Oscar Wild : The calm before the shitstorm

I lost my Oscar virginity at the age of nine. It was the year Titanic won Best Picture and swept the majority of the remaining categories. The year 2000 marked the first year that I taped the telecast and, two years later, I held my first of many annual Oscar parties. In 2003, I started my annual tradition of compiling a “year in advance” Oscar predictions weeks after the nominees of the preceding Oscar telecast were announced.

I guess the place to start my on-going Oscar worship column is to answer why the award ceremony is worth a damn. More specifically, why is the award ceremony even important and relevant in this day and age?

I asked the same questions the week before last year’s telecast. It was the first year that I didn’t really care about any of the major frontrunners. By that point I had had enough with Slumdog Millionaire sweeping all of the precursor awards throughout the season and I was no fan of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, either. The same goes for the remainder of the Best Picture nominees with the exception of Milk.

I told myself that the whole circus surrounding the Oscars was, well, nothing more than a circus. But my frustration signaled the fact that I still cared. I still valued the ideologies of the Oscars and was disappointed by the pedestrian results.

Whether you’re willing to admit it or not, the Oscars not only represent and honour the biggest component of contemporary pop culture, but they often reflect the current zeitgeist as well. The Academy might be plagued with voting blocks (which is essentially a large group of biased voters) but winners like American Beauty, The Lord of the Rings, The Departed and, to some extent, Slumdog Millionaire are testaments to what was perceived by the audiences as the best films of the year.

With the exception of box office revenues, the race to the Academy Awards might be the biggest driving force in the multi-billion-dollar filmmaking industry, which is where the fun begins. It’s not so much the nominees that contribute to an interesting season; it’s the studios who are trying to shape the season in their favour. It’s the campaigning and the scheming. Films like Invictus and Precious are lining up against each other. An Education has been under scrutiny since Roman Polanski’s arrest in September. Christopher Plummer is going for a supporting nod for his performance in The Last Station to make way for his lead performance in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.

Why now though? Why should we follow the Oscars in 2009? For me the biggest draw is that the race is rapidly changing. The economy is changing (see how Paramount didn’t have the money to also campaign Shutter Island, delaying its release to 2010), the method of campaigning is changing and, most importantly of all, the Academy’s taste is changing. The studios perceive the race differently, they’re taking more risks and, in a year where the best picture category has been widened from five to 10 nominees, the end result might be surprising.

I would figure that’s why I feel the need to start covering the Oscars now, in early November, because these surprises manifest themselves early on. If we compared the Oscars to a horse race, the award themselves are only the finish line. From now till then, however, is the first, second and third lap. And it is the first three laps that shape the winner in the end.

Voters of different organizations are going to start attending screenings. There will be the guilds, the Golden Globes, etc.. The Gotham Awards (given by a subdivision of the Independent Feature Project) have already come out with their nominations; the same goes for the British Independent Film Association. The People’s Choice Awards have already placed online polls for their roster of nominees. The next two months will be a mixture of voting on the voter’s end and PR on the contender’s end. All of this contributes to a season based on buzz. And the role of the season is to give certain contenders the momentum to succeed. The Oscars might be grand, but by that time the vast majority, if not all, of the work is done.