Oscarmetrics: The Descendants, Dragon Tattoo, and the Art of Managing Expectations

Fox Searchlight

I’m going to begin this edition of Oscarmetrics with a cautionary tale about overreaction, backlash, and misbehavior. Appropriately, it comes from one Best Picture nominee, and it’s about another. In the 2005 film Capote, we watch our brilliant, narcissistic protagonist (Philip Seymour Hoffman) experience a friend’s success the only way he can — as a staggering personal humiliation. He attends the premiere of the movie version of his loyal pal Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Afterward, Lee finds him at the bar, magnificently self-absorbed, and, of course, choked with jealousy.

“How’d you like the movie, Truman?” she asks patiently. He can’t even rouse himself to look at her. She finally walks away — at which point he murmurs sourly, to himself, “I, frankly, don’t see what all the fuss is about.” And nobody cares.

As we enter a season that’s defined by a great deal of fuss, of hyperbolic praise, and of hyperbolic dissent, it bears remembering that at some point in the next few months, we’re all going to find ourselves on the losing side of at least one movie argument. And when a film that everybody seems to love leaves us cold, we all, to some extent, risk sounding like Truman Capote — pissy, superior, bitter, bored. This is the time of year when the ridiculous word “overrated” gets tossed around as if it were an actual qualitative property of a movie rather than a silly side argument about what other people thought of it. So my current resolution is to try to be arrogant about movies that I love, but humble about movies that work for everybody else but not for me.

My most recent Capote moment came at The Descendants, the Alexander Payne movie that’s likely to be a major player in the race this season. It just opened to what Metacritic numerically defines as “universal acclaim” (despite some serious non-acclaim from the likes of Time, Slate, and Movieline). Perhaps some of you saw it over the weekend and loved it, too. But perhaps some of you objected, as I did, to (mild spoilers follow) voice-over narration that is at first overbearing and then, mysteriously, gone. Or the TV-pilot-ish subplot about whether George Clooney’s character is going to sell a beautiful piece of Hawaiian land to rapacious developers, which takes two hours to go exactly where you know it’s headed the second it’s introduced. Or the movie’s irritating habit of introducing characters by showcasing their worst qualities — the teenage girl is an angry brat, the teenage boy is such an insensitive dolt that you’re happy when he’s punched in the face — only to turn around and say, no, you’ve judged them too hastily, they’re actually good, rock-solid, sensitive people, after which the movie never returns to or acknowledges their problematic sides again. In other words, The Descendants makes them look like clichés only so that it can then claim they’re more complicated than they look. Anyway, I, frankly, don’t see what all the fuss — wait, where’d everyone go?

Whatever you think of The Descendants, it probably should not have had to open with the burden of what the New York Times’ David Carr used to call all of us “Oscar ninnies” having spent months announcing that it’s a front-runner, or of reviews that bandy about words like “perfect” and in one case even suggest that “perfect” sells the movie short. Very few films — not even To Kill a Mockingbird — can keep from buckling a little under the adjectival decoration that’s lavished on them during awards season. They’re like racehorses weighed down with garlands before they even get out of the starting gate.

And it only gets worse. If you think The Descendants has it hard, consider the challenges faced by War Horse and The Iron Lady and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which don’t open for a month and will have to pass through literally dozens of awards announcements before you can actually buy a ticket.

So this is the moment when managing expectations becomes all-important — especially if you can do it without making people feel like they’re being aggressively spun. Last week, for instance, some Oscar voters were perplexed that the DVD screener they’d received of Midnight in Paris lists every category and every person you’d expect under the heading “For Your Consideration” — with the conspicuous exceptions of Best Director and Best Original Screenplay.

Why send out Woody Allen’s biggest hit in decades without his name anywhere on it? Does he not want to be considered for awards? Does he feel that while it would be nice to be nominated, it’s crass to ask? (Better not go there, or this whole house of cards could come tumbling down.) Is he saying he’s not worthy? Is he saying he’s too good for this? Why did he allow himself to be listed for consideration a few years ago for Vicky Cristina Barcelona but not now, with a movie that represents his best Oscar shot in years? Does it mean he wants it more? Does it mean he doesn’t want to let himself want it even though he does? Sweet God in heaven, what are we to make of this?!

Nothing much, obviously. Only that it’s easy, in the middle of this mountains-out-of-molehills period, for even the smallest decision to suddenly look … not so small. Any minor fillip that gets dissected as if it represents a major maneuver is probably a tactical mistake; Allen should have just let his name appear on the screener rather than insist on something that would call attention to the fact that he’s not calling attention to himself. Not that it’ll matter, since he’s getting that writing nomination whether he wants it or not. (I think.)

