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The State of the Race: the Frontrunner

Since we just had an election, it seems like a good time to talk about the terms of politics and how similar it sometimes is to the Oscar race. The only other way you’ll hear that word, “frontrunner” is in politics, mostly. The frontrunner is in place because of polls. If you are the frontrunner, it is expected you run the “frontrunner’s campaign,” which means, you keep your head down, don’t kick up a fuss, and keep the message on message. Your handlers will do that for you. With the Oscar race, it’s in the hands of capable publicists who have to somehow wrangle the wild wild west of the blogosphere going off on this or that film, this or that “issue,” this controversy, that scandal, this rumor, that rave review. We bloggers are not ones to whisper what we think: we shout it from the rooftops. “I am a Golden God!”

The best thing that can happen to your movie is to be ignored by the bloggers. But don’t hate us. We know not what we do. The heart wants what it wants. And our love for a film can sometimes suffocate its Oscar chances. Ditto for an actress contender or a screenplay: overzealous is not the way you sell an Oscar winner. As I always say, the Academy has to think it’s their idea, otherwise they won’t go for it.¬† As one told me once, they “vote for the best picture.” The one they think is the best of the nominees. They don’t pay attention much to the chatter except to look in the direction of the contenders that are getting the most buzz. Managing expectations is one of the hardest jobs in the Oscar race. They can’t ever be too high or they have nowhere to go but down.
The main difference between the Oscar race and political elections is that the predictions of Oscar pundits take shape in our own vacuum — with no method to survey the electorate, no way to gauge the opinions of Academy voters. The closest thing we have to polls are the guild awards because those have the most crossover. And even then, there is no guarantee that the Academy voters, a mixed lot to be sure, will go the same way.

That is why it’s always important to remember that predictions in November are really just a way to take the temperature not of the voting members of the Academy, and maybe not even Oscar buzz (although that could be argued, I supposed, using the trickle down theory), but of the awards watchers who are trying to predict how the Academy will vote. Most people are basing their assumption that the King’s Speech is the winner on how it’s been doing so far – winning significant audience awards, specifically, Toronto. That tells you that audiences already love it. It has not been reviewed, however, by the major critics yet, and it hasn’t opened for audiences at large.

We know that the Weinstein Co. will not drop the ball on the King’s Speech – look at what they did with Inglourious Basterds last year. Look at what they did with The Reader the previous year. So any hesitancy in thinking The King Speech won’t do well is made at your own peril.

However, there are other indicators to pay attention to. Box office is one. Strong box office can mean that regular people “out there” are liking the movie. That counts for more than people would think; the Oscar race is not won on what the bloggers think, or just what the critics think – it has to be thought the best film a person saw in a year. The best. How many of those will find agreement across the board is how you find your Best Picture winner. Even with ten nominees, even with the preferential balloting. So it is a cliffhanger so far. And all of the films haven’t even been seen yet. True Grit is still a big question mark, as is The Fighter (although that will be screened tonight as the secret screening at the AFI Fest).

One tip that has never let me down is this: you should always go with what you know versus what you don’t know. The King’s Speech does have precedent – it has Slumdog Millionaire as the film that won at Toronto and just continued to win and win, and eventually became an unstoppable force. But the other films that have won in the past few years – The Departed, The Hurt Locker and No Country for Old Men were all films that opened very early in the year, were audience tested (whether that ended up making a difference or not) and somehow had staying power, namely because they were underestimated by the very same bloggers and pundits who make predictions. They make those predictions, usually, not on what they know already but what they think might happen.

It is so much more fun to imagine what could be, what might be, what should be than to face the reality of what is. This is human nature. Usually the reality of the situation doesn’t really come into clear focus until around the time of the DGA awards, and even then there can still be room for surprises. That is what makes the Oscar race so fun to watch, and that is what brings us back, year after year, trying to pin down mercury.

First up are the critics awards. Once you start predicting them, even that can change the tide – like the butterfly that changes direction and suddenly it’s raining in China? If you put out a prediction that the LA Film critics are going to vote for, say, Inception for Best Picture — it would seem to me, this being the information age, that that in itself would propel them to change their minds about predicting Inception. It just seems to be the way they are.

But not all critics awards are weighed equally. There are a few that matter more – like the Broadcast Film Critics, New York Film Critics, the LA Film Critics, the National Society of Film Critics, the Southeastern Film Critics, Boston and Chicago I’m going to say. The rest of them can sometimes help a dark horse contender, but are much more influential taken as part of a bigger group. Kicking things off is usually the National Board of Review and, though they get a lot of bad blogger press, they are still an influential group simply because they have been around forever and ring in first.

The critics represent Big Shift #1. Big Shift #2 is much more reliable/influential: the guilds. The most important of these, in determining Best Picture, is far and away the DGA. After that, the Producers, the Screen Actors and the WGA (“Who’s that?” “He’s nobody. He’s the author.”)

The WGA represents a huge number, something like 19,000 in the WGA West, compared with 382 in the Academy. Therefore, it is shocking that there is as much crossover as there has been. They can sometimes help in determining whether there is a sweep underway or if the race will be scattershot. A robust Best Picture winner, like The Departed, No Country, Slumdog and The Hurt Locker will hit all of the guilds and usually win most, if not all, of them.

