Man at His Best

Opinion: Why I Love Watching Oscar-Bait Movies Flop

A time-honoured tradition that takes place in Toronto, Venice, and Telluride.

BY Stephen Marche | Sep 12, 2016 | Film & TV

Sony Pictures Classics

For children, September is the beginning of school; for movie people, it's the beginning of film festival season. In Toronto and Venice and Telluride, the first hints of awards season arrives with the smell of the fall. And at least for me, it's hard to be cynical. The Toronto International Film Festival, which I'm attending this week, is an event of great optimism. Nobody who's there can doubt, at least for that week, the power of the movies. Foreign buyers talk with elderly retirees who talk with underemployed hipsters, and the subject is always the same: what they loved seeing.

Most of the critics are here to gauge that buzz, and to answer the question that TIFF poses: who's going to win the Oscar. This year is no different, with prize bait lined up in a row—actors suffering (Bleed for This and Brain on Fire), serious literary adaptations (American Pastoral and In Dubious Battle), and important historical epics (Birth of a Nation and The Promise). No doubt some of these films will be great. But to me, the real pleasure of film festivals is watching terrible watching films die. That's what really brings me pleasure.

Elizabeth Olsen and Tom Hiddleston in 'I Saw the Light'.
Sony Pictures Classics

To take the most recent example, last year I attended the gala screening of I Saw the Light, the Tom Hiddleston vehicle about Hank Williams. The theatre was full. Everyone was eager to see the movie. The crowd screamed when the stars appeared, and they were reverent to the director when he made a slightly pretentious speech to before the show. The audience, I should also point out, had paid significant amounts of money; they wanted to love the movie. And then the lights went on, the film started, and they just didn't. The non-response was instant, automatic, a practically hormonal reaction—you could feel a room full of people just not give a shit. Ten minutes into the film, it was clear to everyone that it would fail. And because it was Toronto, we all stayed, politely watching to witness all the work that had gone into the doomed thing: Hiddleston's immense effort to learn to sing the songs, the beautiful shots, no doubt agonised over—none of them would matter. The movie just didn't take.

The non-response was instant, automatic, a practically hormonal reaction—you could feel a room full of people just not give a shit.

Films dying is a little different from films blowing up. TIFF also provides good examples of those. In 2015, I was in the first press screening of the adaptation of Martin Amis's London Fields. There were perhaps 30 of us in the crowd. The film was beyond dreadful. It contained Billy Bob Thornton's worst performance and the single most embarrassing author cameo of all time, with Martin Amis showing up as a sort of pseudo-pimp with an upsettingly ridiculous smirk on his face. Fortunately for him, in the middle of the festival, the distributor pulled the film over a lawsuit. The thing has not yet been released, and I wonder if it ever will be. I may have attended the only public screening of that film. I still think about it regularly. A true disaster.

But my first, and still my most memorable, experience of watching a film die was the 2013 screening of August: Osage County. Much like with I Saw the Light, the rapturous expectations of the crowd only made the deflation more poignant. Harvey Weinstein was in the audience, and I could see his face. I could see him figuring out as the audience failed to respond that the movie wasn't going to win an Oscar. It was like watching a high stakes gambler at Vegas lose USD50 million over a bet he was sure he was going to win. Think about his situation: he'd bought the most successful play of the previous decade, he'd put Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts and Ewan McGregor and Benedict Cumberbatch in it, he'd thrown money at the project, he'd hired the fantastic and proven director John Wells, and it still didn't work. I mean what else could the universe ask of him? I watched him watch the movie die, and pick himself up again for the party to celebrate a stillbirth. I had more admiration for him in that moment than any time he ever accepted an award.

Watching films die reveals the power of movies in a way no other experience ever can. When you see the films without magic, you realise how vague and indefinable that magic really is, how it only visits even the most dedicated artists—and then only rarely, if at all. The thing with films that succeed is that everybody who cares even slightly will eventually see them.

There are those who take a good deal of pleasure from seeing the winning movies a bit sooner than everybody else, but who really cares? The winners survive. Eventually everybody see them. I don't really remember that I watched Gravity a few weeks before everybody else. But London Fields is mine. It's my own personal shitty little secret. I carry it in my heart.

From: Esquire US.