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The Oscars 2018 - My thoughts on some of the winners and awards & film festivals in general...

I’ve never done a blog or indeed written at all about my thoughts on award shows and ceremonies. We find them in all walks of life, not just in the creative industries but somewhere out there in the world there’s an award category for everything from Best Cheese to Best Wine (To best cheese and wine combination) to awards in the toy industry, gaming industry, adult industry and everything in-between. As many of you will know, I have just published my first novel and I have already discovered in the world of Science Fiction writing and indeed fiction writing in general, there’s a whole plethora of awards and I am sure for many of these you probably have to be published by one of the majors to even be eligible. To be honest, I haven’t had the time to investigate that yet but I am sure an award for any book certainly doesn’t hurt its sales. Woody Allen has said from day one of his career very publicly that he doesn’t believe in the Oscars or any other award because and I quote ‘How can you judge art?’ and he has a fair point. Why is it that just because one person says ‘Dunkirk’ should win Best Picture over ‘The Shape of Water’ should it be the case? Well of course it shouldn’t. All these things are completely subjective, one person’s bowl of cherries is another man’s bowl of cornflakes, so to speak.

Such award shows at the levels of The Oscars have now become such a big business unto themselves that accusations of nepotism and favouritism are always rife and of course at the other end of the spectrum, small film festivals with award ceremonies which cost a very high price to attend often exist primarily as a way of luring first time film makers to a somewhat shady event whose primary function is to make money from the film maker attending in the first place, rather than getting an actual audience to a screening to see the film makers film. Now I do want to add there are some very good, well run, earnest smaller festivals out there (The Rob Knox Film Festival comes to mind as does The Richard Harris Film Festival) But on the smaller independent Film Festival circuit the whole thing can be somewhat financially draining and demanding on the film maker but sadly it’s often a necessity. As a film maker who certainly has attended more than his fair share of the latter type of award event it’s still rather nice to be nominated for anything, anywhere especially when the quality of the work your up against is often of a very high standard. Production companies at the other end of the spectrum spend millions on campaigning to secure nomination votes to have their films be considered by Oscar Academy members for consideration and even then not everyone who deserves to be nominated will be. That can be down to what the production company wants to spend on promoting their films as much as anything else. In 2016 where was James McAvoy’s nomination for Best Actor for his performance in the film Split? I have no idea why this didn’t happen because he certainly deserved it but perhaps the film itself did not cut the muster in the eyes of the beholders? This can lead to all sorts of speculation as to who might even be considered, let alone finally reach the Oscars competition and the effects of this are beautifully sent up in the 2006 Christopher Guest film ‘For Your Consideration’ one of my favourite films of all time, which certainly should have got an Oscar nomination.

Like or loath them it’s an accepted fact that awards do get you noticed. At the lower level every film maker likes to put an award wreath on their film poster even if that wreath is just a nomination for the Whitby Film Festival in a minor category (I have no idea if Whitby have a Film Festival or indeed awards for said festival but you get my point...) in the major leagues however awards on the level at the Bafta’s, Oscars or Emmy’s can mean a major hike in your clients price tag and a wider release for your film property. It can also turn around Box Office takings. It’s an established fact that films that have lukewarm takings at the Cinema prior to awards season which then go on to win Best Film at the Oscars will often have a massive resurgence in Box Office takings. Sometimes they’ll even get a second release. But it’s not just about the financial rewards they can bring. For many nominee’s themselves it’s about being recognised among your peers, being alongside people whose work you’ve always loved and respected is every actor and film makers dream (Except perhaps for Woody Allen) I will freely admit that back in my twenties I often pondered exactly what I would say at a Bafta awards speech (This was before I realised that people with my upbringing had a much narrower chance of ever getting close to the Bafta’s) at the Oscars I always thought I would quickly look into the audience and read out a list of the actors I wanted to work with in my life time who were within sight of me before I was cut off by the orchestra. (I’m not sure I would do that now, I would just track them down at the after party!)

