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What matters most in The Oscar Race?
* Critics (quotable raves, festival honors, year end prizes)
* Media (love from EW to the Web to Oprah)
* Precursors (love from the guilds and the Globes)
* Momentum (the past triumphs of actors and directors)
* Prestige (subject matter x genre ÷ filmmaking team assembled)
* Industry (Hollywood eats their own, but some are higher on the food chain)
* Audience (box office popularity and buzz)
If you answered, “Trick question! All of the above,” you are correct. You have to successfully manipulate the combination of factors if you hope to become an Oscar nominee or winner. The Oscar Race is theoretically about the raw material—is your film or performance worthy?—but it's always that plus the manipulation of all of these other things. Any one of those seven factors, should you have it in monstrous size, can take you far, but depending on the formidability of your competition, you'd better be riding more than one. And once you are, timing is everything.
Take the different cases of Meryl Streep in Julie & Julia and Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side. Streep generally starts each year with half the battle won: Critics, Prestige and Industry are very nearly givens every time, and lately Audience is, too. She's even got a healthy dose of Momentum going on annually (believe it or not, she hasn’t won an Oscar since 1982). Essentially, ‘America’s Greatest Living Actress’ is already battling for a nomination before anyone screens whatever her new film happens to be.
If you don't have the automatic Prestige and Momentum, you have to work harder or get lucky. Which is where Bullock comes in. She wasn't in the race until The Blind Side debuted and proved that she had the Audience (in a big way) and even some of the Critics. With those secured, the Precursors signed on. The easiest part was surely Media, since very famous stars like Sandy generally don't have a problem winning that love as long—as they're not named Nicole Kidman or they're in an awkward phase of their career.
This week Avatar, with its billion dollar haul, has been all the talk. But is it just talk? Media and Audience can sometimes cloud awareness of the other factors in an Oscar race. Media (where all Oscar punditry takes place) tends to be very excitable when Audience shows up in droves. It's the hand that feeds them. Yet for all the "game changer" talk surrounding James Cameron’s visual spectacular, there isn't really much precedent for the Academy naming it Best Picture.
E.T., Jaws and Star Wars may be comparable Oscar players (immediate giant Audience driving an increased response in all the other factors), and the latter two were actually game changers for the industry, too, creating the summer blockbuster system as we know it. None of the three won Best Picture. They lacked Prestige. Hear me out. Prestige, as narrowly defined by Oscardom, generally only applies to movies of the drama, historical/biographical or message variety. Sometimes Prestige can happen with just a legendary director involved, but that’s more complicated. Regarding the latter: Steven Spielberg was not the Spielberg of legend when he made these movies. He became the Spielberg of legend due to those movies (among others).
Long story short: Subject matter is king. Titanic, Cameron's previous billion dollar epic, isn't as easily comparable as Media wants it to be, either: Titanic was a historical costume drama epic, a genre which has been a favorite of Oscars since 1931's Cimarron. The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King might be the only Best Picture winner that's comparable to Avatar. But that 2003 winner had the Momentum factor in a major way, having proven its worth to Oscar voters for 36 months prior to the final balloting. There's a first time for everything, but no science fiction film has ever won Best Picture. "Avatar's the frontrunner!" is probably a hasty declaration.
The Hurt Locker and Up in the Air, currently the presumed challengers, have their own combination problems. The Hurt Locker has Critics in abundance (it just won the National Society of Film Critics prize). It also has Precursors and Prestige (war film). It even has Momentum if you allow for a Halle Berry "vessel" type effect—a lot of people have been wanting a female to win Best Director since long before Kathryn Bigelow ever began shooting her explosive film. But there are some gaps. It never won the Audience. I'm not sure Locker has Media either: it lacks a certain type of Hollywood glamour, and Media is obviously more smitten with Clooney and his ladies and those big blue aliens and their dragons. There's not much Industry in this equation either, since Bigelow and the actors aren't exactly power players in the traditional sense, more like rising commodities. Up in the Air is arguably working with all seven Oscar factors, but not in necessarily potent ways. Just two examples: It's mostly borrowing its Industry from Clooney and its Prestige from the idea that it's "topical"... but the dismal economy isn't necessarily reflective of what the film is actually most concerned with: companionship vs. isolation.
This year is shaping up to be an interesting competition for Best Picture, but if you ask me—and if you're still reading, you essentially did—there's not really a frontrunner yet. The Academy fires the gun on February 2 when the 2010 Oscar nominations are announced. From then on it's a race to the finish line. I suspect the contenders are just now stretching their muscles. No one's sprinting to the lead just yet. And if they are, they're in danger. Timing is everything. Once you’ve leapt on the dragon, you still have to have energy left to steer it through its dangerous flight.
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