Oscar Bait


"The diseased/addicted/mentally impaired always get the Oscar."
"Hollywood Rule Book", Vanity Fair

You would think that a good movie is a good movie, and that good movies get Oscars for being good movies. But they don’t.

An Oscar is a big deal. It gets people to the theater, it boosts ticket sales, and it bolsters the studio’s bottom line. As such, studios and producers try to engineer a film so that it can win an Oscar rather than be good in its own right. Typically, this meant a more serious, depressing, or “artistic” film. Such a film is called Oscar Bait, and the practice is also derisively known as “Oscarbation”.

The trend started in the 1970s and 1980s with the emergence of the Summer Blockbuster and the decline of New Hollywood. Before then, it was a pretty good bet that the most popular movies were also the best ones (and thus the likely Oscar-winners). But then directors like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas hit their stride, making beloved and well-received movies which were seen as too “lightweight” to win the “important” categories (acting, direction, writing, and picture). The “serious” fare that did win those categories would become Oscar Bait.

Such films are usually depressing dramas, Glurgey inspirational films, and examples of man’s inhumanity to man – as such, an abnormally large proportion of Oscar Bait films are set during The Holocaust. There’s also a big focus on mental illness or Inspirationally Disadvantaged characters. It’s rare for a comedy film to do well at the Oscars; sci-fi and horror don’t do much better, and animated films were given their own categories once they flirted with pushing into the big leagues. It’s not a hard and fast rule; you might see a Dramedy or Dark Comedy get a nomination, mostly because there’s still room for suffering.

Oddly, many Oscar Bait movies don’t do so well at the box office. A big reason for that is Hype Backlash and Hype Aversion; the heavy campaigning to win an Oscar can be a big turn-off. Furthermore, many Oscar Bait films are released around December or January (as a direct lead-in to the Academy Awards show in late February), so it’s easy to tell them apart from Summer Blockbusters. And they don’t even always win Oscars, perhaps because the Academy can actually tell the difference between a good, honest movie and an Oscar Bait attempt, and partly because sometimes they respect the general public’s opinion of a movie and will try to reflect that. (But when they don’t, that’s an Award Snub.)

The phenomenon isn’t exclusive to the Oscars, either; on TV it’s “Emmy Bait”, on Broadway it’s “Tony Bait”, and in music it’s “Grammy Bait”. See also Death by Newbery Medal and Award Bait Song.

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Oscar Bait tactics and examples:

    Positioning the film to win awards 
  • The Deer Hunter was a game-changer. After a disastrous preview screening, the studio brought in Allan Carr as a consultant. He concluded that the film was so grim and depressing that people would only watch it if they had heard that it had been nominated for Oscars. Before then, it was the other way around; films got Oscar nominations based on their popular reception. Carr turned the system on its head and gave the film only a short screening in New York and Los Angeles near the end of 1978; the audience was mostly limited to film critics and Academy members. The former raved about the film, and the latter nominated it for multiple Oscars. Only then was it put into wide release to the general public.
  • “Oscar-worthy” films tend to be released in the last two months of the year, to get them in before the December 31 deadline but as close to the February ceremony as possible. Sometimes it results in a rushed production.
    • Studios will often play this tactic to the hilt; to be considered for an Oscar, a film must shown in a theater for at least one full week in the year of nomination in either LA or New York (moreoften LA, due to it being, you know "Hollywood"). So to push it as close to that deadline as possible, studios will do two things: 1) release the film on/around the Christmas weekend, the last week of the year, and compound that with 2) only giving it in limited release to start. In this, they can technically qualify, letting the limited release period build up word-of-mouth as well as early nomination talk, then go into a wide-release that will take the film, should it have legs, well into February and right up against the Oscars.
  • Studios will shamelessly lobby the judges directly, through one of the following:
    • Massive advertising directly to members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (i.e. the famed “For Your Consideration” ads). These campaigns got so out of hand that people speculated that it may have been a reason the Oscar ceremony was moved from March to February – to get people to pay attention to the films and not the ads. (The main reason, of course, was to coincide with Sweeps.)
    • Widespread distribution of free “screeners”, often for “little” films which may not have been in theaters for long. These are typically just DVDs mailed en masse to all the voting members (which are so pervasive that many Academy members never even go to theatrical screenings, although they often don’t have the time to). Academy members have also been known to “accidentally” leak these screeners to smugglers, although that never dissuaded the studios (and a Mexican scientist did invent a watermarking technology for them).
  • Studios will sometimes vie to be the one to “get the most Oscars”, which leads them to release several Oscar Bait films in a row. One of the most notorious for this was Miramax Films, who hit us with Shakespeare in Love, Chocolat, Chicago, and Cold Mountain within a few years. They might also set up subdivisions specifically for “arthouse”-style films, like Paramount Vantage.

