Awards Watch: Best picture III

"A Serious Man"

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Forget the rules of awards season, we were told.

When the Academy's board of governors announced June 24 that the best picture category would be supersized to 10 nominees, awards watchers predicted that the race for the top Oscar would play out like none in the modern era. Gone were the honed awards playbooks, the paint-by-numbers campaign strategies that have come to define the annual winter horse race. We were entering a brave new world of unpredictability and experimentation.

Or something like that. Now that the first crop of 10 nominees has been selected, it's time to
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evaluate how the expanded field changed the game. Which strategies benefited from the 10 nominations and which fell flat? Here are five lessons learned from the season.

1. No laughing matter

Heading into the fall, comedy producers were tickled by the prospect that the expanded best picture field might finally allow some serious acknowledgment of funny movies.

Comedies have long been the redheaded stepchild of the Oscars (1976's "Annie Hall" is the last full-on laffer to take home the best picture prize). But if the supersized category was conceived to include more populist films, the thinking went, surely a couple of successful humor pics -- like "The Hangover" or "It's Complicated" -- would make the cut.

But while several best picture nominees have their lighter moments, there is nary a straight comedy among them. In fact, despite studio efforts to reposition them as awards films -- and even after some success at the Golden Globes -- "Hangover," "It's Complicated" and the romantic comedy "(500) Days of Summer" were totally blanked by the Academy.

Lesson learned: Oscar might be more populist, but he's certainly not any funnier.

2. Brand awareness

Many among the Oscarati were surprised to see Joel and Ethan Coen's "A Serious Man" included in the best picture field. The period dramedy showcased the filmmakers' trademark style and bone-dry wit but it was a small, personal picture that left many scratching their heads.

Those mixed feelings were on display at the Globes, where the film nabbed only a single nomination (for best actor comedy/musical for Michael Stuhlbarg) and in its failure to score any nominations at the Producer's Guild of America, DGA and SAG Awards.

But in an expanded Oscar field, "A Serious Man" made the cut partly because voters have such a strong affinity for the Coens and their body of work. Sure, the Academy's older, more heavily Jewish membership likely connected more easily to the subject matter. But the association with a high-quality "brand" in the form of the Coens helped push a polarizing movie over this year's smaller hurdle.

"The Coens are in there because they're the Coens," one awards consultant says. "In previous years that might not have been enough, but now, with more slots, it is."

That theory doesn't explain why Clint Eastwood's "Invictus" -- another prestige entry from a well-loved figure -- didn't score a nomination. But acting noms for Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon certainly indicate the movie came close.

Lesson learned: In a 10-picture field, quality "brands" can snag a nomination without widespread support.

3. Performance art

Academy history is filled with examples of movies that showcase an Oscar-winning performance but aren't rewarded with a best picture nomination. In fact, many Oscar-winning performances from lead actresses in recent years -- such as Kathy Bates in "Misery" (1990), Jessica Lange in "Blue Sky" (1994) and Charlize Theron in "Monster" (2003) -- came in films that received no other Oscar nominations.

"The Blind Side" showed that with a field of 10, a buzzy performance is more effective in landing a best picture nom.
 

This year, however, the late-season momentum behind Sandra Bullock's turn in "The Blind Side" was able to carry the film into best picture territory, no small feat considering the movie appeared on few prognosticators' lists, and its studio, Warner Bros., focused on Bullock more than the film in its campaign.

The point is: In an expanded field, iconic performances matter more. In the weeks leading up to the nominations, Bullock was the talk of the town, and she worked the circuit like a pro. That buzz was enough to propel "Blind Side" to the final 10.

Of course, "Julie & Julia" also served as a showcase for its lead actress, Meryl Streep, and it was denied a best picture nom. But that film is a comedy, running afoul of Lesson No. 1.

Lesson learned: With more best picture slots, a strong, buzzy performance can carry a movie to the finish line.

4. Cost of doing business

As the price of a best picture campaign has skyrocketed in recent years, smaller, nonstudio-affiliated distributors have largely been shut out of the game. But as this season began, tiny indies openly salivated at the possibility of scoring the big prize without spending the big dollars.

"It's great for independent films because it levels the playing field," Oscilloscope Laboratories partner David Fenkel said in November before beginning a small push for "The Messenger." "It gives more opportunity for films that in the past may not have had the resources to campaign against the bigger guys."

Fast-forward a few months and the best picture field looks very similar to the way it usually does: big-budget studio prestige productions are squaring off against studio specialty division fare -- with zero films from true indie distributors like Oscilloscope.

Sure, minimajors Lionsgate and Summit Entertainment both scored nominations, for "Precious" and "The Hurt Locker," respectively. But Lionsgate is an awards veteran, having shepherded "Crash" to a best picture win in 2007. And Summit is flush with cash from its "Twilight" franchise, which allowed it to invest in a proper campaign.

Lesson learned: It might be bigger, but Oscar's best picture club is still reserved for candidates who campaign.

5. Franchises flounder


Last year's snub of "The Dark Knight" in the best picture category was a key impetus for expanding the field of nominees. Christopher Nolan's dramatic chapter in the Batman franchise seemed as Oscar-worthy as any film but was widely perceived to have fallen just short in the five-picture field.

So how many franchise films made the cut now that 10 slots are available?

Zero. This despite a strong entry in the venerable "Harry Potter" series and a reboot of "Star Trek" from J.J. Abrams that drew raves from critics and a best picture nom from the PGA, usually a reliable predictor of the Oscars.

The fact remains that Oscar voters still ghettoize studio franchises to the below-the-line categories. In fact, you have to go back to the third "Lord of the Rings" film in 2003 to find a franchise deemed worthy of a best picture nom. Ten slots did nothing to change that bias.

Lesson learned:
Franchises might rule the business, but the Academy still ignores them.
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