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Millions of dollars were spent along the "campaign trail" leading up to Steve McQueen’s masterful 12 Years a Slave taking Best Picture at the Oscars this year. The film held its World Premiere at the exclusive Telluride Film Festival, and held press opportunities at film and awards events around the globe in hopes of winning the top prize. And it worked… though now we’re learning that all the time and money might not have mattered, and the historically important film might have won no matter what happened prior to the Oscars.
That’s because in the wake of the film’s victory, two Oscar voters privately admitted to the L.A. Times that they voted for McQueen’s movie without even seeing it. They feared that actually watching the movie would be "upsetting," but confessed that they felt "obligated" to vote for the movie because of its "social relevance." (The quotes are from the Times’ piece, and not the words of the anonymous voters.)
That’s beyond screwed up. There’s no other way to put it. And it might be the final nail in the coffin of an Oscar system that’s broken beyond repair.
Oh, most of us tracking the annual Oscar race recognize the various faults of the process. Movies that open later in the year have a distinct advantage over films that open from January to September. Films with the financial backing of a major (or mid-major) studios can survivie the intense and expensive hoops that come with a multi-month Oscar campaign. Your smaller, independent film might be a groundbreaking work of art, but if you can’t get enough people to support the film, it has no chance of competing with the "Big Boys" in the Oscar race.
They might not actually watch your film. But they will support it.
Personally, I think that’s disgusting. And I don’t want to put words in McQueen’s mouth, but I’m fairly confident he’d reject the votes of an Academy member who didn’t even bother to WATCH his film before casting a ballot. In today’s day and age, a movie can win Best Picture without certain Academy members even seeing it? I’m not trying to be naïve, but how is that acceptable?
If there’s a silver lining to this, it’s that the label "Best Picture" applied to 12 Years a Slave will convince more people to check it out, and it’s really a brilliant film. You could make an easy argument that, even without the racial guilt built into the equation, 12 Years would have won the Best Picture Oscar on merit. The film boasts a 96% Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, and banked an impressive $140 million worldwide. All of us who bothered to watch it know that it earned its Oscar. The full Academy membership should be able to say the same.