12 Steps to Build Better Oscar Bait

Among film critics, “oscar-bait” is a derisive term applied to films that pander to Oscar voters. Now of course not all Oscar-nominated films have all these elements. Plenty of winners draw outside the lines. Films that break this mold are, in my opinion, the best of the crop. Bong Joon-ho’s wildly original, dystopian visions rightly landed him a history-making four Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best International Film in 2020 for PARASITE as well as the very first time (the shame!) a foreign-language film won Best Picture.

This year, some of my favorites also defy trends, genre, and Oscar-voter preferences for easy good-vs.-evil conflicts. There’s THE MOLE AGENT, ANOTHER ROUND, NOMADLAND, MINARI, and even DICK JOHNSON IS DEAD. Still, each film has at least two of these elements. So hey, maybe no award-contender can break through without appealing to the moralizing sentimentality of Oscar voters.

In no particular order, here are 12 elements your movie needs if you want an Oscar from the voters who just want to feel good:

1. A long tracking shot, especially of someone running

I mean, hey, sure, BIRDMAN was packed with misogyny, a sycophantic celebration of a narcissistic, straight white male artist. But that single take! Or, rather, the trompe l’œil of editing that made it look like a one-shot film. And this won it an Oscar (Yeah? You want to fight me for that? Well even before #MeToo taught us that misogyny is nauseating, professional critic Sam Krowchenko said of BIRDMAN there’s “not much there”).

But with a long tracking shot (or even the appearance of one), you can distract most viewers from even asking whether there’s anything there and what purpose your tracking shot serves. Every film that makes it big—great, awful, and anywhere in between—seems to require a lengthy tracking shot. Just a few examples:

  • GOODFELLAS (as Ray Liotta rushing down stairs, through hallways, kitchens, etc.)
  • CHILDREN OF MEN (Clive Owen running)
  • CHARIOTS OF FIRE (athletes running)
  • PULP FICTION (Bruce Willis speed-walking)
  • THE SHINING (a little boy pedaling down a hallway)
  • pretty much any war film since at least 1998 (the camera zooms through the battlefield)
  • GRAVITY (17 minutes of astronauts fixing things before they run for their lives)
  • THE LIFE AHEAD (a transwoman running down—you guessed it—a hallway)

This last wasn’t even nominated for anything other than Best Song. But you know what? Maybe the tracking shot helped it get noticed.

Photo by Vladislav Murashko from Pexels

2. A boy or man who is sullen, inscrutable, and silent with long stares during close-ups

This doesn’t mean all silent types are crap characters. MINARI nails this one. Jacob (Steven Yeun) is an uncommunicative father who, at the film’s opening, hasn’t even been transparent with his wife Monica (Han Ye-ri) about where he has moved their family. In the hands of someone as sensitive to character nuance and motivation as Lee Isaac Chung, this excels. But for many writers, this just ends up as just another stock character. A John Wayne or Bruce Willis type who talks little and does much, for no reason other than that he’s a man and (apparently) that’s a cool way to be. Oscar voters eat it up.

Photo by Rene Asmussen from Pexels

3. An older person who just wants to be left the fuck alone but is forced to help people (or be helped) through the conventions of the plot

Cue THE MOLE AGENT where Sergio just wants a paycheck and a job that might do a little bit of good. Then there’s the grandma (Youn Yuh-jung) in MINARI, who is not there to help out, thank you very much. There’s Dave (David Strathairn) in NOMADLAND who just wants to maintain his independence and keep his son out of his business. Every last one of them winds up way more involved than they’d planned to be. Even Grandma’s minari literally saves the family farm.

All of these characters are radically different and irresistibly lovable. But I’m suspicious of Oscar voters’ eagerness to see old people’s lives disrupted. Apparently, in the Hollywood mindset, if you’re actually a good person, your retirement isn’t about you. It’s about how many people you can help. With about two-thirds of Oscar voters being men and over 80% being white, maybe it shouldn’t be a huge surprise that they prefer narratives that celebrate caregiving or a surrender to caregiving, as in Dave’s return to his family. Hell, even THE FATHER can be slotted under this heading.

4. Sex workers who talk more like daycare workers; criminals who are good people just down on their luck; white racists who really, deep down, have hearts of gold

Oscar voters seem to savor anything that reassures them we’re all the same. Really. We all have our hardships, but if we just talked to each other, everything would be solved. From GREEN BOOK to SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE to CRASH, Oscar-bait films present viewers with comforting worldviews where everybody is basically good. The murderers in CHICAGO? Just women who’ve been done wrong and want a shot at a comfortable life. The racist in GREEN BOOK? He just needs a Black friend. Even when it’s done well (the drug dealer in MOONLIGHT protects and nurtures a rejected, lonely child), it leaves viewers feeling safer. See? Nobody’s really that bad.

5. A total commitment to POV, even if it misleads the viewer or leaves out crucial information

Sometimes this works incredibly well. This year we’ve got THE FATHER working its A-game to achieve this. But sometimes it’s just sloppy or ill-chosen. In BIRDMAN, we’re stuck in the POV of a self-absorbed, embittered misogynist so that when an on-screen sexual assault occurs, it’s played as a joke, the victim immediately labeled as overreacting and “crazy.” Another nominee this year, MANK, disregards cinema history in order to stick unswervingly to its character’s POV. Maybe Hollywood prefers total commitment over anything else. I don’t know. But for whatever reason, they seem to love it.