    Subject matter and characters 

Films (or otherwise) that come across as particularly obvious in their ambitions:

    Oscar Bait 

    Emmy Bait 
  • The West Wing episode “The Long Goodbye” was painfully obviously designed to score Allison Janney an Emmy nomination. It did so by omitting most of the regular cast to show her character battling her father’s Alzheimer’s disease. This was particularly strange because Janney won four Emmys on her own over the course of the series, so she didn’t need a weepy Emmy-bait episode.
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer: "The Body" is a massive tearjerker episode where the cast deals with Joyce's death and seems to be pushing all the Emmy Bait buttons. It didn't get a nomination, but the No Dialogue Episode "Hush" did.

    Tony Bait 
  • In the Heights centers around an inspirational Fourth of July where impoverished immigrants in Washington Heights win the lottery and struggle with issues of college debt, gentrification, and American identity. The characters angst over everything, including (but not limited to): boatloads of Unresolved Sexual Tension, the hypocrisy of The American Dream, the expenses of living in the heights, and the death of a beloved community member. Sprinkle in some modern, catchy infusions of hip-hop and salsa music, and you have a Tony-winning musical. It was nominated for thirteen categories, winning four (but none for writing).

    BAFTA Bait 
  • Hawking, a biopic of famously disabled genius astrophysicist Stephen Hawking, was saturated with BAFTA Bait topics – and not just about Hawking struggling with his ALS or his efforts in science. It even managed to include a few Holocaust references; a supporting character had to flee Nazi Germany with his family as a child.

  • Young At Heart was not eligible for either an Oscar or an Emmy (for various reasons), so it set its sights on international film festivals, particularly the Rose d’Or. It’s a documentary about a pensioners’ choir going on tour, and it hit so many of the Oscar Bait buttons that it’s a surprise that it didn’t fall victim to Hype Backlash. It won almost everything it ran for (only Man on Wire could beat it in anything).

