an awards voter.

    That rant aside, I pretty much agree with your column. The Academy deserves credit for the wide variety of films they do award.

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