What exactly is Oscarbait?

Aoife O Brien

People love to hate the Oscars. And why shouldn’t they?

It marks the end of a season where studios have rolled out one movie after another in the hope that it will become the next ‘Lord of the Rings’ or ‘Slumdog Millionaire’. Films that see big name actors playing tragic historical figures, struggling against adversity or showcasing man’s inhumanity to man. Oscar bait can take many forms but these movies, reverse engineered to win awards are easy to spot and rarely what the audience want to see.

The ‘Oscarbation’ trend developed in the 1970s and 1980’s with the decline of New Hollywood. Until this point the most popular films were almost always the best and the most likely to win Oscars. However the emergence of the summer blockbuster with directors such as Tim Burton, led to the production of beloved and well-received movies which were not hard hitting enough to win the “important” categories.

‘Serious’ movies that did win those categories, such as the biopic Dallas Buyers Club, which tells the story of a homophobic man who overcomes his homophobia after becoming friends with ‘queer’ people, became known as Oscar Bait.

In a possible effort to placate audiences, the film Academy have announced that the 91st Academy Awards in 2019 will see the introduction of a new category for outstanding achievement in popular film, presumably favouring movies that have grossed over $100m.

It is difficult not to compare this with the introduction of the category award for animation when they began pushing into the big leagues, but the emergence of new archetypes at the 2018 awards could mean this marks a turning point for what makes an Oscar worthy movie.

One of the most notable differences was the prominence of low budget films, which invite risk and fresh ideas because the cost of investing in traditional Oscar bait is too high.

The American horror Get Out which received four nominations was made for $4.5million and went on to gross $225million. This is in comparison to the more traditional Oscar bait film ‘The Post’ which cost $50million and yet received only two nominations.

Horror and fantasy movies which have long since been treated as second rate by critics for their apparent lack of cultural significance, also received acclaim in the form of ‘Get Out’ and ‘The Shape of Water’.

Another notable theme has been to take an original Oscar bait concept and throw it a little off balance. The 2018 awards saw this in films such as ‘The Shape of Water’ which told a tale of forbidden romance between a woman and a fish and ‘Dunkirk’, a war movie told in three separate timelines.

‘The Favourite’, a historical drama which sees a young scullery maid worm her way into the Queen’s inner circle and back to aristocratic roots, is a notable candidate for the 2019 awards on this premise.

Despite this traditional Oscar bait has not died out entirely and there’s still plenty of room for biopics, period pieces and remakes.

‘First Man’ fits the criteria to the last as both an astounding technical feat and a biopic of a major historical figure. The fourth remake of ‘A Star is Born’ also seems likely to dominate, with two of its three predecessors having won Academy Awards and all of them having received multiple nominations.

Love them or hate them, the lure of the Academy Awards compels artists to tell stories that need to be told and might not be heard any other way.

Whether they are Oscar bait or not, who doesn’t love a night at the movies?


Aoife O’ Brien

Image Credit: Megan Hannan