    Notable Exceptions 
The Oscar Bait trope is so pervasive that it defines the formula that wins Oscars. When a different kind of film wins big, and no one else can replicate that success, it’s worth noting.
  • The 1934 film It Happened One Night was a small, low-budget romantic comedy Road Movie, in an era when Oscar Bait meant elaborate musical and dancing showcases. It gained a cult following and swept the “Big Five” awards: Best Picture, Best Director (Frank Capra), Best Actor (Clark Gable), Best Actress (Claudette Colbert), and Best Screenplay. This has only been done twice more in all the years since: by One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest in 1976 and The Silence of the Lambs in 1992.
  • The Silence of the Lambs is dark, deals with mental illness, and addresses man’s inhumanity to man. It’s also a horror film, a genre that usually gets no love at the Oscars. (The producers were aware of that and billed it as a “Psychological Thriller”.) It the first horror film to win any of the “Big Five” since Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) in 1932 and (as noted above) was only the third film of any kind to sweep all of the Big Five categories.
  • Beauty and the Beast, against all odds, found its way out of the Animation Age Ghetto and wound up being nominated for Best Picture in 1991. It didn’t win, but this in itself was an incredible feat (which Disney would futilely try to replicate).
  • Star Wars broke out of the Sci Fi Ghetto and got Oscar nominations for Best Director, Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Alec Guinness), and Best Screenplay. It didn’t win any of them, but it showed that a hugely popular sci-fi film might catch the Academy’s attention. It opened the door for such films as E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Avatar, Aliens, and District 9 to get nominations as well, and even non-sci-fi films in the same vein (like Raiders of the Lost Ark). That said, the fact that they didn’t win anything big suggests that there’s still a ghetto that has to be navigated with the Academy.
  • Titanic (1997) was unusual in that it wasn’t meant to be Oscar Bait — just a dream project that was supposed to be committed to the screen. People latched onto it, and it won almost everything.
  • The Lord of the Rings is a strange case; although it is fantasy, it was also adapted from one of literature’s most important and ground-breaking fantasy works, and it was also a huge spectacle that changed the game in epic filmmaking. But what was truly unexpected was for Return of the King to sweep its Awards — perhaps its wins were meant to be for the trilogy as a whole, but that is still a phenomenal accomplishment for a fantasy film series.
  • Annie Hall won Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Screenplay, and Best Director. It was unusual in that it was a comedy (although one with a Bittersweet Ending. It beat out Julia (a biopic about sticking it to the Nazis) and Star Wars to Best Picture as well.
  • The Dark Knight was the first comic book movie to win an acting nomination (for Heath Ledger) and only the fourth film based on a comic book or graphic novel to win an acting nomination.note  With the pervasiveness of serious Oscar Bait fare, the idea that friggin’ Batman can win an Oscar was unreal. Then again, Ledger may have had the advantage of sadly being dead.
  • The Departed was gritty, violent, and serious, but it was also not a war movie, very profane (relative to most Oscar Bait), and otherwise didn’t touch on Oscar-baity subjects. And it won Best Picture. It was directed by Martin Scorsese, who had previously whiffed on the more baity The Aviator and Gangs of New York — although this led some observers to believe that its win was a “lifetime achievement” Oscar to make up for Scorsese not winning for previous line of work.
  • No Country for Old Men followed up on The Departed and won Best Picture the very next year with the same formula. This, though, was a relentlessly cynical film which won very big — rather than most Oscar Bait, it presents humanity’s failure as inevitable and comments on the meaninglessness of the material world. It was also kind of an upset winner over There Will Be Blood — an even bleaker film.
  • The Hurt Locker, other than being a Post-9/11 Terrorism Movie, had very little going for it on the Oscar front; it had a low budget, no big stars, no big studio to promote it, and not even a political message. It wound up winning Best Picture in 2010, in spite of having the lowest box office numbers of any Best Picture winner ever. One thing that did work in its favor was the narrative of Kathryn Bigelow becoming the first female director to win Best Director — over her ex-husband James Cameron. (But some suggest that this was why she wasn’t nominated for Zero Dark Thirty a few years later.)
  • The French Connection, the 1970 Best Picture, is a gritty and suspenseful genre film with a nihilistic toneBut unlike most Oscar winners, it has a morally ambiguous protagonist and an ending where The Bad Guy Wins and most of the other villains receive a Karma Houdini. Some speculate that the Academy gave the win to a film this dark to distance itself from the saccharine musicals that won in The '60s.
  • The Artist won Best Picture in spite of it being a Silent Movie from 2011. It’s not often that Le Film Artistique (or something vaguely resembling it anyway) gets nominations beyond Best Foreign Film, but this one won the whole thing. It helped that it was also an unashamed love letter to Old Hollywood, which probably appealed to Academy viewers.
  • Quentin Tarantino’s films Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained certainly seem like Oscar Bait at first glance, the first being set in World War II and the second tackling American slavery. They wound up getting seven and five nominations respectively. They’re also quintessential Tarantino films — fictional, bizarre, and Crazy Awesome, so never feeling like Oscar Bait.
  • Mad Max: Fury Road is arguably one of the least Oscar-friendly movies ever made. It's the fourth film in a franchise that never saw any Oscar attention before. It's a loud, explosive, and unapologetic pure action movie. It has very little dialogue and is essentially a nonstop two-hour car chase scene. And it was released all the way back in May. But it got critical acclaim for its action sequences, Show, Don't Tell storytelling, and hidden themes and was regarded as one of the best movies of 2015, topping more official Top 10 lists than any other. It ended up being an unexpected Oscar contender, being nominated for ten awards (including Best Picture) and winning six.
  • Black Swan is a horror movie, and the director never denied that. (The producers, on the other hand, marketed it as a “Psychological Thriller”). It also features a lesbian sex scene, just to get eyeballs on it. It still got five Oscar nominations and was regarded as one of the best films of the year.

Spoofs of this trope:

    Films — Live-Action 
  • The Mask has a shootout sequence where the Mask, after dodging a ridiculous number of bullets, turns into a cowboy and allows himself to be shot — so that he can give several Final Speeches (all Shout Outs to award-winning movies) and die in another character’s arms. Then the audience cheers, and he gets up and tearfully accepts an award. Even the mobsters shooting him check their hair and straighten their suits as if they were on TV.
  • In Wayne's World, Wayne gives a dramatic, teary-eyed speech, while the words “Oscar Clip” are emblazoned over the shot.
  • From the Road to ... series:
    • At the end of Road to Morocco, Bob Hope's character has accidentally blown up the ship, leaving the main cast stranded on a raft. Hope chews up the scenery, acting as if they’ve been stranded there for weeks. Then the camera pans up to reveal the New York City skyline. Bing Crosby’s character tells him to calm down, to which Hope bitterly remarks that they’ve ruined his chance for an Academy Award.
    • In Road to Bali, Crosby finds the Oscar Humphrey Bogart won for The African Queen. Hope points out that Crosby already has an Oscar, snatches the trophy from him, and begins making an acceptance speech. (While Hope was never nominated for a competitive Oscar, he did win four Honorary Oscars and hosted the show a recorded fourteen times.)
  • In Don't Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood, after parodying one of the dramatic scenes from Boyz n the Hood, the main character tells his girlfriend that he’s trying to win the Best Black Actor at the Soul Train awards.
  • In Tropic Thunder:
    • One of the fake trailers at the beginning of the movie shows Kirk Lazarus and Tobey Maguire playing Irish monks who fall in love with each other in a clearly Oscar-baity film, Satan’s Alley.
    • Action star Tugg Speedman reflects on the failure of his Oscar Bait film Simple Jack, in which he plays a mentally-challenged farmhand. It was a total Box Office Bomb and called one of the worst films of all time. Kirk Lazarus explains that it’s because people who won for playing Inspirationally Disadvantaged characters never went “full retard”:
    Speedman: What do you mean?
    Lazarus: Check it out. Dustin Hoffman, Rain Man: look retarded, act retarded — not retarded. Counted toothpicks, cheated cards. Autistic, sho’ — not retarded. You know Tom Hanks, Forrest Gump: slow, yes. Retarded, maybe. Braces on his legs. But he charmed the pants off Nixon and won a ping-pong competition. That ain’t retarded. Peter Sellers, Being There: infantile, yes. Retarded, no. You went full retard, man. Never go full retard. You don’t buy that? Ask Sean Penn, 2001, I Am Sam. Remember? Went full retard, went home empty-handed.
    • Lazarus has a lot of experience with these, as he himself is a spoof of Oscar Bait actors. He's a five-time Oscar winner, and that's before Satan's Alley. He mentions having played Neil Armstrong, ticking the "based on a true story" box. His third Oscar was for a Chinese film called Land of Silk and Money, which he prepped for by working eight months in a textile factory. According to supplemental material, one of his five Oscars is for Best Actress, having apparently tackled a Cross-Cast Role, going Up to Eleven with the usual Oscar-worthy physical transformations. In the movie itself, he's attempting that again, having undergone "pigmentation alteration" surgery to play a black man, a move which has generated more in-universe controversy than Oscar buzz. He never breaks character, despite realizing very early on in the film that production is ruined. As the icing on the cake, Robert Downey, Jr. actually received an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Lazarus.
    • At the end of the film, the Oscar for Best Actor is presented. The stills of the nominees include Tom Hanks winning a race in a wheelchair and a blind Sean Penn learning braille.
  • In Bowfinger, black action star Kit Ramsey (Eddie Murphy) weighs in on the trope:
    Ramsey: White boys get all the Oscars — it's a fact!
    Manager: I know that, but look—
    Ramsey: Did I get nominated? No, and you know why? ‘Cos I haven’t played any of them slave roles, where I get my ass whipped — that's how you get the nominations! A black dude plays a slave role and gets his ass whipped, they get the nomination; a white boy plays an idiot, they get the Oscar. Maybe I’ll split it; get me a five-minute script as a retarded slave, then I'll get the Oscar!
    Manager: (awkward pause) Uh, I'm gonna go schmooze. I'll be right back. (starts to leave)
    Ramsey: Yeah, and go find that script. “Buck the Wonder-Slave”!
  • In Blazing Saddles, villain Hedley Lamarr announces to his gang of thugs near the climax:
    You will only be risking your lives, while I will almost certainly be risking an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
  • The first fifteen minutes of In & Out are rife with references to this trope. Matt Dillon’s character wins an Oscar for playing a gay soldier unfairly discharged from the military, in a film that appears to be equal parts A Few Good Men, Philadelphia, and Forrest Gump. The actors he beat: “Paul Newman for Coot, Clint Eastwood for Codger, Michael Douglas for Primary Urges, and Steven Seagal for Snowball in Hell.”
  • ''The Naked Gun 33 1/3 includes a scene at the Oscar ceremony, where all the films were ridiculously High Concept, like “the story of one woman’s triumph over the death of her cat, set against the background of the Hindenburg disaster,” and “the story of one woman’s triumph over a yeast infection, set against the background of the tragic Buffalo Bills season of 1971.”

    Live-Action TV 
  • In Extras, Kate Winslet’s character plays in a Holocaust movie in an open bid to win an Oscar. Then in 2008, Winslet did it in real life in The Reader.
  • The Soup had a trailer for a fictional film called The Oscar Movie, with a voiceover discussing almost every Oscar Bait cliché using clips from that year’s actual Oscar nominees. These include: “women distraught, crying, and/or screaming,” comedians in serious roles, Meryl Streep (mentioned at least three times), and “Johnny Depp doing something weird.”
  • Mr. Show did a sketch about “The Dewey Awards”, which were specifically given to actors who played mentally disabled characters. One winner is a film called The Bob Lamonta Story, about a man who struggles with his own mentally challenged parents (only for Lamonta himself to show up and claim it was all Based on a Great Big Lie).
  • The Kevin Bishop Show had a spoof trailer for a BAFTA Bait TV drama, consisting solely of the phrase “gritty BAFTA” said with a pained, serious expression.
  • Castle had a suspect who was an actor, who says he’s playing Matt Damon’s “half-wit father” because “it’s got nominations written all over it.”
  • In season 4 of Arrested Development, Rebel Alley (Isla Fisher) discusses the possibility of playing Michael’s deceased wife in a movie. After learning that said wife died of a terminal illness, Rebel says that all she needs now is to have her be mentally-challenged as well, and she'll be guaranteed an Oscar for her performance.
  • Mock the Week lampshaded the hell out of this tendancy.
    David Mitchell: I'd like to thank the person who cast me as a blind, autistic, Parkinson's-disease-ridden mute, for making this award almost inevitable.
  • Late Night with Seth Meyers presents: Oscar Bait: Real Trailer, Fake Movie.

