Hooked on Oscar Bait – Is There a Hack to Winning an Oscar?
The Academy Awards, better known as the Oscars, are now just days away. Since nominations were announced in March, many have tried to predict the winners. Although winning an award may seem purely based on the objective quality of a film or performance, over the decades, the Academy has shown a pattern in what they look out for in a film. Films that pander to these patterns to increase their chances of being nominated for or winning awards have thus been dubbed “Oscar bait”.
To understand how films become Oscar bait, we first need to observe how the Academy works. The Academy earns its prestige by being made up of members of the industry who are either Academy Award nominees or someone sponsored by an existing Academy member. These members get to decide the nominees for the Oscars and, subsequently, the winners. This exclusivity, in contrast to other award shows like the Golden Globes which are voted on by the press or critiques, gives the Academy its legitimacy in the eyes of fellow industry professionals.
The history of Oscar bait
The first film to be dubbed Oscar bait is thought to be The Deer Hunter. The film is three hours long and is far from cheerful in its plot, which made it hard to sell to audiences. The film’s marketing decided to take an unprecedented route at that time — banking on an award nomination to give the film a publicity boost.
The Deer Hunter met the bare minimum requirements to qualify for an Academy Award nomination, and sure enough, it scored not one, not two, but nine nominations. The movie went on to win five of those nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director.
Perhaps more importantly for the film, the award nominations and wins turned its financial fate around. From scraping by during its initial two-week run just to qualify for the Oscars, the film went on to gross US$48.9 million at the box office after its award nominations and wins.
This never-before-seen tactic did not go unnoticed by the industry, and its success in being able to completely turn a movie around piqued the interest of other film producers. From being a precedent, using the Oscars as a marketing tool has now evolved into the norm. Instead of appealing to cinema-goers to then influence the Academy into noticing a film’s worth, some film producers were now working backwards — appeal to the Academy to validate your film, then sell it to mainstream audiences.
The Oscar bait formula
With this new desire to win the Academy’s favour, filmmakers have begun snooping out the traits of an Oscar-worthy film to create a formula that leads them to the coveted awards. Over the years, films following the same formula have dominated the industry.
The industry has found that the Academy’s top picks always fall into one of four categories: historical films, biopics, social commentary films, and films about the media or showbiz.
These genres appeal to the panel because the panel is extremely uniform in its demographic. Its views and preferences tend to be unanimously concentrated on specific topics. Although the film industry itself has long struggled with diversity, the panel is less than representative of the cinema-going crowd — the Los Angeles Times found that the Academy is 94% white, 77% male, and 86% over the age of 50. Based on this, it becomes evident why the four aforementioned categories are highly favoured.
Historical films often cover wars and American history. Not only is the older generation more likely to feel and express patriotism, they may have even lived through some of these events themself. Historical films are thus able to fulfill this sense of patriotism and nostalgia for many members of the Academy.
The Academy also seems to have a strange affinity for holocaust films. Of the 20 holocaust films that have been nominated since Shelley Winters won Best Supporting Actress for The Diary of Anne Frank, only two of the 20 failed to receive an Oscar win. Just a few examples include Schindler’s List (1993) — the most famous holocaust film ever made — which was nominated for 12 categories and won seven, The Pianist (2002) which was nominated for Best Picture and won Best Actor and Best Director, and most recently Jojo Rabbit (2019) which was nominated for six categories and took home Best Adapted Screenplay.
Biographical films, or biopics, are another popular contender at the Oscars but more so for the acting categories than for Best Picture. For the last two decades, 11 out of 20 wins in the Best Actor category and 10 out of 20 wins in the Best Actress category went to actors portraying real people.
Eddie Redmayne was praised for his ability to capture Stephen Hawking’s physical deterioration in his battle with ALS, and Gary Oldman was credited for his commitment to the role of Winston Churchill when he went to extreme lengths to transform his physical appearance.
No Film School writer Joanna Naugle says: “Since giving awards on acting can be so subjective, it makes it a bit more concrete to be able to compare an actor with the real life person they are portraying.” Essentially, the closer the actor resembles the person they are portraying, the better the performance. When an actor is able to nail the mannerisms and accent of a character, it is hard to deny that they have done a good job and therefore simpler to decide on an Oscar win.
The Academy’s panel may have a higher median age than general cinema-goers, but the Academy still wants audiences to believe that they are relevant and of-the-time. They attempt to do this by highlighting films that discuss current issues, such as feminism and racial discrimination. Best Picture winners Moonlight (2016) and Parasite (2019) delved into themes of sexuality and class inequality respectively. A win for these films is also seen as a win for the issues they discuss. This is an easy way for the Academy to prove that it recognises these issues and acknowledges its audiences, even if those issues ironically remain prevalent in the industry.
