Oscar 101: 7 Tough Lessons From This Awards Season

Oscars 101 Chalkboard - P 2013
Douglas Jones

Oscars 101 Chalkboard - P 2013

How Sydney Pollack's death may have affected Ben Affleck's snub, which movie might have peaked too soon and other questions to debate until the envelopes are opened.

This story first appeared in the Feb. 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Oscar campaigning isn't even over (final balloting begins Feb. 8 and ends Feb. 19), but it's not too soon to draw lessons from what's worked and what hasn't. After all, the next awards cycle is just a few months away.


The Golden Globes marked a turning point for Argo and boosted Les Miserables (the two top winners, named best drama and best comedy/musical, respectively). That immediately shifted the insider impression that the Oscar race had boiled down to a duel between Lincoln and Silver Linings Playbook. "The Argo win basically said to the Academy, 'You can vote for Argo and your vote won't be wasted,' " one top producer notes. The Globes might have lost steam as a litmus test for the Oscars, but this year they showed just how much they can shift the race's dynamic -- especially given the long gap between the Jan. 13 Globes and the start of Oscar voting.


Two years ago, The Social Network seemed like the picture to beat, with a massive amount of discussion following its Oct. 1 release, all fueled by controversy over its portrayal of Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg. Of course, The King's Speech won the Oscar. This year, Lincoln, which opened Nov. 9, might have hit its high-water mark too early, with a flood of coverage including covers of Time and Newsweek, along with an attention-grabbing 60 Minutes piece about Steven Spielberg and his parents. It might have been too much, too soon, allowing voters to take the film for granted and turn their minds toward other contenders.

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These days, fewer and fewer Oscar contenders are launched before the Toronto International Film Festival in September. But at least two pictures got serious traction way before that in 2012. Beasts of the Southern Wild was given a huge lift at Sundance, then solidified its standing with a prize at Cannes. And Amour was bolstered by Cannes' Palme d'Or, effectively making it the dominant foreign entry of the year. Equally important, those films' early appearance gave voters time to see them, and actually think about them, rather than squeezing them in between other DVDs -- or worse, not seeing them at all. Yes, you can peak too soon, but getting out early does have its benefits.


When the directors branch failed to nominate Ben Affleck (along with Quentin Tarantino, Kathryn Bigelow and Tom Hooper), it wasn't just bad luck. As The New York Times' Michael Cieply noted, the branch is transforming. Several Hollywood veterans have died in recent years (Sydney Pollack, Blake Edwards, Tony Scott), paving the way for more international and art house-oriented members such as Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne (The Child), Jacques Audiard (A Prophet, Rust and Bone) and Lone Scherfig (An Education). That might explain why this year's nominees unexpectedly included indie favorite Benh Zeitlin (Beasts) and art house auteur Michael Haneke (Amour). Campaigners will have to figure out how to win over these new voters scattered throughout the world -- remembering it's the tiny, 371-person directors branch that nominates the directors, even if the entire Academy chooses the winner.


Affleck should thank his lucky stars he didn't get that directing nomination from the Academy. It not only gave Argo a huge sympathy vote, it also eliminated one possible scenario that could have hurt Argo's best picture prospects. If Affleck had been nominated for director, a voter who liked Lincoln and Argo would have had the option of giving Affleck the director prize and Lincoln best picture. For some, the only way now to fully reward Argo is with a best picture vote. Ben's loss in one category is his gain in another.

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Sony was slow to respond when critics first attacked Zero Dark Thirty. The film's supporters should have slammed back the moment those critics made themselves heard. They should have had a team of credible voices ready to counter allegations that the film defends torture and blunt objections from members of the U.S. Senate. Men like former CIA chief Leon Panetta (who eventually said on ABC in late January that the movie got it right) should have been lined up to talk before the torture debate got traction.


In 2009, the Academy expanded the number of best picture nominees from five to 10, hoping its members would include popular blockbusters and boost ratings for the Oscar telecast. Then in 2010, the rules were revised again, allowing anywhere from five to 10 nominees. The result is the same: The studios' biggest commercial hits still are being overlooked. Even much-admired films like Sony and MGM's Skyfall (a Producers Guild of America nominee) and Warner Bros.' The Dark Knight Rises didn't make the cut. Art house films, rather than commercial ones, have been the beneficiaries of the Academy's new math -- think Beasts and Amour. Campaigners are going to have to find a convincing way to prove art and commerce can co-exist.