I had a moment, briefly, when I thought something other than La La Land would be winning after the SAG ensemble absence. