A Parasite for Sore Eyes

A Bong of Fire and Ice; The Bong Remains the Same; A Bong to Remember

On a night which had the trade columnists cracking open the emergency supply of superlatives (historic, momentous, groundbreaking, seismic) there really is only one big takeaway, only one story here, from a business perspective at least.

It's not the Oscar victory of the first non-English language film. That's something and many have and will focus on the joy of this moment. The Ankler in keeping with its mandate will focus on the angst.

What matters from a business perspective is that Netflix for the second year in a row spent $100 million dollars (plus the production costs of a handful of movies..let's just call it a neat $400 million all told), and walked away almost nearly empty-handed.

They not only flooded the Oscar race with cash but built films at immense cost genetically engineed to win awards (and likely serving little other fiscal purpose.)  And at the end of the night, they've got a Best Documentary and Best Supporting Actress prize to show for it.

Sorry to dwell on a "snub" on such a morning of good feeling, but this is a historic, momentous, groundbreaking, dare I say, seismic, foul-up.  After all they sunk into this sector, to still be rejected by not just the Academy but the entire awards circuit up and down is stupendous.

In retrospect, it really is hats off to the brave heroes of the HFPA who in retrospect were like the lone protestor staring down the column of tanks. Except for this time, they won. The tanks were turned back. You find heroes in unlikely places in this business; the HFPA is the last place I would’ve gone looking for courage, but that’s where we got it.

It's not nice to gloat, but really when you see a cash-laden goliath which seemed poised to just buy this entire sector stopped cold by the smallest film and the smallest company in the game, it's hard not to feel a little awe for that underdog story.

Which I guess is the point of how we got here. The Irishman burst onto the stage as this 900 lb Godzilla; loaded to the teeth not only with Oscar credentials but with the unanimous declaration of the critical community that it was the greatest film ever, ever made, if not the greatest cultural monument in human history, combined with what has to be the biggest awards campaign budget ever devoted to a film.

It practically dared you, all three and a half hours of it, not to fall to your knees before it.

Whereas Parasite was just some foreign film that did well at Cannes (which never meant anything to anybody before this) that arrived in their stack of streamers that they watched and, apparently, liked.

Which is part of the irony. If Netflix had been less determined to fall all over themselves and give Marty whatever he wanted to prove they could get him to work with them, if they had been more like a normal film company, someone might have come to him and said: are you nuts? Two and a half hours and that's it. And the resulting film likely, ironically, would’ve been a more viable awards candidate. It might have even been a better film. You can say they are saints for giving Film God Scorsese infinite resources, no strings attached, but if you believe sainthood was the ultimate goal of this mid-nine-figure mission, you haven't been paying attention.

As I've previously written, Hollywood's been feeling the yoke of this new employer, come from nowhere, spending as much as everyone else combined; but behind the checks this very unsettling sense that this is not going to end well for anyone.

In the Oscar race, as one Ankler friend has pointed out to me, you can make a comparison between Netflix and the current occupant of the White House. Donald Trump has been this illiterate, bullying con man all his life, but the insecurity just beneath the surface has meant that he can't help thirsting for the approval of the New York Times and the establishment he knows he's not a part of.

Netflix, by and large, with some notable exceptions, is a high volume, middling to low-quality supplier of television entertainment in bulk. And there's nothing necessarily wrong with that. That used to be just called TV.  But they can't accept that this is their role in the universe and so they spend hundreds of millions chasing after these fancy prizes and the love of the Hollywood establishment.

What else could this be about? Say what you will about branding and visibility: there's probably no demographic more likely to already be Netflix subscribers than the target audience for The Irishman. I find it hard to believe there is one middle-aged plus, probably white, probably male Scorsese devotee in the universe who was excited for his final three and a half hour elegy who was not already a Netflix subscriber. 

Reed Hastings, just last week, reiterated that they are in the Oscar game to stay. And the greenlighting of a $ 70 million bio of Leonard Bernstein by Bradley Cooper suggests that their eyes will continue to be glued on the prize for years to come.  On his last earnings call, Hastings said, "Think of all of our awards work as a really smart way to make us the best home for talent in the world. The business benefit is that we will win deals that we wouldn’t have otherwise."

