Saturday, November 21, 2015

Failed Oscar Campaigns: "Avatar" (2009)

Scene from Avatar
As awards seasons pick up, so do the campaigns to make your film have the best chances at the Best Picture race. However, like a drunken stupor, sometimes these efforts come off as trying too hard and leave behind a trailer of ridiculous flamboyance. Join me on every other Saturday for a highlight of the failed campaigns that make this season as much about prestige as it does about train wrecks. Come for the Harvey Weinstein comments and stay for the history. It's going to be a fun time as I explore cinema's rich history of attempting to matter.

The Movie

Avatar (2009)
Directed By: James Cameron
Written By: James Cameron
Starring: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver
Genre: Action, Adventure, Fantasy
Running Time: 162 minutes
Summary: A paraplegic marine dispatched to the moon Pandora on a unique mission becomes torn between following his orders and protecting the world he feels is his home.

The History

It is hard to believe today, but director James Cameron's Avatar was the biggest film of all time in more ways than one. In the promotion leading up to its release, it was hailed as one of the greatest cinematic experiences thanks to its cutting edge technology that transported audiences into a new and wonderful world called Pandora. It was a film that ushered in the future of film making at the turn of the decade in 2009. After a 12 year absence from theatrical releases, Cameron returned with a film that almost proved that he was the most successful film director in history. If not, try and explain how his last two films (Titanic and Avatar) ended up being the highest grossing films of all time, only receiving rare threats in the past 10 years. Talented or not, the man can spin hype yarn with the best of them.

The film itself has been oddly excommunicated to a cynical legacy. With the promise of several sequels, the planned franchise has been at a standstill since 2010 when the film finally escaped theaters. It was the number one movie for weeks on end, even staying in theaters with popularity for a good three months - a rarer feat with each passing year. Audiences turned up in droves to see it, as it was billed as a big screen experience he likes of which only Christopher Nolan was batting at the time. To his credit, he introduced a new world that was so detailed that each frame could be paused for deeper analysis. It was the first major C.G.I. film to also be an Oscar contender. It wouldn't be the last.

But what, if any, legacy does Avatar continue to have? For starters, it's impressive that it had such success as a non-franchise movie; of which has since dominated box office grosses. While not the only film of its kind, it helped to popularize the use of 3D in film; a move that ended up sparking an ongoing trend of films that use it "to add depth" (Cameron would even use it in a rerelease of Titanic). While stop motion animation had been in use since the start of the decade with The Lord of the Rings series, this was the first film to use it heavily not only on visuals, but on major performances. This has become more accepted in years to come because of Avatar, which helped to make Peter Jackson's WETA special effects company more recognizable (they would do work on the rebooted Planet of the Apes films).

Even if nobody has directly thought about Avatar, it has been rumored for years now to take over the world, literally. There's been plans to build an amusement park that is based off of Pandora. While Cameron seems to be ahead of technological trends, he's still holding off on making the supposed sequels, of which he claims will be the only films he makes for the rest of his life. Along with a few unsuccessful rereleases (featuring only a dozen or so minutes of new footage), it has become a mythological title that is both successful yet also largely forgotten outside of its general success. It seems that even if it outgrossed Titanic, it doesn't have nearly as strong of a legacy as that one. Who knows. If those sequels actually come out, then maybe people will start to care again. 

The Campaign

There was a lot going against Avatar after its release. For starters, it was a film that couldn't be taken seriously as an Oscars contender outside of visual effects. In the months leading up to it, people complained that it looked like a video game and that the results would likely be disappointing. Even as the months drew on, nobody had any faith that Avatar would be a major Oscar contender. It was partially because of how different it was, but also because sci-fi films had failed to make a mint in the major categories. Even crowd favorite Star Wars failed to win Best Picture over Annie Hall. For the most part, sci-fi has largely been ignored at the Oscars. At most, Avatar could only expect to be a really successful film, which it was. One could say it survived on word of mouth, but that was mostly because people were telling friends to see the movie on the big screen in 3D; a move that was almost too easy to make a profit off of additional surcharges alone.

The campaign, as one could guess, didn't need to be too big for the Oscars. Cameron's last film, Titanic, had won Best Picture. He was acclaimed for his craft. If he had any chance, he could get by on name recognition. The film would win the Golden Globe for Best Picture (Drama). However, its run to the Oscars was a little more complicated. The film was struggling to get acting nominations. Considering that this is the same Academy who later disqualified The Adventures of Tintin from the Best Animated Film category for being filmed with motion capture technology (thanks largely as a loophole created after Avatar), there's been almost no chance of an actor whose face was animated over to be nominated. Avatar's box office and acclaim was enough to get it into the technical fields. It was the Big Five that they needed to crack.

