“Extinction is the rule. Survival is the exception.” – Carl Sagan
It will come as a major bummer to many on this site that George Miller did not win the DGA Award last night for Mad Max: Fury Road. It will come as an even bigger bummer that the person who won, Alejandro G. Iñárritu, won just last year, and has now made DGA history by being the first director to win the award in consecutive years. Miller seemed poised to be rewarded for his exceptional futuristic epic where he handed over the fate of humanity to a woman. How could we have all been so stupid? The awards race doesn’t work like that. It rewards the singular male hero. There is an affinity among older male voters with the eternally Lost Man. “He’s good. It’s the world and people around him that aren’t. He is lost, though alas, he is always heroic.” The Lost Man can’t be, for instance, a female astronaut who survives being stranded in space simply by being tenacious and lucky. He can’t be a tech nerd who invents a social network to give him a social life but ends up more lonely than ever, a hero and a victim at the same time. The Lost Man must be someone who pushes aggressively against the forces that oppress him. Thankfully, at least one of these times, it was an enslaved person at the hands of the oppressive racist South.
Yes, I know, The Revenant is more than that — it’s about survival and nature and survival and cinematography and survival and magical ghosts of the pasts. It is at once a complex and beautiful film as much as it is a film with an overly simplistic plot. But what it does have in spades is that it massages that nugget of the modern male who does feel lost as the world of change looms ominously around him. The part of the film I connected with best was its indictment of our treatment of the natural world. I don’t think that is why it won the DGA, however.
This is not true of The Revenant’s two biggest competitors, nor was it true of Mad Max. Spotlight and The Big Short, in contrast, are ensemble films and they are concerned with more tangible issues — the kind of precise issues, in fact, that drive the modern male into the state of despair where he finds himself in The Revenant – betrayed, helpless, lost.
The good part of all of this? These are all great movies. All three remaining frontrunners for Best Picture, as well as the other nominees that aren’t frontrunners, are all great movies. Some people will likely start to talk about films like Room or Brooklyn as not being “Oscar worthy” because they aren’t about that big things most voters seem to care about: the lost man adrift in a sea of change. But that is the nature of the race, however, and it ordinarily can’t stopped.
Now, you have people dead set and determined that no way, no how can The Big Short win since it didn’t win the DGA or the SAG Ensemble award.
@AwardsDaily “The Big Short” is dead, Sasha. It’s over for those guys.
— Hollywood Elsewhere (@wellshwood) February 7, 2016
This sentiment has been echoed by others, like Gregory Ellwood. And indeed, it’s possible that they are right. I would contend, however, that Ellwood at least was 100% convinced Gravity was going to take Best Picture without factoring in the strength of 12 Years a Slave over Gravity on a preferential ballot.
Here is what The Revenant will need to win Best Picture: it will need to come in with such a large number of #1 votes that there is no way any other movie can catch up to its lead in subsequent rounds under the preferential system. The second, third, and fourth rounds are where The Revenant will be most threatened, since we suspect a passionate but polarizing film will have most of its supporters clustered at the top, and its detractors will have it further down their list. This, in fact, clearly seems to be what hurt The Revenant with the Producers Guild. If it were really such a strong contender with deep support from producers, it should have been able to collect votes round-by round to keep it at the top and ultimately lead to a win.
Here’s the thing to remember, or not: we have three strong winners here. Each of them are different in its own way. Spotlight did not have to face The Revenant at the SAG Awards, and it won there. The Big Short did not. The Revenant went up against both Spotlight and The Big Short at the DGA and the PGA. If the Oscar race for Best Picture were down to a plurality ballot, this would be an easy race to call – or easier, let’s say — because in the days before the preferential ballot, the DGA ruled. But in the days since the preferential ballot, PGA rules in years when the guilds don’t all agree:
2006: PGA/SAG – Little Miss Sunshine . DGA/Oscar – The Departed
2004: PGA – The Aviator. SAG – Sideways. DGA/Oscar – Million Dollar Baby
Never has the PGA trumped the DGA in their paired history.