While awards are all well and good as many a great actor has said ‘It’s important not to let them go to your head.’ The most memorable speeches are often the most humble (Though Jack Palance in his seventies doing push ups on the Oscars stage after he won his award for Best Supporting Actor in City Slickers remained with me for many years to come!)

It’s always important to keep any such victories in perspective and I was acutely aware of this when I found myself in these shoes a few years ago. At the award ceremony in question our film, The Journey, was up for four categories. It was the first ‘Film’ award ceremony I had been to, where I had been nominated for my work. (We were also nominated for one in the Philippines but I just simply couldn’t afford to attend it and had never heard of it nor had anyone else, so gave it a pass.) There was around two hundred film makers in attendance at this awards dinner. I mean everyone in the room was nominated for something, most of us in at least three categories or more. Obviously if you’re nominated at an award ceremony you want to go and pay your money for your table and be there to get your award. The more your nominated, the more likely you are to go, so you can see how this all works. Anyways, on my table I was in good company, sitting with a number of other nominated directors including my young friend Matt Berkowitz who had made just the most incredible first feature film, (Wild in Blue) which I had been fortunate enough to see. He was nominated for and rightly won most promising new director. We had already lost out on our other two categories for Best Sound and Use of Music in Film (Which we later found out, was in fact the wrong category, we should have been up for Best Score but something has gone amiss) and we’re down to two, Best Film and Best Director. Well I had seen all but one of the other feature films in competition and to be honest my film paled (in my view) in comparison to many of these. Most of them were made for budgets of around £200,000 whereas mine was a micro shooting budget of £45,000 but when it comes to a critical eye on something, all you can judge it by is what is on the screen in front of you and rightly so of course. Having seen most of the films and judging them purely on their own merit, even though some were not to my personal taste, overall most were just stronger finished pieces of work than my own. (In my view) So there I was sitting there thinking ‘Well, there’s two categories left and I am never going to get Best Director and there’s no way we’re going to get Best Film, so I guess we’re going to lose out’. Another film maker who was to become a good friend of mine on our table was Paul Carr whose film ‘Busted City’ had more nominations than the rest of us put together but at this particular festival he was yet to win a thing. So when my name was read out as the winner for Best Director, my first reaction was ‘Oh well, there we are, I lost…’ not actually realising I had won. So it kind of took me a moment to realise I had won. I made a little speech about my parents as it was the first time I had been back to this very town since they had taken me their as kids, and with both of them sadly no longer around it actually made me very emotional and in someways deeply sad that they hadn't lived to see that night. It probably would have meant more to them than it did t me. Don't get me wrong obviously at the time it was great and also made me very happy not to be the only person at our table without winning anything. It was also nice to post it on Social Media and perhaps gain some respect among my peers and friends as a film maker. It gave us another wreath for the poster and makes for a good story to tell on here but in the grand scheme of things it’s hard to gauge at this level if it had any overall impact on my career or not.

I don’t think there is any film maker or actor friend of mine among my social circle who wouldn’t appreciate getting a nomination for their work for anything, at any festival, anywhere but the major (And most respected with the most clout) film festivals (Cannes, Toronto, Sundance, Tribeca, Berlin, Hong Kong, Venice, Edinburgh, London, San Sebastain, Telluride) are all festivals which can potentially kick start a films career. Your film getting past the stage one submission phase for any of these can of course depend on any number of factors from simple word of mouth, to Social Media presence during the making of the film, to a mate who has a friendly word with the festival director to watch out for your movie. Films can and do get through on their own merit but existing relationships are one of the things that obviously count for a great deal when it comes to festivals and awards, but there’s a darker side to that as well. I had a film which was entered into a small nonsense festival in the UK, I won’t say which and it wasn’t my idea to enter it in the first place. I was told by a third party connected to said festival if we paid a certain sum of money we could guarantee to be the opening film of the festival, normally a prestigious slot in any festival (Well any festival worth a damn, which would not include this one) I refused point blank. I mean I wasn't seeing any box office from the festival and they were screening my film and taking the money. I was going to gain nothing from being at this festival, no one I knew in the industry had ever heard of it, which tells you everything really. I was then told that if I made another payment of monies, I could be guaranteed the closing slot in the said same festival and would also win Best Feature film award. I was stunned at this admission because obviously if this ‘offer’ was being made to myself then it certainly would be being touted to the other film makers in the festival as well. I point blank refused stating that ‘If my film was to win Best Film, then I wanted it to do so on its own merit.’ It didn’t and surprise, surprise, the closing film won Best Film, for whatever that may have been worth to them. No doubt if such things occurred at the low end of film festivals it made me wonder what went on behind the scenes at the upper levels, where a victory could also means millions of extra dollars in revenue for that picture. One would be stupidly naive to think such things don't happen. Who can really say? We’d like to think everything is above board at every festival and award ceremony and everything has an equal chance and wins on its own merit. I want to believe that is the case but I was on at least one occasion proven otherwise.

