What Is Awards Bait?
"Awards bait." The phrase is bandied around a lot this time of year in the run up to the Oscars. But what exactly is it?
“Awards bait.” The phrase is bandied around a lot this time of year in the run up to the Oscars. But what exactly is it? We know already that the awards don’t always take the bait, as we’ve seen from this season’s failed Oscar bait. So why do filmmakers insist on driving the same themes and making the same obvious attempts to secure one of those golden trophies? And why are some films successful while others fall by the wayside?
Fishing for trophies
You know the drill. Often you can tell from the trailer when a film is making an grab for the coveted Academy Awards. But what are some of the motifs that raise their heads over and over again each year? Well, how about…
- An ensemble of established and respected actors
- Sweeping, rousing orchestral scores
- Difficult themes like loss, disability, love and justice, but not so difficult that the film stops becoming a mainstream commercial attraction
- Borderline melodramatic emotion
- Historical events
- Biopics about well-regarded individuals
Biopics are always an Academy favourite. Last year was the domain of dramas based on remarkable lives, with The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything coming out on top of the pile. Sure, they were both critically acclaimed and featured strong performances from well-respected English actors, but to ignore these films would be to ignore sensitive issues. The Academy can’t turn a blind eye towards disability and homosexuality without being labelled as backwards and prejudiced.
Some examples that come to mind in recent years are Forrest Gump, Schindler’s List, Crash, and 12 Years a Slave. Whether these films deserve the awards recognition they got is besides the point: what matters is that the awards took the bait. They fell for the trap. It’s impossible to say that films like Schindler’s List and 12 Years a Slave are poorly made films – they’re powerful stories well told by talented creative professionals. But an interesting point to consider is whether the opportunity for awards actively changes the way a film is made, or the intention behind the film.
Awards like the Oscars rightly celebrate the best of the best each year in the film industry. It’s fantastic to see Brooklyn up for Best Picture this year, which this author considers to be an insight into a very personal story and one that was born from passion and a real desire to tell it. I think it would be unjust to accuse the filmmakers of intentionally crafting a film purely with the intention of snatching awards and advancing careers.
But there is always a handful of films each year whose stories don’t quite succeed. They may be inherently weaker than others, feeling like stories that have been manufactured by a committee rather than a passionate individual with a personal story to tell. They feel like a group of producers assembled to tick the checklist of things that the Academy normally go for – and sometimes the Academy falls for it.
Thinking back to 2012, can anyone really say that Stephen Daldry‘s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close was a better picture than Martha Marcy May Marlene? Yet the Tom Hanks flick was the one up for the award. It had it all: the dead dad, the 9/11 background, the emotional adolescent lead and a bank of well-established actors to lend their names to the marketing. But there was something missing. An absence of a spark at its core, like a beautiful car with a busted engine.
On the other hand, Martha Marcy May Marlene was a fascinating insight into a little-known world. It was an uncomfortable story, deeply personal with striking performances from a cast of unknown actors. But it barely registered on the awards spectrum. The Academy took the bait, and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close received an Oscar nomination while Martha Marcy May Marlene was forgotten.
This understanding leads to a change in the way films are put together. Movies intentionally strive for these awards, with an emphasis on the story at its centre replaced with an emphasis on things that normally attract awards. Tropes and motifs. Musical cues or character stereotypes. When the awards take the bait, the film landscape is changed. Smaller, emotionally powerful films are forsaken in favour of the production of glossy mainstream vehicles. We end up with films that have been constructed in a way that triggers an emotional response in our brains without the heart to go with it.
Old dog, new tricks
Of course, this could all just be sweeping speculation. Take a look at this year’s nominations. With a reputation for paying little to no attention to blockbusters, I don’t think many people would have guessed Mad Max: Fury Road would be up for 10 awards. The bonkers George Miller action film certainly didn’t market itself in the same emotional way of films like Legend, By the Sea and Fathers and Daughters. Yet the list speaks for itself.
Maybe the Academy is learning not to fall for awards bait. Mad Max was a fantastic film with a real passion behind it. Legend had some solid performances, but may well not stand the test of time. Either way, it’s strange that an organisation so willing to throw awards at films that actively discuss issues like race, equality, gender and disability are also happy to completely whitewash their ceremonies by disregarding films made by women and ethnic minorities.
The absence of minority filmmakers in this year’s nominations, the trending hashtag #OscarsSoWhite and the very outspoken declarations of boycotting from the Smith family and other black filmmakers makes it clear the Academy has never paid any attention to the themes and messages they regularly plumb for.
But wherever you stand on the issue, at least awards bait gave us this hilarious video from the guys at Cracked.
What do you think? Fed up of Oscar-grabbing attempts, or am I just being cynical? Did a favourite film of yours deserve that Best Picture award, or not? Let us know in the comments.
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