Cue in the biggest technology enthusiast of the group: Cameron. The studio left the director to his own demise, and the conversation shifted to exactly where you'd think. In a Newsweek interview between Cameron and Peter Jackson, he claimed that:
"We couldn't accomplish the character we're doing in Avatar through any kind of makeup means. That's been explored for 30 years of Star Trek and Star Wars. But I think the thing I hope that the media can convey to audiences is that this is an actor-driven process. Neytiri, in my film, for example--she is what Zoe [Saldana] created 100 percent. Initially I thought we want to keep the technique under wraps. We don't want to pull the curtain aside and show people how we've done this; we just want to show you my magic. But I've recently changed my tune. I want people to see a side-by-side image of Neytiri in a scene and Zoe doing the scene, so they understand that it's a physical and facial performance. Zoe took months of training at archery and martial arts, so she could move a certain way and have a certain grace. It's something she created that just translated to her character."
This was accompanied by a photo of Saldana not as the character Neytiri, but in the motion capture suit, giving what looks to be an emotionally wrenching performance. It was to highlight the actor underneath "the mask." As much as the other marketing materials focused on the process, few were as Oscar focused as Cameron's desire to show the actor's craft. He believed that what he was doing was revolutionary. While actors like Andy Serkis have since made successful careers as recognizable actors in this field, there hasn't been any major campaigns pushing for them yet.

Beyond the special effects, there were other campaigns launched. In one of the most notorious moves in 21st century Oscar baiting, The Hurt Locker producer Nicolas Chartier sent out a message to Oscar votes basically stating his independent film deserved a chance. In the letter, he claimed that The Hurt Locker should win over “a $500 million film, we need independent movies to win like the movies you and I do.” It didn't directly state that it was Avatar, but was blatantly obvious because of how the Oscar nominations were looking. Even if The Hurt Locker and Avatar were polar opposites in every way (and from former husband - Cameron - and wife - Kathryn Bigelow), it was an unfair attack that eventually got Chartier banned from the ceremony. As a result, there was a ban created in 2012 to limit how many events a film can campaign at. 

While many accused the film of plagiarizing the plot to films like Dances With Wolves and Pocahontas, there was one group who was supportive. Even if the film was predominantly shot in sound studios and featured no natural scenery, Greenpeace put their support into the film with an advertisement in Variety due to its pro-environmentalism messages. They also played up the fact that Cameron was Canadian, much like those who took out the ad. They compared the film's message to their relevant tar sands mining facilities debacle. They claimed that "James Cameron & Avatar... You Have Our Vote!" There's no rhyme or reason as to why they did it nor that it impacted the voting (which was within a week of Oscar Sunday), but it showed that its impact surpassed that of entertainment and went into a something more important.

The Payoff

The 2010 ceremony was a big year for The Academy in general. For starters, the Best Picture category was expanded to 10 categories after being at 5 nominations for a few decades. Many attribute this to a notoriously lackluster group of nominees from the previous year - specifically over the absence of crowd favorite The Dark Knight. While this format would last for the next two years, everything after 2012 would be determined on a sliding scale of 5-10 final nominations. The reason was to expand the variety of films that could be nominated in these fields. The first year was especially successful, as both Avatar and District 9 were able to give focus to sci-fi films in major categories.

For what it was worth, Avatar garnered 9 nominations total. While this was three less than Titanic, the film still lead the pack of most nominations. As one can predict, majority of them were technical with no nominations for writing or acting. The film would win 3 of them, all of which were in the categories that people predicted they would win in. Going into the evening, it was a tough race between Avatar and The Hurt Locker for which would take home Best Picture. While Avatar became the first fully C.G.I. film to be nominated, The Hurt Locker's legacy felt more cemented. Having suffered its own barrage of complains about accuracy during the campaign season, the award was given to Bigelow. While many can cite quality, it's also partially believed that she won due to her being the first (and to date only) woman to win Best Director. It was more of a historic event, especially since C.G.I. movies would continue to be around and win the category almost every year since.

Cameron's film failed to win all that much despite its immediate cultural impact. While it reflects The Academy embracing smaller movies, it also shows the ongoing distance that they feel towards sci-fi films in general. Even if Avatar has become the norm for blockbuster films since, it has largely been forgotten thanks to the overexposure of its techniques in other films. Maybe it did deserve to win more. It likely wasn't impacted by Chartier's illegal campaign, or even Greenpeace's for that matter. Then again, it didn't need attention when compared to the lowest grossing Best Picture winner to date. Whether or not there were gender politics involved is up for debate. However, it's more of a reflection of the disparaging nature of epics at awards shows nowadays.

Even if nobody thinks of Avatar, it's been looming in the culture in ways that are both pleasant and unpleasant. The pleasant is that it has opened up conversation regarding motion capture performances and has given films like Gravity and Life of Pi more of an even chance to win major awards outside of technical. It also has opened the dialogue more on what constitutes a great performance. The unpleasant is that it popularized 3D, which many have long accepted as the cash cow tool. So whether audiences still think it's the best movie ever, or the most overrated; nobody can deny the impact of Avatar. It may have not won big on Oscar night as some hoped, but at least its nominations were itself a commentary on what it did right, and what The Academy still needs to work on fixing.

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