For several years, the Tumblr page This Had Oscar Buzz stood as a succinct and surprisingly hilarious reminder of the frequent folly that is movie awards season. The concept was so simple: Posters of those films that you faintly remember as being hyped to the ends of the earth pre-release that fizzled into nothing once audiences actually saw them. If, like me, you spend way too much time caring about the Oscars, the Tumblr was a regular trip down memory lane and the delightful regrets of Hollywood hubris. With nothing more than images and a quip, This Had Oscar Buzz highlighted how the mere concept of awards hype was inherently flawed and utterly ridiculous.
For those of us who craved more than the Tumblr page, there was much rejoicing when a spin-off podcast was announced. Hosted by entertainment writer Chris Weil and Joe Reid of Decider.com, the format of This Had Oscar Buzz shall be familiar to those of you who love a good old-fashioned film themed podcast: Pick a movie, talk about it, and contextualize it in a specific time, place and mood. Obviously, for this podcast, the theme is clear: Discuss a film that was considered a shoo-in for Oscar adoration before its release that ended up with zero nominations by the end of the season. Some of the contenders are notorious, others are laughable, but most are that particular brand of forgettable that simultaneously intrigues and exhausts.
Like any good Oscar nerds, Feil and Reid know their stuff and have the ability to balance dry industry details with quiz-night friendly trivia and general fannish enthusiasm. It’s not enough just to talk about the film: They must know the reasoning behind its inception, its casting, its marketing, and why it fits so well into this universally accepted notion of ‘Oscar bait’. We all know a film like Pay It Forward to be Oscar bait but why? How do so many films of varying genres and ideas - from Tulip Fever to Courage Under Fire to 1492: Conquest of Paradise all fall under this strange umbrella? Each film symbolizes something about its precise point in time as well as the history of the Academy Awards, and Reid and Feil nail the specificities of that. The occasionally labyrinthine nature of this knotted ecosystem - producer egos, distributor troubles, festival politics, the Weinstein problem - is discussed in easily digestible bites with a helpful doze of jokes (Colin Farrell’s sex tape gets plenty of analysis. Oscar gold all round). The films they talk about are never necessarily good, but the pair understand keenly that quality seldom has anything to do with winning an Oscar.
Take their discussion of Tulip Fever in episode 2. By the time that film was released, it was its own walking punchline of failed Oscar glory, yet it had had several years of anticipation and industry gossip to build it up to that point. This was a project passed from pillar to post that landed with a fading titan who practically invented the concept of the modern Oscar campaign. It starred multiple award winners, including a two-time Oscar winner, as well as the rising starlet of the moment. It was a period drama with deliberate echoes to previous victors. It was Serious. So, how does it fail and why? Feil and Reid give everything their attention, from the silly to the sublime, and bring the knowledge without descending into boredom.
Reid and Feil also know that, despite its ridiculously low stakes and frequent ability to aggravate, the Oscars season can be intensely good fun. We wouldn’t obsess over it so much if it weren’t at least a little bit enjoyable. It’s sports for people who don’t care about sports. It’s a pageant of box office receipts, bad wigs and forceful acting scored by swelling strings, but it’s also reflective of why certain films get made in the first place. As we sink further into the age of media monopolies, expanded universe franchises and international audience appeal, it seems clearer than ever that Oscar movies may be the only way we get to see some of these stories be told. If it’s not awards friendly and it’s not going to make a billion dollars then why bother, right? Giving legitimacy and the appropriate research to this topic, as frivolous as it may seem to many, feels more pertinent than ever to pop culture fans.
Oscar buzz and the entire definition of an awards movie has changed drastically in the past decade. Over the span of three years or so, everything we assumed to be safe bets either stumbled or was beaten to the punch by unexpected choices. The envelope mix-up for La La Land and Moonlight may already be meme history but it acts as a solid metaphor for the evolution of Oscar bait. It’s also only been a few months since the Best Picture winner was a Cold War romantic sci-fi about a woman who giddily fucks a fish-man, and that was considered the safe choice. For Oscar nerds, all our preconceived notions of this world have changed, and for the most part, it’s been for the better. Shock horror, but films that deserve awards may actually start winning them.
In that context, This Had Oscar Buzz feels more necessary than ever for pop culture lovers. You can’t pave your way to the future without knowing the routes of the past. How can you predict the future Best Picture winners without knowing about all the films that aimed for the moon and landed in the gutter?
This Had Oscar Buzz is available on iTunes and wherever good podcasts are found. Make sure you check out the Tumblr page for a few blasts from the very near past.
(Header image from Stitcher)