Awards Season Defined by the Sweet Smell of Excess

Smaller films, and the true merits of larger ones, get lost amid Oscar buzz that drowns out all else

Awards Excess
Ryan Inzana

Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street,” the last major Oscar hopeful to be screened for the media, is an appropriate capper, because the tragicomic film is about excess — and everything about this year’s awards season has been excessive: the length of many movies, the number of contenders, the frequency of awards-themed events and the role of the festival circuit.

The Dec. 12 Golden Globe nominations added to the theme of overabundance: More than 30 films were nominated, including many that had been recognized by other year-end awards (“12 Years a Slave,” “American Hustle,” “Nebraska,” “Her”) and others joined the race, such as “Rush” and, yes, “Wolf of Wall Street.”

The season started in high gear in late August and hasn’t let up, promising to run at a breakneck pace through the March 2 telecast of the Academy Awards. Over that six-month period, the intensity has built for a number of films with valid Oscar dreams — some of which are sure to be broken when the race ends.

“You have to go back to the early ’70s to find this many great movies in a single year,” says Michael Barker, co-topper (with Tom Bernard) of Sony Pictures Classics. “It’s such a diverse crowd of films targeted to a wide variety of audiences, and both big box office hits and smaller films are part of the conversation.”
Here are some of the factors that have shaped a unique season.

Sprocket operas always offer a few awards-bait titles, but the tail has begun wagging the dog. For awhile now, Telluride and Toronto have promoted themselves as incubators of awards films, but this year things have gone haywire. It started when some Telluride critics saw “12 Years a Slave” and declared the Oscar race was over. Then media members started buzzing about awards possibilities for “Prisoners,” “Labor Day” and other entries. The Venice Film Festival launched “Gravity” a few days later, followed by “Philomena,” and the usual awards talk became a deafening roar by the time Toronto rolled around Sept. 5.

Each film was accompanied by a lavish party, and bloggers and mainstream critics began to evaluate the pictures not for artistic merit, or even for commercial potential, but rather as possible best-picture Oscar contenders. Low-budget films that require special handling were shoved aside in the awards-crazed stampede. Casualties have included DreamWorks’ “The Fifth Estate,” director Bill Condon’s study of the lack of privacy in the era of WikiLeaks. The media blasted the film for not measuring up to the Telluride-Venice pics, and the ambitious movie was rejected by audiences when it debuted.

In the past year, festivals have seen numerous films from every distrib bow when they were almost completed, but “almost” is dangerous in the Internet age. For instance, TWC brought a rough cut of “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” to Toronto, and the bloggers went after it, says Weinstein Co. topper Harvey Weinstein. (Since then, director Justin Chadwick finished the film, and the reaction has been extremely positive, including three Golden Globe noms.)
“Everybody is in such a rush to screen at a festival, Weinstein says. If a film is finished, it works great, but if not … ” Next year, he adds, the company will take a different approach.

There are at least 15 credible contenders for only five to 10 best picture slots in the Oscar race, meaning the competition has become even fiercer than usual. So awards strategists have worked overtime to woo media members and awards voters, offering an unprecedented number of Q&As and parties “in honor of” an individual or film, often on very short notice prior to a screening. One awards contender confided in early November that he’d participated in about 200 Q&As for his film so far.

The parties have generally ranged from in-lobby receptions to buffets at classy restaurants. For “Inside Llewyn Davis,” CBS Films held a concert at the Buffalo Club in Santa Monica. Performers there included the film’s star, Oscar Isaac, the Punch Brothers and Steve Martin, while hosts Scott Rudin and Leslie Moonves greeted guests including Barbra Streisand, Norman Lear and Ted Danson.

Did any of this change a voter’s mind? Probably not. But the goal in every case was to boost the film’s profile.

While the fest and party aspects quickly became numbing, there was some good news in 2013. For example, the year saw a lot of thoughtful films about the black experience: “42,” “Fruitvale Station,” “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” “12 Years” and “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.” Some film scholars asked why there were so many this year, though the better question is: Why aren’t there this many every year?

The immediate answer is that “The Help” proved there is an audience for such films. But the big-picture answer is that 2013 saw a long-range effect from the anti-tentpole mentality. After the 2008 economic collapse and the studios’ budget-slashing, filmmakers found innovative ways to fund works that didn’t fit into the major studio/four-quadrant formula. Filmmakers and financiers began to work outside the system, and were encouraged by cable TV fare, which proved that homogenized content doesn’t work, but individual voices do.

Studio toppers began to come around to the notion that a varied diet is good for everyone. Film offerings this past year included big-scale works: “Gravity” and “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.” At the other end of the scale are “Dallas Buyers Club,” “Fruitvale Station,” “All Is Lost” and “Enough Said,” all made for less than $10 million; while “12 Years a Slave,” “Blue Jasmine” and “Nebraska” are in the $20 million-and-
under range.

Then there are the midrange films, a category industry vets a year ago were declaring dead. But “American Hustle,” “August: Osage County,” “Captain Phillips,” “Prisoners,” “Saving Mr. Banks” and “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” proved there’s life in the category.

Budgetary considerations aside, it’s the range of subject matter and approach that’s most impressive: “Philomena,” the story of a journalist who helps a mother search for her missing son, to “Lone Survivor,” the saga of a special ops mission gone wrong; “Before Midnight,” the third chapter of a couple’s decades-long love story, to “American Hustle,” which tracks a fictional version of the 1970s Abscam scandal. The films cover a lot of territory and a lot of human experience.

As Sony Classics’ Barker said, “Aside from the bigger films, audiences are responding to alternative fare. With all the high-profile movies opening, I get so many people telling me that (Asghar Farhadi’s French-language) ‘The Past’ is blowing them away, and that’s great. You also have more holdovers than usual from early in the year. Usually there are one or two, but this year there are more.”

That list includes “42,” “Before Midnight,” “Blue Jasmine,” “Fruitvale Station,” “The Butler” and “The Place Beyond the Pines,” all of which opened before Sept. 1. Adding to the frenzy is the uncertainty introduced last year, when the nine best-picture contenders included the French-language “Amour” and the mini-budgeted “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” Neither of those two was a typical Academy movie, and awards strategists were reminded that there are no Oscar guarantees for mainstream Hollywood fare, even with a smart campaign.

Awards are intended to spotlight good work, but artistry, creativity and experimentation are taking a back seat to talk of accolades. Ultimately, this awards season has been about functioning within the cacophony.
Emma Tillinger Koskoff, a producer on “Wolf of Wall Street,” is among those celebrating the number of topnotch films this year. But she also cautioned against the incessant buzz, including awards talk, that plagues high-profile films. As “Wolf” was being edited, the noise was incessant.

“We tuned it out,” Koskoff said. “An artist cannot be making films for anyone but him/herself — they have a vision and a passion that they must stay true to. Listening to outside influences, one risks compromising the film.”