So what about this year’s Oscars? The winners and the losers? Obviously this year there was the spectre of the fall of Harvey Weinstein & Miramax over the show and also women, rightly, taking their equal place in the industry. While I agree wholeheartedly that there should be totally equality in the industry and any such unprofessional behaviour from someone of any sex should not be tolerated the whole ‘Times Up’ issue has always felt a little hypocritical to me on some level. Some have said many of the people who have spoken out were powerful enough to have done so much sooner, and how is it there’s such a public outcry over the antics of Weinstein but no one supports Corey Feldman publicly who is trying to bring light on the child abusers and paedophiles who have got away with literally murder within the industry for years. Is his cause not equally relevant even if it is harder to address? I would argue its actually more urgent and requires immediate robust action. Corey Haim was ritually raped when he was a child and passed around among the abusers inner circle in Hollywood, but no one wants to talk about that. Where was the In Memoria dedication for him, the year he died so tragically? Anyway, that is a whole other conversation.

So what did I think of the 90th Academy Awards? Does it really matter? I am not anyone important, so as with everything else, hey let’s keep all my comments firmly within that perspective and if you’re remotely interested in what I think, do read on.

Jimmy Kimmel did a great job of hosting this year with a great opening speech which set the tone nicely. I thought there were some pretty strong contenders in all the main categories this year though I will have to admit there is one film I haven’t seen yet in Best Film (Phantom Thread) so if you think it should have won everything, you might well be right. I haven’t seen it and can’t add to that argument. To keep this blog a reasonable length I am not going to comment on every category (Phew you say) but here’s my thoughts on the following winners:

Best Actress – Winner Francis McDormand for Three Billboards. I have loved and followed the career of Francis McDormand ever since I saw her in Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning for which she was also nominated for Best Supporting Actress. I thought she was incredible in Three Billboards and she is one of those actors who is simply brilliant in anything she’s in. I like the fact that she comes across as quirky and her speech giving the chance for all the other women in the industry to stand up at the Oscars was pure class. You just know she would be best guest to have over for dinner. It was great to see our lass Sally Hawkins nominated too and she was brilliant as was Margot Robbie in I,Tonya, but let’s face it Meryl Streep really doesn’t need another Oscar, she has one in every loo at her home already. Francis would have had my vote all the way.

Best Supporting Actress – Winner Allison Janney for I, Tonya. Allison Janney feels like she has been around ever since I started watching films but her career really only began to take off in the mid-1990s. She has properly grafted starting out playing extras and bit parts and her performance in I,Tonya of the cut throat mother was just devastatingly brilliant. I am very pleased she won and would have had my vote for sure but she was in very good company in her category this year. Leslie Manville was also nominated, the one nominee who I can claim to have actually spoken to (She called me at home to thank me for a script I sent her) ironically Lesley is of course the ex of Gary Oldman, so that must have proven an interesting evening. Lesley is just fantastic in every role she takes on and I really hope she wins another time and as I said, I have yet to see Phantom Thread. I would have been equally happy if Laurie Metcalf or the phenomenal Octavia Spencer won for both of their outstanding performances and I would shave my eyebrows off to work with either of them! (Subject to contract and availability) It was nice to see Mary J Blige nominated but I have yet to see Mudbound so can’t comment on that film.

