How the Festival Circuit Is Ruining Awards Season

It’s already happening. Long before the pundits weigh in, the voters cast their ballots, and the red carpets are unfurled for Golden Globe/ SAG/ PGA/ DGA/Oscar honors, the race to name the awards season favorites has begun. Indeed, with more than three month left before every potential candidate has had its chance to shine (or shame itself), and without many mainstream journalists having their chance to cast a critical nod, the festival circuit has crowned its proposed winners, setting the conversation for the upcoming trophy race before a true consensus can be achieved. Granted, at the end of the day, it is members of various professional organizations who determine the top prizes, but when you’ve got the kind of free publicity and hype that the press keeps pumping out every day, it seems easier to go with the flow than buck the prominent PR trends.

Every year, festival season becomes more and more important to those who look to September through December to save them from the onslaught of commercial concerns that come out of Hollywood. It’s the time for more “adult” or solemn offerings, where seriousness trumps the silly and the popcorn is put away for more thought provoking and intense fare. Certainly, Tinseltown doesn’t avoid the bottom line, but there are typically less blockbusters and more meaningful movies released during this time than at any other…and the reason is obvious. The festivals. Cannes starts the conversation every May (with some help from Sundance in January), but until the studios are done pandering to every 13-year-old with their parent’s Visa card in hand, it’s a very one sided dialogue.

But come August and September, other cities like Toronto, Telluride, Venice, Austin, and New York gear up, and with them comes a crucial cog in the awards season machine. It is here where an elite few — those paid to participate or who can swing a trip to any of these venues on their own — begin the process of entertainment elimination. They verify the films that Cannes and Sundance either loved or loathed, they add their own names to the growing list of potential candidates, and dismiss those titles and their creators who were “sadly mistaken” about their Best-of chances. By the end, by the time the calendar ticks over and Fall has replaced Summer, a club of exclusivity is created, and you have to hope like Hell that if you’re out, you can find a way to build some kind of support to get back in.

Some just give up. Diana, the biopic of the late Princess of Wales did. So has Grace of Monaco. Foxcatcher, from Moneyball‘s Bennett Miller and based on the true story of John Eleuth√®re du Pont and the murder of wrestling star Dave Schultz, has been shuttled to 2014 to make way for Sony to push 12 Years a Slave, hard and Martin Scorsese may once again be a victim of his own ambitions with Paramount hinting that his Wolf of Wall Street, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, will find itself part of next year’s battle as well (the reason, according to the suits, is that the noted American auteur needs more time to ‘fine tune’ the film. Right.). Of course, the truth could be even crueler. After a festival season filled with slights and standing ovations, predetermined greats and easily ignored also-rans, the high schoolish cliques are set, and if you’re not part of the in-crowd, you’re screwed.

This is the evil that is awards season. This is the flaw in giving such otherwise fine film showcases so much weight. Aside from the fact that only a small percentage of the final say actually participate in this pre-game warm-up, the notion that one film, found months before the last offering has unreeled, can be instantly considered “the frontrunner” is antithetical to the process. It’s all part of our firsties, scoop-oriented media, a multilayered press that wants to stay in the loop…as long as they can create it as well. For most in attendance, a festival is business. It’s a chance to get your movie seen, bag a few reviews, and perhaps even find a distributor. In other words, it’s a festival. But there, seething under the surface, are the various writers, bloggers, journalists, talking heads, media types, and other attendees looking for a purpose (and a reason to be paid). They have to validate the size of their expense voucher.

The answer? Sing the praises of whatever few films they’ve seen. Remember, most festivals hold several dozen to several hundred screenings over the course of their run. No one can humanly see them all, and no one is supposed to be able to. That’s the beauty of the experience. You wander to whatever interests you, find a satisfactory substitute when the movie you really wanted to see is sold out. By the end, you’ve collected maybe 10% to 20% of the available options and make a determination as to what you thought was the best. That then goes into a vat with hundreds of similarly styled opinions, and the result is a minor, exclusive consensus. Don’t believe it. Well, over the course of a few weeks, Gravity was considered the Best Film of the Year, bar none. Then, 12 Years a Slave. Inside Llewyn Davis reared its post-Cannes head again, then Captain Phillips took over from there. The parameters of the future film awards are now set, with all others desperate to get a word in edgewise.

Even this article is doing it. Without our own attendance at Toronto or Telluride or SXSW, we can’t offer up any independent thoughts on what movies to look forward to come Thanksgiving and Christmas. We can only report what’s already been reported. We can only add our belated two cents one we get a chance to see the films ourselves (an early contender, Prisoners, did not pass our own Best-of muster). But the inherent flaw in the system is that only a small samplings of films are featured, seen by an even smaller sampling of individuals, and then their word becomes the benchmark for all future discussions. Now, this isn’t saying that something like 12 Years a Slave isn’t great, but such a reality points out that, in any situation, selectivity soon becomes the standard.

It’s like arguing that rock ‘n’ roll is the only viable music when you’ve never even been exposed to jazz, or hip-hop, or bluegrass. It’s like listing the greatest sports athletes of all time, and then limiting your potential candidates to those born after 1950. Sure, someone has to start the discussion, but why does it have to end so quickly? The result is year after year of good but otherwise unexceptional films walking away with top honors (The Artist? Argo? The Hurt Locker? Seriously?) simply because no other movie could wedge its way into the end of year discourse. Givens are givens, and once the festivals have spoken, few can quiet their din. True, some Johnny Come Lately could show up between now and January and rewrite the script, but for now, it’s all about setting the tone, input from any other part of the critical community be damned.