Exhale: Lessons from the 2013-2014 Oscars season
A week ago the 86th Academy Awards wrapped up what was one of the closest Best Picture races in history. An awards season full of unexpected distractions, pretenders and results came to an end. Many in Hollywood could finally take a deep breath and exhale.
No matter how long you've covered the game there is always something to learn over the course of a season. Here are a few lessons that have been percolating in the back of my mind, something to take into account as we (eventually) segue into the next Oscars campaign. And yes, it's really not that far away.
Never doubt the Academy's resolve to do the right thing
This past weekend I randomly caught up with two Oscar voters who volunteered that they voted for "Gravity" (although they did expect a "12 Years a Slave" outcome). It was a reminder that the vote was likely still as close as we thought, but in hindsight there is little doubt "12 Years" likely won Best Picture on first place votes. The Academy membership of 2014 picked a great film and they chose it for a multitude of reasons. And, frankly, I'd rather have this group of younger, (somewhat) more diverse and cognizant voters than the membership class of 2006 that chose "Crash" over "Brokeback Mountain."
If you open in December you aren't going to win Best Picture
Statistics are an incredible reference tool until, of course, the data changes. It used to be that opening your film in December was the perfect pathway to winning the Best Picture Oscar. The current trend says that isn't the case. The last December opening to win Oscar's top prize? "Million Dollar Baby" nine years ago. The best public openings -- whether limited or wide -- are currently in October or November. So, before you put that frontrunner tag for next year's top prize on Angelina Jolie's "Unbroken," just remember it hits theaters on Christmas Day.
The definition of an awards bait movie has changed
"Saving Mr. Banks" would have been a great Best Picture contender in 1998. Maybe even in 2001 or 2003. Those were the days of "Chocolat," "Finding Neverland," "Life is Beautiful," "The Green Mile" and "The Full Monty." In 2014, it simply was not. Disney made a number of strategic mistakes with the opening of the film, but its Oscar fortunes lived and died on the fact it simply was not "special" enough to earn a nomination in this day and age (although it certainly could have made more money). Frankly, "Philomena" could have easily been a real contender back in that era, but these days it takes the sheer will power of The Weinstein Company for it to get the four nominations that it did (and that's even with Academy members liking it).
Stop whining, Toronto: Telluride is the kingmaker
The powers that be at the Venice and Toronto film festivals hate it, but there is no argument anymore. If you're not able to screen your film at the Telluride Film Festival (and preferably before it goes to Toronto) you're not a serious player to win best picture. Five of the last six Best Picture winners all had either their world premiere, er, "sneak preview," at the Colorado festival, or, in the case of "The Artist," its North American debut. In that same time frame, "Black Swan," "127 Hours," "Gravity," and "The Descendants" also made Telluride their first (or almost first) stop. Now, those films are all from The Weinstein Company, Fox Searchlight and Warner Bros. The three companies who have won the last four Best Picture Oscars. Guess they realize it too, huh?
You have to seriously campaign now to win Best Documentary Feature
"20 Feet From Stardom" went slightly overboard with it this season, but since the category was opened for all members to vote on it, something has dramatically changed in the documentary race: you have to campaign. This year's winner was inevitably helped by the fact that it was the highest-grossing doc in 2013. However, it could not have won without all the performances and subsequent press breaks those wonderful ladies have contributed over the past seven months after the movie was released. The producers of "The Square" realized it, too. Netflix, which had non-theatrical rights to the film, even had billboards supporting the doc running in high-traffic areas for Academy members and touting its nomination (all that was missing was the "For Your Consideration" tagline). Documentaries are inherently a small margin business. They will never have the budgets their narrative brothers have. That being said, look for more of the contenders to try and take advantage of all the publicity they can get for both their box office and Oscar aspirations by holding their "real" release dates until closer to the heart of awards season.