If you’ve got a movie that’s being talked up and up and up, it’s a wise approach to bring the hot-air balloon closer to earth as gently as possible, which is what David Fincher just did with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, wryly telling Entertainment Weekly’s Rob Brunner that “there’s too much anal rape in this movie” to make it an Oscar contender. I nominate this as the smartest line about getting nominated of the whole season. It takes a movie that, because of its creative team, has been in the Oscar conversation all year and lowers the thermostat just the right amount, reminding people that it’s not in an Oscar-friendly genre like The Social Network, suggesting that it’s going to be Fincher working in Se7en/Fight Club/Zodiac mode, and treating the whole process with a kind of amusement that never descends into either cockiness or false humility. Most important, it doesn’t hurt Dragon Tattoo’s Oscar chances a bit; it simply reframes the film as an underdog. Nicely done.

There are, however, a number of more elaborate and less wittily impromptu strategies by which movies attempt to position themselves in the year-end crush:

The Take-It-to-the-People Blitz

Nothing — not rave reviews, not blogosphere buzz, not even Oscar nominations — is more important to a film’s fate than good word of mouth, and a couple of movies are trying to spark it with very early public previews. War Horse did a series of “heartland” screenings away from major urban centers a few weeks ago, and Cameron Crowe’s We Bought a Zoo will be nationally sneak-previewed this weekend, almost a month before it opens.

Cons: Internet writers can get sniffy on an almost Capotean level if they don’t get to see a movie first; so can print critics.
Pros: Press and industry screenings aren’t the only way to build awards buzz. And it’s never too soon to show your movie if you suspect you’ve got a crowd-pleaser.

The Just-Under-the-Wire Release

Oscar rules specify that a movie must begin a weeklong commercial run by December 31 to qualify for awards. This year, the Weinstein Company is taking that very literally with the Meryl Streep-as-Margaret Thatcher biopic The Iron Lady, which has already screened for British press but won’t open here until December 30. Early reviews have, unsurprisingly, been better for the star than for the movie, so expect Weinstein to go with “The Most Acclaimed Performance of the Year!” as an ad strategy rather than push the film itself too hard.

Cons: A movie people can’t even see until the holidays are almost over often seems like it’s showing up to the party when the waiters are already clearing the tables. And the arc of the awards race will already be so clear by then that the movie itself may have trouble moving the needle.
Pros: Streep has been a perceived front-runner for so long that Harvey Weinstein knows he’s got to fight a sense of predictability. Putting her last may be smart thinking; he can let all of her competitors duke it out with critics and audiences through December, but guarantee that the set of raves for Streep will be the last reviews voters see before they send in their ballots.

The One-Week Qualifying Run

This tactic — open the movie for seven days in a couple of theaters to render it Oscar-eligible, then trap demand and whet appetites by closing it until January or February — was an Oscar favorite in the ’80s and ’90s. It made more sense then. Nevertheless, it’s being tried by at least three movies this year: Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin (which is hoping for a nomination for Tilda Swinton), Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus (which is hoping for a nomination for Vanessa Redgrave), and Madonna’s W.E. (which is hoping people say anything other than “Bitch, please”).

Cons: The whole “Hurry! Hurry! You only have a limited time to see this masterpiece!” approach feels stunty and outdated, since most voters will catch the movie on DVD screeners, or at Academy screenings, anyway. Besides, if you’re really hoping for nominations rather than simply extending a courtesy to a filmmaker, you don’t close a movie. Period. So if Harrelson or Redgrave start to get traction, I wouldn’t be surprised to see “Extended!” or “Back in Theaters by Popular Demand!” as part of a hastily retooled campaign.
Pros: None, I’d say. I’m hard-pressed to find an example in the past 20 years that shows this to have been, in retrospect, a wiser strategy than simply opening the movie for a normal run would have been.

As this column was going to press (okay, that’s a lie, but it still sounds better to me than, “as I was about to hit “Send”), the news broke that the New York Film Critics Circle, which had already moved its awards voting from Nov. 28 to Nov. 29 to accommodate a late screening of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, was going to stick to that date even though one of the year’s most anticipated dramas, Stephen Daldry’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, would not be able to screen until a few days after their vote (presumably because its score is being replaced). A few weeks ago, I defended the Circle’s decision to vote on its awards exceptionally early this year because, at the time, it seemed they’d be able to see all the major contenders. Since it’s now turned out that they can’t, they should postpone their vote until they can, and do it ungrudgingly. No filmmaker has an obligation to race his movie to completion because of an arbitrarily early awards deadline. If the critics proceed with their vote under these circumstances, the winners will be tagged with an asterisk, and the Circle will be making a statement that this year, it decided that being first was more important than being fair.

Mark Harris is the author of Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood and is currently at work on his next book. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkHarrisNYC.

Previously: Do George Clooney, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Brad Pitt Need an Oscar?
Ratner’s Out. Now What?
Why the Academy Should Fire Brett Ratner
Oscarmetrics: Your 2011 Awards Season Cheat Sheet

Filed Under: Alexander Payne, Awards, David Fincher, George Clooney, Midnight In Paris, Movies, Oscarmetrics, Oscars, The Descendants, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Woody Allen