Happy New Year, Frocktalkers! I hope that your holidays were fun and relaxing. Have you caught up on your movie watching? Looking at the films that are out right now, it’s interesting to see who’s getting the big press push for awards consideration. I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: big promotional budgets = big awards. So who is putting their money on the line, and what costume design work is being underserved by the lack of promotional money this year?
The big contenders are most often movies with studio backing. This year, we have heard a lot (in the press, online, and in advertising) about the costumes from Les Miserables, Anna Karenina, The Master, Hitchcock, Lincoln, Skyfall, Snow White and the Huntsman, Django Unchained, and so on. There have been many screenings of these films (for free) aimed at getting us (the voting body of the Costume Designers Guild, and the Academy) to see the movies and admire the costume design. All of them have exquisite, gorgeous costumes, no question at all. But how does a smaller film (and its designer) stand a chance to be recognized when there is no promotion and advertising (P&A) budget at awards time? Are the awards rigged, in that sense? And what does it mean to be nominated or to win?
Well, first – the easy question… What does it mean to be nominated or to win? Money, honey. Suddenly, your salary goes up, that’s one thing. Second thing (if you’re nominated for an Academy Award), you are invited to join the Academy. Third thing, the movie gets great publicity by virtue of your nomination, and the studio is happy. Therefore you get to forge amiable ties with the studio, and you are put on their “short list” when they consider designers for great big juicy projects. Awards are a big deal in this sense. They portend greater achievement, more money and greater status within the industry.
Are the awards rigged? Define “rigged”. Those with more money to spend on promotion and advertising get their film seen by more people. Voters are more likely to vote for something they’ve seen. Good work is all around, but if a voter hasn’t seen it, they don’t know how good it is. You need to get your movie into the hands of voters, and a big P&A budget can do that. Furthermore, the films with the big P&A budgets are usually the same films with the big production budgets. And by that, I mean that the costume budget is gigantic – there is a lot of money to work with, and so a designer can do more, creatively, than he/she could on a small film with less money. SO: more money = better costumes. Better costumes + P&A budget = awards consideration. Awards consideration = more money… and so on. Does this make the system rigged? You tell me. There have been notable exceptions to this idea in the past, and I would really like to think that the voting bodies of not only the Academy but also the CDG would be able to think outside the box. Let’s see how it goes before jumping to any conclusions… I am a CDG voting member, and I think outside the box. I know I can’t be the only one!
So how does a smaller film get recognized? That is a tough one. I think that the work has to be truly outstanding, and you have to have cheerleaders on your side. If a critic (say, of the caliber of Roger Ebert, for example) sees the film and makes a complimentary comment about the costume design, you are on your way. Excellent work generates its own buzz. But God forbid that your excellent work appears in a less-than-excellent movie. No one will want to sit through two hours of bad acting, blurry cinematography or slow pacing, even if the costumes are stellar. The movie has to be good – and that is out of our hands.
We make movies. We know how difficult it is to make a good one. People who have never made movies before have NO perspective on how this crazy, magical alchemy takes place. Sometimes, you can have the absolute top-shelf team of director, actors, writers, design staff, cinematography, editing, and come up with a stinker-dud of a film. It has happened many, many times before and I’m not naming names. On the other hand, occasionally a film comes together with exceedingly limited resources and hits it out of the park. There is something almost supernatural in the way a movie falls together to make it a hit or a flop. And sadly we, as costume designers, have less of a role in the hit/flop department as others do.
We can only do the work to the best of our ability. Our job is to realize the DIRECTOR’s vision, not our own. If the costumes succeed, therefore it is not only the costume designer’s triumph, but also the director’s. We can’t take singular credit for a collaborative effort. We can’t take credit for every little design idea – we are working for someone who is asking us to deliver his/her vision. (Along those lines, we really can’t take all of the blame if the costumes do not succeed, so breathe a small sigh of relief and keep your chin up).
I understand the role of awards as a measure of professional “worthiness” in this very competitive business, but I am not sure I believe in them from an artistic point of view. I think that awards represent commerce, not necessarily ONLY artistic achievement (as the public perceives it to be). With these awards, we are acknowledging great costume design, yes, but we are also recognizing a movie worth watching, great directing, great promotion and advertising, great marketing, and so on. It all has to kind of “come together”, and be seen in order to be award-worthy, it seems. I’ve talked before about how impossible it is to have a competition in art, so I’ll spare you the rehash of that essay. And this essay. And this one, too. Don’t get me started, people!!!!
By now we should have nominating ballots in our mailboxes for the CDG awards. They are due back the 14th of January. I’m wondering if we can take the next few weeks to see more movies, think for ourselves and make some interesting choices…? We celebrate great costume design work with these decisions, and there is so much outstanding work that hasn’t had as much time in the sun as others. Think on it, friends. And enjoy your movie watching!