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The State of the Race – The Rules of Oscar Watching, 2016 Edition

There are two schools of thought behind Oscar coverage. The first is that you are a casual observer of the race, making guesses based on your knowledge of Academy members, trends, and your own taste in film. You simply predict, but do not try to influence the race. You feel comfortable doing this months and months before the movies open because you are basically thinning the herd so that eventually industry voters will focus on the smaller pile of films and decide among those. The pundits and critics have sorted through the offerings and decided: “Yes, that one is great, watch it. No, you won’t like that one. It’s too dark, or it’s too confusing, or it’s too depressing. We have pre-selected this pile for you because we know your tastes and we know your dislikes. You are being given a selection of films based on what we know about you from your previous choices.” This is presumably objective, and supposedly untethered from any personal advocacy.

Mark Harris says (and I tend to agree) that there is a big problem with that kind of thinking. Whether you want to admit it or not, the movies you choose to push forward will influence the race based on the choices you make. Last year, Scott Feinberg promoting CitizenFour for Best Picture did have an impact, probably, on the buzz surrounding that film. Kris Tapley putting in Live by Night in his predictions possibly affects its trajectory. Anne Thompson especially has had an impact with her prediction of Ang Lee for Best Director for Life of Pi and for Grand Budapest Hotel and for Mad Max: Fury Road. It is advocacy, Anne Thompson style. She’s saying, “Remember these movies because you will like them, because they are great.” So why pretend there is no advocacy involved?

That brings us to the second school of thought: forthright advocacy is the only way to go when covering the Oscar race. Jeff Wells at Hollywood-Elsewhere makes no bones about it. He will fight hard for the films he loves all year long. Sometimes it pays off big time (Birdman) and other times it doesn’t (Tyrannosaur). But he loathes any sort of suggestion that he’s just predicting what AMPAS members might do. He’s openly trying to influence the race. Roger Ebert, when he was alive, fell into this category as well. I probably fall into this category, though Gone Girl mostly robbed me of my desire to try to make them like a film that they will likely never like.

These conflicting schools of thought are more alike than they are different. Mark Harris is always of the Socratic mindset to “first do no harm.” Why would the pundits want to thwart any film’s chances by dissing or undermining it? Why limit the choices down to the lowest common denominator? The industry, though, does not want to change. The publicists probably prefer for there to be fewer choices because that’s less money and time they have to spend. They pick a pony and they run with it. The pundits like it because we all like to be right and we can’t abide being wrong. Ever. Every so often one movie breaks all of the rules — it opens late, or it’s antagonistic, or it’s everything an Oscar contender shouldn’t be (The Big Short, The Wolf of Wall Street) — but while those films may shatter the limitations of the race they also open exciting new possibilities.

With all of this in mind, let’s go over a few Oscarwatching rules for 2016.

1) It’s virtually impossible for a divisive film to win under the preferential ballot system. The most divisive you get is Birdman and that wasn’t really divisive. How can you tell? You go to Rotten Tomatoes and look at how many negative reviews a film is getting. Spotlight has 11. Birdman has 25. The Revenant has 59. Mind the gap.

2) Actors still rule. With 1200+ members in their branch, what actors like will matter more than what directors or writers or designers like. Actors naturally like actor-driven movies featuring well-known stars. Ensembles are good, bravura leading male performances are good.

3) Critics matter more than box office. It’s rare when a film that gets terrible reviews makes it into the race. But if a movie with great reviews out and out bombs at the box office, it will have a hard time recovering enough goodwill to put it in the race.

4) Think five, not ten. Oscar voters do not have ten choices for Best Picture on their ballots. They have five empty lines to fill. They get to pick their top five of the year. Generally that means they’ll go for the films they loved, instead of the ones they merely admire or respect. They have to passionately love the movies they wrote down. That doesn’t always mean feel-goody. It can also mean really funny, or delivering an important message, or just a highly-accomplished film.

5) Stats only take you so far and not all stats can be measured the same way. Last year really puts our stats models and precedents to the test because three different movies won top prize with the three different guilds. The DGA and PGA did not call Best Picture, but SAG did. Still, the film that did win, Spotlight, had both a screenplay nomination and a SAG Ensemble nomination. It was only one of two that had that going for it. The other was The Big Short. Missing both of those prerequisites was an indication that voters had a complicated relationship with The Revenant — especially the largest voting bloc, the actors. Still, any movie can break any stat if it’s good enough and well liked across the board.

6) There is no such thing as an Oscars expert. We call ourselves experts and there are some basic rules we know that the general public doesn’t (like when 100 million moviegoers think their ticket-buying clout means American Sniper is going to win Best Picture, or Avatar). But for the most part we’re all dwelling in the world of best educated guess. Most of you seasoned readers are better at guessing than anyone writing an awards site. Nobody gets everything right, otherwise there wouldn’t be any surprises. And there are always surprises. Ask your Facebook friends what movie they liked best, ask your hairdresser or the UPS guy/girl. The winner is almost always going to be a movie they all really liked.

7) Your own personal taste can betray you. It can betray you if you don’t like a movie that everyone else likes — and if you don’t like it, you’re going to assume that it has a worse shot than it actually does. Or you can love a movie most people didn’t like and endure a year of heartbreak as that movie is ignored again and again. Keep an open mind. After all, divisive films might not have the best chance of an Oscar win, but they are often the best films in retrospect when the dust settles down the road. If Oscar conversations become too limiting, we all risk starving out an ever-shrinking film community. The most buzzed films often get a box office boost, which can make careers and ensure more films get made. You never know if this is the year things might completely change.

8) Since the Oscars were pushed ahead from March to February, the time crunch has put the emphasis more on the September and October festival season, and placed more weight on films that are seen earlier than the previous traditional Oscar movie release of late December. The average number of films to be nominated from the later part of the year, or late-breakers, is two. That means usually only two movies seen late — after Thanksgiving and into December — will get in. Rules are meant to be broken so this could always change. No film since Million Dollar Baby (2004) has won when it was first seen later than October, when The Departed (2006) won — and even The Departed premiered October 6th.

9) At its best, the Oscar race can highlight the year’s best films so that audiences can make their way to those movies and revel in the greatness Hollywood can still achieve, even in the midst of a blockbuster meltdown. At its worst, it is an insular game that makes fools of us all so that teenagers have no choice but to conclude, “Oh, that’s an Oscar movie,” and what that means to many is that it’s a movie they will not like watching because it’s always the same movie. Anything we can do to shake things up can be a good thing.

10) Throw out rules 1 – 9 and write your own. Let’s hear them!