Tonight, the Independent Filmmaker Project will hand out their 2016 IFP Gotham Awards in New York City, recognizing the best independent films of 2016 — despite the fact that more than a month of 2016 is still ahead of us. Not only that, but when their nominations were announced at the end of October, some moviegoers had no interest in cheering for any of the nominees, for the simple reason that a great many of the nominations — including four of the Best Actresses and two Best Features — were for films that had not yet seen the inside of a New York theater (to say nothing of the rest of the country).
Indeed, should Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson win one of its three prizes tonight, you won’t seen an immediate post-award bounce in that movie’s box office receipts; Paterson isn’t even out in limited release (that is, New York and Los Angeles) until December 28, a full month from now.
One of the other multi-nominees at the Gothams, Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester By the Sea, began generating Oscar buzz back in January (yes, last January) when it premiered at Sundance – before last year’s Oscars had even been awarded. But the serious chatter kicked off in late August and early September, with the buzzy festival troika of Venice, Telluride, and Toronto leading into what film writer Mark Harris dubs “a six-month sustained discussion” of what films will and will not win Academy Awards.
It’s not that the interest is new, notes Anne Thomson, who covers the Oscars for Indiewire – it’s just that the media environment has allowed it to run wild. There are more outlets, with more awards writers, and their work gets traffic. “In a weird way, it’s the same principle as why the media gave so much attention to Donald Trump,” she explains, “because they know that he’s entertaining and he will be read.”
But all of the awards-savvy writers that I talked to agree there’s been a shift in how early the conversation around year-end awards begins, and that this backwards creep seems to be accelerating. Harris notes there are people with money at stake: “Writers who depend on seasonal For Your Consideration ads to make their living, writers who work for publications that depend on those ads, public relations firms that make a huge percentage of their annual revenue from everything from personal publicity campaigns to being hired to represent a project to being hired to represent all of a company’s movies to being hired to do lunches, all of the people who plan those events that are creeping earlier and earlier. I mean, this is an industry. And it is to the financial benefit of many people to have the Oscar discussion be as long as possible — including some of the people who annually complain about how long the Oscar discussion is.” (Guilty.)
And those writers, publications, and PR agencies aren’t the only ones profiting; there has also been a precipitous uptick in the number of second- and third-tier awards, some from dodgier organizations with vague-sounding names like the Hollywood Film Awards or the IPA Satellite Awards (which made headlines a few years back for their early December nominations of Wolf of Wall Street, a film it seemed most if not all of its membership had not seen). Kristopher Tapley, awards editor for Variety, stresses that “The Hollywood Film Awards aren’t in this business just to give out some awards – they’re in this business to sell some tables and make some money.” But, he notes, “The same could be said for every awards show.” So with that confluence of awards shows, awards writers, and awards-hungry distributors and filmmakers, you have an entire secondary business within the film industry proper. And business is booming.
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Both Tapley and his fellow awards editor at Variety, Tim Gray, pinpoint a specific moment when it felt like the firing of the starter pistol shifted: Slumdog Millionaire in 2008, which broke through at Telluride in late August. “It kind of came out of nowhere,” Gray recalls, “and then it was this sensation.” After that, the one-two-three-punch of Telluride, Toronto and Venice started things in August. That move came just a few years after the Academy shortened the race – for the second time. From 1959 to 1988, the Oscars were usually held in April, though sometimes in late March. But from 1989 to 2003, the ceremony was always in late March. Then, in 2004, they moved the Oscars back to the late February slot where it now lives (thought it occasionally drifts into early March). “That shifted everything,” Tapley says.
“When the Oscars moved a month earlier, seriously, some people in the Academy thought these other awards shows would just drop away,” Gray recalls with a chuckle. “It’s like, they’re not gonna go away, because some of them have TV deals, and so they make money, and they will get stars there because the stars are on the campaign trail.”
So the other ceremonies just moved earlier themselves. From 1973 to 2004, the Golden Globes were handed out from mid-to-late January. In 2005, they shifted to early-to-mid-January; this year, their ceremony is on January 8, the earliest Golden Globes to date. Similarly, The National Board of Review has gradually shifted from mid-to-late December to early December and now to November 29, also their earliest ceremony yet; the New York Film Critics Circle, which had given its awards in January or even early February from 1937 to 2009, shifted their awards to mid- and then early December.
“It was a little bit of a scandal,” Tapley recalls, “because people were like, ‘Why do you wanna go so early? And their feeling was, ‘We’re critics, so we should be the first ones to speak up on the best of year.’ And naturally, the National Board of Review leapfrogged that, and said, ‘Nope, we’re gonna be first.’” This year, he notes, the NYFCC announces their awards on December 1, “which is still pretty early. There’s a whole bunch of movies still to go.” One of those films is Martin Scorsese’s Silence, which looks, by all indications, to be a dense, complex film about faith and virtue, from a filmmaker who has spent a career considering those topics; his films provoke thought and contemplation. But Thompson notes that the NYFCC will see Silence on November 30, “literally the day before they vote.”
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So, at risk of putting too fine a point on it, what purpose do these months-early awards serve? For better or worse, the Oscars tend to amount to a consensus choice for the year’s best film; by that point on the calendar, most who are watching those awards has had a chance to see some films, make up their minds, and root for their chosen films/actors/directors/etc. But when the early ceremonies give out their awards, often the only people who’ve seen the films are critics, festivalgoers, and (sometimes) their own voting bodies. Are these awards about recognition, or are they about advocacy, or are they about attempting to steer a conversation? Or they, at this point, just about being first?
