The executives at PricewaterhouseCoopers would probably like to forget the wrong-envelope finale to the Feb. 26 Academy Awards. But all of Hollywood should embrace that moment, because it was a reminder that traditional ideas about Oscar have been turned upside-down.
For our entire lives, Oscars followed an unwavering ritual: AMPAS ballots were tallied, envelopes opened, names announced, winners leapt triumphantly to the stage. But in the past year, Donald Trump’s 2016 election and the Brexit vote in the U.K. defied the odds. So when the wrong name was announced at the Academy Awards, it was a wakeup call to awards hopefuls: Even simple procedures can be shaken up, and longshots can win, so don’t assume anything.
Usually, films that open between January and August have a glimmer of Oscar hopes, but they’re quickly eliminated by the time the Venice-Telluride-Toronto fests are over. That’s not true this year.
Those fests introduced such contenders as “The Shape of Water,” “Darkest Hour,” “Lady Bird,” “Three Billboards” and “Last Flag Flying,” but no film became the instant front-runner.
That’s good news for movies from earlier fests, including “Call Me by Your Name,” “The Big Sick” and “Mudbound” (Sundance); “Logan” (Berlin); “The Disaster Artist” (SXSW) and “The Florida Project” (Cannes). And movies that opened commercially before August, including “The Big Sick,” Get Out” and “Dunkirk,” seem to be increasing their awards buzz.
These titles are reminders that the traditional definition of “Oscar bait” has been disappearing. Last year, films by Hollywood giants Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Clint Eastwood and Warren Beatty collectively got two nominations; in contrast, there were 22 noms for the movies of Damien Chazelle and Barry Jenkins, who have directed only five films between them.
Recent Oscar winners include “Her,” “Ex Machina,” “Room” and “Mad Max: Fury Road,” which are far from traditional Oscar movies. It’s a new world.
There are two other factors raising questions this year. Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences membership has changed, with 1,779 new members in the past three years, or roughly 23% of the voters. Many of the new members are international and from the indie-film worlds. The general assumption is that they will favor personal films like “Call Me by Your Name” and “Lady Bird.” Conversely, they might be more impressed by big Hollywood fare that was often taken for granted by past Academy voters, so that could benefit “Beauty and the Beast,” “Blade Runner 2049” and “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.”
Another factor: Constant internet scrutiny tries to turn every Oscar vote into a political statement. As the digital noise increases, it’s getting harder to ignore. There are a lot of good films by women, non-Caucasian directors and LGBT filmmakers this year, so if you like their work, do they get a slight (maybe unconscious) edge over the work of straight white men? In the past, members of the Academy have voted for what they think is best, not inclusion for its own sake.
But that raises the final question: Does Oscar history provide any real insight when there are so many new voters?
The wrong-envelope snafu presented two reasons for celebration. As 2017 gets increasingly crazier, we should all thank “La La Land” producer Jordan Horowitz for taking control and reminding us that some people can bring generosity and common sense to even the most chaotic situation.
Second, when Horowitz announced “Moonlight” as the true winner, the Oscar was handed to the lowest-budget best picture nominee ever, with an all-black cast and a gay protagonist, in an unconventional narrative structure, from a relatively new distrib (A24). Many Oscar truisms were broken with that one win.
So as the race heats up, just fasten your seat belts and have fun.