Uh-oh. That’s it. It’s all over now. The Academy has voted, ballots have been handed in, and Price Waterhouse Coopers have begun the counting. On Sunday night, live from the Dolby Theatre, a whole bunch of white people will be honoured with Academy Awards, but which white people, and which awards? We have our clues – the nominations – and we have our methods, and so to our predictions. With this, I’d like to extend a reminder to vote in Awards Daily’s 88th Annual Predict the Oscars Contest, but not without a word of warning! Or 2,290 words, since over a decade of Oscar watching has taught me a number of invaluable lessons about predicting the Oscars – the Academy’s trends and tastes, their prejudices and their preferences. Before you fill out your predicted ballot and enter AD’s prestigious competition, take the time to peruse a list of healthy hints, to help you make the most informed predictions possible.
LESSON #1 – DON’T SPLIT THE SOUND CATEGORIES
The Academy’s sound categories have been in flux for years, with changes made here and there to their position and purpose within the awards. They’ve been named Sound and Sound Effects Editing, and changed to Sound Mixing and Sound Editing; they’ve comprised of two nomination slots, three, and five; they’ve been handed out as Special Achievement Awards and as regular competitive awards. But one detail has remained almost completely constant: in the years where two separate awards have been handed out, they have not split unless (at least) one winner is not nominated in the other category.
In the 42 frames where two films have won sound trophies (ostensibly, one for Mixing and one for Editing), only twice has the Mixing winner been nominated for and failed to win Editing, and vice versa: 1967 – In the Heat of the Night and The Dirty Dozen (only the fifth year of this two-award scenario, and thus too early for any reliable stats to have been established), and 2008 – Slumdog Millionaire and The Dark Knight (lbr, Slumdog was lucky to even get the Editing nod, whereas TDK was the obvious winner there all along, and voters were likely determined to find that film a second award somewhere). Every other year where Mixing and Editing have split, at least one winner has not been nominated for the other award. Last year, for example, Whiplash won Mixing, but couldn’t win Editing since it wasn’t nominated there, and American Sniper won instead. Two years prior, in 2012, Les Misérables won Mixing, but also wasn’t up for Editing, and that award tied between Skyfall and Zero Dark Thirty.
2/42 times. That’s a less than 5% chance that Mixing and Editing will split between two films where each is up for the other award. So, if you’re going to predict these awards to split, you’d best expect Bridge of Spies to win Mixing and/or Sicario to win Editing. And you don’t really expect that, do you?
If you think this is a Slumdog Millionaire / The Dark Knight kind of year, with The Revenant (the likely Best Picture winner) leading the field in Mixing and Mad Max: Fury Road (the more effects-heavy action movie) leading in Editing, I get you. But I don’t think this is a strong comparison – as aforementioned, Slumdog was lucky just to get its Sound Editing nomination, whereas The Revenant features some very clear and distinct examples of Editing (in the Academy’s eyes, or ears, this award pretty much still amounts to Best Sound Effects). It doesn’t make sense to me that voters would pick it for Mixing but not also include it for Editing; ditto the other way around for Mad Max (and Star Wars, since it could potentially spoil here, especially if it wins Visual Effects, King Kong style). And here’s why this is a reliable stat, not just because it’s so mathematically stark: this stat reflects an actual mentality among Oscar voters. They don’t like splitting these awards unless they have to, because most of them can’t even tell the difference between the two!
LESSON #2 – THE BIGGER, THE BETTER IN COSTUME DESIGN
The Costume Designers Guild, traditionally one of the last to announce its award winners, held its gala awards ceremony on Tuesday night there. The winners were split over three categories: Contemporary (Jenny Eagan for Beasts of No Nation – not Oscar-nominated), Fantasy (Jenny Beavan for Mad Max: Fury Road – Oscar nominated) and Period (Paco Delgado for The Danish Girl – Oscar-nominated). From their results, the Oscar would appear to be a showdown between Mad Max and The Danish Girl, with Mad Max potentially taking the lead due to having won the BAFTA earlier this month. This stands in contrast to what many have been predicting since Oscar nominations were announced – that Costume Design would come down to Sandy Powell vs. Sandy Powell, for either Carol or Cinderella.
