Considering the 2021 Oscar Nominees…or not

I mean…OK…

As usual, my thoughts on award nominees are summed up easily as “Sure…fine.” So too with the Academy Award nominations announced earlier this morning.

Such nominations represent a particular cultural snapshot, one filtered through the lens of a group that’s largely unrepresentative of the population as a whole. In that regard, they are similar to the pool of films as a whole, in that the demographic makeup of those that greenlight production is very different from that of the moviegoing public.

That means they’re going to offer some insight into what kind of cultural conversations were happening at the time, but generally only the kinds of conversations you might overhear in an affluent neighborhood’s second most popular Starbucks. Most of the movies nominated will fade from relevance inside of the next six months while some that were “snubbed” will go on to be considered classics for decades.

Thus it has always been and thus it always will be.

Bob Hope Oscars GIF by The Academy Awards - Find & Share on GIPHY

More interesting to me at the moment is the coincidental timing of the Oscar nominations coming immediately after what seems to be regarded as an extremely effective and well-produced Grammy awards ceremony.

While I didn’t watch the broadcast, it seems the Grammys were a hit because artists turned in intriguing, relevant and entertaining performances, a good mix of artist genres and demographics and a reminder that, especially this year, it’s important to remember the kinds of people who have born the brunt of the pain related to pandemic closures and shutdowns.

As many other people have pointed out, there’s little that award-giving bodies in music, movies or television can do at this point to turn around the long-running decline in ratings for any awards show. That’s a symptom of not only the often-unrepresentative nature of the items nominated and the media fragmentation that impacts every category.

It’s been over a decade since the Oscars expanded from five to 10 the number of movies that could be nominated for Best Picture, an attempt to offer some room for more commercially popular films to be included, which would hopefully bring in more viewers to the broadcast. No actual problems were solved by this, though, and nominees still tend to be films that only played in limited runs or at least didn’t perform as well as expected.

Perhaps if AMPAS really wanted to make the Oscars more relevant it would heed the results of stories like this pointing out that tens of billions of dollars are being left on the table by studios not producing films featuring more racial and ethnic diversity. If more people felt more movies were made by, for and about people like themselves, then interest in which films are heralded would rise. Or maybe if, just once, the Oscars broadcast itself didn’t feel like an endless self-indulgent slog, more people might choose it over literally anything else.

Using the Grammys as an example, a push at this year’s Oscars to bring the focus to theater employees (not owners or executives) as well as other support personnel would go a long way to making the ceremony more interesting. So would skipping the canned and corny scripted bits that haven’t been fresh since Bob Hope last hosted as well as the rest of the overproduced and overly-long recorded segments.

Stick with concise and respectful presentations of the awards that allow the winners to speak their mind in a reasonable amount of time, performances of the original songs by the artists that recorded them.

Most of all, convey an appreciation of movies from the audience’s point of view, not that of a talent agent or associate producer.

If changes like that – ones that tear the show down to the studs and reimagine the entire structure and flow – aren’t made, then more and more of the public will come to the realization that watching the broadcast is a lot less fun than playing video games, scrolling through TikTok or finishing season 3 of whatever it is they’re watching at the moment.

Selling the Best Picture Oscar Nominees

Earlier this week the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced the nominees for the 2020 Academy Awards. While the immediate news cycle for that has past, I still wanted to capture at least the Best Picture contenders and remember how those movies were sold to the public.

To my eternal chagrin, the single nominated title I didn’t write a marketing recap for is Parasite from director Bong Joon Ho, one of the most positively reviewed releases of 2019. There was no good reason for the oversight, it just fell during a busy week and unfortunately became one of several pieces that were jettisoned during the editorial review process.

That omission confessed to, there’s one title – Avengers: Endgame – that didn’t make the Oscar cut but did earn a Motion Picture Publicity Campaign nomination in this year’s ICG Publicist Awards and so is being included in my roundup below.