The last genre may be considered a little self-serving, but films about the media or showbiz are fuel for the industry’s vanity. After all, who doesn’t like seeing their own profession being portrayed in an artistic and noble way? Praising a film about film is basically praising film itself, so it is no mystery why the Academy would do so. Some notable examples of nominees include La La Land (2016), A Star Is Born (2018), and Once Upon A Time in Hollywood (2019).
Hooked on the bait
It is no wonder that these films have been dubbed Oscar baits — these four categories are responsible for almost all Oscar nominations in the last decade. The pattern has become more and more evident both to industry members and to movie audiences.
This has led to several accusations against the Academy for blindsiding films and actors that deserve to be nominated even if they do not carry any of the typical characteristics that the Academy seems to look out for. Cinema-goers and critics have also criticised filmmakers for abusing the Academy’s preferences to make Oscar bait films instead of spearheading creativity and quality filmmaking.
Not only does Oscar-baiting bring in recognition, it can also bring huge box office sales just as was shown with The Deer Hunter. Most recently we saw how the Oscars propelled Parasite into the mainstream especially in the west, which resulted in a whopping 234% increase in ticket sales after clinching Best Picture.
Being the most prestigious recognition of filmmaking, the Oscars has an undeniable influence on the industry. But what happens when the Oscars becomes a bad influence on the industry? Some film critics believe that modern cinema is driven too heavily by box office numbers and has lost its appreciation for creating real art. Now that the players have cracked the game, perhaps it is time to change up the game.
If Oscar nominations and wins should not be decided by the Academy’s own preferences, then how else should the process be carried out? What should get to decide the best film or best actor of the year? Should a portion of voting be opened up to the press or public? Perhaps the judging panel within the Academy needs a complete overhaul. Or maybe judging could even take into account Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic ratings.
Will the pattern repeat itself?
Based on these patterns, we could make predictions of our own about this year’s winners. Once again, many of the nominated films fall into our standard four categories — The Trial of Chicago 7 is our historical film entry for the year; Judas and the Black Messiah is a biopic; Mank is both a biopic and a film about making films. Minari, Nomadland, and Promising Young Women are social commentaries tackling the life of migrants in America, the death of the American Dream, and feminism respectively. And last but not least, there is Sound of Metal which is a film about showbiz, or more specifically about performing music.
Nomadland is slated to win several of these awards. The film is extremely unique and steers clear of the flashy visuals Hollywood is known for, instead opting for a very somber and almost documentary-style tone. Its themes of modern day nomads and the death of the American Dream are almost unheard of in film and celebrating this novel concept may be enticing to the panel.
Director Chloé Zhao is almost certain to take home Best Director after she won the same category at both the Golden Globes and the BAFTAs.
Despite the wonderful performances chosen for Best Actor this year, the award will most likely go to the late Chadwick Boseman. Boseman passed away from cancer which he battled silently while filming some of his most well-known works including Marvel Studio’s Black Panther. Both members of the film industry as well as fans were shocked by his passing in August last year, and awarding Boseman the Oscar would be a recognition of his commitment to his craft.
As for Best Actress, there seems to be no clear winner. Carey Mulligan’s performance in Promising Young Women was urgent and poignant in the wake of the #MeToo movement, while Frances McDormand spearheaded Nomadland as a passion project of sorts. This category may come down to a hairline margin for the winner, but our money is on Viola Davis who plays the titular character in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Not only is the film a biopic, one of the Academy’s favourites, Davis is also a veteran actress of colour. She was the first black actress to win the Primetime Emmy Award for Best Actress in a Drama and is also the most nominated black actress in Oscar history. With this year’s Oscars being the most diverse yet, the Academy may take this opportunity to showcase Davis as one of the most prolific actresses of colour today.
Based on the Academy’s pattern, it may be easy to spot the winners from a mile away. Nonetheless, any of these films are still considered deserving of their nominations, especially in a global pandemic when making and releasing a film can be especially challenging. Although the films this year still fall neatly into the four categories, there are no particularly controversial nominations. Whether the same can be said about the wins will be revealed in time to come, but only the Academy knows what surprises it has in store for us.
Channel 5 and meWATCH will be airing this year’s Academy Awards live on April 26, with the main show starting at 8am (GMT+8). The telecast will be available on meWATCH until May 19.