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HOW TO WIN AN OSCAR
A MONTH BY MONTH CALENDAR
Every year we are bombarded with myriad different film related events, most of which remain shrouded in a veil of celebrity razzmatazz. Ever wondered what purpose film festivals serve? (other than applauding a pile of self-gratifying cinema by a bunch of pretentious filmmakers) Why do certain films release only at certain times of the year while others don’t? What do the DGA, the PGA ,the WGA or various other similar sounding acronyms stand for and why do they matter at all? And why on earth are the Oscars still relevant?
The answers to most of these questions may not be of any great significance (unless you’re an awards junkie like me ) but they do give us a better understanding of how each year for the film industry is carefully and intricately planned by the higher-ups to maximise profits and recognition. Here is a deep-dive into the annual awards season that spans an entire calendar year and what each month holds in store for those in the running.
For those wondering why the Oscars or any awards are being talked about in the summer, half a year before the ceremonies, it’s because as soon as an awards season comes to a close each year with the culmination of the Academy Awards in March, things are set in motion shortly after, as production companies begin their plotting and scheming for the next season.
In a sense, the awards season is a ceaseless cycle, a record stuck on repeat, with every consequent season blending seamlessly into the last. They begin where they end: at the Oscars
THE DROUGHT OF THE DUMP
After another exhilarating season comes to an end, the aftermath of the star-studded celebrations makes way for the most dreaded time of the year for movie-goers. A cusp period, stuck between revelling in the results of the last season and excited for the prospects of the next, when no new films (or any decent ones at least) are slated for release. In other words, it is motion picture purgatory.
This is the period when there are lowered commercial and critical expectations for most new releases from filmmakers, aptly dubbed the ‘Dump months’, because the film industry dumps its movies onto the market at that time, hoping no one will notice them. Looking at you, Morbius.
THE INFAMOUS RED CARPET
In a rare instance where the carpet precedes the name, the Cannes International Film Festival is not just a festival. It's an experience in itself, with the beach and the parties and of course, the glitz and glamour of the red carpet. However, it also serves as the perfect arena for international films, putting the spotlight on the best releases from around the world.
Cannes is the most prestigious of all film festivals, albeit with the rather unfortunate reputation for being elitist and exclusive. These days it is more about getting an under-the-table deal than actually finding new movies worth watching: it has become a playground for international co-productions (and more often than not, sequels). That is not to say there are no good films at Cannes: its competition program remains highly regarded by critics and cinephiles alike.
Although not always the finest indicators, winners of the top prizes at Cannes have had a tendency to stir things up for the season leading up to the Oscars, with many past Palme D’or winners making the Best Picture roster; Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite even going the whole way. At the very least, Cannes puts many international films on the awards radar.
Apart from acting as important precursor events to the awards ceremonies that follow, the film festivals also serve as a film auction of sorts, or more accurately, a buffet of cinema for production companies and distributors to pick and choose from. While legacy film production companies like Columbia, MGM, Universal, and Paramount produce their own films, smaller companies and indie production houses like A24, Focus Features, Searchlight and Neon look towards the festivals to select their champions. And as streaming services have taken centrestage, especially after the advent of the pandemic, Netflix, Amazon, and most recently, Apple TV have entered the game as frequent investors as well.
The haughty sophistication of Cannes is contrasted with the months to follow with the blockbuster releases of the summer. This period usually witnesses the big-budget releases by major production companies, the likes of which usually include certain rodent-owned megacorporations and the multiple franchises under its belt.
The summer months, conventionally synonymous with summer break from schools, mark the perfect opportunity for the ‘Mouse’ and its rival companies to flood theatres with an array of popcorn cinema catering to all age-groups and capitalise on every last ticket bought by weary, reluctant parents coerced into watching the latest Marvel flick with their kids.
These companies are usually less concerned with the film's reception at the awards and more with its box office success. Although owing to their massive budgets, these blockbusters often manage to rack up a couple tech nominations for their visual effects and sound design.
THE VENICE FILM FESTIVAL
In a year of stiff competition, the Venice Film Festival is a very important film event indeed. It is the oldest film festival in the world - this year will mark its 90th anniversary- as well as the most prestigious of the lot. Although it takes place over several weeks, there are enough screenings per week to bag awards and keep things exciting.