Predicting the acting winners vis a vis the SAG Awards is like herding cats. Actors are the most unpredictable of all of the guild awards and they have the majority in the Academy (all they need is a Speaker of the House – I nominate Jack Nicholson). The SAG membership is around 139,200, compared to the Academy’s 1,205. That is why they have chosen a nominating committee of a much smaller group. The entire membership then votes on the winners. The studio with the wherewithal will often make the bold move of sending out screeners to each of the 139,000 membership — this is quite costly but some do it to ensure a win. Does it pay off? Sometimes. Does it influence the Academy’s vote? Sometimes.

The Producers Guild has changed, along with the Academy, in the last year by upping their nominees to ten and then voting the same way the AMPAS does it, by preferential balloting. It’s still too early in the year for me to wrap my mind around this concept but it has to do with ranking your choices 1 to ten and piles of ten and then counting the number 1s. I’m just going to wait for Steve Pond to do it. He seems to have no trouble figuring it out and explaining it. Once again, according to Wikipedia, the membership for this guild is around 4,200, compared to 452 producers in the Academy. Last year, the PGA accurately predicted The Hurt Locker over Avatar, which convinced people, finally, that The Hurt Locker was serious business.

According to Wikipedia, the DGA has over 13,000 members, versus a mere 366 in the Academy. Still, not only are they the most reliable predictor of not just Best Director but Best Picture, but they are also almost always in sync with the DGA. Usually, though, when it comes to nominees, they are one name off. A group of 366 is going to vote very differently from a mass of 13,000 – it’s interesting that they’ve been so similar, given that.

Choosing Best Director is usually split two ways. The first and most common way is to celebrate a career high point. The other way is if they just happen to like their movie best. But you have to figure, if 13,000 DGA members just happen to like a movie vs. their need to reward a career high point? You know that movie CANNOT lose. If 13,000 members vote for a film with a relatively unknown director, like Tom Hooper for instance, then The King’s Speech IS a true force to be reckoned with. Moreover, if Tom Hooper wasn’t a star already, if he won the DGA he’d be a star overnight, and would have no problem winning the Oscar.

This year, with so many groundbreaking/visionary films by some of Hollywood’s absolute best directors, it would be unusual if they went with Hooper, but again, if they like the movie best, why wouldn’t they? If the DGA are behind one of their stars enjoying a career high point, but the majority of the Academy like a different film, again, this makes it ripe for a split.

The Best Director race can be divided thusly:

The Slam Dunks
1. David Fincher, The Social Network — still has what it takes, best reviews of the year, strong box office, three essential ingredients working together at full throttle: acting, writing, directing. Fincher hasn’t yet won. He’s a bit of an outsider, it’s true, but he’s never made a movie as good as this one, ergo, a career high point.
2. Christopher Nolan, Inception — the directors, of all people, should notice when a big studio film achieves this kind of daring and succeeds so brilliantly it shouldn’t go unnoticed. Of course, Inception isn’t touchy/feely but it was an incredible gamble.
3. Tom Hooper, The King’s Speech — out of the park with John Adams but wet behind the ears with features. Great work on The King’s Speech, which could sweep him along with that.
4. Danny Boyle, 127 Hours — big win for Slumdog has made another work of moving, breathing art with 127 Hours. One of the best films of the year by a long way.

And then a fifth slot that is either going to:
5. Darren Aronofsky, Black Swan — talk about your visionary directors – Aronofsky probably stands alone with this kind of bizarre genius. He’ll take the David Lynch slot, perhaps. OR
6. The Coen Brothers, True Grit — it is still a mystery what awaits with True Grit, but it’s hard to see it missing, given the level of excellence the Coen brothers have maintained throughout their career. Sure, they’ve had a couple of turkeys, but these guys know how to make movies. They know how to write, how to direct actors, how to edit. It will be genuinely shocking if the movie isn’t great. Gee, no pressure.
7. Mike Leigh, Another Year – do not ever count out Mike Leigh to make the cut with Academy voters, particularly since this film is such a good one.
7. Peter Weir, The Way Back — he’s always a threat because he is so well respected and beloved within the industry. And The Way Back is, in all ways, a labor of love. That usually doesn’t go completely unnoticed. But it’s an extremely competitive year for directors, so it’s hard to think he could crack it.
8. Clint Eastwood, Hereafter — again, always a threat. Hereafter is a film we older folks liked more than the younger set. And Eastwood is 80 years old, for goodness sake. Many directors in the guild, and Academy members, frankly, might want to reward someone who is still doing vital work at that age.
9. Martin Scorsese, Shutter Island — again, Marty’s always a potential threat, particularly when working with Leo.

Those who might break through unexpectedly:
Lisa Cholodenko for The Kids Are All Right — one of the best films of 2010, without question. It is directed with a vengeance, I thought, particularly through the brilliant performance of Annette Bening. But I was also impressed how Cholodenko drifted in and out of the each character’s world. She had a handle on this material.
Debra Granik for Winter’s Bone — again, another of the year’s best. If Granik were a male and the film she directed received the same kind of acclaim as Winter’s Bone has she would be on the director short list without batting an eye. It is only because she’s a woman that she isn’t being talked about that way. But I think Winter’s Bone will be a Best Picture nominee.
David O. Russell for The Fighter — we still don’t know yet where this one stands, but if all goes well, it could be a strong contender as well. O’Russell has a reputation, but all of that goes away if the film is good enough.

Either way, one is advised not to take any predictions in November very seriously at all. Remember, there is no “there” there. There is just this elusive idea that we know what we’re doing. We don’t. We’re still looking at a fuzzy picture. It will come into focus, but it never has this early in the game.