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Oscar bait

| Friday, January 18, 2019

If you pay close attention to the slate of movies released every year, you’ll notice a seasonal pattern emerges. This pattern is constant, unwavering. It almost never changes. It’s hard to mess with the calendar of a multi-billion dollar industry.

January and February are the “dump months,” when production studios release the absolute worst movies in their lineup. Often, these films were once golden projects that lost their way somewhere in development and end up as some of the most terrible movies you’ve never seen. The summer blockbuster season is now so bloated it begins in March. For the next six months, studios trot out the tentpole films that keep them in business and make billions of dollars. We’ll get our 18th entry into the “Fast and Furious” series, our newest foray into the Marvel Cinematic Universe and a reboot of a beloved eighties franchise. In fact, between this year and 2022, we’ll be treated to more than 200 sequels, prequels, reboots and adaptations.

September and October are the second set of “dump months,” cheap horror movies or other films studios expected to lose money on anyway as summer ends and children return to school. November sees another round of superhero flicks and a few attempts at creating the new Christmas classic. And then, in late December, we’re treated to the best movies of year, the ones the studios have been saving. They’re usually released on Christmas Day, and they’re known by the derogatory name of “Oscar bait.”

The 91st Academy Awards (the Oscars) will air Feb. 24. In order to qualify, a film must be released in the calendar year of 2018. The reason these Oscar bait films are released at the very end of the year is so they may be as fresh as possible in the mind of Academy voters while still qualifying for that year. There’s also the added benefits of being released during a week when so many are off from work and school. In recent years, as the Oscar bait phenomenon has become more well-known, it’s also thought that releasing a movie in late December tricks audiences into believing it’s going to be much better than it actually is.

Oscar bait movies all have much in common. There’s a star-studded cast, and is usually directed by someone like Martin Scorsese or Steven Spielberg. There will be technical cinematography and brilliant costume designs. Often, they’ll be a period piece — the Academy loves its period pieces. They’ll be a drama, without exception. They’ll probably be downright depressing. It’s rare for a comedy or sci-fi film to even garner a nomination. And they have one more thing in common: They’re usually really, really good.

During the 2016 season, I saw “La La Land.” It’s perhaps the quintessential Oscar-bait film. Its leads are Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, two of the biggest names in acting. It has musical numbers that harken back to the golden age of movies, to classic musicals the Academy grew up on like “Singing in the Rain” and “West Side Story.” At its core, the movie is a love letter to old Hollywood. It’s about the magic of film and the silver screen, a inflated glorification of the industry. And if there’s one thing Hollywood loves, it’s Hollywood.

Its distinction as Oscar bait doesn’t mean it isn’t an amazing movie. The boxes it checks off are there because they’re important boxes, because people who know and love movies have chosen what they think makes a movie great. I can’t count how many times I’ve seen “La La Land.” It tells a story that resonated with me and countless others. Oscar bait or not, it means more than a golden statue.

I don’t like waiting until the end of the year to see the best movies of the year. I don’t like the idea of studios making movies designed specifically to make Academy voters fall into the trap of liking them. And I certainly don’t like the idea of studios using the concept of Oscar bait to prey on unsuspecting movie fans like me. But I don’t think that’s what they’re doing. And if it is, I’m happy to fall for it every year.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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