Over the years, Venice has had most of its titles grab Oscar voters’ attention, thanks primarily to how they’re received at the screenings. If a film really started winning awards around then, it was surely in good shape for consideration. Screening at the Italian event can help propel a film to Oscars glory, with the most recent examples being Best Picture nominees Roma and Joker and Best Picture winners, The Shape of Water and Nomadland.
Amidst the metropolitan backdrop of Toronto, lies the five-storeyed cinephile paradise - The Bell Lightbox - a sprawling glass building, home to the Toronto International Film Festival, or TIFF, as it’s more commonly known. Of all the major film fests from around the world, TIFF seems the most laid back and relaxed in its approach, providing a comfortable space for aspiring filmmakers, critics, and your everyday film lovers to enjoy this 10-day event, away from the flamboyance of its European counterparts.
Which isn’t to undermine its status as a heavy-hitter when it comes to predicting the awards race, as films screening at TIFF often more than not receive enormous populist support, especially after winning the top prize - The TIFF People’s Choice Award. In fact, some would argue that a film’s reception or mere presence at TIFF is a surefire indicator of its performance at the Oscars, with recent Oscar winners such as Green Book, Jojo Rabbit, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri being some of the noteworthy People’s Choice winners as well.
Set against the backdrop of an average John Denver song, the Telluride Film Festival, or just Telluride, named after the small mining town in Colorado, is the tiniest of the lot. Screening an average 10-15 films each year over a relatively modest four days, the festival is dwarfed in scale to the rest. However, time and again the festival has proved that size isn’t of consequence as it has earned itself the reputation of the very best film festival on the planet, receiving universal love from filmmakers, critics, scholars, students and cinephiles alike.
Of the handful of films that receive world premieres at the festival each year, many end up with the big prize at the Oscars, including Slumdog Millionaire, The King’s Speech, Argo, 12 Years a Slave, Birdman, Spotlight, Moonlight, The Artist, The Shape of Water and Nomadland. Telluride’s impact on a film’s awards contention thus speaks for itself.
THE CAMPAIGNS BEGIN
As awards season progresses, more and more people tune in to watch some of their favorite celebrities walk down the red carpet or perform on stage. This helps broaden interest in both the awards and winning films that might have otherwise never made it to their watch lists—provided they had found good distributors in their local regions. The increase in viewership and overall interest generates additional buzz for these coveted events each year, bringing about even bigger audiences following suit.
Studios spend a considerable amount to ensure their films get nominated, never mind actually winning an award. According to Variety, studios on average, end up spending an additional $10 million to run Oscar campaigns for their films. It may appear wasteful, but spending $10 million to garner an Oscar nomination is actually a good investment. With movies still seeming to fall short of breaking previous box office records and overall ticket sales being down even from last year, studios are having to not just draw people into theaters but also convince them why they should watch their movies too.
Over the past four years, Best Picture winners have generated an additional $19 million at the box office, more than nearly 50% higher than any other movie that was released during that same week. Take The King's Speech for example: It was initially projected to gross around $30 million but after winning four Oscars at the ceremony, it went on to make almost $400 million in ticket sales alone. Movies that win or are nominated at the Academy Awards reap huge box office benefits, despite the fact that studios pour millions of dollars into campaigns to try and secure wins.
The awards season is as much a marketing event as it is a celebration of the creativity and artistry behind movie-making. It is used to draw audiences back to the cinema and promote films for streaming releases.
THE FINAL RELEASES
The final two months in the year serve as the perfect antithesis to the dump months. They are the movie-lover’s paradise. Owing to its proximity to the final stretch of the awards season, production companies start vomiting out as many of their prized competitors as possible, each film even more ‘Oscar-baity’ than the last. And if that wasn’t enough, the winter holiday season also indicates the return of the big-bucks megacorporations, out to eat way past their fill, as if the gluttonous months of summer weren’t enough.
This smorgasbord of films, however, is the calm before the storm, for as the year comes to a jolly end, the clock striking midnight on the 31st of December marks the deadline for Oscar nominees, with nothing but an onslaught to follow in the next few months.
NATIONAL BOARD OF REVIEW
The National Board of Review (NBR), is a bit of an escape from conventional precursors, as their winners and nominees have more of a ceremonial significance with little to no impact on the season to follow. The NBR exists in its own little bubble, although still asserting a degree of relevance with every season (for some reason).
