Watch For The Curve In This Years Film Awards Season

Film award seasons, most of them, follow a curved track. The action begins in one place (at the Telluride festival), then loops around to end somewhere else (with the Oscars at the Dolby Theater, unless the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences exercises its early termination option with that venue in 2024).

Meanwhile, contenders slide across the lanes, sort of like a bowling ball. They start on one side, curve toward the pocket, and mostly miss. With all those curves and loops, early predictions are an obviously hazardous affair—but you can often see where the field, down the line, will inevitably shift.

In the mid-2000’s, when a preponderance of Oscar voters lived in and around Los Angeles, for instance, you could spot a distinct mid-season tilt, from the East to the West. New York sophisticates—critics, the media, a clannish pool of cinephiles and indie executives—rallied around an early favorite like The Aviator in 2004 or Brokeback Mountain in 2005. Then Los Angeles populists—below-the-line voters, studio marketers, the trade press—helped to crown the actual winners, heart-over-mind Million Dollar Baby and L.A.-centric Crash in those particular years.

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Radical changes in Academy membership altered the curve. But you could still detect a predictable turn in recent awards seasons. Three weeks before the last Oscar ceremony, one supporter of the austere, tough-minded Power Of The Dog asked me privately: “Are people going to go all Green Book this year?” Meaning, will voters snub the sophisticated favorite Dog in favor of more conventional, heartwarming CODA, much as they had dumped Roma for Green Book in 2019?

I had to answer, “Yes, CODA will win.” The old East-West geographical tilt had become meaningless. But the head-heart, sophisticate-populist shift was intact, bolstered by residual anti-Netflix bias. You can bet on conventional emotion almost every time (pace, Parasite and Birdman).

So with all of that said, can we yet spot the curvature in this year’s awards season? I think we can.

Without knowing precisely which films will premiere where and when, we can still be sure that the season will open in a tough and angry place. The abortion fight, gun debate and mid-term Congressional elections virtually guarantee it. Filmmakers and their fans will arrive at the first round of festivals—Telluride, Toronto, New York—primed to talk about hot topics and movies that confront them. Pictures like She Said from Universal and Women Talking from United Artists (about sexual abuse); Till from United Artists (about the Emmett Till lynching); and Call Jane from Roadside Attractions should provide plenty of grist for screenings and panels.

The turn from such fare, if there is one, can’t occur until well after Election Day on Nov. 8—recent experience shows that tensions only rise as tallies and disputes drag on—and probably not until after the still undated Golden Globes. Given the Globes’ drubbing over racial inclusion and other issues, the next show will likely play like the last stop on a two-year apology tour.

But once the reproach, regret, resentment and retribution are wrung out, there will remain a month or two for a swing toward softer films—Empire Of Light? I Wanna Dance With Somebody? I truly don’t know which—before the March 12 Oscar show.

Rebounding from the Will Smith slap, the ceremony itself will be nesting in a kinder, gentler place. And in all likelihood, the Oscar voters by then will have shifted from tough issues and hard stories to something softer, warmer and perhaps unexpected.

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