Best Actor – Gary Oldman for The Darkest Hour. Well you cannot say he didn’t deserve it. An incredible performance he almost earned the Oscar for enduring the make-up process alone. But that said there were some other great nominee’s in this category. It was great to see Daniel Kaluuya in there for Get Out, his first real leading role in a major American release so no small achievement even to get the nomination and well deserved. I would have more than happy to see either him or the extremely gifted and youthful Timothee Chalamet take home the prize and it was so nice that the Academy nominated the young man lets hope Hollywood doesn't do to him what it did to Corey Haim. I can’t comment on the other nominee’s as I haven’t seen their films. There’s some other actors I would have liked to have seen in this category including Ansel Elgort for Babydriver.

Best Supporting Actor – Sam Rockwell for Three Billboards. Much as I love Sam Rockwell and he was great I was really hoping it was time for Richard Jenkins to take it home. Sam is still relatively young but Jenkins is in his later years and needs to win his Oscar soon. Jenkins is someone I have followed since he did a very moving supporting role as the Father of Jodie Foster in the little seen 1988 coming of age drama, Stealing Home but I also saw him on the big screen in his very first feature film role in Silverado. I have followed his career ever since and he has avidly supported small independent films as well as taking parts in more major productions. Something about him also tells me he is just a very nice man. If you haven’t seen his performance in the 2008 film ‘The Visitor’ be sure to track that one down. So my sincere congrats to Mr Rockwell who certainly earned his award but I would have liked to see Mr Jenkins have his day on this one. I certainly hope I get to work with him in my life time. Where was the nomination for Michael Shannon for Shape of Water? He definitely should have been in this category!

Best Original Screenplay – Get Out. This is the award that any writer hopes one day to be holding (I would also settle for Best Adapted Screenplay) and I had seen all the films in this category. Wow, this was a tough one. How do you judge which story is better than the other? No doubt for the Academy votes it came down to the one that emotionally drew them in the most so the underdog, Get Out, winning was something of a surprise as it’s a borderline dark thriller with hidden social tones but perhaps that caught a certain zeitgeist among the voters this year. I was surprised to see The Big Sick in this category, it was a great film, with a really well written screenplay but I saw so many other stronger films which felt like they should have been in this category like Okja, Baby Driver, Wind River (A film which was completely robbed this year but got Best Director at Cannes) don’t get me wrong, it’s great to see a film like The Big Sick, which must have had the most difficult of times finding finance getting its due but this is where I start to think, where are these other movies which had such great original stories? Like I said, it’s all down to personal taste. Of the other nominations I have to admit when I watched Three Billboards I immediately thought ‘This is based on a book…’ so was quite surprised when this turned out not to be the case. The main plot device in this film is such an element of genius that I would find myself hard pushed not to give it my vote on this one. The Shape of Water was of course a beautiful film but the screenplay is really not that dissimilar from the Tom Hanks / Daryl Hannah hit of 1984, Splash. It has pretty much the same plot, so that gets a pass from me and Ladybird, good script, but not on par with the winner. I’m glad Get Out won, though it would have been my second choice on the short list. The winner for me was Three Billboards.

Best Director - Guillermo del Toro for The Shape of Water. No one can deny GDT is an extremely gifted film maker with a style that is very much his own and easily identifiable. His fantasy stories are often films that can appeal to an audience of all ages and often cross genres. He’s the sort of director I only wish I could be but sadly never will in my life time. (He's already too good and I am no where near him) No one deserves the award more and he would have had my vote all the way. Even though his film is not the most original story, he still told it in his own unique way and he takes you on an incredible journey with fantastic characters and a colour palette that assaults your senses. I was lucky enough to see this at the UK Premiere at the London Film Festival and see the man speak to introduce the film. He comes across as a very humble and kind man, and that is all you hear about him in film making circles. Christopher Nolan is a great film maker, but I don’t think (Sorry controversial) he is the best story teller. His films are more an organic narrative interwoven with outstanding visuals as was the case with Dunkirk. For Jordan Peele I think it was too early in his career to win the big one for Get Out and PT Andersons films are not for everyone (Even though I still think his film, Magnolia is a work of genius but many of my friends don’t like it at all) I think the right man won this year. He has certainly put in the hours and produced the content. If I was ever even half as good as he is, I would be a very happy man.

