Oscar Bait

Oscar Statue

It’s that time of year again! No, I’m not referring to the insane amount of holidays coming up, or even the fact that Star Wars Episode VII is fast approaching (which is the best thing, ever). I’m talking about Oscar Bait season.

What is Oscar Bait?

Oscar Bait is a term us movie geeks/fans use to describe a movie that was crafted in order to win an Academy Award. But, doesn’t every movie want to win an Academy Award? No, but to address that argument, I will say people don’t really set out to make a bad movie. You can believe that or not, sometimes actions truly speak louder than words. I’m talking about movies that are formulated more than creatively created.

An Oscar Bait movie always feels like it has a checklist to fulfill in order to be released. Not quite as bad as the typical Adam Sandler movie that seems to have been written as a Mad Lib where the ‘writer’ (using that term loosely) just fills in the blanks.

Not every bit of Oscar Bait is exactly the same, but some of the more common tropes are big scale epics, reminiscent of the mega movies made in the 50’s and 60’s – this has fallen out of popularity a bit. The most recent epic, Exodus Gods and Kings, will fall short of nominations with the stiff competition this year. A premise based around historical events. The holocaust or WW2 in general almost deserves it’s own category (Schindler’s List, The Reader, Life is Beautiful, The Pianist, Sophie’s Choice, etc. ) and biopics (Monster, Steve Jobs) among the most popular. Current events like Racism (Crash, Fruitvale Station), or big news stories (The 33) that don’t even really feel like a movie needs to be made about them. Or the ever faithful “true story.”

The movies almost always follow good looking people (mostly white – just a fact) voters can relate to. In some ways this works the opposite for women. Women often have to drastically change their look to be considered. Monster made Charlize Theron hideous or Halle Berry’s turn in Monster’s Ball. I mean, look at The Blindside, the movie even forgot to put in controversy.

There is always a quirky sense of humor to even the most harrowing stories (Schindler’s List being an exception here).

The underdog story. We all love it, Rocky is a classic and always will be. The underdog doesn’t always have to be so literal though. Forrest Gump follows the titular character, mentally challenged, but charming and lead a life that touched all of history. Some really good storytelling and movie making helped this one connect with audiences as well as the academy but still followed a good looking white dude overcome.

Cast stacking. Almost every movie that screams for an Oscar is bursting at the seems with recognizable talent. Producers, Directors, writers, and above all… actors. This isn’t necessarily bad, good talent is drawn to good projects, but it’s common enough to mention.

The adaptation. Got a famous book, play, game (never will be nominated – sorry), song, older (not even by that much) movie? Just redo it. People complain about Hollywood now being unoriginal, that’s nothing new. Some adaptations are fantastic (The Green Mile), some stand on their own despite differences (The Shining), some are complete crap (Dragon Ball Evolution), and some just never needed to exist (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo).

Best Picture Isn’t Everything

These sort of period and personal dramas are always contenders not just for Best Picture, but the specialty Oscars involving how the film is made, costume design, and makeup. Friendly tip, if you want to win the costume design Oscar set your story in the victorian era. Best original song is a big one. The song is often just as, if not more, popular than the movie itself. A big trick to winning this is to take a familiar property and add a new song by whatever artist is hottest that year.

Why is there an Oscar Bait season?

These movies are generally saved for later in the calendar year. Partly to let the movie have it’s fun at various film festivals, partly for limited releases that allow the picture to be considered a contender, and mostly so that the movie is fresh on the minds of the people who ultimately make the call. This is the exact reason Ron Howard’s In the Heart of the Sea was pushed back.

Oscar’s aren’t won at the box office (luckily), they are voted on. Hence the Academy Awards. In 1978 The Deer Hunter was released to very limited and select audiences. The audiences were backed with critics and Oscar voters. When the nominations were announced that year, The Deer Hunter among them (it won), the film was given a wide release and made a lot of money. Turns out The Deer Hunter is a pretty powerful movie, but after this strategy proved successful studios started trying to replicate it year after year.

Oscar Bait isn’t always bad.

This article sounds very anti-Oscar Bait. That isn’t necessarily true. While pointing out the tropes of a checklisted Oscar movie can cast a very black and white look on the movie industry some really great things come out of auteur filmmakers shooting for the ultimate prize. Schindler’s List, cited above, was an absolutely powerhouse of a film and really a piece of cinema everyone should see. The on screen message, the incredible story, the passion of a man known for delivering the pure enjoyment of the medium over and over again putting his skills into something so personal to him and many others. The list goes on but anyone reading this gets the point.

Saving a movie’s wide release for after nominations are announced may be a marketing strategy, but it helps movie fans all over get access to some really incredible, and often more original, films. If you don’t live in New York City or Los Angeles there’s a good chance a lot of the Best Picture nominations slip through the cracks for you, less so in more recent years with VOD and the like, but still an issue in many towns and cities across America.

There are certain movies that become more than entertainment, some hit a cultural cord or pull at the heartstrings of such a wide audience these films just sweep the Oscars, taking home multiple trophies and not really surprising anyone in pulling it off. The Lord of the Rings is the biggest example of this. Fantasy films don’t traditionally win and the movie doesn’t even look like Oscar bait according to the definition above, but the third installment, Return of the King, absolutely dominated the Academy Awards. The Return of the King won ELEVEN Oscars, every single one it was nominated for.

Now that you are aware of the signs you can look out for the most Oscar Bait-y movies of the year. The good and the bad. With a little practice you’ll be able to tell which is just grasping for the prize and which one had the eye on the prize and set out to earn it from the start.