    Web Originals 

    Western Animation 
  • American Dad!: In a James Bond spoof, Roger played the role of Tearjerker, a villain whose Evil Plan is to make a film that’s such a tearjerker, it will kill anyone who watches it. That film, Oscar Gold, is about a mentally challenged Jewish boy driven to alcoholism by his puppy during the Holocaust, all while hiding from the Nazis in an attic like Anne Frank. And it’s Deliberately Monochrome. When that fails, he tries to go even sadder — six hours of a baby chimpanzee trying to revive its dead mother.
  • Bugs Bunny has been known to occasionally shill for Oscars with overwrought “dramatic” performances:
    • In The Wabbit Who Came to Supper, Bugs pleads with Elmer Fudd to let him into his house, complaining in a very dramatic fashion about how the cold. He suddenly perks up and says, “Hey, this scene oughta get me the Academy Award!” Then he finishes “dying”, complete with mournful violins.
    • In What's Cookin’, Doc?, he’s so enamored with his “acting” that he crashes the ceremony to demand his Best Actor award.
  • Animaniacs:
    • One short was an Anvilicious spoof of not just Oscar Bait, but also the animated awards the show could actually compete with. It started with saving a beached whale and went on from there. They didn’t win, and everything went to Hell after that.
    • In a Thanksgiving episode, Miles Standing is out hunting turkeys, while the Warners play Native Americans raised by turkeys. While Dot waxes eloquent over their hardship, the caption “ACADEMY MEMBERS VOTE NOW!” flashes on the screen.
    • During their “Jokahontas” sketch, a Take That! against Disney movies, the song “Same Old Heroine” has this line:
    The Schloscar it will win / With the same old heroine / It worked once, why not again?
  • The Simpsons:
    “I play Jerry ‘Fireball’ Mudflap, a feisty Supreme Court justice who’s searching for his birth mother while competing in a cross-country firetruck race. It's... garbage.”
    • An an entry form for Best Documentary is shown to ask entrants to declare if they are “Holocaust-related” or "Non-Holocaust-related”.
  • Spoofed in The Boondocks episode “The Color Ruckus”, where Uncle Ruckus tells his depressing life story to Robert, Huey, and Riley, who can’t help but listen because it’s so sad.
    Huey: That's like, Academy Award winning sad.
  • Tiny Toon Adventures:
    • In “Hare Today, Gone Tomorrow”, when Buster pretends to suffocate in the cage Elmyra put him in, Hamton shows up to give him an award for “Best Death on Daytime Television”.
    • In another episode, Meryl Streep receives an Oscar for “Best Ordering in a Restaurant”. She puts it in a purse full of many other Oscars.

  • A hilarious musical performance actually took place at the 79th Academy Awards, featuring Will Ferrell and Jack Black lamenting about how they never win Oscars for their comedy. They sing about beating up serious actors in the audience until John C. Reilly joins them on stage and tells them that they should also do serious films from time to time like he does.
    Reilly: Fellas! This madness must stop, there is no need to fear, you can have your cake and eat it too, just look at my career! I didn't cry when I would lose, I didn’t pick silly fights, I chose to be in both Boogie and Talladega Nights! Don't just be clowns, ‘cause then you're just bores, mix it up, and Oscars shall be yours!
    Black: "He's right! I'm gonna re-read that script about the guy who gets lead poisoning and then sues a major corporation, there's not a laugh in there!
    Farrell: "And I'm gonna take that project about the guy with no arms and legs who teaches gangbangers Hamlet!"

Alternative Title(s): Oscar Bait Movies, Emmy Bait, Award Bait