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The State of the Race: Onward to AFI Film Festival and the Telluride Rule

Now that the New York Film Festival has changed the conversation somewhat about the Best Picture race, we’re now headed into the AFI Film Festival, which has actually been known to dramatically shake up the Oscar race in recent years. The relatively new festival is a great way for movies that break a bit later to get an effective launch, though it so far seems like it’s a better bet for a nominee rather than a winner.

Selma and American Sniper both premiered the very same night at the AFI Fest in 2014.  Last year, the AFI Fest launched The Big Short. Sure, it had already been screened and lauded earlier in the month but it really got its major boost at AFI, even if many people left that first screening somewhat confused. Buzz builds not necessarily on what people are saying walking out of a screening, but rather how the film settles overall with the Academy’s biggest branch, the actors.

An example: I was talking to the publicist of The Big Short last year and I said I thought it was “too smart” for actors and that a lot of them wouldn’t get it, so I wasn’t predicting it for a SAG Ensemble nomination. She said, “Really? I feel pretty strongly that it will be.” She was right, I was wrong, and that’s why she gets the big bucks. What made the difference, of course, was that it was a cast filled with well-liked stars giving bravura performances. That makes a huge difference. The plot doesn’t even have to make sense to them on first viewing — they got the performances, they liked the rhythm, and The Big Short, along with Spotlight, was one of the biggest players in the run towards the big night. Funny thing, though — in the end, the Telluride rule held firm.

Before we get to the Telluride rule, let’s have a look at what films in the past have launched from the AFI Fest and got into the race:

The Big Short

American Sniper

So that’s really it. Two years and three films but it is significant because those with Oscar movies are choosing to launch them from AFI with a big tribute and party. They could launch them at an Academy screening, perhaps, but I think they get more bang for their buck if they do it through a festival because then you start to see nominations pop up in precursors — the critics groups, namely, but also the guilds. The precursors help narrow the field and provide context for Academy voters, which makes the process a lot easier for them. They won’t watch everything. They watch what they’ve heard is good.

The AFI Fest is also a good way to recharge a film that is already in the race, already mostly predicted to go to the big show, but could use a big party and screening to relight the fuse.

What do we know is going to AFI so far?

20th Century Women, with an Annette Bening Tribute
The Comedian, with Robert De Niro
Rules Don’t Apply, with Warren Beatty
Elle, with a tribute to Isabelle Huppert

Now, let’s look at what we have left:

Hacksaw Ridge
Hidden Figures

In this case, the chances of Fences and Silence becoming nominees are probably greater than any of the AFI Fest films so far because of star power. With Fences, the actors will drive it, 100%. With Silence, the directors will likely drive it. One can never underestimate the power of Martin Scorsese. I’m also going to say that Mel Gibson is going to have a decent shot with Hacksaw Ridge because 1) he’s Mel Gibson, even still, and 2) it’s a war movie. What 2016 seems to be sorely missing so far is macho gravitas. Hacksaw Ridge isn’t “macho” like, say, Platoon, but it’s stuff men are likely more interested in than getting in touch with their feminine side, as they will have to do with the touchy-feely films that are leading right now, like La La Land, Manchester by the Sea, Loving, Arrival, etc. Hacksaw Ridge is steak and potatoes by comparison, as probably is Fences. So I’m going to give the sight unseen edge to these films.

Now, let’s quickly talk about the Telluride rule. Regular readers of this site are already well-versed in it. I still seem to be the only pundit who considers this a big deal. Last year, for instance, The Revenant really did seem like it was going to win Best Picture — and I still believe that if there were five nominees and winner determines by a simple plurality vote instead of a preferential ballot, The Revenant would have won. The reason I know this is that Spotlight took home only 2 Oscars — Best Picture and Screenplay. Unheard of in 60+ years. Sweeps were more common with five nominees rather than more than five; thus, The Revenant would have likely won Best Picture.

What kept The Revenant back? Why couldn’t it win under the preferential ballot? Well, we know that the preferential ballot does not reward polarizing films that rack up dislikes in the rankings 7th, 8th, 9th favorites. It doesn’t even really reward passionate love when it comes to picking a winner (it definitely matters for nominees). What counts is that it’s well-liked by some, loved by some — just not hated by any. That’s because when they’re ranking their choices at the end, you want the people who aren’t voting for The Revenant to, at least, put it as number two, rather than at the bottom. Spotlight was the film that really generated that kind of broad admiration so that it was really always in the top three choices of most ballots. That is how you win.

The downside to the preferential ballot is that it’s generally hard to go with artistically daring or sheer greatness. The best art, the best books, the best films require that some people will hate them. Hatred is a natural part of the reaction to anything too surprising, too extraordinary. Spotlight will always be a great movie. It was a great movie last year, it would have been five years prior and five years before that. It’s just one of those movies that no one can find fault with because they like the characters so much. Darker films, films like The French Connection, or The Godfather 1 and 2, or No Country for Old Men, even, or The Departed — these movies would struggle under the preferential ballot and probably would likely not have won Best Picture.

The Telluride rule states that no film released after Telluride has won Best Picture since the Academy shifted their ceremony date up one month. Somehow, just that one move pushed everything into a kind of time crunch and strange things began to happen. One of those things was that Telluride now reigned in terms of finding a Best Picture winner.

The exceptions are Million Dollar Baby — which is the last film to not only win after Telluride but it’s also the last film to win with a Best Actress winner. The Departed was released in October, which is the latest we have for this new normal release pattern. The public doesn’t seem to count very much anymore when it comes to choosing the winner because voters still rank their winners and thereby always punish films that SOME people dislike.

Let’s go through them:

2003 – Academy pushes date back one month.
2004 – Million Dollar Baby (seen after Toronto)
2005 – Crash (seen/released earlier in the year)
2006 – The Departed (October)
2007 – No Country for Old Men (Cannes)
2008 – Slumdog Millionaire (Telluride)
2009 – The Hurt Locker (Toronto, previous year)
2010 – The King’s Speech (Telluride)
2011 – The Artist (Cannes)
2012 – Argo (Telluride)
2013 – 12 Years a Slave (Telluride)
2014 – Birdman (Venice/Telluride)
2015 – Spotlight (Telluride)

And this year, it looks like La La Land, seen at Venice and Telluride, is the current film to beat for Best Picture. Also launched from Venice/Telluride were Arrival, and from just Telluride, Moonlight.

So any film that is shown later than this month and then carries off a win will be breaking the Telluride rule. It’s  a rule that is bound to get broken sooner or later, it just hasn’t been yet.

Why does a film released so early tend to do better than the one released later in the year? It’s my Girl Next Door theory. You can leave your home town and explore the world and meet lots of great people, exciting people, challenging people, but at the end of the day, you choose to marry the one you can most count on.

Films released earlier that lots of people like and no one hates firm up in people’s minds as being non-threatening. It’s a little harder if the film is touted early as the FRONTRUNNER. That in itself can sometimes do damage. But it is in our natures to seek what is beyond. Last year people saw Spotlight and thought, “That’s a good movie but it isn’t “big” enough to actually win.” Same with Argo.

Films released later don’t really have the same kind of time an early film does to recover from any scandal and cement itself as a frontrunner. Any mass hysteria generated around one film usually lasts up until the point the votes are in. Then it magically evaporates.

As usual, we’ll be waiting to see what movies, if any, can break the Telluride rule. The AFI Fest runs November 10 – 17.