Is Oscar bait really so formulaic?

Want to win an Oscar before Leo?

Is Oscar bait really so formulaic?

With the recent controversy over the Oscar nominations, celebrities like Spike Lee and Idris Elba have decided to boycott the Academy Awards. This is because, for the second year running, the nominations have been mostly all white.

As a film maker myself I have my own opinions about this. It did get me to think about my future. When (more like if) I make it as a big time Hollywood director and I made a critically acclaimed, diverse film that could change the world, would that film get snubbed?

For a film to even have a chance to get snubbed, it would have to get submitted for nomination, and there is certainly a particular formula, specific to award winning films.

1) Who are the audience really?

So much goes into who it is that makes the important decisions, and who is involved in the voting process. Nominations go through two voting processes where each category department vote for their own choices, then a month later they vote again, but for every category.
Let's face it, the main audience are the award committee.

A quick google search shows that 94% of members of the Academy committee are white, 77% male, mostly around the age of 63 and that 22% of that are actors. Totally representative, right?

2) What does an Oscar winning film look like?

To make an Oscar winning film you have to know what an Oscar winning film is - because we know, it's never actually the best film that's been made that year. Most of the time there'll be debates over what should have won and which films got snubbed for a nomination but it's important to look at past winners and nominees to find a pattern. In the last 5 years nominees for best film have been one of the following:
- True stories
- Based on a book
- Based on a period in history
- Based on the struggle of a person or group
- About war

The Help is a great example of this, it's a film based on a book, based on true stories about the struggle of a person or group in a period of history where there was war (metaphorically) between two different kinds; but it was beaten by The Artist which itself was a unique film.

Also look into the producers' and directors' track records to see what they've made and won in the past. Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg have a knack for making Oscar baits so are probably the best examples.

3) Writing

It's important to consider in what sort of style you'll be writing your script. If it's an original piece it's best if you ape the style of Quentin Tarantino or Woody Allen because they get nominated (and win) for most of the films they write themselves. The script must have wide appeal, and of course, give your lead actor the chance for their career-defining monologue.

4) Casting

If you're going to cast your friends, make sure they have previous nominations and awards, or are highly recognised from other films. It's rare that unknown actors get nominated on their first major film, (unless you're Lupita Nyong'o in 12 years of slave or Barkhad Abdi in Captain Philips). It isn't easy for emerging actors to get opportunities like those and they've proven they could compete next to A list actors.

Why is this important? Because the committee will recognise them from that one film they were once in, the one directed by that big director or the one that won that Oscar that one time. Credibility is a key factor. Performance is also key; it's often the knock out performances that will get you attention in the press in the first place - who cares about the guys behind the camera right?

5) Directing

Of course, it's the directors vision that makes a big impact too, and going on recent wins, it looks like bravery with your vision is a sure fire attention grabber. Alejandro G. Iñárritu has dominated the last two years at award season because he's pushed his vision, cast and crew to the limits with daylight-only shoots, sub-freezing temperatures, epic single shots and dizzying camera work (he happens to have a magnificent DOP in his circle too). It's no longer just the tear-jerkers that get attention, but the feats of vision.

6) Your odds

Most films are submitted to high-profiled film festivals in New York and Los Angeles, or international ones like Cannes, Venice, Sundance and many others. And then they have a cinematic release in theatres. To increase your odds you're better off submitting your film near the end of the year between September and November and releasing it between December and January. Let's face it, the committee are old and forgetful, and they need to have seen something in the last few weeks to even remember it exists. Diversity of course is another huge issue, and it has been repeatedly noted that it's only films about black oppression (The Help, 12 Years a Slave) that seem to hold any weight with the committee.

Depressing isn't it. Of course, as directors continue to push the boundaries, and actors continue to speak up about this long held pattern, we may start to see a difference. Who do you think will (or should) win this year? Let us know in the comments!


Idriss Assoumanou

Idriss Assoumanou Contributor

Idriss is a Film Maker and photographer based in Birmingham. He has directed and produced many films over the years and has mentored a lot of people on their first journey into film making. He likes to write articles based on art and creativity, like his industry 'how to…' guides, where he explains and shares his experiences in film making and other areas. He also films and edits professional showreel scenes for actors to add to their portofio.

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