Oscars: Why Los Angeles-Set 'La La Land' Could Benefit From a Home-Field Advantage

Setting a film in the City of Angels is no guarantee of a spot on the best picture ballot (see 'Blade Runner' and 'Training Day'), but director Damien Chazelle’s musical romance checks all the boxes for Academy Angelenos.
Illustration by: Katie Carey

Many of 2016's highest-profile Oscar hopefuls are closely associated with a particular place. Moonlight = Miami. Patriots Day = Boston. Fences = Pittsburgh. Manchester by the Sea = New England. Loving = Virginia. Hell or High Water = Texas. Lion = India. Silence = Japan. And the list goes on. But does La La Land, Damien Chazelle's Los Angeles-set original musical, have a built-in home-field advantage, specifically because it is so closely associated with, well, La La Land?

During the halcyon days of Hollywood's Golden Age, spanning the '20s through the '50s, most American movies were made in and around that particular L.A. enclave. Ever since the studio system's fall in the late '60s, though, production has expanded far beyond Hollywood. But people tend to forget the rest of the story: While production now tends to happen elsewhere, the people who made and/or make films still live, by and large, in and around L.A. — as do a majority of Academy members.

The deep, dark secret of the Academy is that during the studio system, the primary concern of its voting members was not quality of work but studio of origin. Academy members (actors and directors as well as contributors of every other sort) generally voted in "blocs" for the product of whichever studio employed them. There were reports of studio chiefs or PR heads checking the ballots of their employees before they were mailed in, but that really wasn't necessary. As Joan Crawford once said, "You'd have to be a ninny to vote against the studio that has your contract and produces your pictures."

Ever since the fall of the studio system, though, Academy members essentially have become free to vote for whatever they truly like (although, when it comes to the animation category, animators, since they generally still work exclusively for one of only a few major companies, tend to favor their home studios). And, as in any free and open election, the electorate tends to respond to things it understands and relates to and not to things it doesn't. Geography and culture certainly factor into the equation; as you may recall hearing, "There's no place like home."

Based on a close study of Academy Award nominees and winners since the fall of the studio system, I can report that simply being an L.A.-set movie, or even an excellent L.A.-set movie, does not result in disproportionate Academy support. But — but — an excellent L.A.-set movie that depicts the city in a favorable light (and doesn't focus on any of its inevitable urban flaws) does tend to have an advantage.

For reasons including but obviously not limited to this criterion, I would argue, best picture nominations were not accorded to such iconic L.A.-set films as 1969's Easy Rider (which begins in L.A. and centers on wild youth), 1992's The Player (murder), 2001's Mulholland Drive (mental illness) and Training Day (police corruption), 2014's Nightcrawler (paparazzi) and 2015's Straight Outta Compton (racial tensions). And 1967's The Graduate (lost souls), 1974's Chinatown (more corruption), 1994's Pulp Fiction (crime) and 1997's L.A. Confidential (still more corruption) earned nominations but not arguably well-deserved wins.

On the other hand, over the past decade or so, the best picture Oscar was awarded to 2005's controversial Crash (Angelenos overcoming their biases), 2011's The Artist (Angelenos overcoming the arrival of talkies) and 2012's Argo (Angelenos helping others to overcome a crisis) — movies the rest of the country liked but certainly didn't love as much as the Academy did. Why did these films win? In large part, I suspect, because the Academy's many Angelenos "got" them on a level others didn't (locations, inside jokes, etc.); appreciated their real-world impact (these movies employed many locals and fueled the L.A. economy); and felt proud of the image of L.A. that they projected to the world. La La Land checks off all of these boxes.

You don't have to be an Angeleno to "get" La La Land — everyone laughs at the word "winter" superimposed over a sunny SoCal day, for instance — but Angelenos get it on a different level. We all know — sometimes too well — the wannabe actress who attends auditions with dozens of other wannabe actresses who look just like her, the "serious" musician who takes any gig he's offered, the demanding customer at the coffee shop and the self-promoting douchebag at a party. We all know how real it is to come upon a valet station overflowing with keys to Priuses, inane street parking restrictions and soul-sucking traffic jams. And we all know — and love —the more than 60 iconic L.A. locations featured in the flashing montage (Formosa Cafe, etc.) and key scenes (Ryan Gosling plays the piano at The Smoke House and strolls down the Hermosa Beach pier; Emma Stone works on the Warner Bros. lot and walks by the "You are the Star" mural at the corner of Wilcox and Hollywood; and together the two traverse Pasadena's Colorado Street Bridge, ride the Angels Flight funicular down Bunker Hill, eat at Grand Central Market and dance on Mt. Hollywood Drive).

If anyone is going to relate to a character who appreciates jazz and old movies and takes a date to a jazz club or a revival house or to Griffith Park Observatory; if anyone is going to appreciate a film that acknowledges the struggle and sacrifice that artists make on their way to becoming successful; and if anyone is going to understand how a relationship between two people involved in show business can breed competitiveness and resentment … well, it's an L.A.-based Academy member.

The team behind La La Land's awards push is smart enough to know that this is all worth drilling home. It's no coincidence that there have been New York Times, Los Angeles Times and CNN pieces about the real locations where Chazelle shot, or that when other campaigns mailed colognes and cakes to Golden Globe and Critics' Choice voters, Team La La Land sent out the Taschen book about L.A., embossed with a transparent cover featuring Gosling and Stone dancing.

La La Land is a $30 million love letter to the City of Angels from Chazelle, a filmmaker who long has admired it despite the fact that he's not from here. (But who is?) "Los Angeles is a city of dreamers," he tells me. "You see it on every billboard, on every street corner — the dreams writ large, the dreams both within and out of reach. It makes it an incredibly inspiring, energizing city and also at times a heartbreaking one. I wanted to show L.A. as it really is — an expansive, diverse metropolis — through the prism of the dreams the city has inspired."

The production pumped millions into the L.A. economy, in no small part by employing more than 150 L.A.-based SAG-AFTRA actors, singers and dancers. The entire postproduction took place within the city limits as well, with the support of a 95-piece orchestra, 40-person choir and nearly 70 other musicians. The Los Angeles Tourism & Convention Board couldn't have crafted a better advertisement for the city.

This alone will not get La La Land, or any film, to the podium — Rules Don't Apply, Hail, Caesar! and Cafe Society, three less spectacular 2016 L.A.-set films, largely have been MIA this awards season — but it certainly helps a strong one to stand out from the pack for L.A.-based Academy members. After all, they were, and presumably still are, "the ones who dream, foolish as they may seem" — as Stone sings at the film's emotional climax — and this movie, quite literally, was made for them.

***

12 Iconic L.A. Films That Didn't Make the Best Picture Ballot

Location, location, location didn't get these titles into the final round — though set in L.A., each was hindered by an Oscar-unfriendly urban vice.

EASY RIDER (1969)
VICE: Wild youth

BLADE RUNNER (1982)
VICE: Dystopia

DIE HARD (1988)
VICE: Terrorism

PRETTY WOMAN (1990)
VICE: Prostitution

BOYZ N THE HOOD (1991)
VICE: Gang violence

THE PLAYER (1992)
VICE: Murder

MULHOLLAND DRIVE (2001)
VICE: Mental illness

TRAINING DAY (2001)
VICE: Police corruption

DRIVE (2011)
VICE: Underworld crime

HER (2013)
VICE: Vapidity

NIGHTCRAWLER (2014)
VICE: Paparazzi

STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON (2015)
VICE: Racial tension

comments powered by Disqus