Like many of you, I’d feel safe in predicting Mad Max for the win here. But not as safe as I’d feel predicting another film entirely, one which might appear, on the surface, your least-likely winner in this category: the only film nominated for not a single other Oscar, Cinderella. To prove a point, let’s look back over the last 25 years of Oscar history, my entire lifetime, since 1990. 14/25 Costume Design Oscars have gone to non-Best Picture nominees. That’s almost 60%. Two winners have been films nominated for not a single other Oscar (The Adventures of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert, and Marie Antoinette), and three have been films up for only one other, in Art Direction / Production Design (Restoration, The Duchess, and The Great Gatsby). But, most importantly, the Costume Design winner has almost always been the prettiest, pouffiest, gowniest nominee. Cyrano de Bergerac beats Best Picture nominee Dances with Wolves, The Age of Innocence beats both The Piano and Schindler’s List, Restoration over Braveheart and Sense and Sensibility, Titanic, Shakespeare in Love, Moulin Rouge!, The Aviator, Marie Antoinette, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, The Duchess, The Young Victoria, Alice in Wonderland, Anna Karenina – voters couldn’t care less about Best Picture nominees in this category, and have shown a fairly regular favouritism toward lavish, gown-heavy period designs. Sure The Danish Girl fits the bill, but it’s hard to imagine it even getting past Mad Max, and it doesn’t even nearly fit this bill to the extent that Cinderella does. Mad Max may be the safe, and obvious, choice, but Cinderella is the choice with precedent on its side.
ftr, the Costume Designers Guild may have three (and formerly two) chances every year to match the Academy’s choices, but they actually don’t have the best hit rate in this regard. Out of 16 ceremonies prior to Tuesday night’s, they’ve chosen the Oscar winner only 8 times. That’s just a 50% success rate – lower than the 60% success rate for non-Best Picture nominees. And if you don’t think they’ll give Sandy Powell another Oscar, well, that hasn’t exactly stopped them before: she’s already won three, and her most recent win was hardly their most essential choice that year – does anyone really look back upon The Young Victoria’s Costume Design victory that fondly?
LESSON #3 – IN BEST VISUAL EFFECTS, LOOK TO BEST PICTURE
This is a fairly well-known fact: since the inception of the Best Visual Effects category at the Oscars (following on from Best Special Effects), a Best Picture nominee has been beaten to this award only once by a non-Best Picture nominee. That was back in 1970, 46 years ago, and in only the eighth frame of this new award, when Tora! Tora! Tora! beat Patton – itself, an understandable result. This year, the Visual Effects Society champ Star Wars: The Force Awakens will look to become the first Star Wars film since 1983’s Return of the Jedi to win the award for Best Visual Effects, but it has a major obstacle in its way: it’s up against three Best Picture nominees – Mad Max: Fury Road, The Martian, and The Revenant.
Five years ago, this category had its nomination count expanded to a permanent five films – the first time it had totalled more than three films since 1979, when Alien won. In this time, there’s never been more than one Best Picture nominee up for the Visual Effects award; prior to the expansion, there’d never been more than two (funny that, in the year it finally reaches three, there’s a legitimate chance that it might have been five, were Ex Machina and Star Wars ninth and tenth on the Best Picture list, which is entirely possible). But, every time there was at least one, the Visual Effects trophy went to a Best Picture nominee, save 1970, even when sure-fire slam-dunk Rise of the Planet of the Apes lost to Hugo in 2011.
Does this mean Star Wars is as doomed as the Death Star? I’m not quite sold on that, since it’s a genuine phenomenon the likes of which we haven’t witnessed since Titanic, since it holds the potential to win both sound awards also, thus boosting its potential to win in other categories, and since only one of those three Best Picture nominees (Mad Max) seems to have a genuine shot at beating it (unless The Revenant pulls off a tech category sweep). And you can take the 46 years since this ‘rule’ was broken as evidence that it’s one of the most bankable stats in the whole race, or you can take the fact that it was broken at all as evidence that, yep, Star Wars stands a chance. But beware! Star Wars can’t sweep the tech categories, not least since it has virtually no shot at winning Film Editing; Mad Max and The Revenant will be duking it out over the same eight categories, and could end up dividing those eight between themselves, leaving room for no other film to sneak in and claim a prize.
