Ask awards consultants the two words they fear the most, and they'll tell you in a heartbeat: Oscar front-runner.
That's because when you're the movie to beat, you're also the movie to target. Or, in the case of "Boyhood" this year, the expectations associated with being the top dog end up becoming your undoing.
Yes, "Boyhood" became the target of whisper campaigns (another two words awards campaigners hate), with competitors complaining about a perceived lack of diversity in the film or griping anonymously, "If you gave me 12 years to make a movie, I could get an Oscar nomination too." Never mind that the dozen years Richard Linklater spent making "Boyhood" came from an artistic impulse to examine the passage of time and how we perceive that passage. Or that he made several other excellent movies during that same 12-year period.
FULL COVERAGE: Oscars 2015
That kind of sour-grapes jealousy, aimed at debunking "Boyhood's" singular achievement, didn't doom the movie. But as it piled up critics prizes through December, its campaign went into overdrive cataloging and trumpeting every award (the North Texas Film Critics Assn.!). And when you proclaim yourself the best film of the year (according to more than 150 critics!), you're setting up outsized expectations for the people who will be judging that assessment when they fill out their Oscar ballots.
"Boyhood," great as it is, could not live up to the hype its own campaign created. Like its director, it's a low-key movie, audacious in its concept and ambitions, but absent the kind of flamboyant filmmaking that coursed through "Birdman," the movie that went on to win best picture on Sunday. "Boyhood" doesn't have any conventional heroes or big dramatic moments. Life unfolds, but Linklater doesn't call attention to the events. That's part of its power.
Essentially, "Boyhood" was a quiet movie at odds with the way it was being pushed. Academy members who arrived to it late wondered what all the fuss was about. Yes, as one of its pull quotes declared, it is "one of the most extraordinary movies of the 21st century." Just not in the way that most voters associate with the kind of movie that has traditionally won the best picture Oscar.
"Risk. Truth. Love. Above All." Those were the words used in "Birdman" campaign ads, accompanied by dozens of images from the film. Simple. Streamlined. Elegant. Words that just as easily could have been employed by "Boyhood's" backers. Imagine a campaign centered on those concepts surrounded by scores of amazing photos from the 12-year journey Linklater and crew took. Instead of overselling and running the risk of creating promises you can't possibly live up to, you highlight the emotional core. You go for the heart, not the head.
Of course, you could say it's a small miracle that "Boyhood" managed to be so close to winning in the first place. Indie movies left a big footprint at the Oscars this year, with "Whiplash," "Birdman" and "The Grand Budapest Hotel" taking multiple awards. The big winner in all of this is the fall film festivals — Telluride and Toronto, in particular — that launch these contenders into the Oscar season with enough wiggle room to build buzz and momentum.
Wait too late and your movie doesn't have enough awareness to make it out of voters' DVD screener stacks. (Case in point: J.C. Chandor's excellent "A Most Violent Year.") That doesn't mean studios will ever give up that lucrative Christmas holiday window. "Into the Woods" and "Unbroken" may not have been nominated for best picture, but they made money. Business comes before awards consideration.
Indies like the Weinstein Co. that depend on awards attention to drive the box office will continue to follow the model of the last eight best picture winners, which all played at Telluride and Toronto, winning acclaim and then trying their damndest to fly under the radar until it counts — when academy members are voting.