Beware the Buzz: Festival Hyperbole and Its Affect on the Oscar Race
by Joey Magidson
September 8, 2013
One of the things an Oscar blogger looks forward to each year is the calendar turning over to September, which is the start of the fall festival season and the unofficial launch of the awards race. That being said, historically things have moved a lot slower than they are this year. It got me thinking... why is that? What's made the current festival offerings immediate awards season mammoths when that's never really been the case before? Does it have something to do with the dearth of first half contenders in 2013? Does it have something to do with how folks at the Telluride Film Festival are overshadowed by the Toronto Film Festival and wanted to change that this year? Is it the studios and their campaign strategists?
To be frank, I think it's a bit of everything, and as such, figured it was well worth discussing here. Keep in mind that I'm not at all trying to say ignore the reviews out of Telluride at all, or the Venice Film Festival for that matter. I'm just hoping to give another perspective to things.
Traditionally, each year the Sundance Film Festival launches an Oscar hopeful or two in January, and most years the same can be said for the Cannes Film Festival in May. The real action starts in August through October though, as the Telluride, Venice, Toronto (especially here), and New York Film Festivals really solidify who will and who won't be awards players as winter approaches. The precursor season then begins and the contenders slowly separate themselves from the pretenders. Not this year though.
This year, Telluride and Venice have seemingly been the launching pads for way more players than usual. I'm not exaggerating when I say that aside from Peter Landesman's JFK assassination drama Parkland (which was thoroughly trashed for the most part), nearly every high profile potential contender was deemed an Oscar lock by those in Colorado and Italy.
Be it Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave, J.C. Chandor's All is Lost, Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity, the Coen Bros' Inside Llewyn Davis, Jason Reitman's Labor Day, or Alexander Payne's Nebraska, you basically only had to throw a rock in order to hit someone proclaiming them all set for multiple nominations. Alex was on the ground there for Telluride, so he can confirm if it felt like that in person, but here in New York following along, it sure seemed that way on social media and the like.
Why is this though? As someone who's been to New York, Sundance, and Tribeca, I've seen a film or two capture the buzz at those fests, but never this many all at once. It really is rather bizarre and sadly makes me discount the raves more than I usually would. It's a shame too, since part of the fun of covering fall festivals is seeing what really could break out from the pack. This year, the entire pack seems to be breaking out.
Before I get further into the reasons for why this might be happening, I'll just caution you to take the awards raves with a grain of salt. If everything predicted at the various fests so far comes to pass, potentially big time contenders like David O. Russell's American Hustle, George Clooney's The Monuments Men, John Lee Hancock's Saving Mr. Banks, and Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street shouldn't even bother coming out this year, since the lineup is already full for the Academy. We all know that isn't the case, but it's just an example of why I think the buzz and hyperbole have gone a little more overboard than usual.
Now, to figure out why this year is like it is. As mentioned above, the contributing factors include the lack of early year contenders, the general overshadowing that Telluride suffers at the hands of the much bigger Toronto, and the big studios/their campaign strategists being kicked into overdrive much earlier than ever. It's a witch's brew of ingredients, to be sure.
First off, it does make a little sense that not seeing much in the way of Oscar hopefuls until now will make some folks want to jump the gun. Factoring in everything until Telluride started, the only films mentioned as realistic Best Picture contenders that came out are Before Midnight, Blue Jasmine, The Butler (or rather, Lee Daniels' The Butler), and Fruitvale Station. You can throw in Inside Llewyn Davis as well, due to its Cannes debut (despite a December release date), but it still makes for a very weak crop.
None of those movies are assured of a spot in the awards line-up at all and no one would predict them to come anywhere close to a win. That thirst for a contender can definitely lead to one trying to quench that thirst with the first great film they see at a festival.
Next up is a factor than not many people pay attention to. In most past years, the films that debut to thunderous acclaim at Telluride usually only start getting spoken of as an Oscar player at Toronto a week or so later. Last year you can see Ben Affleck's Argo as a perfect example of that. Compare the early word at the two fests for that flick, and while both groups loved the movie, only one started saying it was an awards player. It's possible that subconsciously (or more blatantly), those who are used to seeing their thoughts from Telluride drowned out by Toronto wanted to avoid that happening this year and kicked up the rhetoric. This also ties into my last point, which deals with how the buzz is handled by the studios.
It's hardly beyond the realm of possibility that there are strong behind-the-scenes machinations from the studios themselves. They ramp up their awards strategists around now, so I can definitely see it being a conscientious decision to take advantage of that previously mentioned early slate and get their big hopefuls out on the field (earning buzz) early. It can't only be James Franco with a campaign forever.
It's very possible that I'm looking too deep into this and Telluride/Venice just had a much better slate of films showing than they traditionally do. Helping that theory along is that most of these raves have since been echoed at Toronto. Alex knows firsthand if it felt differently at all or not at these fests, and I certainly trust his analysis and account of things. This is just something that's been on my mind for a few days.
Is there ultimately a real answer to be found here? No, of course not. I'm just thinking (or more accurately writing) out loud about what all of these early raves means for the evolution of the Oscar race. The hyperbole that can come out of any film festival is always worth keeping an eye on, but the past week or so has kicked things into overdrive like we've really never seen before. The early awards raves coming from critics in Telluride, Toronto and Venice seems to be a bit crazier than it has been in years past.
In the end, if you're looking for a catchy takeaway from this, I'd simply say this: beware the buzz. Lots can change in the coming months, and if my experience has taught me anything, it's that it likely will, too.