Ford v Ferrari

Throughout the campaign, across any and all media that it could have been encountered on, there’s a clear and consistent brand identity that’s used. You see that same red, white and blue design scheme – one intended to reinforce the American v Italy nature of the story – on the posters, online ads and even in the trailers. That means audiences are reliably getting the message that this is a simple but powerful story featuring two popular actors. It conveys the setting and more time and again, just as any effective marketing effort should.

The Irishman

It’s not surprising that Netflix would make a huge deal about being the sole distributor (except for the small theatrical run) for a new movie from Martin Scorsese, not to mention one that features a Murderer’s Row cast like this does. That campaign has sold a movie that seems pulled straight from the mid-90s in tone and subject matter, in the best possible way.

JoJo Rabbit

If you want a single element that sums up the tone of the campaign it has to be the resurrection of the Downfall meme. One of the odd things about that meme, which was popular online in the days before Twitter in particular offered native GIF support, was always based on the shared assumption that it was kind of alright to use something explicitly Nazi-related to share some other message. We were finding humor by coopting Nazi imagery, removing some of the power that imagery has.

Joker

What’s missing from the marketing is any sense that the nihilistic chaos and violence embraced by Arthur Fleck as he descends into madness as Joker is a commentary on anything in particular. Instead it appears to hold that chaos and violence up as a reasonable reaction to feeling like the world is holding you back. That’s a worldview eerily similar to what’s ascribed to many of the white men in the wake of mass shootings at schools, mosques, churches, homes and elsewhere.

Little Women

Selling an all-female drama set in during the Civil War should be a hard task, but by selling it as a piece of modern filmmaking with whipsmart dialogue uttered by some of the most critically-praised actors in recent years is a solid way around that problem.

Marriage Story

Really, then, what’s being sold here is a tearjerker from a reliably original writer/director and featuring a talented cast. The twists and turns of the story will be rending and affirming by turns, but it’s the journey here that is the main attraction.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

What’s surprising about the campaign is that for as much as the movie has been framed in the press for the last two years as one about Manson and his cult, that real-life figure is absent from 90 percent of the trailers and other marketing materials. Instead the focus has been on Rick and how he’s fighting to keep his career above water while his loyal stunt double Cliff leans back and enjoys the ride, as confident and relaxed as Rick is unsure and fidgety.

1917

For everyone else, what’s presented here is a Very Good war drama, something that usually resonates at the end of the calendar year to some extent. A branding focus was found early on and subsequently reinforced, creating a strong identity that is instantly familiar no matter where it’s encountered.

Avengers: Endgame

In an effort to overcome all those and other concerns, Marvel Studios has focused on the emotions that come with the story. Marvel is also counting on fans being on board with the story to the point they don’t mind sitting for a three-hour film. Infinity War clocked in at an already-impressive two-and-a-half hours. Endgame will push that even further, making some question whether or not studios and theaters need to reintroduce the concept of intermissions. The marketing promises there will be a lot of story packed into those three hours, including action, heartache and hopefully triumph as this phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe comes to an end.

For Your Consideration…Are These Three For Your Consideration Campaigns

The announcement of the 2019 Academy Award nominees was greeted, as they are every year, with the usual mix of admiration, incredulity, skepticism and excitement. There were discussions of who or what was snubbed (no female Best Director? No love for the excellent Fred Rogers documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?) and who or what was questionably included (lots of nominations for Green Book and Vice, neither of which were loved by critics).

Among the more notable elements of this year’s class are first-ever Best Picture nominations for Netflix (Roma) and Marvel Studios (Black Panther). This is also the first time Spike Lee, who has helmed some of the most influential motion pictures of the last 25 years, has been selected as a potential Best Director winner for BlackKklansman.

Key to securing these nominations are the ubiquitous “For Your Consideration” ads run by Hollywood studios in trade and other industry publications in the months and weeks leading up awards season. Those ads, which are often part of a secondary marketing campaign for the movie, are aimed at Academy members largely in an effort to make sure *that* movie’s screener is the one they watch, which increases the likelihood the member will vote for it.

