How long can Hollywood ride the “Parasite” Best Picture Oscar-winning high? Can we bottle it? Have it delivered via Postmates? Because this town hasn’t felt this light in ages. Of course, it won’t last long for one reason or another, but we’ll gladly breathe it in for another day or two. Maybe three if we’re lucky. (If events in Washington, D.C. will let us.)
The shortened Oscar window led to a very busy January, but overall, the season felt like it moved quicker than you’d expect with just two weeks cut from the calendar. Granted, unlike the last few years, there were fewer controversies that percolated into a segment on cable news or “The View” which was a relief all around (although we’ll never forget Martin Scorsese, Marvel and “cinema”). But it was certainly intense. It felt like there were more talent working the circuit than previous years even if the numbers say otherwise. And the major benefit of the season-ending earlier is that everyone can take a deep relaxing breath before it all ramps up again a few months from now.
That is unless you’re campaigning or covering the Emmys, of course. Those FYC events have already started to trickle out…four months before voting.
Oh, and at the moment the next 2021 and 2022 Academy Awards are scheduled on the final Sunday of February. Just like it was before and will likely now be for the considerable future. Because this turned out to just be an experiment (our term, not the Academy’s). An experiment that forced every other award show except the Golden Globes to move their dates. Forced the Grammy Awards to move their ceremony that was already on the busy Staples Center calendar that then affected the schedules of three pro sports teams in two different leagues and forced the Berlin Film Festival to move two weeks later than normal. But, hey, what ya gonna do? Ratings!
Keeping all that in mind, there are some new rules for everyone in the game to consider before the 2021 Oscar season.
No. 1 Rule of Oscar Season: “It’s the movie, stupid”
This is more of a reminder than anything else. 99% of the time how a contender performs is literally the movie itself or the talent associated with it. You cannot turn something voters don’t like into something they will. May have tried and may have failed. But if they love it? Well…
Anything is possible
Two steps forward, one step back. Two steps forward, one step back. Yes, the “Parasite” win was another two steps forward for Oscar. The Academy’s diversity issues are absolutely serious and need to continue to be addressed, but the membership’s love of “Parasite” showed that change is happening. The move forward just isn’t uniform and in the exact categories where many want it to occur…yet. The film’s historic win also proved that not only can an international film win, but a movie that isn’t in a European language can do it too. Neon spearheaded an impressive campaign, but they also got a little lucky (and, hey, everyone needs a bit of that). It was obvious Directing and Screenplay nods were in play in the summer, but at that point, a Best Picture nomination was the “win.” Looking for actor support to take it all, it’s clear they came on a bit too late with a push for Song Kang Ho and you can argue they missed an opportunity campaigning Cho Yeo-jeong in Supporting Actress too. But the film had such organic momentum that everything else they did for the big prizes worked. And assumptions were broken and history was made. And for lovers of cinema and a more diverse Academy, that’s damn exciting, isn’t it?
The Oscars need a host
If the 20% drop in ratings can’t convince The Academy and ABC to revisit the need for a host we’re not sure what else will. There’s got to be something or someone to market. The problems start with the fact it’s impossible for any producer to get a boatload of legitimate superstars to appear on the telecast year after year. You also can’t assume the Original Song category is going to give you someone massive to promote like Lady Gaga. Producers Lynette Howell Taylor and Stephanie Allain were always behind the eight ball and should take little blame. They were brought on in the middle of November and had two fewer weeks to put on the ceremony. A ceremony that ended up giving them no Jennifer Lopez, no Beyonce, and no Marvel. What ABC and the Academy needed was a name. A name they could promote for weeks even before the nominations were announced (Remember when the promos would start before Christmas and had some production value?). It’s marketing 101. And that name shouldn’t be someone hosting a nightly talk show on the same network such as Jimmy Kimmel. It’s not different enough. Most importantly, the search for next year’s host should start now. If the HFPA and NBC can lock up their Golden Globes hosts a year in advance there is no reason the Academy can’t either.
Cannes is the new Telluride or Telluride is the new Telluride
“Parasite” is just the second Palme d’Or winner to win Best Picture, but the French festival’s increasing influence on awards season is no fluke. As Sundance’s narrative contributions have faded (so much so we didn’t even write about it after this year’s fest), France’s baby has flourished. This year there were two Cannes premieres that earned Best Picture nods (“Once Upon A Time In Hollywood” was the other) and there has been at least one Best Picture nominee three out of the last four years. And 2019 festival debuts “The Lighthouse,” “I Lost My Body,” “Pain and Glory” and “Rocketman” all had key nominations outside of the International Film category. Thanks to the power of social media, the industry and AMPAS members wake up to accolades and reviews about new films on the other side of the Atlantic at the top of their feed. As for Telluride, the Colorado staple was the festival where it was clear “Parasite” would absolutely play to actual Academy members and that the hyped “Ford v Ferrari” would be somewhat underwhelming in the awards arena. There’s still no better AMPAS litmus test than Telluride.
