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Sean P. Means: Are Oscars won on the screen, or on the campaign trail?

Published February 28, 2014 12:09 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

On the opening day of the Sundance Film Festival, Robert Redford made news before he said a word — because earlier that day, Redford found out he wouldn't be going to the Oscars.

Redford was snubbed when the Academy Awards nominations were announced that morning. His solo performance as an amateur sailor trying to survive a big ocean in "All Is Lost" — a performance that people had been talking up as an Oscar front-runner from its debut at the Cannes Film Festival the previous May — was not among the five chosen for a Best Actor nomination.

At the festival's opening press conference, the first question (asked by me, as the event's moderator) addressed that elephant in the room.

And Redford, with the don't-give-a-damn assurance that comes from being a major movie star in his 70s, spoke the truth that everyone in Hollywood knows but few question.

"Hollywood is what it is, it's a business," Redford said. "And so when these films go before [people] to be voted on, usually they're heavily dependent on campaigns that the distributors provide. There's a lot of campaigning that goes on, and it can get very political. And that's OK, because it is a business."

Then Redford — and I cannot stress enough how rancor-free his voice was at this point — discussed the specifics of "All Is Lost" and its American distributors, Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions:

"In our case, I think, we suffered from little to no distribution. And so, as a result, our distributors — I don't know what. They didn't want to spend the money, they were afraid, or they just were incapable. ... We had no campaign to help us cross over into the mainstream."

When you read the movie-industry press about the Academy Awards, it talks about the campaign. The race. The popularity contest.

What they don't talk about, at least not with any weight, is the quality of the work.

When Redford made his remarks at Sundance's opening day, the response from the Oscar prognosticators — the same ones who a month earlier said he was a shoo-in not only for a nomination but a win — agreed that the distributor ran a lackluster campaign. But there were also those who blamed Redford, for not granting enough press interviews or appearing on enough talk shows.

One independent-film executive (anonymously, of course) told The Hollywood Reporter's Gregg Kilday in January that Redford "made some appearances but he didn't really work it. It felt scattershot. Awards season is such a popularity contest."

This executive added, "You've really got to work the awards circuit these days, and if you don't do that, your chances are slim to none."

So when we talk about the Academy Awards as being the pinnacle of movie achievement — the benchmark of the finest the movies have to offer — let's remember that lofty talk is, like many things in movies, something of an illusion.

Listen to the talk surrounding the folks who are likely to win Oscars on Sunday night. They talk about Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto losing weight to play HIV sufferers in "Dallas Buyers Club." They talk about whether "American Hustle's" Amy Adams is due for an Oscar, after being nominated before and never winning.

Sometimes the talk gets bizarre in the way it sees real-world problems only through the Oscar-race filter.

The weirdest — and also the most morally reprehensible — was the talk that came after Dylan Farrow, the estranged daughter of Woody Allen, renewed her accusations that Allen sexually abused Farrow when she was 7. Some Oscar-race followers speculated how this horrible family tragedy (and it is a tragedy, no matter whether you believe Farrow or Allen) would affect Cate Blanchett's chances of winning an Academy Award for her role in Allen's "Blue Jasmine."

Oscar-watching is a business, just like Hollywood. Studios buy "For Your Consideration" advertising in the trade papers — namely, Variety and The Hollywood Reporter — trying to get attention for potential nominees. Often these ads are contractually obligated, a demand made of studios by stars or directors.

And, in the last decade, the Oscar-watching industry has grown to include a new crop of "Oscar bloggers" — websites, either independent or tied to a larger publication, that obsess over every detail of the awards season. (Boris Kascha's recent article in New York magazine deftly analyzes this group, "a motley and contentious lot, comprising shameless advocates, stats-­obsessed would-be Nate Silvers, and seasoned journalists sourced up with a few dozen of the 6,000-odd producers, directors, actors, cinematographers, and other professionals who vote in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.")

The Oscars have their merits, in spite of the high-stakes popularity contest that they sometimes become. Sometimes the Academy voters surprise the pundits and give an award to someone truly deserving, not just somebody who's well-liked. They also can be a motivation beyond the paycheck, encouraging artists to take a risk.

The Oscars also are an opportunity to have a conversation about movies that doesn't dwell on the box-office figures of the latest blockbuster. It's a chance for film lovers — even the ones obsessed with the campaign — to talk about the work.

Sean P. Means writes The Cricket in daily blog form at http://www.sltrib.com/blogs/moviecricket. Follow him on Twitter @moviecricket, or on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/seanpmeans. Email him at spmeans@sltrib.com.