There are mass audience goals for awards nominations ads as well. Movies are frequently given additional theatrical runs after nominations or wins, even if they’re already on home video, to capitalize on the additional attention they’re receiving and pad their box office totals. Given that this year’s Best Picture nominees have a combined box office take of $1.26 billion ($700 million of which is from Black Panther alone) it’s clear these are a batch of movies people have shown an interest in.

A few of the For Your Consideration campaigns for movies that did wind up with nominations were particularly notable for how they focused on talent, extended the movie’s marketing branding and more.

A Star Is Born

Warner Bros. went all out to secure as many nominations as possible for its buzz-heavy critical and financial success, running FYC ads touting the movie’s achievements “in all categories.” That campaign included videos on its YouTube channel focusing on star/director Bradley Cooper and his work. That makes sense since Cooper was a big part of the pre-release publicity and marketing for how he crafted the story and got a performance from costar Lady Gaga that has wowed just about everyone who‘s seen it.

To highlight Gaga, a billboard was placed along Sunset Strip in Los Angeles featuring Ally, the up-and-coming singer/songwriter she plays in the film. Those billboards are identical to the ones seen in the film and don’t carry any of the movie’s branding, nor are they labeled as part of a For Your Consideration campaign. The point here seems simply to create buzz and get people talking, which it certainly did.

Roma

Netflix has been pushing its way upstream for years as it tries to get a foothold in the awards game. It’s made small gains recently with movies like Mudbound and some of its exclusive documentaries, but its insistence on foregoing all but a token qualifying theatrical run has put it in conflict with The Academy and its members as well as various film festival organizers.

That’s changed with this year’s Roma, which Oscar voters apparently couldn’t overlook. The movie, a passion project from writer/director Alfonso Cuarón about the Mexico City of his youth, was one of several prestige releases Netflix offered subscribers – and select moviegoers – in the last couple months of 2018. The company mounted an awards campaign reportedly costing $20 million that blanketed the internet in ads using stills and key art from the movie and included pre-roll spots on YouTube and even a TV spot aimed at general audiences. Cuarón also got a Best Director nod and acting nominations were given to Marina de Tavira and Yalitza Aparicio, relative unknowns who were pegged as breakouts for their performances.

Bohemian Rhapsody

If it seems like the marketing for the Freddie Mercury biopic hasn’t really stopped since it came out in early November, you’re not wrong. 20th Century Fox has kept up a steady drumbeat of new commercials and promotions for the movie to help the movie stay relevant in the cultural conversation. Those efforts have included #StompForQueen fan video compilations, side-by-side comparisons of scenes from the movie and actual Queen concert footage and more.

Most recently the studio announced it was putting the film back in theaters with a special “Sing Along” version that capitalized on the fan-friendly nature of Queen’s anthemic brand of rock. That broad audience campaign was in part meant to show how popular the movie was and quell concerns stemming from how Fox had to switch directors halfway through production and overcome backlash that the story downplayed Mercury’s sexuality as well as his AIDS diagnosis, all of which hung over the movie prior to and following its initial release.

Marketing the 2019 Best Picture Oscar Nominees

Yesterday the world woke up early and were rewarded with the news that Sunset Blvd. Phil saw his shadow, indicating we have less than 30 days left of Awards Season. That’s right, it’s Academy Awards nomination time.

This year eight films were nominated for Best Picture, leaving two of the 10 open slots empty as a sign of respect to the fact that Steven Spielberg’s one directorial effort (Ready Player One) wasn’t up to the Academy’s standards as well as to avoid having to nominate even a single female director in a year that had plenty of outstanding examples.