Best Picture – The Shape of Water. Of all the films in this category once again the only one I hadn’t seen was Phantom Thread, so keeping that aside it was a year of really strong contenders. I imagine what people look for is something that just excels on every level with performance, script, story, visuals, style, production design. The best film should feel the best in every sense and perhaps most important of all, should say something to you, the viewer and leave you thinking about it for weeks and months to come. Looking down the list there’s a few I could take out that while incredible pieces of work maybe wouldn’t have ticked all of those boxes for me. (Call Me by Your Name, Darkest Hour, Lady Bird, Get Out and Dunkirk) Those of you who know I like my films about history, and World War 2 in particular will see I knocked those two out straight away. While Dunkirk was visually incredible and a departure with its three different timelines in its approach, for me it lacked characters that I engaged with me emotionally. It was deliberately a film very scant on dialogue and I had no issue with that but the remainder didn’t leave me enough to be rooting for all the players involved. Darkest Hour while brilliant thanks largely to Oldman’s performance really tells us nothing new about Winston Churchill, so I can’t give that best film for Oldman alone. There’s been countless films and television series about Churchill which have included other great performances (Albert Finney to name but one) so yes a good film but not one I felt really should have been a contender for Best Picture. I also strongly felt Wind River should have been in this category, but sadly it wasn’t. Of the remaining three – Billboards, Shape and The Post, all three were just outstanding pieces of work that did indeed excel on every level but for me, like Spotlight before it, the one that really stood out was THE POST. I think it’s the true story dramatist in me that makes me lean in its direction. While I think films should be about giving us a break from reality and taking us to fantastic worlds and places far from our own, sometimes it’s equally important to remember that they should also educate, inform and challenge our way of thinking and act as a sign post to those who govern the world that we are watching them.

The Post told the story of the goings on behind the breaking of the story in the press to publish ‘The Pentagon Papers’ the study carried out by the US Government into the feasibility of winning the Vietnam War, well before it had well and truly started. The papers proved America knew right from the get go that it was fighting a war it knew it couldn’t win. Yet it sent thousands of young American men over there to die anyway. This revelation that is perhaps still over looked to some degree in history has to be one of the greatest criminal acts against human kind in the history of the world. Right up there with Stalin and Hitler on the all-time top ten score board of human calamity. It is right and proper that a main stream picture with huge stars should give this subject the attention it deserves so that it seeps its way into the public consciousness. This film should have been made in the 1980s when so many people could still have been held accountable for their actions but in that climate so soon after the events it depicts it never would have seen the light of day. But like the movie Spotlight, never before has it been so important for the film industry to tackle such important issues, give them the big budget treatment and put them out there. Perhaps this is just the spiritual side of me talking but THE POST is an incredibly important film that really is a must see for anyone who cares about the future of their children and indeed, the human race, to have a better understanding of what our world leaders are capable of. Now, don’t get me wrong, I LOVED The Shape of Water, and I am glad it won and it deserved to win as did Three Billboards in all its damaged emotional simplicity which was an incredible film, but for me THE POST said something really important about the world we live in. The other two films actually also did this in their own way too. Water looked at how we always want to destroy what we don’t understand while Billboards showed us that our first reaction of being quick to anger is often not our best but THE POST went further than that. It called people to account, I just wish it could have been made thirty years ago.

So overall I thought it was a really good range of films and performances this year as well as technical achievements which of course I haven’t touched upon at all. (I await my time to do that when Richard Oakes is up for his best Cinematography award) Like I said, awards are nice but always to be kept in perspective. Ultimately there’s only one thing that you can be totally sure of about an Oscar, it makes a good doorstop or loo roll holder.

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