Q&A: Bill Wyman, journalist, on how the Oscars could save good filmmaking

For the first time in history, low-grossing movies win Oscars while the highest-grossing movies don't make the short list.
Written by Sonya James, Contributor

Foul play, cheating, corruption. Apparently Oscar night avoids what Hollywood does best. At least, in the context of its rigorously guarded voting process.

In all of The Academy Awards' soon to be 85 years, no secret has been leaked a moment too early. That’s good for everyone on a number of levels. The public gets to witness Hollywood stars lose their … cool. And even more importantly, Hollywood stars themselves have a chance to keep low-grossing-good-movie-making alive. Wondering how? Read on.

Bill Wyman has been thinking, writing, and talking about The Academy Awards for over a decade. He is the former arts editor of NPR and Salon, and contributes regularly to Slate and TheAtlantic.com.

You’ve written about the movie and music industry for a long time, but you say you are particularly interested in The Oscars. Why?

Two reasons. Of all these awards shows that go on, it’s actually the least corrupt and the least silly. The movie industry votes on movies, not the general public and not critics. And the process is very rigorous.

There’s no cheating and there’s never been a leak of information before awards night in the Oscar’s entire existence. So I have a lot of respect for the process.

Take the Grammys, for example. They are an incredibly corrupt organization. The music industry is just corrupt from start to finish. Most people don’t know this but there’s a secret committee that looks at the nominations for the Grammys and rearranges them and takes things out and adds things. Which I think is unbelievably corrupt.

What is their motivation?

They have this cash cow –- one very highly rated TV show once a year that earns a lot of money. So what happens when the voting organization doesn’t vote in a way that’s good for ratings? They throw in acts like Eminem so that his fans will tune in. But there’s no chance he’ll win anything because he didn’t actually get nominated.  Just know that the Grammy industry is a very conservative organization. It is not nominating people like Eminem.

The Oscars have a similar problem. Titanic was a high point. It was one of the biggest movies ever so that year’s Oscar ratings were the highest they’d been in a very long time. And that’s what’s led to this recent change where they have ten movies up for best picture instead of five.

So, while being a less corrupt way of doing it, upping the number of nominees from five to ten was also motivated by making more money off higher ratings.

Maybe The Dark Knight will get nominated. I don’t think anyone expects that Shrek 2 or all these ridiculous sequels will.

In fact the first year they did move it up to ten, Avatar got nominated but lost to The Hurt Locker. One of the highest-grossing movies of all time lost to what was at the time the lowest-grossing Best Picture of all time. This is very interesting.

The movie industry has really changed. Over and over the Best Picture award is going to very low-grossing movies –- which is incredibly rare.

I mean you have to go back to the 1940s just to see a very low-grossing nomination. Otherwise, Crash in 2004 was very low-grossing. No Country for Old Men and The Hurt Locker were too. Then you have The Artist winning Best Picture last year.

We call these films indie –- maybe you can make a distinction between true indie films and what this category of indie film is. And what is the significance of these films winning now?

People use that word indie but they’re really not. They’re basically arms of the majors. And then even if they’re not indie technically, if they’re artsy they’re considered in the indie arms. They’re movies that don’t gross very much and don’t have as wide a release.

There are two Hollywoods today. One Hollywood does sequels. For example, last year for the first time in history all the top ten grossing movies of the year were sequels, reboots or cartoons.

Alvin and the Chipmunks, The Avengers, Dark Knight, I mean you had threequels, fourquels, fivequels. All these crappy kids movies took the entire top ten. That is really crazy.

The only way movies like Argo, The Hurt Locker, etc., can survive is by distinguishing themselves by taking over the awards season. People in Hollywood whine that people don’t appreciate popular movies anymore. Well, it’s because they all suck. A lot of analysts haven’t noticed how weird it is that these-low budget movies are winning. These are the movies we all rooted for in the past but never won.

