You could say it’s almost impossible to win an Oscar. You may think such recognition is nothing but a pipe dream, and you may even be on the brink of giving up your hopes and aspirations to follow your parents’ advice and get a real job as an accountant or a lawyer or a reality TV star. Well don’t. Put down the CV and listen up, because you’re no banker my friend. You’re a filmmaker, and you can win that Oscar, all you need is a handy how-to guide from your favourite movie news and reviews site and one day you’ll be on that stage thanking everyone from Harvey Weinstein to your dead childhood pets for inspiring such a moving tale which was so beautifully brought to life by blah blah blah…
One initial word of advice: nobody else cares about your family or any non-famous person that may or may not have helped you. Make your acceptance speech short and witty to avoid boring everyone at home or, worse still, getting cut off by the infamous music. Did you know the music actually has lyrics?
Over the next couple of months we’ll be offering a step-by-step guide on how to win your very own Oscar, covering everything from genre and cast to release dates, campaigns, and industry politics, culminating in this year’s nominations on January 10th. By the time you make your movie you’ll have more facts and stats than you can shake a clapper board at, equipping you with all the ingredients you need to turn the fruits of your wilting tree of talent into a deliciously successful Hollywood pie.
So if you really want to win an Oscar just keep on readin’…
Part I: GENRE
Winning an Oscar can be a tricky thing. Getting nominated requires an elaborate and well-executed promotional campaign, followed by a whirlwind publicity tour in the lead up to the ceremony, desperately lobbying your film to thousands of Academy voters. But contrary to popular belief, not even the Hollywood PR gods can polish a big smelly turd *cough Heaven’s Gate cough*, so without a good idea and a heck of a lot of cash the closest you’ll get to the Oscars will be sitting on the bleachers watching the stars arrive.
The real potential of any film lies in the concept, and Oscar history tells us that some genres are far more likely to grab the attention of Academy voters than others. For example, if Oscars are your prime focus it is financially irresponsible to invest hundreds of millions of dollars into an epic blockbuster. You may well win for visual effects, sound, and other technical categories, but the chance of competing for major awards are slim. Spielberg recognises this, with trailers for Lincoln suggesting the Civil War is merely the backdrop to a character-driven biographical drama.
Period dramas are the unquestionable genre of choice at the Oscars. Fifteen of the past twenty Best Picture winners are set in the past, with a further film (LotR: The Return of the King) set in a different time and place altogether. It also helps to be based on a true story and/or successful novel, but nowadays most films are. This year’s early contenders Lincoln, The Master, Les Mis, The Hobbit, and Argo among others continue this trend.
Ben Affleck’s Argo also highlights a current fondness for Hollywood doing movies about Hollywood. Last year’s overwhelmingly popular choice for Best Picture was the very not French The Artist – a film about the birth of the talkie made in Hollywood by The Weinstein Company, and Affleck’s latest offering about a 1980s collaboration between the CIA and Hollywood is the current bookies’ favourite for both Best Picture and Director (via Goldderby.com).
Since Schindler’s List the WWII/Holocaust movie has done pretty poorly at the Oscars, but the Civil War film may make a small resurgence over the next few years throughout its 150th anniversary. However, the Iraq War has been of very little interest to the Academy, with only The Hurt Locker making a significant impact, so Lincoln could be a one-off. Other sporadically successful genres of late include the musical and the western – both are arguably beyond their glory days and carry more weight in the box office than on the ballot paper, but well-made and well-promoted movies like Unforgiven and Chicago still break through occasionally.
Animated films almost deserve a separate discussion, and although animation as an independent genre is just way too broad, the Academy have no problem marginalising all animated features into a single category. As well as winning Best Animated Feature in 2011, Toy Story 3 also earned itself a Best Picture nomination, but this is anomalous and if you want Oscars it’s really not worth doing animation unless you’re backed by Disney or DreamWorks.
As a general rule of thumb, if the Academy Awards are high on your agenda it’s best not to take too many risks with genre. Don’t waste money trying to make an effects-laden blockbuster because selling it as a credible awards contender is tricky at best. Yeah you’ll compete for the minor awards but only if the film is visually breathtaking, so if you have a few hundred million dollars lying about it might be worth a punt. Assuming you don’t, if you really want to win an Oscar you should write a period drama set in America based on a true story.