Issue 12: Feature Article—Why Does Oscar Love Fact-Based Film?

It’s that time of the year again when studios release their final few award-calibre films before the cut-off date and commentators start speculating over the potential nominees for Oscars, Golden Globes and Baftas etc. Once again, the main names being thrown around include more than a few fact-based films. So just why does Oscar (and the rest) love biopics and other fact-based fare so much…?

In March 2015, Neil Patrick Harris took to the stage to host the 87th Academy Awards (celebrating the films of 2014). While Birdman took the Best Picture award, elsewhere there were awards and nominations for a number of films based on, or inspired by, real life, including:

American Sniper
The Theory of Everything
The Imitation Game
Wild
Foxcatcher

Of these, the wins for Best Adapted Screenplay (Graham Moore) and Best Actor (Eddie Redmayne) were for biopics (of Alan Turing and Prof. Stephen Hawking respectively).

The year before, Oscar was singing the praises of 12 Years a Slave, Dallas Buyers’ Club and The Wolf of Wall Street, among others.

Without wishing to trawl back through every single awards ceremony, a quick peruse of Oscar-winning films over the past 15 years highlights just how often the Best Film of the year has been a fact-based feature, including:

12 Years a Slave (2013)
Argo (2012)
The King’s Speech (2010)
The Hurt Locker (2009)
Slumdog Millionaire (2008)
Chicago (2002)
A Beautiful Mind (2001)

Statistically speaking, 46% of Best Film Oscar winners since 2000 have been directly inspired by real-life events and characters.

Fast forward to the forthcoming 88th Academy Awards, the nominations for which are due out on 14 January 2016 (with the ceremony to follow on 28 February)…

Writing on scottfeinberg.com (which offers industry insight and awards analysis), Patrick Shanley looks to the frontrunners for Oscar recognition and points out just how many are for fact-based films. They include:

Concussion
Black Mass
The Big Short
The Danish Girl
Bridge of Spies
Trumbo
Steve Jobs
Woman in Gold
The Lady in the Van
Truth
Spotlight
Freeheld
Straight Outta Compton
Love & Mercy

To this list, you can probably add The Reverent, Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Birdman follow-up.

While the focus is on the acting talent on display in these films (Johnny Depp, Michael Fassbender, Bryan Cranston, Will Smith, Maggie Smith et al), it’s a fair bet that other creative talent will be getting those congratulatory phone calls on 14 January too.

In fact, it’s not inconceivable that the shortlist of Best Picture nominees could exclusively comprise fact-based features. After all, there is a wide variety of films and Oscar-fodder, including biopics of major figures, weighty & topical subject matter, period pieces and marquee names (including past winners and arguably some who have so far been overlooked, such as The Reverent‘s Leonardo DiCaprio).

The question is: why are fact-based films such an awards magnet? Here are just a few of our ideas:

Big name involvement

As we’ve indicated above, big names love getting their teeth into fact-based material. The stories might even be ‘pet projects’ that the A-lister becomes the driving force behind, such as last year’s Wild. This year, we have the likes of Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg with Bridge of Spies, an Oscar ‘dream-team’ if there ever was one.

‘Serious’ big name talent + solid material + film studio support (i.e. $$$ and marketing drive) = awards success

Critical acclaim

Oscar (and other award) voters don’t live in a vacuum (although a few might be closeted away high in the Hollywood Hills). Presumably, they read reviews and are aware of how films are being received.

Films often enjoy a ‘rolling ball’ of acclaim, where it becomes de rigueur for ‘those in the know’ to sing their praises. There are some films that, for whatever reason, we are supposed to like (Birdman, we’re talking to you). A cynic might call this ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ syndrome, whereby no one wants to stand out from the crowd a give a film a negative review for fear of ridicule (hello, American Hustle).

The reverse of this (i.e. widespread negative reception) might also explain why some films that seem to have the word ‘Oscar’ stamped all over them get left out. Recent examples include Parkland, The Butler and Stonewall (which many would have added to the list for the forthcoming Academy Awards).

Characters

Fact-based films, and biopics in particular, provide a stellar opportunity for actors to portray charismatic, well-loved and/or iconic figures from the recent or more distant past.

From dead-on imitations to unique spins, the floor is open for the skilled actor to bring something comparable to life. By this we mean that you can judge how successful a performance is by comparing it to the real life subject. The actor can study their moves and mannerisms and attempt to bring their ‘inner spirit’ to life.

Recent notable attempts include Daniel Day Lewis as Abraham Lincoln, Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash and John Cusack/Paul Danno as different incarnations of Beach Boy Brian Wilson in Love & Mercy.

Stories

Finally, and maybe most importantly, stories from real life can be extremely compelling.

Of course, as we go to great lengths to point out here at RSL, writing the fact-based film is a complex and difficult task that requires many different skills. However, with the right creative talent on board, these interesting and emotionally-engaging stories can become equally interesting and emotionally-engaging screen stories.

Added to this is the fact that the source material often touches on weighty themes. Recent examples include child sex abuse in the Catholic Church (Spotlight), the fight for civil rights (Selma) and the morality of war (American Sniper).

Real life films are arguably more successful at portraying these subject, as they have their roots in reality and often reference well-known episodes from history. They may even be based on first-hand or journalistic accounts and benefit from the involvement of those involved.

Overall, there’s often a sense that fact-based films are somehow more ‘worthy’ than those which are pure fiction. However, it’s a chicken/egg situation – is it the material itself, or the creative interpretation of that material?

Either way, for those of you looking to establish a career as a screenwriter other filmmaking professional, searching out and developing fact-based material is a proven way to establish yourself in the industry and maybe even reach the heights of awards glory.

As for the forthcoming awards season, like you, we at RSL will be tuning in to find out which films emerge victorious.

Issue 13 of RSL is out on 28 December 2015.

(Image courtesy of: Cmgua (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)