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6. Inexplicably generous behavior from villains, or a stroke of luck that makes everything work

Maybe a character has been working up the nerve to speak up and assert themselves. Maybe someone has been trying to decide whether to leave town or a marriage or a job, and they’re afraid of the consequences. In a great film, their hesitation is proven valid when everything blows up in their face (i.e., Albert Brooks’ delightful LOST IN AMERICA about a couple who quits their jobs to hit the road, only for their lives to spectacularly detonate).

But not so in an Oscar-bait film. When our hero finally takes the leap? Look! It works out just great! From LA-LA LAND to THE KING’S SPEECH, we learn that if you just follow your dreams, you make it to the top. People are good. Life is great and wonderful and perfect! And if they don’t win as in LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE? Hey! It’s all still great because we’re plenty happy and we stuck it to “The Man.” This is a delusion of the highest order, and it makes sense that the relatively wealthy, successful, privileged people writing, making, and voting on these films would feel it’s honest. After all, for them? That is how the world works.

7. The inscrutable, tortured, silent (sometimes abusive, always withholding) character suddenly “does the right thing” with no clear motivation

I guess this is supposed to make us feel, like most other Oscar-bait elements, that the world is safe and pleasant. “Aw look, Pete really was a good guy after all. See, Josie? There was nothing to be afraid of. He loves you.” This can be triggering for those of us who have been victims of racism, gender-based violence, and other abuse. In real life, a racist who spends time with a Black man doesn’t suddenly become anti-racist (GREEN BOOK). A coercive, controlling man who dominates his family doesn’t suddenly fix his marriage with a single act of heroism (MINARI). It’s not that these films lack nuance; MINARI especially tries to leave family tensions somewhat unresolved. But when films resolve serious conflicts with one sweeping act of generosity or goodness, it leaves the average viewer (and Oscar voter) confident it’s fixed. So we don’t have to worry about that anymore.

8. A crescendo of violence and destruction that comes out of nowhere and forces all our characters to “just get along” or “face the truth”

The fire in MINARI is a prime example of this. It is, in my opinion, the only misstep in the film. It’s just too damn convenient (I would have bought it with more foreshadowing). And in such a quiet film, it’s too damn big. It would have been like inserting a fiery automobile wreck into NOMADLAND.

Yes, every story needs a climax. And the general rule of thumb in Hollywood is that the climax has to be big. Lots of action. Lots of danger. This allows someone to reveal their true heroism. Generally, the more explosive a climax is, the more audiences love it. As my father-in-law says, something has to blow up. In MANK, it’s the party scene where Herman rants at Hearst and vomits all over the floor. CRASH gets multiple climaxes, multiple guns go off, multiple truths are faced. It doesn’t really matter if it feels contrived or if it wasn’t set up well. If we feel better after the chaos, Oscar voters will give it a thumbs up.

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9. An improbable happy ending

Would a woman in her 90s really be out on a research vessel in the middle of the Atlantic (TITANIC)? Would a disabled man really get to be part of every significant moment of history, including the life of the woman he loves, in a society as ableist as ours (FORREST GUMP)? Are we really supposed to cheer on a young woman’s suicide just because she’s disabled (MILLION DOLLAR BABY)? Would a much-put-upon wife really stick around when her husband refuses to get treatment for his mental illness and begins to abuse her (A BEAUTIFUL MIND)?

In the end, for the average Oscar voter, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that everything turns out just fine, and hey, racism is solved. Disabled people are dead or fixed. Women stand by their men. Lovers are reunited (or introduced). And all’s well that ends well. Night-night. Sleep tight.

10. A dance scene showing how vital and alive our heroes are

ANOTHER ROUND nails this. But most films? Well.

I’ll just say that you know how you’ll be having a conversation, and the five-year-old in the room suddenly starts dancing? Then, they want everyone else to dance, too. So there you all are, dancing while you avert your eyes out of shame.

Most of these scenes feel like that.

Oh, and extra points if it’s bathed in warm sunshine. Speaking of which…

Photo by Jackson David from Pexels

11. Lots of warm, gleaming light cascading over our heroes like haloes.

Again, the moralizing of Oscar voters knows no bounds. So the more you can ensure your protagonist looks like a saint in a medieval painting, the better your chances.

Photo by Rodolfo Clix from Pexels

12. A rousing speech that baldly states the film’s theme while also demonstrating a character’s growth.

THE KING’S SPEECH is perhaps the best example. Hell, it’s in the title. But even in a much better film (NOMADLAND), we get this from several characters. TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 is essentially nothing but this. So to get those Oscar voters, don’t just state your theme once. Or even twice. State it over and over and over again, at length.

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In short, if you’re aspiring to create Oscar-bait, maybe don’t. Make art instead. Honor your unique vision. Give us your experience. Tell us what no one else can. I will pay to see that.

But if you want a pat on the head from people who are rich and privileged and therefore convinced that the world is happy and just, these 12 elements are a pretty good place to start.

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Feature Photo by Hoang Loc from Pexels

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