Oscars: Why 'Big Idea' Campaigns May Not Connect to Voters

Illustration by: Lars Leetaru

Lighten up, Oscar campaigners. You don't have to impress everyone with how important your movie is. 'Battle of the Sexes' should have been an entertaining hit, until Billie  Jean  King was recruited to turn it into a feminist history lesson.

When Fox Searchlight screened Battle of the Sexes for the first time at this year's Telluride Film Festival, audiences and pundits alike seemed to agree that the studio had a bona fide hit. The movie, about tennis great Billie Jean King's famed fight with self-proclaimed male chauvinist pig Bobby Riggs, was light, bright and sparkling, without necessarily being deep. And yet it seemed unusually relevant to an era when male chauvinism is at the forefront of the national conversation. So who could blame Searchlight for bringing out the real-life King, whose presence was ubiquitous on panels and in interviews and gave the movie gravitas, reminding audiences that this wasn't just a piece of entertainment; it was an Important Work of Art. Guess what? The movie tanked. Since its September opening, it has grossed a mere $12.6 million.

As awards season proper kicks into high gear, other contenders would do well to avoid Battle's scars. Voters, like general audiences, want to support a worthy cause, but they don't want to be bashed over the head by it.

Insiders already are bracing themselves for the inevitable Big Idea campaigns that may have worked in the past but seem too heavy-handed today. When Dunkirk opened, Warner Bros. smartly sold it as a tense thriller; but you can bet its campaigners will soon remind us it's all about a good war in an age of bad ones. Similarly, Darkest Hour (which focuses on Winston Churchill's handling of the Dunkirk crisis) will contrast the then-resident of No. 10 Downing St. with the current resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. It's already trotted out Churchill's granddaughter for an endorsement.

And Guillermo del Toro has been talking up his sci-fi/fantasy The Shape of Water (about a young woman who falls in love with a humanoid sea creature) as a metaphor about exclusion and even immigration. Perhaps it is. But does a masterwork of the imagination really need to lay its political relevance on so thick?

Then there's The Post, whose full-throated defense of journalism and the First Amendment seems destined for massive support in the Age of Fake News but whose filmmakers will have to rein in the impulse to go overboard. Witness insiders' response to the dedication at the end of the credits: to Nora Ephron, the late journalism icon and a close collaborator of star Tom Hanks and producer Amy Pascal. After the well-received film screened Nov. 19 in Los Angeles and New York, audiences scratched their heads to figure out Ephron's link to The Washington Post and how it published the Pentagon Papers. True, she once was married to Post reporter Carl Bernstein, who broke the Watergate story; but he had nothing to do with the Pentagon Papers.

Voters have grown cynical and will resist anything that sniffs of manipulation, especially the sort that Harvey Weinstein mastered for many years. Trips to the White House, visits with the pontiff and ads touting the support of society's best and brightest just won't cut it now.

Not that they always have. When Weinstein attempted to boost Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York in 2002 — taking out ads bragging that filmmaker Robert Wise, a former Academy president, had endorsed the film — the fallout was swift, fueled by a belief that the 88-year-old Wise had been exploited. The backlash may have contributed to Scorsese's Oscar loss in a year when another Miramax release, Chicago, was named best picture and Roman Polanski (The Pianist) best director.

Polanski, of course, wouldn't stand a chance this year. Just as we're hyper-alert to overkill, we're even more alert to bad (and in some cases criminal) behavior. But, while bad behavior will knock nearly anyone out of this race, good behavior alone won't win an award. Tempted as they'll be to push their pictures' sanctity, campaigners had better watch out that they don't tip into sanctimony.

This story first appeared in the Nov. 29 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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