Paint It Bakish

The Oscar Race is Going to Kill Us All

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Well, after our long, long wait, The National Board of Review winners are in! 

The self-described “select group of knowledgable film enthusiasts, professionals, academics, young filmmakers, and students” has been luring the titans of the film world to its annual “gala” for decades now. The 2018 NBR event—put on by this select group, mind you—was attended by Lady Gaga, Bradley Cooper, Peter Farrelly, Steven Spielberg, Brad Bird, Awkwafina, and many of everyone else working the circuit a year ago. 

The way you know your show is on the C-list is that you have to announce the winners in advance to get them to come. But still, they come! At no small studio expense, of course, but still. 

How is it that movie studios, who are supposedly trimming sails left and right to become more efficient and modern by the hour, still have budgets to fly their stars and directors and associated handlers and assistants across the country or in from the set in Bucharest—via company Jet or first class and put up in no doubt modest suites at always affordable Manhattan hotels—so they can thank “a select group of knowledgable film enthusiasts, professionals, academics, young filmmakers and students” for their plaque?

Not that NBR has been a reliable predictor of anything. As Deadline bothered to mention (most others didn’t):

The org has been less of a bellwether than others in choosing the ultimate Oscar best picture winner.

But bellwether or no, it is one of the things that you go to if you’re doing the Oscar death march, so god forbid you not be at any of them.

What’s the immediate cost? Tens of thousands, perhaps lots of tens of thousands per star or director to send them to accept their accolades from the Board of Review. Call it the all-in costs of one employee at a time when studios are cutting heads and costs and supposedly exercising newfound modern conglomerate restraint, to send one star to one little even; one tiny banquet of almost no significance on just another weekend in awards season.

And so we enter, full throttle, on the final bitter slog of Trophy Trail 2019. The moment in which many people will pretend to take the Board of Review announcement very very seriously, a very few actually will take it seriously, and much of Hollywood will fall in line and march behind the parade to report, analyze, dissect, and ultimately cover The National Board of Review awards and “Gala.”

A harmless distraction? Maybe, although not a cheap one.

But is it really harmless?

It’s difficult to say whether the Awards Industrial Complex is just a symptom of everything that’s killing Hollywood, or an aggressive strand of the disease itself, laying waste to some vital organ, let’s say the pancreas; not the attention-getting big ones like the heart (box office) or the lungs (streaming revenue). Just one of those little out-of-the-way parts of the body which if they don’t function properly, cause the entire thing to shut down.

What’s so unsettling is that this whole incestuous, corrupt, self-absorbed, stultifyingly dull death march is that this is supposed to be Hollywood showing its best face to the world, putting on its best show – a celebration of the best of Hollywood conducted in the best Hollywood style.

When the Awards Sector is functioning properly, it’s a flywheel of glamour as Hollywood comes together looking its best, touting the dreams it has spun that makes the world gape on in awe, lusting to be a part of it; a fantasy they indulge either by buying movie tickets or, we dream, investing and underwriting Hollywood productions. Pharmaceuticals may have a better return, but no one is framing their picture on the red carpet of the annual Big Pharma Awards Show.

What keeps this entire place afloat (and afloat at a lifestyle Maharajahs of yore didn’t dare to dream of) is that for generation after generation, rich people and big corporations around the world woke up one day with the idea that they should go into the movie business. Yesterday it was Hughes Aircraft and Coca Cola and Gulf and Western; today it’s Apple and Amazon. When they dream of going into this business, what do they see? Themselves at the Academy Awards, the most glamorous night on Earth. 

Don’t believe this still matters? Just have a look at which oil magnate from Tulsa your favorite studio head or legendary director is escorting to the Oscars next time, just before they sign the check to underwrite their entire slate.

And of course, once they come, they don’t come to lose. The blueprints that Harvey Weinstein gave the world about how to win a modern Oscar campaign are now fully funded by his one-time acolyte Ted Sarandos who's setting a new budget level that every studio has to try to match if they want to play. And so the “tastemakers” events, the screenings, the trade ads, the consultant fees, the round-the-world roadshow. A lot of checks to a lot of people—first and foremost let it never be forgot: the trades—with an extremely vested interest in not just keeping this going, but filling in every crevice during this half-year season with some crucial indicator of Oscars to come. 

Which is why you start reading sentences like this in Hollywood’s papers of record:

Capri, Hollywood continues to be a key destination on the road to the Golden Globes and the Academy Awards, given its timeframe over the New Year's holiday and glamorous location off the coast of Naples.

Or:

The NBR honors for Scorsese's highly-anticipated, long-in-the-works crime epic come after the film was recognized with nominations for the AARP's Movies for Grownups Awards and honors at the Palm Springs and Santa Barbara film festivals and Hollywood Film Awards.

Or: 

The Hollywood Film Awards usually serve as the official start to awards season.