But once the PGA implemented the preferential ballot, the PGA became narrowly more predictive. And this only happened once:
2013 : PGA – 12 Years a Slave/Gravity. DGA – Gravity . SAG – American Hustle. Oscar – 12 Years a Slave.
We only have that one year where the overriding dominance of the PGA’s preferential ballot was tested and it held. 2016 could be the year when that stat gets broken.
In fact, 2013 is a year similar to 2016 in many ways — it even included a film (Gravity) that had no screenplay nomination (people said “well, that’s because there’s barely any dialogue” — just like they’re saying about The Revenant). Gravity had no SAG Ensemble award nod (people said “well, that’s because most of the time there is only one person onscreen” — just like they’re saying about The Revenant). The truth is that if the voters love a movie enough, if it builds enough momentum, nothing can stop it. But from my perspective we have to ask the question: Why didn’t The Revenant win the PGA?
Why does the preferential ballot result in a different outcomes from simple plurality tabulation? In a year when there are only two films vying as frontrunner, the majority will rule in clear terms. With the DGA and SAG Ensemble being determined by plurality, being #1 on a ballot is everything. But with the PGA’s preferential ballot, especially with more than 2 top contenders, it isn’t enough to be #1 on ballots. You have to occupy more than the #1 rung. In order to fend off snowballing support for other films, the king of the hill has to hold onto #2 and #3 positions as well.
We have just seen what a competitive year this is in how the guilds split off in multiple directions:
PGA – The Big Short (nominated against Spotlight, The Revenant, Mad Max)
SAG – Spotlight (nominated against The Big Short)
DGA – The Revenant (nominated against Spotlight, The Big Short, Mad Max)
Interesting to note: The Big Short is the only BAFTA contender with the full set of nominations — picture, director and screenplay — that can win Oscar Best Picture. (Carol has the royal flush too, but was overlooked in the top categories by the Academy). There’s never been a BAFTA Best Picture winner that did not also receive a BAFTA screenplay nomination (Since 1989 and more significantly since 2000 when BAFTA changed its ceremony date and became an Oscar precursor).
Why did The Big Short win the PGA? It won because it had “I love it” votes (#1s) and it had “I like it” votes as well (#2s, #3s, #4s). The Revenant probably had a lot of “I love it” votes and maybe a few “I like it votes” but it would have also had a lot of “ew, I hated it” votes (#9s, #10s). Spotlight definitely had a lot of midrange “I like it” votes, and not quite enough “I love it” votes.
Remember, it doesn’t matter if there are only five choices — with plurality tabulation, voters only select one film, and whichever film gets the most votes wins. There’s only one round of voting. The preferential ballot, however, are not counted that way. They are looking for a broad consensus. When it’s all said and done, a preferential ballot winner needs to have 50% + 1 support from the voters. I’m not sure, so far, if any of these films have an overwhelming broad consensus — but I say this with due deference to The Revenant and its 12 nominations. That number of nominations tells us that everyone from every branch at least liked the movie. With no preferential ballot, there would be no question what film was winning Best Picture.
Alejandro G. Iñárritu made history last night by winning the DGA for the second straight year. If he follows this up with winning a second Oscar for directing, he won’t make history unless his movie also wins Best Picture. No director in Academy Awards history has seen his films win Best Picture in consecutive years. Iñárritu will also be the sixth straight director born outside America to win. I’m not sure what this all says about our film industry that the majority of the directors in the short film categories and all the recent in the feature film category hail from other countries. I would take a hard look at our own film culture in America and wonder why this is.
Still, there is no reason to think Iñárritu and The Revenant won’t cash in big at the Oscars. At the very least, the film is likely winning Best Actor, Director, Cinematography, maybe both Sound categories, maybe Supporting Actor (due respect to Tom Hardy – but please kill me now). Who knows what else it might win.