CRITICS CHOICE AWARDS
The entire United States mainland is bifurcated into many little regional critics circles that have their own little thing each year. Some of them have greater significance than others owing to the size of their cities or towns such as the New York Film Critics Circle (NYFCC) and the Los Angeles Film Critics Circle (LAFCC). And some have risen to a position of infamy by their impeccable predictions of Best Picture lineups over the years, such as the Detroit Film Critics Society. Collectively, the host of these many critics forms the Broadcast Film Critics Society Association (BFCA) and serves as the voting body for the Critics Choice Awards. The Critics Choice Awards have been a solid measure of most of the major categories at the Oscars for the most part.
SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL
In one final sweet interlude before the final chapter of the awards season begins is the festival that begins each year. The Sundance Film Festival, named after the titular character from Robert Redford’s iconic western, was taken over by the actor in the ‘80s and has since been a nesting ground for many independent filmmakers to display their craft.
Films screening at Sundance are known to be micro-budget cinema that are preyed on by distributors and production houses for acquisition. The most recent example of which is last year's Best Picture winner and Apple TV original, CODA. Since the festival takes place after the Oscar deadline, films premiering here participate in the next cycle instead, a foreboding reminder of the never-ending nature of the awards season.
THE GOLDEN GLOBES
Once an important precursor award ceremony, the Golden Globes have lost some of their former sheen in recent years,having earned a reputation of being mocked and ridiculed for the insouciance with which they carry themselves, and in light of recent controversies, perhaps rightly so.
For starters, the Globes are rarely taken seriously - both by awards prognosticators that desperately look for possible links with the Oscars and by the nominees themselves, who have infamously spent more time at the open bar than at the ceremony itself.
And though the Globes have been practically cancelled out of existence following the decade-long controversy surrounding its white-washed voting body - the Hollywood Foriegn Press Association (HFPA) - the Globes have unfortunately had a history of significant linkages with the Best Picture lineups later on at the Oscars.
Now nearing the end, we have what are known as the Guilds, which are communities of people sharing the same craft within the filmmaking industry. Each category you see at the Oscars is also a guild in itself. Think of them as little cults celebrating the best in what they practice - The Directors Cult, The Producers Cult, The Writers Cult. Guild, cult… it’s all the same, whatever helps understand them better.
The winners at each guild ceremony strengthen a nominee’s chances at the Oscars, pushing them ever so close to winning. Racking up multiple wins across the guilds solidifies those chances even further. The most prominent of the guilds is of course the Screen Actors Guild Awards or the SAGs (the actors cult), where individual winners and winners of the top prize, the SAG Ensemble, further their case for their performance at the Oscars.
The penultimate precursor before the big show takes us across the pond to the United Kingdom, with the British equivalent of the Oscars: The British Academy of Film and Television Arts or the BAFTAs. The BAFTA categories mirror the Academy Awards to the most extent, some exceptions include Best British Film.
However, in terms of selecting winners and nominations, the two couldn’t be further apart. The BAFTA winners and nominees have historically celebrated more under-the-radar films that deal with niche themes, usually distanced from mainstream appeal. This characteristic of their voting process and choices has garnered them a degree of respect that, with each passing year, has started to eclipse the credibility of the Oscars. In this sense, the BAFTAs are the more nuanced British cousin of the Oscars, who are constantly outshadowed by their bratty, privileged American counterparts.
It's interesting to note however, the existence of what has come to be called the ‘BAFTA Curse’ within awards pundit circles, according to which, the films in the past decade that have the top prize at the BAFTAs - the BAFTA Best Film - have lost their chances of winning Best Picture at the Oscars altogether. Now the veracity of the ‘curse’ is of course a matter of contention, especially considering Nomadland winning both top prizes as of late; however it is a statistic that awards predictors can’t fully seem to rid their minds of.
THE INDIE SPIRIT AWARDS
Before the grand night we’ve all been waiting for is a little interlude – one that celebrates indie cinema. Films that should have ideally gotten equal attention as their big-budget competitors if not more, but failed to make the cut through the span of awards season for multiple reasons. The Indie Spirit Awards or simply, the Spirit Awards showcase the underdogs that have been snubbed , in an attempt to make reparations for the awards season lapses in judgement. A24 darlings that were rejected by the Oscars including The Lighthouse, Uncut Gems, and The Farewell are a few recent winners at the Spirit Awards that have had cinephiles fuming over their snubs.