Maybe. Certainly, an ability to regularly win awards for its releases has helped Searchlight, for instance. But how much does it help to be a place that regularly loses awards?  Despite immense expenditure? To lose them embarrassingly in a manner that suggests the community pushing back against you. Does that help make the best home for talent in the world?

In the ultimate indignity, Netflix even released Bong Joon Ho's last film. The one about pigs that nobody watched, in between his two celebrated hits. And in irony of cruel ironies, that one was budgeted at $75 million compared to $10 million for the film that just swept the field.

(In a greater irony, Harvey Weinstein released the one before that and tried to kill it sending it out from his fledgling VOD arm when Bong wouldn’t allow him to recut it.)

To add even further insult to injury: this year’s defeat retroactively cancels the justifications for last’s year’s loss: that the Academy was too racist to award a foreign film, too small-minded to read subtitles; that Roma’s presence in the International category drained votes from the Best Pic race.

For the past couple of years, we saw Wall Street rewarding every Netflix award nomination with a bump in their stock price. Will they likewise punish it for failing with a dip this week? Or is investor enthusiasm for the tech world a one-sided coin?

It didn't have to be like this. Netflix is what we have traditionally known as a television producer and provider, as demonstrated by the fact that they submit most of their work to the television academy for the Emmy awards. The fact that they made some things of a different length didn't mean they needed to get into the Oscar race. It certainly didn't mean they have to spend fortunes to win the Oscar race. 

But diminished, tarnished, humiliated though it is, we must never undervalue the lure of Oscar that has enslaved so many; generations who brought their fortunes to Hollywood have fallen hypnotized under his spell. And that is why, tiresome though this ground may be, the battles over every last inch of Oscardom – from who can host to the musical numbers to the Best Picture trophy – are endless and eternal.

What did you think about all the fuss last night? Let us know in the comments. Share your thoughts anonymously or otherwise.

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Other points:

• What has been lost beneath Netflix's golden tsunami in search of Oscar glory: the credibility of almost every organization in the field. History will note that when it was time to defend the very concept of film making and theatrical entertainment, the vastly wealthy potentates of the Academy shrugged and said, Ah, well, whadya gonna do?  Amazing to think of the courage shown by the HFPA members that the AMPAS governors could never muster.

• And then there's the trades. The extent to which they've been compromised at this point, you really can't understate. When the FYC ads became such a major slice of the revenue pie, that was always a dicey proposition; taking that much money on one specific issue from the people you cover. But that wasn't enough and they threw in this whole industry of advertorial, custom-written with all its teeth pre-extracted, created in the same newsroom, often by the same people who write the papers themselves.  And then on top of that, when the Netflix cash flood came in...well whatever wall was there had crumbled by this point. 

There was a time when the editors of the trades could justify this because they didn't take the awards race seriously. Awards was a silly side project whose consequences didn't mean much one way or another, so you could afford to turn it all over to Oscar race nerds and obsessives, to advertorial and some of your lesser in house talents. But when this kind of money is flowing around and affecting major decisions, when it shows fairly crucial things about the biggest producer in the industry, you can't be claiming to seriously cover the industry and just shrug it off any longer.

That’s not to say there’s not a few smart, serious people writing about this who can still illuminate and explain the sector, not just hype a candidate, or hype the carnival as a whole. But those are the very few exceptions swimming against a tide.

• Likewise, the spectacle of entertainment reporters make of themselves on the awards trail has become a pestilence on the face of journalism. Not going to point fingers here, but something happens at these awards nights, and all the fetes leading up to it, that allegedly serious reporters, for the biggest, most respected publications on Earth become gushing fanboys and girls, stalking stars around across the Dolby Lobby and the Beverly Hilton ballroom, snapping pictures and filing to Twitter Pulitzer-ready nuggets like "There's Timothee Chalamet!"  or "Margot Robbie said hi to Brad Pitt!" That is to say – the sort of things a journalist once saved for their friends if they had dared express such sentiments even to themselves.

It's fine to be Hello! Many people enjoy Hello! It serves a purpose for fans; who keep this industry running. But fan service hasn’t traditionally been the mission of journalists. But don't act in public like Hello! And then the next day expect you or your rag to be Taken Seriously again when covering the same industry.  Editors: don’t let your reporters act like E! interns and then tell us you’re doing a serious investigation tomorrow.

