Mark Harris on the Inanity of Early Oscar Buzz

There’s something extra special about this year’s marathon Oscar handicapping season being kick-started at Telluride and Toronto by a drama titled 12 Years a Slave. Because in recent years, the once organic and more tempered process of advance film buzz has become a slave to an endless 12 months of town-cried Academy Awards prognostication.

Not that film journalists are alone in this behavior. Tom O’Neil, the grand master of Gold Derby, rightly likes to point out that many other realms besides film awards season (ex: the 2016 U.S. presidential race) lead to early and heavy odds-making by so-called media experts.

Nevertheless, on the Oscar side, it seems to get a little worse each year, amplified by social media and the return in 2012-13 of more robust studio marketing budgets. Enter Mark Harris. In a Grantland piece titled “Is 12 Years a Slave Really a Best Picture Lock?,” he makes a number of resonating observations:

The recent compulsion to anoint a Best Picture favorite around Labor Day, a full 17 weeks before the end of the eligibility period for movies, represents the convergence of several factors… [including] an infection of festival coverage by Web-driven “First!” culture.

In Oscar talk as in all things, Twitter in particular rewards the quick, the loud and the unequivocal, and the sight of men (and it’s mostly men) racing to turn on their phones, thumbs a-twitching, after the end of a press screening almost always signals an impending stampede toward overstatement.

Very true. Many film journalists and Oscar prognosticators want to be able to point back, later, to a tweet or blog post as proof that they were the first ones to “call” a movie as a bonafide AMPAS contender. Still, never has the TIFF “first” culture been so derided as it was on Twitter these past few weeks by a range of fed-up journalists. Veteran critic Marshall Fine even wrote a whole blog post about how he now kind of dreads going to Toronto because of the wall-to-wall Oscar nano-chatter.

Towards the end of the Grantland piece, Harris itemizes a few reminders. It’s a short, pointed, hilarious list. We’re with him on this one, right on through until Monday March 3, 2014.

[Photo courtesy: Fox Searchlight]