That last point seems particularly egregious. 2018 was the year a number of female directors finally came out of “movie jail” with feature films that may not have lit up the box-office but were certainly hits with critics and cinephiles. On that list are:

  • Ava DuVernay, the first black woman to direct a movie budgeted at over $100 million, with A Wrinkle In Time featuring an inclusive cast that is still exceedingly rare for the sci-fi genre.
  • Debra Granik, whose Leave No Trace was a powerful story of how veterans are left behind by the system and which marked her first feature directing effort since 2010’s critically acclaimed Winter’s Bone.
  • Lynne Ramsey, whose visceral You Were Never Really Here went beyond a boring marketing campaign to get to some real emotions that others often ignore in stories about lone-wolf white guys out for revenge.
  • Tamara Jenkins, who returned after a dozen years with the funny and sweet Private Life, based in part on her own experiences seeking a surrogate and featuring wonderful performances by Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti.
  • Mimi Leder, an example of a woman who after one flop is considered unhireable for features before breaking back into the game with On the Basis of Sex.

There are plenty more to choose from in that particular category.

Instead, this year’s Best Picture nominees represent other aspects of where the film industry – and its audience – is in 2018. Let’s look at some themes that emerge by examining the list.

Vox Populi

a star is born pic 2

It would have been virtually impossible for members of the Academy to overlook Black Panther, no matter how reluctant they may have been to finally recognize a Marvel Studios (or any) comic book film as a significant cinematic achievement. While the furor over scuttled plans for a “Most Popular” Oscar category eventually died down, the inclusion of Panther shows that if a film is a big enough hit AND is this culturally relevant it refuses to be ignored, at least not if you want to have anyone tune into ABC in February.

While its box office may not have been quite as huge, the conversations around the breakout performance and directing of A Star Is Born were just as monumental, though in obviously different ways. Again, it’s tempting to posit that giving Lady Gaga fans a reason to watch live TV may have been at least partly behind the movie’s nomination, though certainly the buzz that has followed the film since it first started screening at festivals was a big driver. It is, by most definitions, a mainstream hit, something the Oscars desperately needs.

Black Stories Matter

blackkklansman pic

2018 saw a number of movies released that told stories about Black America we don’t usually see on screen, many of them focusing on societal stories like police suspicion and brutality or trying to fit in among white folks. If Beale Street Could Talk, Monsters and Men, The Hate U Give, Blindspotting, Sorry To Bother You and others all came from Black filmmakers and featured exclusively – or at least primarily – Black casts.

Black Panther certainly fits in this category with its overwhelmingly Black cast as well as a filmmaker of color – Ryan Coogler – behind the camera and the Afrofuturism in its story. So too does BlackKklansman, which had director Spike Lee taking on the KKK in a way that isn’t often seen on screen, at least not in mainstream releases. Still, there were plenty of options to choose from in this category.

Backlash Smacklash

bohemian rhapsody picApparently, the issues and problems with movies like Bohemian Rhapsody and Green Book in particular weren’t enough to sink their Oscar prospects entirely, at least not as much as “being directed by a woman” would have. Both overcame concerns about their historical accuracy and, in the case of Rhapsody, a troubled production and a series of missteps by the filmmakers that should have sunk it in industry estimation.

Netflix and Grudging Acceptance

roma piI don’t know what the details of everyone’s consideration while including Roma in the list of Best Picture nominees, but I have to imagine it included plenty of holding of noses and shrugging while saying things like “Ugh…alright, fine.” Netflix’s road to its first nod in this category has been long and troubled, involving lots of very public sparring with Academy members, film festival organizers and others with a vested interest in maintaining the theatrical status quo. If it fails to win the award, I’d expect lots of hand-wringing about how it just couldn’t measure up to the other “real” films

The “Most Popular” Oscar Rewards Those With the Deepest Resources

The reactions to the announcement by The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences it would be adding a “Most Popular” category to its annual Oscars awards ceremony were as pointed as they were swift. Many pointed out that the category was at best ill-defined and seemed to be an overt attempt to halt, if not reverse, years of declining broadcast ratings.