The antithesis to the Oscars, the Golden Raspberries, dubbed, the ‘Razzies’, are a filler, spoof event celebrating the “Worst” of cinema each year. They serve no purpose but for filmmakers and performers to poke a little fun at their own expense. And if you were as cool as Sandra Bullock, you would not only win both an Oscar and a Razzie in the same year, but show up at both ceremonies to receive the awards as well.
THE ACADEMY AWARDS
At long last. The endgame.
The most sought-after accolade in all of filmmaking, the Academy Awards puts the brightest stars in the industry firmly in the spotlight. The Academy Awards’ influence has had a hegemonizing effect on the world. They represent the finest work in cinema and recognise excellence in professionals across a variety of different fields in the filmmaking process, those of which include directors, actors,writers and film technicians like editors, sound engineers and music composers. Each year, millions of people from around the world turn their attention towards the Oscars at the culmination of the annual awards season.
Amidst decades worth of startling controversies and an outdated model of representation, the credibility of the Academy Awards has always been the subject of deep skepticism. Why are we still crowning the Academy Awards as if they're the singular, most important honor when it comes to recognizing deserving movies? How many of us still watch the ceremony to begin with? And for those who do watch, what do you really get out of it? What do any of these winners and losers mean to your life? If the Oscars have upheld an entire century of systematic racism, sexism, and favouritism, what exactly is it that has enabled the Academy to sustain its relevance in a 21st century environment and feint the heaps of criticism against their practices?
For the past few years, social justice has been at the center of Hollywood culture. The Academy has thus had a long, hard thought about how to tell more inclusive stories that reflect a broader slice of life. Hollywood has seen a slow but steady shift toward more inclusive and representative filmmaking, but upon a closer look at recent winners, the Academy’s choices seem to be purposefully tactful.
2015 marked one of the boldest Best Picture winners in a while with Spotlight, which turned a few heads at the very least. It was surprising to see the importance of the film and what it represented being recognised by the Academy, which at the time was still overwhelmingly white in composition, but more importantly, consisted of a Catholic majority.
Amidst the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, the next year went down in Academy awards history for a variety of reasons - namely the infamous Best Picture mixup between La La Land and Moonlight. Moonlight’s win was historic for being the first LGBTQ+ film to have won Best Picture and for celebrating black voices in cinema.
The year after that, The Shape of Water, although a questionable winner, has been argued to have had gender acceptance and same-sex love allegories.
The Academy proceeded to play it safe with the race-card in 2018’s winner, The Green Book, which despite its social message, has been argued as the worst Best Picture winner of the 21st century.
However, with 2019 and subsequently 2020, the Academy hit all the remaining check marks with both Parasite and Nomadland making history as the first foreign language film and the first woman-directed and woman-led feature to have won Best Picture in Academy Award history.
Following the wakeup call in 2015, the Academy has gradually checked off every possible facet to make itself seem more progressive in its outlook and has gathered as many woke brownie-points as it possibly could have. Does this mean there is a tangible change at the Academy? It’s still too early to say. However, tokenistic or not, with these groundbreaking winners over the past few years, the Academy has at its most basic, succeeded in keeping up with the times and staying relevant.
The Oscars are dying. The problem is that they do not tell you this directly, but rather through the increasing irrelevance the event has suffered over the past few years with regard to popular culture and film criticism. It isn't just that the movies nominated are bland, overly political or out of touch with what's truly great about cinema; it's also that they're increasingly disconnected from the tastes and trends of moviegoers.
The Academy needs to make a drastic change in not only what kind of movies it honors and how it does so, but also in how the Oscars telecast itself works. The Oscars are supposed to be a celebration of the greatest achievements in filmmaking. But for years, that has not been the case. While the winners might not be what one would expect, the box office numbers make it clear that the general audience is not being represented by these choices. And with every awards season comes a new wave of viewers who are once again disappointed with the end results.
The recent Academy Awards show had an audience of its lowest rating in years. It's no surprise, considering the Oscars are failing to connect with the general public. And through technology and the addition of so many new entertainment outlets, the Oscars have no one to blame but themselves.
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Story by: Ayaan Paul Chowdhury
Illustrations by: Seemon
Developer: Vishal Rathore, Ravi Kumar, Mohd. Naeem Khan
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