The tiny release that the superb movie Mass is getting also demonstrates the growing problem with movie awards: a few thoughts.

At the end of last week, Jason Isaacs was a guest on BBC Radio Five’s Kermode & Mayo’s Film Review programme. As ever, he was on good form, and he had every right to be: he was promoting a small independent film called Mass, that’s finally got a UK release a good year and change after it was finished.

Isaacs was open about just how special the film is to him, but it was the show’s host, Simon Mayo, who pinpointed an incredibly fair question: did Isaacs – I’m paraphrasing – feel frustrated that Mass was being overlooked for the big awards, when a performance such as Jared Leto’s in House Of Gucci was being recognised?

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Ever the pro, Isaacs sidestepped the completely correct observation about Leto, and instead explained that Mass had picked up a collection of prizes from film festivals, and some very prestigious ones. But he acknowledged the film had barely scratched the BAFTA longlists, and it doesn’t appear to be in the conversation for the Academy Awards.

If you’ve not seen Mass, then it’s entirely understandable you’ve not caught it. It’s had a tiny UK cinema release, although it’s also at the same time been made available to watch via Sky Cinema, who picked up UK distribution rights.

Furthermore, the subject matter – no spoilers – doesn’t seem to lend itself to a hugely entertaining night out at the pictures. Effectively, 80% of the film is four people sat in a room having a conversation. I confess to wondering just how that’s going to work out when I sat down to watch the film. Like many before me, I was gobsmacked by Fran Kranz’s movie, and it’s lingered in my head for weeks after I first saw it.

The film then boasts four genuinely superb acting performances. As well as Isaacs, who’s arguably never been better, there are career highs from Martha Plimton, Ann Dowd and Reed Birney too. There’s no single magic ingredient here – which I’ll come to in a minute – but instead a flat-out acting masterclass. It’s hard to think of too many better big screen performances in the last year.

The problem facing Mass though is the same when any deserving candidate for an Oscar or BAFTA finds itself up against much more expensive opposition. The running favourite for the Oscars at the minute is the admittedly excellent Belfast. That, though, has the heft of Focus Features behind it in the US, and Universal over here. Also heavily in the running is The Power Of The Dog, and Netflix has been routinely spending millions to try and grab itself an elusive Best Picture Oscar (both Roma and The Irishman were its previous big swings for the top prize).

Mass

There are agencies with specific awards divisions for whom gong campaigning is their living for many months of the year. Industry trade papers are given over to expensive For Your Consideration ads. And meanwhile, the people who vote for the big prizes are given access to 200+ films, that they have no hope of watching all of. Instead, as Isaacs admitted, most tend to gravitate towards the bigger, more known features, over exploring the darker corners of the movies they’re given access to. As such, as we get into the real business end of awards season, it’ll be the same films over and over that keep cropping up. That’s not to say that they don’t deserve it, to be fair, just that the big awards shows are an incredibly uneven playing field.

Going back to what Simon Mayo was asking: I believe that if you put an Oscar voter in front of House Of Gucci and then ask them to watch Mass, there’s not a chance on this Earth they’ll vote for performances in the former over the latter. It’s not even close. But the demands of Oscar and BAFTA campaigning now require that to get noticed, you need to spend at least six figures, probably seven, on a hefty awards campaign. That’s more than Mass cost to make, and because it’s an independent film with different distributors in different territories, there’s no central pot of campaigning money to draw on anyway.

As such, most voters won’t even have heard of the film, let alone have it on their radar when they cast their ballots.

The other factor that works against Mass in the acting stakes too, it should be noted, is who on earth do you vote for? I remember the producer of Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse, Phil Lord, talking about the three directors and two lead producers that film had. His argument was that it needed the skills of each of them to make the movie work: take one away, and it’s in trouble. I think there’s a parallel there with Mass. I couldn’t even identity which I think the best individual performance in the film is in this single film, because they’re all so strong and vital to the piece. Remember when both Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis were nominated for Best Actress at the Oscars for 1991’s Thelma & Louise? There was an acceptance then that neither of them were going to win, because the split the vote: how do you pick one of those performances over the other? The same applies with Mass.

BAFTA, in fairness to it, has shaken up its behind the scenes voting mechanics in the last year or two, providing eligible voters with a list of individual films they should watch to ensure that every submitted movie gets watched enough times to give it a fair shot. But still: when the option’s there to either watch Mass or something like The King’s Man, I’d wager more are gravitating to the latter.

It’s an easy conclusion to suggest that the very big movie awards shows aren’t really fit for purpose, and in truth, it’s not really one I buy. I’ve long felt that the existence of major movie awards means at least some more leftfield films stand a chance of getting through the Hollywood system. Furthermore, there’s always a chance that a film like Moonlight or Parasite will spring a surprise.

Mass movie

I do also think that, more accurately, the prizes shouldn’t be Best Film, but something akin to Best Popular Film, or something of that ilk. That’s a fairer reflection of what’s actually happening at the Oscars and BAFTAs when it comes to film awards. They reward very good movies, that are to some degree in the public eye.

It’s also why a film such as Mass, for whom the limelight of awards glare could do so much, has to effectively exist outside of that system. And, on top of that, it’s why word of mouth is still the best thing for independent movies to benefit from.

Mass is, I contend, a superb film, and pretty much unmissable. But it will be missed, it will be overlooked, and there’s a sporting chance Jared Leto may pick up an acting prize this season instead. Best plan? Take the gongs with a pinch of salt, accept they’re flawed but sometimes right, and bang the drum for the films they overlooked.

Mass is a great place to start.

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