• Before the show, from I "whom do you want to win" perspective I was fine with the idea of 1917 winning, or frankly any of the others, including The Irishman. The most striking thing about this crop is what a solid group it was of pretty decent movies. Not a Chocolat in the bunch.

But seeing how the show ultimately went, what an awkward, clunky, tedious inept slog it was, we all need to slaughter a herd of calves outside Hollywood and Highland to give thanks that Parasite won. TV critics have been writing that Parasite saved the show and I don't think they're overstating it. In retrospect, if 1917 or Hollywood had won and it was a fairly traditional, non-surprising parade of winners, without the periodic bursts of excitement for Parasite, it would’ve been such an endless show. Likely, Hollywood would be quarantined after all its citizens slipped into comas trying to get to the end of the show. (The citizens of the rest of the world would’ve saved themselves by shutting off the show and going to bed someone in the second hour.)

It's a hallowed tradition to trash the Oscar show the next day. The tweaks and changes never work. But even by the standards of Oscar trainwrecks, this was a remarkably bad night.  The woke/youthquake touches of the people wandering through the audience saying, "I'm here, How cool is that?" were painful awkward ham-fisted attempts to satisfy the critics. The show felt like it was looking over its shoulder the entire night, anticipating the things Twitter would say at it and trying to throw it prizes to win it over.  All night long.

These young people wandering the theater to introduce a star who would introduce a montage...It was like a Brentwood dowager trying to stage her imitation of the MTV awards poolside in her backyard. Complete with rapper recap.

• The pacing has been so monkeyed with that the suspense has gone out of the whole night.  When Bong Joon got his directing award, the die was pretty much cast. But then there was still another 45 minutes until they got to the final trophy. It was like watching a mystery where the audience figures out whodunit by the middle of the second act then has to hang around another hour waiting for the detective to catch up.

• Of course, everyone thanks their agents. But how many above the line winners in the history of Oscars, have thanked their assistants by name?  Has a single actor ever done that? Or anyone else?

• The stars of Cats making fun of their own movie was uncomfortable on at least eight different levels.

• All women are superheroes, even though we don't nominate them...And to prove it, we let a female conductor into the building and we're going to let her take over the orchestra for one whole song. Who said Hollywood is sexist? We let a woman conduct a song.

• The death montage was too rushed. There was no time to get choked up about each. There was barely time to read their names.

• The Parasite wins will mean a boon in foreign language releases, right?  Oh sure. Maybe specialty labels will take a few more chances but we'll see if audiences can un-abandon subtitled cinema, beyond perhaps this one exception.  Try and find a foreign language release anywhere in the domestic top 100 for each year of the past decade. Maybe they'll creep back a little, but we're deep in the hole here.

• What does all this mean for grown up films?  The most striking thing about the nomination class is how many solid, broadly successful, grown-up adult dramas were released by the studios this year.  At least five! 

Does this herald a new dawn of big-budget grown up studio movies?

It's interesting how all the studio nominees that aren't from their specialty divisions are sort of flukes or one offs. Disney inherited Ford vs Ferrari from Fox, and has shown no sign of looking to go further down this road at this budget level.  Universal, likewise, is very much not in this game but fell into 1917 via Amblin. At Sony, Tom Rothman needed to prove he could bring talent to work with him and was willing to give away the store to Quentin to do it,  Little Women, Amy Pascal brought in on a relative shoestring, as studio budgets go. I doubt that the lesson Warners is taking away from Joker is we need more serious adult dramas, rather than we need more Batman movies.

Does the success of these movies and some Oscar nods change that calculus for giant international conglomerates as they lurch towards the great streaming future?  Don't count on it.

• Sorry to be obtuse, but why doesn’t The Artist count as a foreign film? It was silent but people read the dialogue as much as they did on this, even if there was less of it? What am I missing? Let me know.

• Fire the pundits! This Ringer piece points out that the last five years have all been upsets. What are we paying these people for if they are going to get it wrong five years in a row?  Not to mention all the down ballot races they missed.

Yes, some changed their picks in the last couple weeks and picked Parasite in the end, but what good does that do us? Where were people saying it might win two months ago? If your entire job is picking the Oscar race and you are on a five year losing streak, it's time to think of a new profession.

• Just six and a half months to go until Oscar Race 2021 kicks off in Toronto! Get some rest everyone!

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