“The idea is to have impact,” Thompson explains. “The New York Film Critics Circle would tell you they don’t care at all about affecting the Oscars, which is obviously not true. And the New York and L.A. Film Critics definitely get into discussions, I know they do, about whether something could benefit from their advocacy, they definitely think about that.”
“All movie awards are in a way about advocacy,” Harris agrees. “Obviously, no matter who you are, if you’re voting for something to win an award, you’re saying, ‘I think this is the best from what I have to choose from,’ and you’re also saying, ‘I think you should go see it because it’s really good.'”
That, obviously, is honorable, and helpful for both those movies in particular and cinema in general. But should we worry, as this conversation creeps into the fall festivals over the past few years, about it reducing movies, upon an initial viewing, solely into potential award recipients? Shouldn’t they first be allowed to exist as art?
“It is a little bit the tail wagging the dog,” Gray admits, recalling how it’s changed how people view movies at festivals like Toronto. “A few years ago, opening night was The Fifth Estate, about Julian Assange, with Benedict Cumberbatch. I thought it was real interesting movie, but at the party afterwards, everyone is like, ‘This is not gonna win Best Picture! What the hell are they thinking?! This isn’t even a contender.’ And I kept saying, ‘Did they want it to be Best Picture, or did they just want to open the festival?’”
Is there any harm in that? It depends. We all walk into movies, particularly those with pedigreed personnel, hoping for greatness. But this often sets an unreasonably high bar. “It’s not fair to the movie you’re hyping to walk out of a movie you haven’t seen,” Harris says, “and say, ‘Well, I thought it was this huge Oscar contender, but apparently it’s not.’ It’s like, it’s only this huge Oscar contender because you created fan fiction about it.”
As far as what is out there, as it’s rolling out, “Consider the source,” Tapley says. “For instance, I’m seeing Fences tonight. There’s an embargo on reviews until December 12. But there’s not an embargo on awards assessments. My job is to give an awards assessment, which I will do. But I will react to the movie, first and foremost, as a work of art. When I see a movie — I mean, sometimes my first response is, ‘Oh my God, Anne Hathaway’s totally winning an Oscar for this, because I just saw her fucking sing a song for three minutes in one shot, and she’s gonna win.’ That’s the news.” And increasingly, that news angle is how these movies are introduced to readers. “I’m going to report that, and that’s what’s going to happen,” Thompson says. “That’s my job, and I’m not going to be defensive about it.”
But is it reductive to hash out these movies before most moviegoers can see them? “If you wanna be part of that early conversation, you go to fucking Telluride and be there!” Thompson advises. “I am very annoyed by that criticism… I do believe very strongly that the Oscars provide a service, in the sense that there are a lot of movies made, and a lot of movies released at this time of the year that otherwise would never get made, and would never get released. And they are able to be marketed via the Oscars. And it’s important that that happens, otherwise we’ll end up with nothing but Marvel movies.”
Thompson is right, obviously; in an environment where the nine highest-grossing movies of the year all concerned either superheroes or talking animals, any shedding of light on movies for and about grown-ups is welcome. But her mention of Marvel triggered a memory – of Harris’s terrific 2014 state-of-the-industry essay “The Birdcage”, which pinpointed, as one of the year’s “most important movie events,” the day when Marvel Studios chief Kevin Feige announced Marvel’s ‘Phase 3’ at “a fan-service event that had every bit of the importance and money-consciousness of a shareholders’ meeting.” On that stage, Feige rolled out a series of release dates and title logos, beginning a years-long wave of casting announcements, set reports, character designs, teasers for trailers, trailers, and, God help us, costume Twitpic analysis. And then the movie comes out, and within days, it’s forgotten.
Is it possible that, in its own way, prestige/indie cinema’s months-long march towards the Oscars is its own version of the Marvel title-and-logo announcement? That each new festival report, each obscure award nomination, each critics’ group bona fides amount to the same kind of advance hype? And that, as with tentpole movies, the hype ends up occupying far more digital and intellectual bandwidth than the movies themselves?
“We absolutely live in anticipatory culture,” Harris says, “and we shouldn’t imagine that high-end fall grown-up awards-friendly movies exist somehow outside that culture. And I think that there are profound dangers and miseries in having a culture of anticipation, including an almost permanent sense of anticlimax when something actually arrives.
“But what can one do but shake one’s sad little fist at the sky?”
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As Tapley mentioned, Fences was screened for critics and industry, for the first time, the day we spoke for this piece. After that screening, Anne Thompson tweeted, “Denzel Washington knocks Fences out of the park as director and actor; Viola Davis and Mykelti Williamson will also be Oscar Contenders,” and wrote more about the film’s Oscar chances at Indiewire. Kris Tapley concurred: “Denzel is winning #3. Go ahead and engrave Viola’s, too.” His piece at Variety, published that night, dubbed both “instant Oscar frontrunners.”
He also messaged me that night, with a follow-up comment. “Funny, after our chat today, Fences ends up being one of those films where my first tweet is indeed, ‘OMG, Denzel and Viola are winning.’ Sometimes that’s easier to blurt out than the complex emotions a work of art makes you feel, however. And so it goes…”