One of the more pervasive themes of the commentary was that if those ratings reflect the popularity/appeal of the nominated films they also reflect the changes that have impacted every aspect of the media world in the last decade. Television viewership is down across the board as it competes against streaming/on-demand video providers, video games, esports and more. To use the popular vernacular, the industry audience has fragmented.

Let’s move past how relegating movies voters would have otherwise dismissed as not being serious enough for consideration in anything more than a few technical categories is more than a little condescending. Instead, let’s look at how what’s “popular” is often determined by, not a result of, access to marketing and distribution resources

Marketing For Opening Weekend

It’s no recent development that studio films live or die according to opening weekend. The entire marketing operation for movies like Black Panther, Mission: Impossible – Fallout, Jurassic World and others are aimed at turning out audiences for that opening frame.

That’s preceded by not only extensive TV and other advertising but also red carpet premieres featuring cars provided by promotional partners, at least one or two cover stories in mass market entertainment media, set visit reports by film writers, a full week of appearances by the cast on “Kimmel” and more. It’s almost impossible to escape these movies, the campaigns for which generate high levels of awareness and create a sense of urgency. If you don’t see it opening weekend, audiences are told, you’ll miss out on the conversations and run the risk of reading a spoiler on Twitter.

Those resources, though, are only available to the biggest studios. Disney could put the Black Panther cast on every magazine cover and TV show in addition to plastering the internet with ads because it’s Disney and has that kind of money. It also knows that media organizations understand there’s more interest in movies like this that are based on known properties and is going to be more than happy to give it whatever time and space might be available.

Bleecker Street couldn’t do the same for Leave No Trace, which saw more press activity after opening weekend than it did prior to release. The one TV spot for that movie has 772,000 YouTube views compared to the “Rise” commercial for Black Panther, which logged 3.5 million views to date.

Distribution’s Thumb On the Scale

Theaters have added more and more screens in recent years involving some combination of IMAX, Dolby, 3D and other premium formats to better present the effects-laden franchise installments studios prefer because of their overseas box-office potential. That’s pushed out or limited the availability of smaller movies, including the kind of $20-40 million budgeted adult dramas that used to make up much of a studio’s release slate.

Consider that Leave No Trace played on just nine screens its first week and topped out at 361 a month after opening, helped along to that point by strong word of mouth and almost universally positive reviews. Black Panther opened on over 4,000 screens and onl dipped below 300 in June, over three months after opening.

That kind of system guarantees a select few films will be immensely popular while others will fade into obscurity despite critical acclaim.

It needs to be asked – and many are doing so – if distribution that insures few people will have access to a movie makes sense in the age of streaming. That the answer is often “no” is why prestige films like last year’s Mudbound and the upcoming Roma are being picked up or produced by Netflix, which allows for instantaneous mass reach independent of proximity to specific theater.

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Netflix?

The issue, then, is that AMPAS has backed itself into a corner.

  1. It has to keep supporting the theatrical distribution industry.
  2. It also wants to keep recognizing “quality” films, having long ago decided sci-fi/fantasy, comedy and other genres didn’t rise to that level.
  3. Those prestige films are either getting limited theatrical releases accompanied by limited marketing campaigns that can’t compete with the paid, owned and earned media carpet-bombing for the next Marvel Cinematic Universe release, or they’re going to Netflix.
  4. It’s can’t acknowledge those movies because Point #1.

In a very real way, this is AMPAS and its friends in NATO daring Netflix to either A) break its own model and give its original films a significant theatrical release or B) break precedent and release viewership numbers, something it has not done to date.

It’s worth noting that Netflix does not give its original movies significant marketing pushes. Trailers often arrive just a couple weeks before the movie is available and there’s little to no online support outside of a few ads and maybe a couple posts to the corporate Twitter account. Instead it mostly relies on its internal recommendations and promotions to drive awareness

There are, of course, exceptions to that. Mudbound, Bright and a few others received more extensive campaigns. Set It Up and Like Father have both had earned media efforts featuring the stars and filmmakers. But those are very much the exceptions.