An old rule is new again: You can’t win opening in December
Outside of “Shape of Water’s” Dec. 1 limited release, we’ve now gone 15 years where a film opening on Dec. 2 or later has missed out on Best Picture. And the line of contenders who took that chance grows longer and longer. “Wolf of Wall Street,” “La La Land,” “The Revenant,” “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” and now “1917.” Obviously, there were other reasons at play and consultants can insist dating has nothing to do with it, but we respectfully disagree. Best Picture winners need to resonate with members. The love needs to build. Could “1917” have won if it was released earlier? Probably not, but would its chances have been slightly better if it was in theaters in October? Could it have secured a much needed acting nomination in that time span? Speaking of actors…
Actors still matter
That’s how this pundit realized “Parasite” was going to beat “1917.” It wasn’t just that every AMPAS member I spoke to at least had “Parasite” as their no. 2 choice. It wasn’t that we haven’t had a BAFTA winner take the Best Picture Oscar since 2014, either. No, the major difference between the supposed frontrunners was acting support. Sure, neither film earned individual acting nominations from the Academy, but “Parasite” not only earned a SAG Ensemble nomination it won the honor. And that standing ovation. Sorry, those two standing ovations. Maybe a quarter of the people in that room were AMPAS members, but that was special. And the biggest branch in the Academy is still the Acting Branch. So, for those so quick to dismiss the SAG Awards after it seemingly hasn’t meant much since 2015 (the last time the Best Picture winner also won SAG’s Best Ensemble), it actually has. The nominations are still as important as the PGA and the DGA, we just suggest you look a wee bit closer.
Surprise: You only get to introduce yourself once
Oh, “Hustlers.” What an example you’re going to be in marketing meetings for decades to come. Sure, there are a lot of reasons why Jennifer Lopez was snubbed of a deserved Oscar nomination. In fact, we discussed them in detail our Spirit Awards round up. But the fact the critically acclaimed $100 million hit was almost completely ignored by the guilds even before Oscar showed its cards proved there was a much bigger issue at play. The primary goal for STX was box office, obviously. The commercial creative sold the sexual aspect of the picture with just a little bit of the female empowerment thrown in. From a business perspective, it worked and might have saved the struggling indie studio from collapse. From an awards perspective, the company could never pivot far enough away from that initial marketing message to get – you guessed it – straight white men to take the movie seriously. What made it worse is when that demo watched the flick they “expected” something else because of said marketing. Maybe they would have given a female version of “Magic Mike” awards consideration, but not this. And, no disrespect to Greta Gerwig and Alma Ha’rel, but you knew there was a problem when Lorene Scafaria, who directed the hell out of the picture, wouldn’t even come up casually in the Best Director conversation. STX needed to find a way to marry the two campaigns from the beginning. That wasn’t a priority and it showed. In hindsight, Jlo never had a chance.
LA outdoor is scarce unless you’re Netflix
One aspect of awards season that media outside Los Angeles don’t seem to grasp is the impact of outdoor advertising. For decades, billboard and bus shelters have been key means to remind voters about a contender. Sometimes it’s been in conjunction with a release campaign, but for the most part, its been targeted to neighborhoods guild and AMPAS members live, work or travel through. What was apparent this particular year was just how impactful Netflix’s acquisition of 32 billboards in 2018 was. Since that deal, there is one thing you don’t miss in the crucial industry areas of Hollywood and West Hollywood and those are Netflix ads. Los Angeles got a taste with “Roma” last year, but this season “The Irishman” and “Marriage Story” were everywhere. The creative would change, but you could not escape them. And that doesn’t include the other outdoor Netflix buys traditionally in the city for consumer campaigns. That’s taken a significant bite out of what their competitors can do. For example, Sony Pictures had a very smart phase two campaign for “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood” that looked great on billboards…if you could find it. We’re not saying smart contending studios for 2021 should book their bus shelter space now, but we’re not not saying it either.
Maybe don’t overdo it
Speaking of Netflix, look, we have sympathy for the streaming giant. There is still a large number of guild and AMPAS voters who have ill will towards the service despite its support of cinema and, um, employing a boatload of their friends and neighbors (seriously, Mayor Garcetti should thank them for keeping the LA economy thriving). And we’re absolutely putting the re-opening of the Paris Theater in NY and keeping the doors open at the American Cinematheque’s Egyptian Theater in the column of remarkable endeavors no other company was willing to do. But even in a shortened season where almost every contender was having multiple screenings seemingly seven days a week, the Netflix campaigns seemed non-stop. It was a lot and it felt like it was everywhere. And this wasn’t just something you’d hear among the press, but even guild members would remark about it (and guild members love Netflix). Granted, with no mention in box office reports, Netflix needs to shout a little bit louder to compensate for a ton of press mentions other contenders are receiving that they aren’t. The company could easily fix that by just changing its theatrical model, but that’s not going to happen any time soon. It’s a lesson though that in an era where social media increases its influence on the season every year that too much chatter can simply be too much.
The industry needs more screening venues
Bless sound engineer John Ross and the Ross House, but unless AMPAS relaxes its rules on post-screening receptions (the reception and the theater must basically be in the same location) the industry simply needs more suitable venues. I mean, did AMPAS realize Ross would make such a killing? Is that what they hoped to achieve? Moreover, as networks and streaming services put even more effort in their year-end guild campaigns it’s causing more inventory issues on the available theater front. Hopefully, the opening of the Academy Museum will help beginning in the 2022 season (assuming the two theaters will be available for events). Even with those new options, however, there is still a need for additional 100-200 seat venues. This might seem like a trivial issue to those not on the ground, but it’s anything but for those in the trenches. And then there’s the theater situation in New York. Established venues have closed leaving studios scrambling with no relief in sight. Anyone got a couple of million to go in on a theater that will barely be able to cover Manhattan rents?