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Sunday 18 March 2018

Is awards season bad news for filmmaking?

As 'La La Land' storms its way to the Oscars, our film critic asks whether Hollywood really honours the best cinema, or just celebrates itself

In the running: John C Reilly and Colin Farrell in The Lobster
In the running: John C Reilly and Colin Farrell in The Lobster
Thandie Newton and Matt Dillon in Crash
Emma Stone at the SAG Awards on Sunday
Ed Power

Ed Power

The whole world has gone cr-cr-crazy for La La Land - or so you might conclude in light of the record-equalling 14 Academy Award nominations bestowed upon Damien Chazelle's LA-set song 'n' dance caper.

Just four weeks from the Oscars, the hit musical is bookies' favourite to scoop many of the most prestigious awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. Its victory march continued last weekend, with leading lady Emma Stone receiving the Screen Actors Guild Award for Best Actress.

But is this rush to carry La La Land shoulder-high reflective of a genuine passion for the movie - or does it, in fact, speak to Hollywood's obsession with celebrating itself?

This question cuts to the heart of what the Oscars are about.

Emma Stone at the SAG Awards on Sunday
Emma Stone at the SAG Awards on Sunday

If it does win on the night, it will mark the fourth time in six years that Best Picture has been awarded to a movie about movies.

Do the Academy Awards exist to showcase the best in cinema? Or are they an excuse for Hollywood to wallow in self-satisfaction?

The answer largely depends on which peg of the ladder you occupy. For independent film-makers the Academy Awards unquestionably have career-changing potential.

"A nomination really helps smaller films and in fact arguably helps them more than larger films with big casts," says Ed Guiney, co-founder of Element Pictures, the Dublin-based production company behind Room (nominated for four Oscars in 2016) and The Lobster (up for Best Screenplay this year).

"Taking Room for example, in the three weeks following the Oscar noms the film doubled its gross at the US box office," he adds.

"A Best Picture nomination, in particular, is a badge of quality and makes the film more of a must-see. And it has subsequent beneficial impact when it went on to iTunes and (video on-demand).

Thandie Newton and Matt Dillon in Crash
Thandie Newton and Matt Dillon in Crash

"With The Lobster, because it was released last summer, the nomination won't improve the box office but it will help with iTunes and so forth, and also, of course, with the general reputation of the film and financing the next picture by the director and writer.

"Overall, having Oscar nominations really, really helps in terms of reputation in the business and (gaining) access to new projects and finance."

An Oscar-fuelled bounce was likewise reported by Cartoon Saloon, the Kilkenny studio responsible for the Academy Award-shortlisted animated films The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea.

In both instances, a nomination was arguably just as beneficial as a win.

"To win the Oscar would have required a miracle," Tomm Moore of Cartoon Saloon told me when promoting Song of the Sea in 2015.

"The nomination really was the surprise. What was particularly encouraging was the response in Ireland."

Yet for features that have already found a mainstream audience, the Oscars can feel more like an exercise in vanity and backslapping.

Self-important duds feted by the Academy include The King's Speech, in which Colin Firth bagged a gong for emoting with a stutter, and A Beautiful Mind, where Russell Crowe embraced the cliché of the unhinged maths savant who demonstrates his genius by scrawling indecipherable equations on windows, mirrors, and any other glass surfaces to hand.

But the most notorious example of a mediocre film finding favour at the awards is 2005's Best Picture winner Crash, a preachy piece of virtue signalling from writer-director Paul Haggis that beat out Brokeback Mountain in one of the biggest upsets ever in Oscars history. With hindsight, even Haggis seemed sceptical of the film's victory.

"Was it the best film of the year?" he wondered in a 2015 interview. I don't think so... I'm very glad to have those Oscars.

"They're lovely things. But you shouldn't ask me what the best film of the year was because I wouldn't be voting for Crash."

As La La Land continues its seemingly inevitable procession to Oscar glory, Haggis' words have a timely ring. Short-term acclaim, it is tempting to conclude, is no guarantee of cinematic immortality.

So if you're part of that minority which found Chapelle's romp smug, narcissistic and twee - and yes, reader, I was definitely among them - console yourself that, in a few years, it's just possible everyone else will wholeheartedly agree with you.

Irish Independent

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