In 2018, it looks like Oscar bait may finally be dead. In its place is a new Golden Age of driven independent filmmaking and inspired big budget outings. Could the impossible really have happened?
Roger Ebert once wrote in a scathing review of the Oscars that "Subtlety is not the Academy’s forte." He wasn't wrong. Despite Hollywood's Golden Age producing what are mostly considered to be classic examples of ace filmmaking, the apple did eventually fall far from the tree. After years of genuine, organic successes recognized by the Academy, certain filmmakers found a way to beat the system, so to speak. Instead of honing in on originality, they produced films that borrowed formulas unintentionally set in place from past Oscar winners. Even at their best, these movies seemed to tick all the boxes on some unofficial collection of Oscar's Greatest Hits. They were inundated with tropes and cliches, soaked in schmaltz, and trying their damnedest to "borrow" from genuinely successful prestige pictures of the past. They were, proudly or otherwise, Oscar bait. Much to their dismay, though, the times they are changing and the Age of Oscar Bait is finally coming to an end.
In the past few years, there's been a shift in tone at the Oscars; a kind of collective wising up when it comes to audiences and critics responding to movies that are little more than Oscar bait. And while that's not to say that this unofficial subgenre has been completely neglected - Sandra Bullock winning Best Actress for The Blind Side was a clear bait win, as was The King's Speech winning sweep - we've nevertheless come a long way.
If you look at the past few years, anti-Oscar bait has taken the reins. The Academy has started favoring experimentalism (see: Mad Max: Fury Road, Birdman, Moonlight). They're pivoting attention towards everything the Academy used to stand for, back before the whole process started warping itself into some factory-churned formula. And to understand why that is, it helps understanding why Oscar bait became a thing in the first place.
The Rise of Oscar Bait (This Page)
Oscar Bait Came From When Harvey Weinstein Ruled
No matter how deep your love may be with Hollywood, awards season, or just movies in general, you can't deny the fact that the entertainment industry is still just an industry like any other. It puts out a product, it earns money. So, as glamorous and fun as something like the Oscars may be, it really all comes down to studios trying to turn as big a profit as they possibly can with whatever films they happen to be promoting in a given year. Awards shows help an awful lot in broadening awareness for a movie, cementing its place in cinematic history, and boosting studio clout, which in turn boosts their shot in attracting esteemed talent for future projects. Summed up: anything to help make money. In charge of this are producers, who run the show from beginning to end.
Enter brothers Bob and Harvey Weinstein.
In 1979, they started Miramax, a small independent film company that was as modest as it was experimental. They backed projects from filmmakers like Steven Soderbergh, Pedro Almodóvar, and Stephen Frears, and in the early-1990s, they helped jumpstart the career of Quentin Tarantino. From the get-go, they were all about delivering quality films. However, at around the time they were bought by The Walt Disney Company in 1993, the Weinsteins ushered in a new era of production and promotion. They were hardly the sole culprits of Oscar-baiting, but given the current Hollywood climate highlighting the iron grasp Harvey Weinstein had on the industry, it's helpful to see how power played a massive role in the cheapening of mainstream film quality. Individuals like Weinstein turned passion projects into products, casually devaluing ingenuity on their climb to the top.
Some of Miramax's most blatant early attempts at Oscar-baiting came in the form of Ted Demme's Beautiful Girls (broke musician, Lawrence Kasdan-esque friend circles, short-term existentialism), Billy Bob Thornton's Sling Blade (period drama, mental handicap, tragedy overload), and Matt Reeves' The Pallbearer (actor playing against type, Mrs. Robinson retread, dramedy), and only one of these movies managed to reach the Oscars. Then, once Miramax had really reached the masses, their bait actually started getting bites. Good Will Hunting, Shakespeare in Love, and The Cider House Rules are just a handful of Weinstein's heavy-hitters; films that are objectively well-made, but impossible to classify as anything other than awards bait.
This repositioning of Hollywood standards had a lasting effect - doing favors for arguably undeserving movies, while also robbing the Academy of its credibility. Audiences aren't idiots. Selling them tropes over novelty won't go unnoticed, which is exactly why we're now seeing the tides pull a swift-180. And it's about time. Since its inception, the Academy has been predominantly made up of white men (hence the lack of diverse opinions). Thankfully, there have been significant moves to shake things up, inviting a wider range of voters into the mix. However, when you consider how votes in the past century were mostly coming from a uniformed majority, it's no wonder why the formula's been so familiar, consistent, and all-around lazy at best.