They Shoot Oscar Prognosticators, Don't They?

The 2015 Oscar Race Begins at Telluride

By J. Don Birnam

September 8, 2015

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The leaves turn orange, the calendar pages flip to September, and the Telluride Film Festival kicks off another Oscar season. The fall festival stage of the horse race is perhaps the most fun, as new and sometimes unexpected films remind us of why we go to the movies in the first place.

There should be no doubt that the Oscars, like everything else of or about Hollywood, are about business. In years long gone, the point was to reward the movies that had done the best business with audiences. But a Best Picture win for a Titanic or Gladiator or even Lord of the Rings seems near impossible today. Instead, the point of the Oscar race today is to reward the movies that do the best at being just that: Oscar movies. Today's Oscar race is determined, for the most part, by critics and publicists.

Under the old system, there was simply no need for movies that wanted to win Oscars to screen at film festivals - all they needed to do was wow audiences, and the festivals were truly independent, critical and film buff darlings. But something hard to pinpoint happened around 10 years ago (likely, the composition of the Academy finally shifted into the hands of the indie-movie crowd that first appeared on the scene in the 1990s), and among the many changes that resulted was that the Oscar race now begins at the film festivals.

Not since Million Dollar Baby in 2004 has the winner of the Best Picture Oscar been released after October. Since that year, audiences have seen the eventual winner at least by October, and the entire Oscar machinery had likely seen it before that - likely at a film festival or, shockingly, during a summer release (or both). The last three Best Picture winners have premiered at Telluride and many others seen even before that, at Cannes for example (The Artist), or at the Toronto Film Festival.


And that brings us to the idyllic Colorado Mountains.

As we began the six-month, mostly futile enterprise of trying to read the Oscar tea leaves, it is obviously to the Telluride lineup that we first turn.

Carol: A Steady March to the Podium?

Possibly stealing the headlines during Telluride's stormy weekend was Todd Haynes' highly-anticipated drama Carol. Starring an always stunning Cate Blanchett and a revelatory Rooney Mara, the period piece tells of the torrid love affair between two women at a time when such relationships were not as accepted. Haynes, of course, is no stranger to this genre, with his unmissable Far From Heaven touching upon similar subjects at a time when, ironically, such movies were not as accepted. It may be payback for him this time around, as Carol has been universally acclaimed since Cannes, has continued to receive strong reviews from the Telluride crowd, and will play to broader audiences in Toronto and New York in the weeks to come. Rooney Mara, by the way, seems like a lock for one of the quickly-vanishing Best (Supporting?) Actress spots. She's a co-lead, of course, but the studio may find it more expedient to campaign for her in that category.

The biggest peril for Carol is time itself. Like Boyhood last year, it could suffer from fatigue if its buzz grows too big for its britches. The critical cacophony surrounding Boyhood was such that, arguably, many moviegoers were left wondering (unfairly) what all the fuss was about. Carol's challenge, then, is to be more like The Artist (which rode a wave of goodwill all the way from Cannes) and less like Boyhood.

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