While it may seem too early for some to begin the ever-present debate of Oscar season in Hollywood, in reality it’s a year-long cycle that kicks off for producers and distributors before the date is even set for the ceremony. The Oscars aren’t announced until March at the latest, but by that point the season has already begun thanks to premieres at the Sundance Film Festival and the intricate planning that goes into other worldwide festivals like Cannes and Berlin. Most of the time, casual film fans don’t even notice this is happening as much of the action is limited to industry circles, Los Angeles based advertising and film journalists. Given that the most popular films, the blockbuster and franchise fare that garners the most avid fan bases, don’t tend to be Oscar darlings, this is also a process most people are happy to ignore until it becomes impossible to do so in the latter half of the year.
That seems to be changing this year, as audiences were treated to a remarkably strong season of franchise films, from War For the Planet of the Apes, which garnered the strongest reviews of the trilogy thanks to its incredible visual effects and stirring emotional focus, to Logan, which blended cutting politics with visceral violence and a Western-style meditation on ageing, to Baby Driver, a technical marvel with the best editing of the year. Even Dunkirk, which is arguably the most awards friendly film of this bunch, is still rooted in the blockbuster ethos of Christopher Nolan’s earlier work and is easily one of the best films of the year. The chances are that all of these films will remain part of the awards conversation, at least until we see more of the predicted films (one of the problems with this being a year-round industry is that some months are more packed than others).
One film hoping to rise above the cynicism and break through the Academy’s hesitation towards blockbuster movies is Wonder Woman, Patty Jenkins’s critically acclaimed addition to the DC Expanded Universe, which is currently the fourth highest grossing film of the year, with a worldwide gross of over $781m. The success of Wonder Woman was never really in doubt, but given the shaky critical status of its universe counterparts, many critics and viewers were surprised by its ultimate achievements. Jenkins managed to craft an ambitious war-fantasy with a tight narrative, impeccably choreographed action scenes, striking emotional centre, and top-notch casting, and all under the pressure of being only the second woman director in history to have a budget exceeding $100m. Separate from its historical and cultural context, Wonder Woman is a true gem; within that, it’s a ground-breaking delight.
With all of that said, the film receiving an extensive awards campaign shouldn’t be so surprising. Indeed, it’s not even that ground-breaking in terms of how such films are packaged and marketed to awards bodies and voters. As reported by Variety, Warner Bros. are said to be mounting a major campaign in favour of the film, not just in hopes of receiving technical nods but offering a serious chance of cracking the major categories like Best Picture and Best Director for Patty Jenkins.
This is a process that won’t be cheap. Most campaigns require major budgets just to do the bare minimum of marketing: From sending out screeners to over 6,000 Academy voters, to hosting screenings in the New York and Los Angeles areas, to wide-reaching print advertising in the trades like The Hollywood Reporter and Variety, to paying for the cast and crew to appear at specific events to ensure maximum presence on an extremely crowded scene. If this is successful, it will certainly make waves, but the campaign itself is merely par for the course. Paramount gave Transformers: Age of Extinction an Oscar campaign, and Disney did make an effort to get Star Wars: The Force Awakens consideration outside of the technical categories.
Traditionally, the Oscars have are seen as having an archaic opposition to mainstream big-budget fare, although the way this particular attitude was formed has a long history. Splashy, expensive epics like Ben Hur were always favoured by voters, who enjoyed eye-catching spectacle and obvious displays of technical achievement. Oscar voters were also more open to awarding films that enjoyed wide audience releases, something that seems almost impossible today. Once upon a time, Star Wars was a Best Picture nominee, as were Jaws and Raiders of the Lost Ark. It’s only in the past twenty years, with studios relying less on adult-focused dramas and more on family-friendly Summer fare, that the switch in Oscar favourites was fully made. Exceptions did slip through, from Titanic to The Lord of the Rings trilogy to recent examples like The Martian and Mad Max: Fury Road, but the stereotype of the Oscar Bait continues.