Or:

The PSIFF black-tie gala is always a high-profile stop on the awards circuit. This year, it's presented by American Express, sponsored by AT&T and Entertainment Tonight and hosted by Mary Hart, with 2,500 guests expected. 

The parade of charlatans passing themselves off as august award-bestowing bodies has become a full-employment guarantee for every barely-plausible con man and hustler on the fringes of media. 

You don't have to go farther than the Hollywood Awards self-description of their considered and thoughtful decision process to smell the grift:

With participating Hollywood insiders, our Advisory Team identifies and selects the recipients of our honors. Our winners are pre-selected to receive our awards. Our selection is based on their outstanding achievement and contribution to the art of cinema. They are not “nominees.”

So the Oscars, what was once one single light, only mildly tedious evening of beautiful people passing out prizes to movies, becomes this endless trudge through the Film Critics Circles and the Santa Barbara Festival, each stop justifying the paychecks of an army of pundits, stylists, consultants, caterers, and the egos of the many, many committees and Boards and Circles along the way.

With that vast retinue, the self-importance grows and grows, and the race becomes not just longer but duller, with every social media flare-up getting sucked into its effect on The Race. Should the Academy reward Scorsese for robbing Anna Paquin of her agency? Or Tarantino for robbing Margot Robbie of hers? The Joker wars. The “What is a Movie” wars.

In the past, the lack of big-budget studio dramas has been blamed for Oscars embrace of films seen by very few. But this year, if you go looking for them, there are a fair number of studio releases that if not big budgeted are certainly mid-budget grownup films—certainly if you include the mini-majors. Even before you get to the specialty divisions: Ford vs. Ferrari, Yesterday, Rocketman, Downton Abbey, Us, OUATIH, The Upside, Knives Out. If those films aren’t AMPAS (or the Critic’s Circles) cups of tea, okay. But you can’t say grownup movies for broad audiences don’t exist anymore and pretend it’s not Oscar seeing itself as part of an elite niche of viewers. Which is a tough place to be if you’re trying to get 30 million viewers.

The trades used to regularly do stories showing how much an Oscar nomination could impact downstream revenues, implying that the campaigns paid for themselves. You don’t see much of that anymore. Did the Green Book victory change the bottom line for Comcast a fraction of a point? Did the tens of millions spent on the Roma campaign, in the end, move any needle? And will the tens more spent for The Irishman turn any tide in the streaming wars?

At some point, this money will mean something to someone. At some point, when things get really tight and the blessed stock price takes a hit, questions like why are we spending tens of millions on this will start to get asked.

The fact is, you don’t see the tech world spending six months on an awards circuit, blowing fortunes on consultants to tell them how they can lock up the eighth nomination slot for the Fastest Loading App prize. That's the problem here. Which industry has its eye on the consumer and which has its eye on itself? Which industry is bringing in new customers in new ways by the second, and which is hiding under the desk, hoping they can make it to retirement before the thing collapses completely, throwing Charlie’s Angels 4.0 at the mods to buy themselves a few more hours.

In the meantime, speaking of the consumers, it’s not a coincidence that this entire exercise grows ever more pointless as Hollywood’s grip on them becomes ever more tenuous, and what it takes to get them to the theaters gets ever harder. Is that the Oscar race’s fault? Maybe not, but it sure ain’t helping.

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Box Office Special: Angels in Hell

Angels Flying to close to the ground

You are reading The Ankler, a newsletter about the business of Hollywood by Richard Rushfield.

Writing about box office on the week of the streaming wars kick-off must be a little like writing about school bus air brakes on the week of the moon landing.   You’re left feeling: why am I talking about this ridiculous old-timey contraption when we’re all going to be living in orbit around Neptune in two years and our kids will float to school on their jet tethers?

And yet, here we are, 50 years later, still riding buses to schools, and using brakes to stop them, while the moon base remains..a work in progress.

Our future, of course, lies in the great streaming tomorrow. But the future that can actually pay for that, might still be a couple of hundred years away.  And in the meantime, there’s still good old movies which a diminished but still greater-than-zero number of people who keep turning out for and handing over cash to subsidize the Hollywood lifestyle.

So given that movies and the movie industry haven’t been replaced yet by holograms in the space station, some thoughts on the weekend that was this one:

• If you’re looking for paradigm setters or think piece kick-offs, you don’t get much sharper compare and contrasts than you had this weekend. 

• Re: Angels.  We may not have space stations but we’re now in a land where the gravitational laws that kept studios bolted to the ground have been repealed and we have to open our eyes to the possibility of a whole new category of disasters.  To wit: how can you be a studio, and make a giant tentpole and have a result like this?

• Related: Were the Sony bosses looking ahead down the pipeline at all when they elevated Sanford and Josh to the VP/Jefe-in-Waiting chairs?

