In my last article, I talked about the potential for Netflix to make 'perfect' entertainment by analysing the viewing habits of its users. In the wake of this year's Academy Awards, let's now consider filmmaking with a different aim - how can you guarantee that your movie will win awards?
But first, why bother with awards at all? Commercial success and awards potential are not very consistent bedfellows - it would take more than fourteen Birdmen to match the worldwide commercial payload of one Transformer. Why go after the pocket-change of critically lauded cinema when you could be wallpapering your bathroom with Da Vinci's from the income of one hit superhero movie? For studios, awards season is less about direct profit than it is a long-term exercise in branding. Awards help give the studio and actors a reputation for quality, allowing them to go on and sell bigger-budget films. In this way, the awards season functions as a machine for churning out future stars and re-branding older ones.
No one has ever been as adept at handling this machine than producers Harvey and Bob Weinstein; the story of Hollywood in the 1990's is in large part that of the Weinstein brothers, and their company Miramax. The infamous publicity campaigns of Harvey and Bob were responsible, by fair means or foul, for an insane plethora of Oscar successes up until they sold the company in 2005; overall the films they championed earned a combined total of 68 Oscars from 282 nominations. The movies in question never made Transformers type money, but they introduced the world to Quentin Tarentino, Daniel Day Lewis, Gwyneth Paltrow, Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, and virtually everyone else on Bob and Harvey's payrole who were mostly unheard of until Miramax bought their movie and got them up on stage thanking the Academy. These people went on to make movies that brought serious dollar to their studios - you may have even heard of some of them.
Motivation aside, now it's time to pick an award-winning story to film. This should be the easy part - for best results, you want a film that is based on real historical events, as this guarantees instant brand recognition - people already know the story from the poster. Crucially, however, this event must be centred around one known character - William Wallace, Gandhi, John Nash, Stephen Hawking. The key here, other than the majority of these people being male, and either white or played by Ben Kingsley, is that the main character should be almost entirely responsible for initiating the Big Changes in history that the film is portraying; this is all in line with the ever-popular mythos of One Person vs. The System. The marketability of this fantasy is clear - anyone can make a difference, even you, cherished huddled mass watching Oscar highlights in your undergarments.
However, what if in reality your chosen historical figure was not a Game Changer by themselves? What if, as is usually the case, they were one piece of a complex mosaic of conflicting interests, wider social context, and the clash of economic and natural circumstance? Fear not, Simon Schauma, it's a film, not a peer-reviewed journal. Chop and change as you wish; what's important is that at the base of this historical conflict is some kind of love story, that you can sum up in a tag-line.
Genghis Khan was looking to conquer the world, until one woman conquered his heart.
Although one thing Hollywood loves, sometimes even more than historical drama, is movies about movies. From Sunset Boulevard to The Aviator, movie-movies won't always win everything but they're guaranteed a nomination. Consider Birdman, the story of a former movie star in decline, winning out this year over the more conventional nomination American Sniper, a true war story which even had American in the title.
So, in short, to win awards we need a film about a famous Hollywood historical figure who changed everything....
...well how about Harvey Weinstein? The most influential film mogul of the turn of the century. The apocryphal stories about his exploits in getting films made and seen could fill a book. Indeed, they've filled several - including Peter Biskind's excellent and unputdownable Down and Dirty Pictures. A film about Harvey would have plenty of room for a proper actor to properly act, with all those scenes of Harvey screaming at actors and throwing phones at interns - Biskind alleges he once put a reporter in a headlock, while Nicki Finke of Newsweek claimed he harassed director Sydney Pollack on his deathbed about securing a release date for his film within the year. But of course, all this chaos occurs around the valiant struggle of creating Art, that wins Awards. The conflict between accusations that he was a tyrant vs. the unarguable legacy of quality cinema he brought to light. It could hardly stand a better chance if he'd been disabled.
A film ripe for supporting actors - Vince Vaughn as Quentin Tarentino, Seth Rogan as Kevin Smith, Ben Affleck as Matt Damon, Daniel Day Lewis as Ben Affleck, and as the big man himself, I think it's about time John Goodman bagged a protagonist; a supremely talented supporting player just aching for the limelight.
To all Hollywood hotshots - that's your next Oscar meal ticket. John Goodman as Harvey Weinstein in 'The Producer'. No need to thank me, just give me twenty percent of the gross and thank the Academy.