May 20, 2024

This Sunday, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will hold its annual awards ceremony, an enterprise that seems to have lost much of its import in the past few years. That said, there remains some interest for many, and as such, the event still retains a bit of coverage. This year, drama appears to be lacking, as the film “Oppenheimer” looks poised to dominate, with a smattering of the usual lightly-seen titles vying for the scraps.

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Each year, when the ramp-up to awards season kicks off, I keep an eye out for those movies that fall into the category of “Oscar Bait.” It is an oft-used but poorly understood descriptor, where most people grasp its meaning but would be hard-pressed to describe it succinctly. In general, it describes a film that receives rote nominations but truly is not among the upper tier of titles. I, for one, harbor a small fascination for these films.

Years back, when I was a writer at Movieline, we had an eye for these titles, and one awards season, the staff latched onto the movie “War Horse,” the Steven Spielberg epic. It became for us the quintessential Oscar-Bait film and devolved into our own quiet punchline. Among ourselves — and occasionally creeping into the writing — we would invoke at some point, “…sure, but it’s no ‘War Horse,’ after all.” 

But what specifically makes a film Oscar-bait material? Well…that’s just the thing. There is no “specific” guideline. It really is something you accept in a sort of “I know it when I see it” manner. But I will attempt to explain, even if actually quantifying it is difficult. The term basically describes a film that has all the hallmarks of an Oscar-worthy release but falls well short of being a lock for any trophy. 

The best description would be: These are films you are supposed to like, and by extension, members are supposed to nominate them, even if there is no clear motivation for doing so. Everyone has a general consensus the movie might be good enough to get nominations, but there is no passion behind the movie. Frequently, these films drift off after awards season with not much in the way of discussion or repeat viewings.

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I refer back to “War Horse.” It was nominated in six Oscar categories, including Best Picture. Yet it was only a marginal hit in theaters, and in the ensuing years, it has all but been forgotten. Think of it: Do you know anyone who even references that film, let alone touts it these days? It stands as the prototypical example of what an Oscar-bait movie might look like.

What makes it difficult to pin down what brings a particular title to the Oscar-Bait level is that these are uniformly films of a measurable amount of quality. They mostly have some combination of good work behind them: prominent cast members, a reputable director, good-to-great cinematography, a gripping or melodramatic story, and even a decent score. So, with all of that expected excellence to be recognized, how do they arrive as an almost shallow also-ran?

That brings us back to the feeling. The films just carry a sense of being concocted rather than created. All of the right parts feel like they were intentionally brought together rather than organically generated. The studio appears to have set out to specifically make an Oscar worthy film and brought in just the right people to do so. In the end, they delivered on the goods, but that cynical approach is felt, and the end product simply does not resonate to the level of excellence.

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The nomination process also feeds into this. The various categories are first determined by the members in each field: directors nominate directors, cinematographers pick the lensmen, etc. So, while excellent people were brought onto a production, their peers look mainly at their specific work rather than the movie as a whole. If you have great costumes in a film with a weak story, there comes the nomination, for instance. 

One other telling aspect of this type of film is in the nominations themselves. The closest we have to a true statistic to point is the nominations/wins ratio. This gives us the best sense of a film crafted to garner the awards attention. At IMDB, they gather all of the awards granted to movies, from the majors all the way down to the regional film critics groups, and give us the numbers. 

“War House” proves this one out. It cobbled together over 70 nominations but netted only 15 trophies, primarily for the music and cinematography. Last year, the selection seeming to qualify as a bait film was “The Fablemans,” Steven Spielberg’s quasi-autobiographical offering. It received an impressive 287 nominations in all. It won only 30 times. In 2020, there was Anthony Hopkins in “The Father,” heavily recognized, but hardly anyone went to see it, grossing under $25 million globally. (Hopkins won the Best Actor statue.) In 2018, the Adam McKay ensemble satire “Vice” was routinely nominated but only won an Oscar for makeup. 

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So, what do we consider to be this year’s Oscar Bait? I’m leaning heavily on the Bradley Cooper project, “Maestro.” Everything about the film just (again) feels like this kind of film. It is his passion project, as he wrote, directed, and stars in this biopic about the composer Leonard Bernstein. It is just the right type of material; it looks opulent, and all of the earnestness is in place. Good luck finding anyone who has seen it. To date, it has drawn 177 nominations but has only been tabbed to win in 25 categories. (By comparison, “Oppenheimer” has a staggering 326/362 win-nomination ratio.)

Oscar Bait status isn’t confined to just movies — actor performances sometimes trend into this realm as well. We frequently see a name crop up and be talked about heavily as a lock for their role, only to have that performance quickly fade away after not winning. Richard Dreyfus was tabbed for “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” and little has been heard since. In 2011, Glenn Close was pushed heavily for playing a male butler in “Albert Nobbs,” a film nobody went to see. There were similar flashes from Bruce Dern in “Nebraska” in 2013, and Joaquin Phoenix in “The Master,” among others.

This year, it feels like Annette Benning in “Nyad” is the role that may qualify. Very little had been spoken of this biopic of the swimmer Diana Nyad until nominations were announced — and that is with the film being featured on Netflix.

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The 96th Academy Awards will be on ABC at 8:00 pm Sunday. Ratings are sure to be low.

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