Oscar’s Year of Extremes: From Early-Year Controversies to Year-End Glut of Films

Oscars Year of Extremes
COurtesy of Disney/Paramount

It’s been a year of extremes, with record intensity in politics, war, and even weather. So it’s no surprise that Oscar has had a year of extremes as well. Everything building up to Oscar seemed familiar, but a little more intense.

The awards season, which once lasted three months, is now a year-long affair. There were more movies than ever, more companies than ever, more awards-related events, more mudslinging — including non-stop attacks on the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences itself — and the most dramatic reversal of fortune for a contender in Oscar history.

The year-end glut — 44 films opening in November-December, up from 34 last year — will always bring a few must-see titles, such as “Silence” and “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.” However, many other late-year titles including “The Founder,” “Gold,” “Live by Night,” “Miss Sloane,” “Passengers,” “Patriots Day,” and “Paterson” have to fight for a place on awards voters’ must-see lists, which were already too long.

Aside from the majors and longtime awards veterans, the past few years have seen the addition of new players, including A24, Amazon, Bleecker Street, Broad Green, Netflix, the Orchard, and Sundance Selects. And there is renewed vigor in the awards lineups of CBS Films, Lionsgate, Open Road, Sony Pictures Classics, STX, and The Weinstein Co.

All of them are vying for attention in a landscape that now includes a no-longer-sleeping giant: television. For decades, half of the year-end awards have been devoted to TV, such as the Golden Globes and the guilds. But the flood of spectacular TV work has made them more competitive. Now, film companies find themselves competing with their TV counterparts for screening rooms, party venues and, most importantly, for voters’ time and attention.

ben wiseman for Variety

The 2016 feelings of frenzy were also reflected at the box office. On Nov. 25, U.S. domestic B.O. hit $10 billion at a record pace. (The previous speed record was set on Dec. 7, 2013). The global B.O. is headed by a quartet from Disney-Buena Vista: “Captain America: Civil War,” “Finding Dory,” “Zootopia,” and “The Jungle Book,” which collectively gathered a whopping $4.1 billion. The global top 20 for the year also includes “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” “Suicide Squad,” and “X-Men: Apocalypse.” These titles confirmed the popularity of family films and franchises. They also point up a widening between box office and awards.

In the past, Oscar’s best picture winner has often paralleled public favorites, such as “Gone With the Wind,” “Ben-Hur,” “The Godfather,” “Rain Man,” “Forrest Gump,” “Titanic,” and “Gladiator.” The last time this happened was 2003, with “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.” Since then, Oscar faves have tended to be smaller films, something that seems likely to happen again this year.

However, there is one area where box office and awards overlap: the animated feature.

B.O. winners such as Disney’s “Zootopia” and “Moana,” and Universal-Illumination’s “The Secret Life of Pets” are strong contenders. That field is rich with other possibilities, including “Sing,” “Trolls,” “Kubo and the Two Strings,” “The Little Prince,” “The Red Turtle,” and “Sausage Party.”

Despite all the year’s intensity (or maybe because of it), 2016 has been a good year for movies.

After the #OscarsSoWhite cry for diversity/inclusion, this year’s crop shows a significant jump. Even more important, studios and film-finance people — who have been responsible for the imbalance — are listening, and seem to want movies that better reflect the world population.

This year, movies address the black experience (“Fences,” “Loving,” “Moonlight”); feminist issues (“Arrival,” “Elle,” “Jackie,” “Nocturnal Animals,” “Toni Erdmann”); or both (“Hidden Figures”).

But the most empowering movies may be a trio from Disney, with “Zootopia,” “Moana,” and “Rogue One,” proving once and for all that a movie can get blockbuster numbers with a female lead.

It’s been a year of progress, but various groups in front of and behind the cameras are still underrepresented, including Latinos/Hispanics, Asians, Muslims, Native Americans, LGBT individuals, and people with disabilities.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Hollywood tended to avoid “issue” films, searching for a four-quadrant hit that would offend no one. But the studios are increasingly finding that filmmakers’ passions and personal POVs can translate into good business.

Movies this year reflected timely topics: In addition to the above-mentioned movies, that group includes “Hell or High Water” and “Eye in the Sky.” And of course, many of the 145 eligible documentaries are so hot-button, they’re sizzling, including “13th,” “Fire at Sea,” “I Am Not Your Negro,” and the docu short “Frame 394.”

Fact-based films continue to be popular. This year, that includes stories torn from the headlines, as they used to say, such as “Patriots Day,” “Sully,” and “Jackie,” as well as lesser-known true stories, like “Lion,” “Florence Foster Jenkins,” and “Hacksaw Ridge.”

Awards hoopla is sometimes the tail wagging the dog. It becomes a competition, a cottage industry, and a PR machine. Yes, marketing and money are a major part of the film industry, which includes awards. But Oscar voters know that the heart of the awards process is to discover and recognize great work. This year, there are newish filmmakers such as Garth Davis (“Lion” is his first feature); Barry Jenkins and Tom Ford (each with their second film); Maren Ade, Theodore Melfi and Denzel Washington (each with their third). The year also offered the chance to rediscover familiar faces (John Madden, Paul Verhoeven, Mel Gibson). And, a rarity, there are directors with two films each this year (Pablo Larrain, Peter Berg).

Executives and staffers at AMPAS must be exhausted. First, they were blamed for Hollywood’s one-sided lineup in terms of race, age, gender, and disabilities. The blame correctly shifted to the studio-agency-financier system. But when Academy execs took a series of actions to change membership, they were vilified by people within the Academy, other industryites, and the general public. And every other awards show took at dig at Oscar, hoping to get laughs.

Extreme? You betcha, as Marge Gunderson would say.

While every Oscar contender has ups and downs, there has never been a reversal of fortunes as quick and as extreme as Nate Parker and “The Birth of a Nation.”

In January, the film debuted at Sundance and was declared the Oscar front-runner. But in August, facts about his past surfaced; Parker became the center of conversations about personal responsibility, the judicial system, racism, Hollywood double standards, and campus rape. But he was never again part of the conversation about awards.

It’s been an intense year, so congratulate yourself for surviving. And pray that 2017 is more moderate. And more fun.