LESSON #4 – CINEMATOGRAPHY AND VISUAL EFFECTS GO TOGETHER, KINDA LIKE RAMA LAMA LAMA KA DINGA DA DINGA DONG
2008: Slumdog Millionaire wins Best Cinematography. It’s probably followed, in second place, by The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which wins Visual Effects. Here’s a year where we see a VFX winner with a distinctive visual scheme in which the line between what is cinematography and what is effects work has been blurred somewhat. And so, we progress through the next five years of Oscar history, where voters acknowledge this blur by rewarding the same film with both Cinematography and Visual Effects awards. Avatar, Inception, Hugo, Life of Pi and Gravity all win both awards, and the stat only shudders to a stop in 2014 because no film is nominated for both, thus making a crossover win impossible. The winners here are Birdman in Cinematography (itself with memorable effects work) and Interstellar in VFX (itself with some lovely cinematography).
The Academy has two opportunities to give these two awards to the same two films this year. Not that I need to tell you which two films these are, but anyway: they’re Mad Max: Fury Road and The Revenant. The former appears significantly stronger in Visual Effects, and its closest competitor in that category is Star Wars: The Force Awakens, meaning The Revenant’s going to have to pull off a serious show of strength in order to win there. The latter appears stronger in Cinematography, having won all major awards in that category (Critics’ Choice, BAFTA and American Society of Cinematographers awards), and also boasting exactly the kind of cinematography that the Academy likes – pretty landscapes filmed in glowing sunlight, the kind of thing that used to win all the time in the ‘90s. That said, Mad Max could easily pull off an upset in this category – probably a lot more easily than The Revenant doing so in VFX. John Seale may not be the tech superstar that Emmanuel Lubezki is, but Seale’s work on Mad Max is bold, indelible stuff, and could muscle past its rival if George Miller’s action epic were to mount a sweep of the tech awards.
Now, here’s the thing. If you think The Revenant is going to win Cinematography, and it’s very reasonable to think just so, surely you’d thus think that it’s going to win Visual Effects, by the logic that these awards seem inseparable these days. But that’s probably not going to happen, not even if it wins seven or eight other Oscars – Mad Max and Star Wars would both still be more convincing choices in VFX. A good alternative is to predict Star Wars, since that way Mad Max loses both – just like the sound category theory above, if Mad Max wins one, it’s possible-to-probable it wins the other in this case, not least since it’s stronger in Cinematography than The Revenant is in Visual Effects. But if The Revenant wins Cinematography, Star Wars looks like the frontrunner for Visual Effects, despite that category’s history of going to Best Picture nominees; vice versa, if Star Wars wins Visual Effects, The Revenant looks like a dead cert for Cinematography.
Again, the reason that this stat seems so reliable is that it reflects voter mentality – they can see the blurring of the line between what is cinematography and what is effects work, and they acknowledge this by giving the same films these same two awards. It’s not just some random correlation brought about by pure chance. It’s the result of a genuine trend in filmmaking and in Academy tastes.
A final point on this: looking at the seven frames since 2008 (excluding the current one), one can also consider Art Direction / Production Design as an additional factor in this part of the race. All five of the films that won both Cinematography and Visual Effects between 2009 and 2013 were nominated for Art Direction / Production Design, and two of them won that award (interestingly, the one that mounted the biggest sweep of all, Gravity, is not one of those two). In the other two frames, the Visual Effects winner (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and Interstellar) has also been nominated for this award, though the Cinematography winner (Slumdog Millionaire, Birdman) has not – it has, however, been the Best Picture winner. And, in five of these seven frames, the Art Direction / Production Design winner has been nominated for Best Cinematography. If these three awards go to Mad Max and/or The Revenant in some distribution, then it’s fairly redundant to even include Production Design as part of the prediction process, though it does work against Star Wars’ chances at winning Visual Effects.
LESSON #5 – THE BEST PICTURE IS BASICALLY NEVER THE ACTUAL BEST PICTURE
Face it, it practically never is.