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On '12 Years A Slave,' Awards Screeners & Oscar Narratives: For Your Consideration

09/20/2013 03:30 pm ET | Updated Nov 20, 2013
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Here's how things work during Oscar season: Vulture movies editor Kyle Buchanan has already awarded "12 Years A Slave" this year's Best Picture trophy. Grantland awards expert Mark Harris and TheWrap awards expert Steve Pond threw cold water on that notion -- all while noting that Buchanan might end up being right. All this, and "12 Years A Slave" doesn't arrive in proper movie theaters for another four weeks.

There are valid reasons for and against "12 Years A Slave" winning Best Picture, none of which have to do with the success of "12 Years A Slave." (Steve McQueen's film is, at its very worst, a very good movie; it's impossible to imagine anyone giving it a poor review.) As CinemaBlend's Katey Rich wrote on Friday, Oscar season is about the narrative. "Argo" won Best Picture not necessarily because it was a better film than "Zero Dark Thirty," "Lincoln" or "Silver Linings Playbook," but because it had the best backstory: an A-list Hollywood star hits the skids, rebuilds his career, gets snubbed in the process, and still triumphs over all. Not even Frank Capra could write a script like that.

The narrative surrounding "12 Years A Slave" at the moment is that it should win Best Picture because it's about more than winning Best Picture. Rich and others have compared "12 Years A Slave" to "Schindler's List," focusing on the fact that both films are important historical documents which cast horrible genocides in entirely new lights. That's true, but maybe not enough: "Schindler's List," after all, had an additional awards season storyline of crowning Steven Spielberg as a proper Oscar winner after being snubbed for two decades (he had already won the Irvin Thalberg lifetime achievement award in 1987), a factor that cannot be discounted. (Where is the Steven Spielberg of "12 Years A Slave"?)

In his piece, Pond provides an excellent blueprint for the coming debate about "12 Years A Slave" and its Oscar bona fides, echoing many points Mike Hogan and I made after "12 Years A Slave" debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival. The CliffsNotes: (1) McQueen's film is beautiful and nuanced, but also difficult and depressing (even if the story's final moments are filled with hope), and (2) McQueen himself isn't going to glad-hand awards voters, something that many feel prevented David Fincher from winning Best Director at the 2012 Oscars (he lost to Tom Hooper and "The King's Speech"). In the end, though, the one thing that might keep "12 Years A Slave" from winning Best Picture (besides the date on the calendar; it's Sept. 20), is the nature of film itself. Here's Pond:

3. You can't ignore the screener factor. It's no secret that Academy voters watch a lot of their films on screeners. And inevitably, they watch a bunch of those screeners over the Christmas or Thanksgiving holidays, with their families around. That's why there's always a glut of screeners arriving in the mail the week before Thanksgiving, and a final barrage in mid-December - everybody wants to be one of those DVDs that voters throw in the suitcase and take to Aspen or Hawaii. But after a family dinner, are they really going to reach for the brutal two-and-a-half hour movie about slavery?

Indeed, that feels like the biggest impediment to "'12 Years A Slave': Future Best Picture winner." Will McQueen's film -- and the stirring cinematography by McQueen's frequent collaborator, Sean Bobbitt -- translate to the small screen? Since "Lord of the Rings: Return of the King" was crowned Best Picture winner at the 2004 Oscars, the films that have won Hollywood's highest honor include "Million Dollar Baby," "Crash," "The Departed," "No Country for Old Men," "Slumdog Millionaire," "The Hurt Locker," "The King's Speech," "The Artist" and "Argo." Losers ("losers") over that same time period include "Brokeback Mountain," "There Will Be Blood" and "Avatar." The enemy of the widescreen epic is the film that plays well on TV.

So, where does that leave "12 Years A Slave"? Maybe still on the Dolby Theatre stage come March 2, 2014; looking at the list of remaining unseen 2013 releases, only "American Hustle," "The Wolf of Wall Street" and "Saving Mr. Banks" seem to qualify as potential competitors. Yet if one of those films ends up as the home screener every voter wants to watch in December, then that could ultimately sway the race away from the theatrical beauty of "12 Years A Slave." Movies, now more than ever, right?

2013 Toronto International Film Festival