Let’s look at this year’s Best Picture nominees. Give me an idea of how this is all playing out.

If you go back to the 1990s, Pulp Fiction and Four Weddings and a Funeral would always lose to Forrest Gump. And any time an actor made a movie –- Kevin Costner or Mel Gibson or whoever -– they would always win the Best Picture Oscar. Also, if you don’t get a Best Director nomination, you’re not going to win Best Picture. That hasn’t happened in 30 or 40 years. But things are changing.

According to tradition, Zero Dark Thirty and even Argo are out of the running. But more and more, anything can happen.  A lot of people said this is Lincoln’s year –- the Spielberg biopic. But The Academy doesn’t like Steven Spielberg. Every year he tries to come up with some Oscar movie like War Horse. Everyone talks about it for a week and that’s it. Lincoln of course got a lot of good reviews but it hasn’t won any of the preliminary awards –- with the exception of Daniel Day-Lewis.

It’s worth noting that Steven Spielberg has never directed anyone to an acting Oscar. Which is incredibly weird. Martin Scorsese has taken six actors to Oscars. Spielberg, not one. He’s not an actor’s director. If Daniel Day-Lewis wins, it will be unusual.

You have to remember a large part of the Academy, 40-50%, is made up of actors. So they have an undue influence.

Argo has been winning the preliminary awards, but Ben Affleck didn’t get a Best Director nomination. I don’t know if that was actor jealousy or what. Another safe bet is Silver Linings Playbook. I thought it was a schmaltzy incoherent movie –- but I’m really in the minority about that. Les Miserables should have been a huge success but it didn’t get the nominations people thought it would. Django Unchained didn’t get a Best Director nomination and even by Oscar standards it is a ferocious movie.

The Academy really likes Ang Lee and, like Slumdog Millionaire, Life of Pi is this exotic foreign movie about a weighty subject. So that’s also a good bet. But the serious betting is on Silver Linings Playbook or Argo. Nobody thinks Beast of the Southern Wild will get it. I personally thought it was the best movie of the year.

People get very excited about the sociopolitical milestones that occur during the Oscars, like when Halle Berry won for Best Actress in 2001 and Catherine Bigelow won for The Hurt Locker in 2009. Are these highly publicized moments meaningful markers in a social history of America? On a political level, what are some of the significant awards that were given in recent years? Are there any this year?

Obviously the industry has racial problems. There are some big stars, but there are so few people behind the scenes. It is the same with women. There is a lot of institutional opposition toward blacks directing, women directing, Hispanics directing.

The year Halle Berry and Denzel Washington won was extraordinary. But of course that was more than ten years ago.

I think only four women directors have ever been nominated. Lina Wertmüller [for Seven Beauties in 1976], Jane Campion [for The Piano in 1993], Sofia Coppola [for Lost in Translation in 2003], and Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker in 2009.

On the other hand, I think it’s more extraordinary that The Hurt Locker was such a weird movie. In Oscar terms it is more unusual for a movie that low of a gross to win than for a woman director, I believe.

The other thing that the Academy is extremely resistant to is genuine radicals. It will be really crazy when someone like Quentin Tarantino wins Best Director. Although The Academy is very respectful of high-level people like David Lynch, I think radicals are even more rare than women.

Four nominations in 84 years? One win? That’s pretty dim.

Yes, it’s very dim for women.

Do you think things are changing?

I think the Oscars have been more and more surprising lately. It used to be that you knew completely what was going to win. People were really surprised about The Hurt Locker.

Django Unchained would have been unthinkable ten years ago. I mean, that is just a crazy violent out-of-control movie.

But the one thing that people should always think about when they watch the Oscars is that it’s people in Hollywood voting for what they think is a good movie. Whatever you’re in involved in, you see it differently than people on the outside.

It does seem that it’s going to be Argo or Silver Linings Playbook. I’m rooting for Beasts of the Southern Wild.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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