Tom Hanks and Martin Scorsese are more than just American sweethearts. Within the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, they’re household names—and in the snake pit that is the movie industry, they’re the coveted golden ticket to a plethora of awards, instant international recognition, and—of course—money. Reducing incredibly gifted artists to the status of Oscar–bait might seem ignorant: most modern–day cinema purists are reluctant to accept that mainstream, profit–making awards and evident talent are not mutually exclusive. But the practice is neither uncommon, nor unjustified: looking back at what gets the Academy excited, some obvious patterns emerge.
The first step to creating an award–worthy picture is picking the right theme within a given socio–political context. This is crucial not only in the US, but on an international level as well: for example, Blue Is the Warmest Colour, a coming–of–age drama about two young women exploring their sexuality, won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes film festival in 2013. The accolade came less than two weeks after France legalized same–sex marriage, and numerous critics argued that the win was political. Excluding the artistic merits of a movie, this very same commentary has become increasingly pervasive in worldwide media around this time of the year: when Birdman was awarded Best Picture at the Oscars in 2015, opinions were polarizing—a lot of denigrators chose to reduce the film to its analysis of the industry, which was regarded as overly critical.
But there’s more to an Oscar contender than the theme. Birdman wasn’t just stingingly critical—it was gimmicky. Edited so as to seem that it was shot in a single–take, the film provided an arguably fresher take on otherwise mainstream, almost boring cinematic techniques. And it seems like, for the Academy, gimmicky is the way to go: from the modern–day silent film The Artist, to the hyper–scripted, Broadway–like La La Land, every year movies seem to delve deeper into the realm of the unusual, and to go against established conventions—that is, as much as the industry allows.
Ultimately, producers are the ones who make or break a film—and producers are, understandably, all about yield. Every change and every idea must bear their seal of approval, which only comes after the guarantee that the adjustment in question will fit their definition of profitable: it is rumored that the questionable choice to list Get Out as a comedy for the Golden Globes belonged to Universal Pictures, after guessing that the category would bring the picture closer to a win. But producer over–involvement can backfire: as award shows are extremely strict in terms of release dates, Sony Pictures chose to get Call Me by Your Name into theaters almost a year after it first premiered at Sundance in order for it to be eligible for the Oscars. This decision is said to have negatively affected the movie’s box office performance.
The fate of Call Me by Your Name is not yet sealed, though. With four Oscar nominations under its belt, the film could possibly increase its revenue after March 4th, should it manage to emerge victorious in at least some of the categories. Possibly, because many of its competitors have checked off the ultimate box on the Oscar–bait list: well–known names. Luca Guadagnino stands tall against an army of industry giants: not only are directors like Steven Spielberg—who already boasts a jaw–dropping ten Best Picture nominations—Paul Thomas Anderson, or Guillermo del Toro also in the Oscar race, but their movies also star a surplus of ever–rewarded celebrities. Meryl Streep and Daniel Day–Lewis, the current Academy’s most beloved actors, are once again nominated for Best Actress and Best Actor, respectively. And The Shape of Water, this year’s most nominated movie, has more–than–viable contenders (Sally Hawkins, Richard Jenkins, and Octavia Spencer) in three of the four acting categories, in addition to del Toro’s mastery in directing and screenwriting, as well as Academy–darling Alexandre Desplat’s formidable score.
Although most of this year’s films fit the definition of Oscar–bait, it’s important for us, as the general public, to acknowledge their intrinsic value notwithstanding what we think we know about how awards work. After all, before the checklist even came into being, professionals worked hard to establish conventions that they knew were a recipe for success with both the critics and the audiences. But it’s safe to say that, if you balance technical originality with the right marketing strategies and a star–studded crew and cast, you too could one day become the lucky owner of a useless—yet extremely valuable—golden action figure.