• Why did it happen to a movie like this, the seers try to unravel.  Why does the rain in Spain stay mainly in the plain?   What else would’ve happened to this movie?  In olden times, one would’ve thought that a studio tentpole with a studio marketing machine behind it could muscle its way to….$20 million?  At the very least?  Not so anymore. The question these days is not why did $20 million more people not turn out, it’s with all the choices in the world, why 8 million worth did show up to this?

• On the particulars of Charlie: a project either makes sense or it doesn’t.  It’s a pitch that clicks or it doesn’t.  Ford vs. Ferrari is an easy pitch.  So is The Black Panther.   And so were HustlersGood Boys, Yesterday and Downton Abbey if you want to get into it. 

• Charlie’s Angels, however, decided to design a film at odds with its own IP.

• “Once upon a time there were three little girls who went to the police academy” is how the entire franchise begins after all. In Aaron Spelling’s memoirs, he recounts how he painstakingly worked with Farrah and each of the Angels to create a signature hairstyle for the first season, and promised viewers at least five costume changes per episode.  That is the DNA on which they tried to graft a feminist, empowering and woke film onto.

• You might as well say: We’re going to update Mayberry RFD but this time it’s focussed on the need for universal access to health care.

• Deadline and others “report” that there were script problems and development problems.  You don’t say. If Tom Rothman hollered down to the Writers Dungeon: bring me a kickass hard-R action version of The Love Boat, I predict there’d be some script problems, and maybe development issues too.

• We always hear the old “There has to be a reason for a reboot.” But here they too many reasons.  Charlie’s Angels but, and … If they had just put the Drew Barrymore cast together and had them chase some other random bad guy with McG at the helm, would it have done worse? I can imagine that version doing much better than $8 million.

• And while we’re talking about it, it’s a 40-year-old TV show.  You’re doing a movie directed towards women under 25 based on a 40-year-old TV show.   Just for point of reference, that would’ve been like making a movie in the 1990’s based on Ozzie and Harriet or Life With Father.  It would’ve been like making a movie in the 80’s based on a radio drama.

• And while not every movie needs to be a star vehicle, Charlie’s Angels, based on a show young people have only heard about from their grandparents, and without any dinosaurs or aliens blowing up the White House, originally built around it’s leads’ hair dos, is nothing if it’s not a star vehicle. Odd film to cut corners on stars’ salaries, but cutting corners is the magic Rothman touch.

• Of course, they passed around the pain and the slate financiers will eat much of the loses on this.   Which is A: A great advertisement to future financing partners and B. Doesn’t account for the time, focus and energy a studio has to put in on a release like this. And the opportunity costs of they are working on this, so they aren’t working on something else.

• Then there’s Ford/Ferrari. An original film. Two great stars in the right sorts of parts. A premise people are excited about.  RT critics score of 92, and audience score of 98.  Funny how all that still works.

• Question now, for those who care about these sorts of things, is how this balances out in the mind of Awards voters.  FvF a hit in theaters, a Cinemascore A+.  Has been tested before audiences and hit it out of the park.  Against The Irishman, now approaching the end of its very special run and soon to disappear into the App, where we will only be left to wonder how many people made it to the end of the three and a half hours. 

(Also for whatever this is worth: The Irishman in its very limited, Potemkin release one would’ve thought would’ve played to the most committed, pre-sold, enthusiastic, wedding guest like audiences on Earth who burst from the theaters ready to spread the gospel of St. Marty. But on RT as of this writing, it gets a very solid but not sensational audience score of 87.)

The Academy members, of course, never just trusts its own instincts about what’s a good movie or votes for the movie they alone like, but are, like any good Hollywood professionals, constantly looking over their shoulders to see if they got it right; grasping for external signs about what they are supposed to and not supposed to support.

Will the critics’ hyperventilations be enough to sustain The Irishman as it now vanishes from public view?  If FvF becomes a box office phenom with some legs, how much weight does, “Some middle aged critics liked it” carry?

• Make that seven on the Warners sub-$10 million list: Good Liar, Motherless Brooklyn, The Goldfinch, Blinded By the Light, The Kitchen, Shaft, and The Sun is Also a Star.    At some point, if your marketing has no idea who to open anything other than giant tentpoles, maybe you need to stop releasing anything other than giant tentpoles.

• There’s also the profitability angle of all this.  If A24 had released The Good Liar, budgeted at $10 million and it opened at 5, life would go on.  You might even come out ahead. 

But what is the smallest budget the Warners marketing machine can spend before its head splits open?  20 mil?  So if they spent $30 million on this and it opens at $5, then Born and some Canadian check writers get to find out the flip side of getting handed a piece of Joker

• Reality sets in on Midway.  Despite the surprisingly solid opening, it is what it is.

• Even a Disney under-performer makes almost half a billion. As we brace ourselves for Frozen 2

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