The Revenant’s problems on a preferential ballot has to do with its “all or nothing” relationship to voters. Here are the negative RT scores for The Revenant, The Big Short and Spotlight, compared with those of past Best Picture winners:
The Revenant – 48
The Big Short – 29
Spotlight – 9
Birdman – 28
12 Years a Slave – 11
Argo – 13
The Artist – 7
The King’s Speech – 11
The Hurt Locker – 6
The preferential ballot seems to indicate that the more divisive the film, the harder it is to win. The Revenant’s 48 negative RT reviews is a whopper. That doesn’t mean it can’t or won’t win Best Picture, but it is something to look at and test as a measure of divisiveness.
Here is where it gets even more interesting. Second Level Chaos theory says that just by predicting something, you change the outcome of it. By now, the voting members of the industry know that they have three dominant choices for Best Picture. That is going to change the way they vote. Some might be tempted to “game the system” to help their preferred movie win. It just depends on whether a voter is “band loyal” or not. The PGA started this game of perceptions, when we had many voters choosing The Martian and Mad Max, thinking they could still win. Now that those films have not won any of the big guilds, will supporters of those films change their vote? If so, in what direction?
The BAFTA will further muck things up because Alejandro G. cReset ATG didn’t win there last year. He didn’t win the Golden Globe last year either. Thus, it seems like he might have the BAFTA in the bag.
I still think any of the three recent guild winners could take Best Picture — Spotlight, The Revenant or The Big Short. Also worth noting, each of these three films are being handled by some of the top Oscar strategists in the field. This represents another “clash of the titans,” so things might get really really ugly over the next couple of weeks.
Because of the preferential ballot, I’ll stick with a split year for now — Inarritu for Director and The Big Short for Picture, with an alternate BP choice of Spotlight. For now, I’m still choosing to see The Revenant as “too divisive” to win on a preferential ballot. It would have won the PGA if it weren’t.
If I were to describe my own preferences, I’d do it like this:
1. The Big Short – Rarely have I connected with a film so strongly, and not just because it’s about one of the biggest ongoing tragedies ever to hit American society. It’s really about the writing, directing, acting and editing. For me, it’s up there with the greatest of the greats, like No Country for Old Men, The Departed, The Hurt Locker and The Social Network. It probably won’t win just because I love it, as people always chide me about on Twitter. But to me, now that the dust has settled, I feel there was no better film among those nominated.
2. The Martian – Shifted slightly from number 1 because my esteem for The Big Short has surpassed it a bit. It’s still the movie I will watch whenever I feel sad and need to be lifted aloft, and it’s still the film that I think should have taken the whole season, but didn’t. I’ve written enough about why I love the movie so no need to write more.
3. Spotlight – This one has actually grown in my esteem as time has passed. At first I really did think, as good as it was, it was nothing compared to the other films. But now it seems like one of those films that embeds deeply and never leaves your heart. I can’t tell you what it is about it exactly that makes it this way. Perhaps it’s because it’s an honest, dignified, and heartfelt film. It’s authentic and devotedly focused on the story it is telling.
4. Mad Max: Fury Road – If it were me picking a director whose visual style was worthy of a singular directing nomination it would be this one. Big, bold, crazy, beautiful, and filled with astonishing practical effects – built with hammers and nails, drills and screws, and human hands. That George Miller has made one for the ages.
5. The Revenant – It’s been a hard for me to connect with despite the theme close to my heart — concern for the environment. The animal deaths throughout — though necessary — turned me off. It is the thing I most despise about the human race so that I didn’t think DiCaprio’s life was worth more than the mother bear defending her cubs, and I didn’t think his life was worth a horse plunging to its death. I felt like a lot of animals had to die so he could survive. On the other hand, it’s hard not to just sit there in awe of the artistry. It’s jaw-dropping and exemplifies high ambition.
6. Bridge of Spies – This one seemed to get the short shrift in awards season and I’m not sure why. It’s just one more masterful piece of filmmaking from the great Steven Spielberg.
7. Brooklyn and Room – I hate to lump these together but I sort of love them equally. In fact, it’s difficult to say which one I like better. They’re both great stories of strong and able women who find their way the world.
Either way we break this down, we still have a real race on our hands. One word of advice: don’t ever listen to people who think they know everything. Usually they don’t.