**Disclaimer**
Not all of these movies are released yet. Some that are, only did so in a limited capacity. My blurbs are based on gut feeling, trailers, and press.

Grasping:

Bridge of Spies (historical events, cast stacking, pretty white people, quirky sense of humor) – Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks together? Sounds perfect. Spies had far too much story to tell and tried too hard to fit in the Oscar Bait tropes to deliver.

Black Mass (biopic, cast stacking) – Yes Johnny Depp’s performance and physical transformation were awesome but the movie was very by the numbers. It didn’t even tell the whole story.

Sicario (current events, female lead, underdog story, adaptation) Emily Blunt a fair chance at a nomination. A spin off was also announced because of Benecio Del Toro’s performance but the movie itself was dry as can be.

Freeheld (current events, cast stacking) – The movie may be good, the performances may be outstanding. This is one that will earn a wider release after its nomination is announced. It looks to me like the Transparent issue. Nominations and award wins based purely on subject matter.

Steve Jobs (biopic, cast stacking, current, sort of, event) – Yep, another one of these. Both biopic and another Steve Jobs movie. Glossing over some of the lesser parts of the man this movie came too late to the party. Fassbender who is normally a phenomenal actor just wasn’t the right choice for this movie that shouldn’t be.

Suffragette (historical and current, cast stacking) – A double threat of a historical movie that is resonating hard in our modern times. Women are still not 100% equal with men across the board, pay gap is the biggest issue right now and the cause is noble. The movie was made just to capitalize on this and doesn’t do much to tell a stand alone compelling story. In the test of time Suffragette will be left behind as a film.

Our Brand Is Crisis (all about the cast here) – Sandra Bullock is back, too bad it’s in this flop of a movie.

Rock the Kasbah (all about the cast here) – Everyone likes Bill Murray, except the Academy apparently. With only one nomination in his entire expansive career this dud won’t earn him another.

The Danish Girl (all about the cast here) – A lot of good things are being said about Eddie Redmayne but aside from his nomination as an actor the Danish Girl seems to be relying too heavily on media clippings about acceptance than its credibility as a film. The saddest thing is The Danish Girl looks really good, it’s just over shadowing itself in the news.

Macbeth (epic, adaptation)– Familiar subject matter. Period set piece. Michael Fassbender. I put this as grasping since the big awards will go to other films but cinematography or costuming could be a hope at Macbeth’s Oscar gold.

Concussion (biopic, cast, underdog)– Will Smith may be nominated for Best Actor, probably won’t win.

Joy (cast stacking at it’s finest)– Jennifer Lawrence, possibly the best young actor in Hollywood right now, teams up with David O Russell and Robert De Niro again. Russell really hit the map a couple years ago with Silver Linings Playbook which was pure Oscar Bait but enjoyable in so many ways. Last year’s American Hustle hit home with audiences somehow but the law of diminishing returns may be taking place. Joy looks even more lackluster than the disappointing Hustle. If Lawrence is going to get a nomination it will be for her ultra ass kicking Katniss Everdeen in the conclusion to The Hunger Games.

Earning:

The Martian (brutal cast stacking, adaptation, good looking people, quirky humor, epic?) – Amazing cast, amazing performances, well thought out movie science. Good looking relatable leads and the silly humor injected to relieve tension are both big time Oscar Bait tropes but The Martian is one of those boundary breaking fantastic movies everyone can enjoy.

Room – Fresh subject matter with powerhouse performances. The movie will be disturbing at first and end on a hopeful note if it wants a chance at a statue. After screening at TIFF Brie Larson is said to be a lock for Best Actress. Another one that will come to a multiplex near you after the nomination makes it a potential earner.

Spotlight (true story, adaptation, cast stacking) – A serious contender for multiple awards after huge success at TIFF this movie does tackle a pretty serious issue. Going to war with the Catholic Church may not be the best move in a wide audience but facts are facts and a good movie is a good movie.

Trumbo (true story, adaptation, cast stacking, historical, true story) – Bryan Cranston is a master of his craft. Playing a Communist screenwriter whose amazing career was split between an acceptance and bitter hate for anything deemed ‘red.’ The story takes on an interesting man with great talent along with a pivotal time in American history. Did I mention Bryan Cranston?

In the Heart of the Sea (cast stacking, adaptation, historical, good looking people, underdogs?) – The story that inspired Moby Dick. Chris Hemsworth. Ron Howard. This movie has everything going for it Oscar wise. It even waited half a year longer to be released so it could be in the proper season for serious Oscar consideration.

The Big Short (cast stacking, true story, current events in a way) – An unreal cast of great actors doing what they do best, acting. Everyone looks like they are trying something new in this movie that explains an issue everyone seems to know about in passing but doesn’t know about. Hoping it’s true to life this movie will absolutely resonate with audiences but the Academy is full of rich men. Will they care to see the little guy take on the banks?

The Hateful Eight (cast stacking) – Whatever the media misconstrues auteur Quentin Tarantino into saying although he didn’t say it, the man always makes fantastic movies.

Snowden (true story, current events) – Real life events, a biopic, the most famous whistle blower of all time. Oliver Stone who used to be great, may be making a comeback. Let’s hope this one isn’t just banking on the namesake but really went for it.

The Revenant (cast stacking) – It’s a big time joke all over the internet that DiCaprio doesn’t have an Oscar. I don’t get the joke, he’s so good he has deserved one so many times. Teaming with actor Tom Hardy and director Alejandro Gonzalez (Birdman) gives him his best shot in a long time. The movie doesn’t look like it’s taking advantage of the Oscar tropes but is swinging for the fences so hard it may just break through.

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