Last weekend, across the globe, the simultaneous openings of the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado and the Venice Film Festival in Italy were like a starter pistol, kicking off the fall movie season with premieres of highly buzzed films like Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners, the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, J.C. Chandor’s All Is Lost, and Steven McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave. That last title in particular got film critics, awards bloggers, and tweeting moviegoers tossing around the “O-word”: Oscar. And here we go. Welcome to the worst thing about the fall movie season: relentless Oscar chatter.
Most of those writing about these films are, to their credit, aware of the reader’s premature irritation. “I know, I know, it’s much too early to be thinking about the Academy Awards,” begins A.O. Scott’s Telluride roundup in the Labor Day New York Times, “and Oscar talk is considered a bit gauche up here” — but apparently not on the pages of the Times, and Scott returns to it in due course (“If you will indulge a little more Oscar talk…”). According to Huffington Post, “Telluride Oscar Buzz Puts 12 Years a Slave, Prisoners in Awards Race on Labor Day,” while Variety trumpets “Early Oscar Buzz” for 12 Years a Slave and Prisoners.
“Early” is right. At the risk of putting too fine a point on it, it’s fucking September. Look, no one’s more excited about the kickoff of “good movie season,” and rest assured, when the end of the year comes and the nominations are announced, no one will be deeper immersed in the muck of Oscar season. But the fact that every single prestige release of the fall is being weighed purely on the basis of its ability to gather little gold statues is endemic of the hype problem that is wrecking the movie industry.
It’s much more noticeable in the lead-up to the summer months, when the big-dollar blockbusters are vying for your attention and movie-going dollar months and even years in advance. (It’s gotten to the point where fans are up in arms when the occasional years-away tentpole picture dares to buck the trend of a steady diet of teases and information.) Dates are staked out years ahead of time, trailers and panels are carefully dished out at conventions, media is carpet-bombed with advertisements, and a film’s pending release is accompanied by the roar of millions of dollars. And then, after years of warm-up, the din is silenced; due to the overwhelming “blockbuster of the week” mentality of the increasingly crowded season, the big, expensive movies are forgotten days, even hours, after their much-heralded appearance.
But the fall is getting just as bad. Part of this is the industry’s fault, for carefully positioning the fall as the “prestige” season and holding all of their non-comic-book-sequel releases for those four months of the year — it’s a calculated move to keep those pictures fresh in the notoriously short memories of Academy voters. Yet whatever the reason, we’ve reached a point where fall releases are considered solely as awards contenders, and only valued as such. The idea of award-worthiness doesn’t have to be an inherently problematic organizing principle for considering what is often a glut of fine films. But the Academy Awards are notorious for ignoring the riskier and more interesting films and making “safe” picks. More problematically, when every film is subjected to that particular rubric, whether they’re asking for it or not, we’re turning prickly pictures into premature failures. For example, the high-caliber cast, October release date, and Oscar success of There Will Be Blood made Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master an immediate “Oscar hopeful,” though it was obviously too eccentric and difficult a film to come anywhere close to pleasing that awarding body. When it became clear that The Master wasn’t going to be a Best Picture winner or even nominee, conventional wisdom immediately held that it was a Disappointment — in spite of its multiple acting nominees and, more importantly, its status as a challenging work of real value.
The Academy Award is an arbitrary achievement, often recognizing easy middlebrow entertainment, too frequently susceptible to reverse-engineering and gregarious campaigning. The bestowing of an Oscar statue or nomination is often a helpful marketing tool, but little more. Yet months-out surmising about who will receive these honors has become a cottage industry, and when we start attaching proclamations and questions about Oscar-worthiness to literally every serious film that screens in the final third of the year, we’re doing no favors to either the pictures or the awards.
So sure, talk about the Oscars; it’s a big event, and a big night, and (as this writer knows firsthand) writing about and covering them generates plenty of pageviews. But let’s hang back for a bit, maybe? I, for one, would propose an embargo on Oscar discussions of, say, Thanksgiving; time enough to see much of what’s out there and consider it, and then to weigh the December big guns. So let’s do that — and while we’re at it, no Christmas music or decorations before Thanksgiving either. You don’t even wanna get me started on that.