So The Academy wants to throw the masses a bone and say “OK, we’ll grudgingly admit you all liked X even though Y was the true Best Picture” even while it refuses to acknowledge that popularity can no longer be solely measured by box office revenue or ticket sales. Doing so does acknowledge that the serious films often receiving awards have restrictor plates placed on their reach by a system that rewards those with the deepest pockets and the most recognizable IP.

It’s not likely to work, of course. People don’t want to be told that what they like is only worthy of second-tier status. And they will wonder why something like Set It Up isn’t being included. TV ratings likely won’t rebound and the whole operation will continue clinging to diminished relevance because it refuses to take popularity seriously.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.

AMPAS Wants to Define What a Movie Is

A recent report of a gathering of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the governing body of the Academy Awards, portrays an organization that is wrestling with the changing face of the film industry.

The focus of the meeting was, according to reports, to discuss Netflix’s continued disruption of that industry and whether or not to award official recognition to the movies it either acquires or produces. There’s a concern that by allowing movies that receive grudging, minimal theatrical releases but which are distributed primarily on the streaming platform, the awards would be “cheapened.” Any movie not made for showing in theaters is, the thinking seems to go, not a “real” movie.

Boy, where to start with this one. There are so many issues to choose from.

The biggest one to my mind is that AMPAS seems determined to define a movie based solely on distribution. That right there is an outdated mode of thinking. A new music release is no less an album because it was distributed on compact disc instead of wax LP. Nor does that definition change for streaming or downloadable distribution. The same should apply to films.

Honestly, we should have had this conversation decades ago. While I can understand that the melodrama of the traditional network “made for TV movie” from the 1970s or before isn’t something the Academy would want to consider including in industry awards, what about the original movies produced by HBO or other cable networks over the years? Is Okja any less a film than And the Band Played On? And is either substantively different from The Florida Project?

Not in form or format. They are all somewhere between one and four hours long, telling a story in a single, unbroken way. If you want to define a movie in that way, I don’t think anyone would argue with that. It would disqualify media produced to be consumed episodically in the manner of most TV shows, where the story is chunked up over multiple installments, each distributed at a different time and wholly distinct from what’s come before and what’s coming later.

In reality, there’s been a blurring of the lines by both TV and movie creators. Shows made for Netflix or FX are often conceived as 12-hour long movies and can be binged in roughly that manner. The expansion of “shared universe” film franchises has turned movie-going into a more expensive version of tuning in for new episodes each week, each installment only fully understood if you’ve seen the previous seven. TV is becoming more singular while film is becoming more serialized.

The debate – centered around Netflix because Amazon, even as it enters self-distribution, still emphasizes theatrical runs months before its original films hit its streaming service – seems more intent on propping up both the theatrical distribution industry and the role of studios as gatekeepers of “real” movies. It’s only legitimate if it comes from one of those media conglomerates.

Should AMPAS decide that Netflix’s original movies don’t qualify for awards consideration, it will only delay the inevitable. Streaming service subscriptions are now more common than cable subscriptions. Theatrical attendance is dropping precipitously. And the talent attracted to the freedom afforded by Amazon and Netflix is becoming bigger and bigger, no longer made up mostly of first-time or indie filmmakers. I’d love to see an AMPAS official tell Martin Scorsese that the only reason his upcoming film The Irishman doesn’t qualify for an Oscar is that it was produced by Netflix.

Relying solely or primarily on distribution platform to determine quality is ludicrous, meant only to punish innovation and prop up legacy players. We’re going to have this conversation, and all signs point to a day when home streaming or on-demand viewing is the new normal for a critical mass of the audience. Embracing that is the only way forward, otherwise these awards will appear increasingly out-of-touch culturally out-of-touch irrelevant to the general audience. The industry insiders may still care, but that diminished impact on the public will make them worth less and less as a commercial selling point.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.