“It’s quiet out there. Too quiet.” – Robert Stack, Airplane!
You already know that last January 14, when the Oscar nominations were announced, the ensuing #oscarssowhite controversy caused a near-state of emergency amongst the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, leading to, among other things, public promises for the AMPAS membership to be 50% women and people of color by 2020. (As the link reveals, the Academy may be backtracking on that.) We also know that the hullabaloo led directly to Fox Searchlight paying the highest price ever paid at Sundance to acquire a film, The Birth of a Nation, as well as the green-lighting of the productions of Fences and Hidden Figures, two African-American ensemble-led films coming out on Christmas Day 2016. No doubt about any of that.
But the answer to this question is less clear: did #oscarssowhite dial down the volume on the 2016-2017 Oscar race? Normally, by this time in the calendar year, the same friends of yours who would re-tweet a joke like “Trump is so mad at theater, he’s going to build a fourth wall” would also be buzzing about Oscar bait films. This year, not so much. Is that because of #oscarssowhite?
Let me explain. As Sasha Stone at awardsdaily.com has been saying for years, the last time a film came out after Veterans Day, and won Best Picture, was Million Dollar Baby (2004). Last year, late December release The Revenant seemed poised to break that trend…but Spotlight held it up. Stone believes that because of the compressed, chock-a-block Oscar season – earlier Oscar night, more Best Picture nominees to watch – there simply isn’t time for a Christmas release to catch fire anymore.
But it’s not only about the one film that wins Best Picture. Every year, based on year-end awards that predate the Oscars (like the DGA, the PGA, the WGA, and SAG Awards), two or three films have a reasonable shot at winning the big prize, and the handicappers all know who they are (and sometimes anoint who they are): Boyhood versus Birdman in 2014, 12 Years a Slave versus Gravity in 2013, Argo versus Lincoln (versus Life of Pi versus Zero Dark Thirty?) in 2012, The King’s Speech versus The Social Network in 2010, The Hurt Locker versus Avatar in 2009, Slumdog Millionaire versus The Curious Case of Benjamin Button in 2008, No Country For Old Men versus There Will Be Blood in 2007, The Departed versus Little Miss Sunshine (!) in 2006, Crash versus Brokeback Mountain in 2005. In each of those cases, at least one of the big contenders had been released well before Halloween, which drew regular people into the Oscar race at a far earlier point in the cycle than any film this year.
The one minor exception is 2011, where The Artist and Hugo didn’t come out until December – although The Artist, which won, was released in France on October 12. Stateside, The Help, Midnight in Paris, and Tree of Life had been released at least weeks before Labor Day; their eventual Best Picture nominations came as a surprise to exactly no one. It’s hard to think of a pre-Labor Day release in 2016 that compares to any of those three. There’s a reasonable chance that Sully, which was released on September 9 of this year, will parlay its $125m gross along with its Tom Hanks-Clint Eastwood credentials into the same Best Picture slot that last fall’s official “film your dad likes,” Bridge of Spies, eventually secured. And like Bridge of Spies, Sully will have zero chance of winning the thing. The film that won the most of last year’s Oscar statues was a summer blockbuster released in May, Mad Max: Fury Road. Not seeing any summer blockbusters poised to do anything like that this time around.
Other than Sully, and the very, very outside chance of Hell or High Water, this autumn has been quieter for awards-caliber films than any autumn since at least 2004, perhaps longer. Does 2016 have two pundit-anointed frontrunners a la 12 Years a Slave and Gravity? Yes it does, and in fact, one of them, Manchester by the Sea, finally did come out in four theaters three days ago. The other is La La Land. But if you’ve read this far, it’s fair to say that any other year, by now, you or one of your friends would have been talking more about Oscar films…and the one thing we know that was already systemically different about Hollywood in 2016 was the media circus around #oscarssowhite.
Does one have to do with the other? Sully aside, the Oscar bait films that have come out are conspicuously, noticeably more diverse than, say, Spotlight or The Big Short or Birdman or Boyhood. Many months ago, The Birth of a Nation was assigned the same plum October release spot as 12 Years a Slave – before Fox Searchlight knew that resurfaced rape allegations would dog the director and screenwriter. Birth was birthed in October, but the so-so film didn’t barnstorm critics or the box office; that fizzle is one reason we’re not already on High Oscar Alert. Meanwhile, two quiet, African-American-centered films about the difficulties of loving who you want – Moonlight and Loving – are quietly staking claims to two of those Best Picture nominations. There’s also a Best Picture case to be made for Arrival, in this year’s “thoughtful science fiction piece” slot (previously held by Gravity in 2013, Interstellar in 2014, and The Martian in 2015), but with a woman north of 40 in the lead, co-starring with Forest Whitaker, that film is unlikely to be diversity-shamed.
If you’re not as excited about Moonlight, Loving, and Arrival as you were about, say, Birdman and Boyhood, maybe…well, maybe the #oscarssowhite hashtag was partly for you?
The larger point is that if every year, America and Oscar jump into bed for a little while – like in that Alan Alda film Same Time Next Year – it’s almost like last year’s affair ended in shouting and recriminations, and our two lovers are approaching the annual tryst a little more warily. Or phrase it this way: because Hollywood was embarrassed by last year’s #oscarssowhite debacle, it feels like the town is cheerfully putting forward its films that don’t run afoul of #oscarssowhite re-tweeters – but saving its white horses for Christmas, as though to keep its head low. Yes, it will campaign for its prime horses when the time comes, but not as ostentatiously, and not for as much time.
Yes, I know: Fences, directed by and starring Denzel Washington, will come out on Christmas Day and, if buzz is any indication, likely earn nominations for all its principles. But I’m not saying that the studios put all their non-white films in the front, only that the ones that they did put upfront were pre-shielded from twitter outrage (uh, except for the unforeseen circumstances of Birth of a Nation, and for Sully and Hell or High Water, neither of which were considered prime awards contenders).
So yes, other than Fences and Hidden Figures, which were only completed in the editing room short weeks ago, the studios have pretty much positioned their white-starring films for the shortest possible Oscar races: La La Land, Manchester by the Sea, Patriots Day, Jackie, 20th Century Women, Hacksaw Ridge, Silence, and a few others yet to be determined. If I’m right, then one of the least expected effects of #oscarssowhite will be to break a 12-year-streak of late-breaking films failing to win Best Picture. Probably nobody in Hollywood was saving the alabaster-hued films because they were waiting for Donald Trump to be elected President – it just worked out that way.
Or perhaps I’m wrong, and these have all been release-date coincidences. Perhaps. Perhaps the season is shorter because movies are just getting worse, losing to TV. That’s a conversation that we’ve had before and will have again. No doubt, this blog post will seem VERY dated in less than two weeks, when the lists begin to appear and the first of the award-bestowing bodies (like The National Board of Review) start, uh, bestowing awards. By the end of the first week of December, it will seem like this year’s Oscar race was always a big deal. But those of us who were watching would do well to remember November, when so few were watching with us.
Perhaps #oscarssowhite still hasn’t affected the season enough if our two frontrunners are basically as white as a picket fence. But you always knew that the largest reforms weren’t going to happen in one year. No, this year won’t see ten Straight Outta Comptons as the ten nominees for Best Picture. But the main #oscarssowhite complaint – that all 20 acting nominees were white persons for the second year in a row – is almost certainly not going to be a problem. And even the typical Oscar calendar feels warped. Not bad for one little hashtag.