|Should we expect Oscar traction for Sundance hit 'Boyhood'?|
As we all know, January is a wasteland for quality movies, only salvaged for the lucky few who are able to attend the Sundance Film Festival. As an Oscar blogger, I can't help but approach the buzz out of that festival's premieres in the context of Oscar potential. As you can tell from the title of the article however, this is starting to become an increasingly futile wish.
Let's go back to 2009 for a minute. The Oscar nominations for 2008 were announced bright and early on January 22nd and the blogosphere and general public were left disappointed. In what turned out to be a game-changer in how the Best Picture field is set, 'The Dark Knight' was passed over in the final 5 nominees for the top award. It seemed to have all the makings for a Best Picture contender (near-universal critical acclaim, record-breaking box office) but it still couldn't make the cut ahead of the World War II appeal of Stephen Daldry's less-respected 'The Reader'. Subsequently, the Academy embarked on an initiative to expand the Best Picture field to 10, hoping to address the narrow definition of the "Oscar movie". The experiment worked. Whether you agree with the choices or not, there's no denying that the types of films nominated for 2009 represented a much more diverse range of filmmaking styles. Alongside the usual "prestige" titles were blockbuster fare like 'Avatar' and 'District 9', indie favourites 'The Hurt Locker' and 'Precious', an animated film and of course the now infamous inclusion of 'The Blind Side'. Mostly satisfied with the results, the Academy continued with this system for the 2010 film year with similar effect.
It was short-lived however, with the Academy once again changing their mind and implementing a rather unusual new method of nominating Best Picture. Rather than nominating a fixed number of 10 films, the new rules as of 2011 allows for anywhere between 5-10 nominees, based on a complicated 5% rule. Rather than listing 10 nominees on their ballot (which was the case with the 10-film lineup), the voters now select 5 ranked films and only those with 5% of the overall 1st place votes would become nominated (it's a bit more complicated than that but you get the gist).
Unfortunately, this instantly reverted things back to the status quo. Though the initial tampering with the process was intended to make Best Picture more inclusive, the 2011 lineup once again became the domain of the prestigious "Oscar movies". The big studios and their independent subsidiaries came back in a big way, leaving the smaller fish (Roadside Attractions, Lionsgate) on the outside looking in. To the chagrin of many, the Best Picture lineup was once again populated by unadventurous "Oscar bait" like 'Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close' and 'War Horse'.
This brings me to the main crux of this article. Is there no longer any room for the little Sundance movie? After consecutive nominations of Grand Jury prize winners 'Precious' and 'Winter's Bone' (surely aided by the expansion to 10 films and the ability for voters to list 10 favourites), many persons in the awards business came up with the notion of expecting a "Sundance slot" in the field. Unfortunately, the current trend seems to indicate that this may not bear fruit.
Fast forward to 2013 and the case study of 'Fruitvale Station'. The debut film of young director Ryan Coogler, it was an instant sensation at Sundance, picking up the impressive combo of the Grand Jury and Audience prizes. It was soon acquired by The Weinstein Company (you can consider them a major studio for the purposes of this discussion) for distribution and was unleashed with the perfect storm of critical acclaim (94% on Rotten Tomatoes), a zeitgeisty premise (relevance to the contentious Trayvon Martin case) and an emotionally resonant story, all while fitting in nicely with the theme of 2013 as "a standout year for black film". Surely, Oscar nominations would follow right? Well, that's what many pundits thought. Just ask my buddy Andrew, who held the faith almost to the very end. Unfortunately, when the nominations for 2013 were announced, 'Fruitvale Station' was absent from the final list of Best Picture nominees. In addition, the beloved 'Before Midnight' (another Sundance premiere) was also cast aside, except for a measly screenplay nod.
So the question remains, is the current nomination process a good thing for Best Picture? I'm starting to have my doubts, particularly when it concerns recognizing the smaller "Sundance" brand of filmmaking. By their very nature (small budget, unknown actors), most Sundance films are unlikely to have massive appeal with Academy voters. Many of these people came to fame before the modern concept of indie cinema even existed. It therefore seems quite clear that requiring these 1st place votes for a nomination will place the "Sundance movie" at a severe disadvantage. Of course, 'Beasts of the Southern Wild' still made it under the current rules, but that's an understandable anomaly. Its fantastical ambition (in addition to having a powerful distributor in Fox Searchlight) was more in line with a studio film than the usual Sundance darling.
I therefore believe it would be in the Academy's best interest to return to a 10-film Best Picture lineup. If they are so concerned with attracting the hip crowd, then this can help. 2009 and 2010 brought some of the most atypical but vital nominees (The Tree of Life, Up, District 9) to the conversation. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.
Right now the Sundance Film Festival is already abuzz with the premiere of Richard Linklater's latest film 'Boyhood'. If it's as good as they say, then I hope it will be legitimately in the running for Best Picture of 2014. Alas, we may be setting ourselves up for another disappointment.
What's your opinion of the nomination process? Let me know in the comments.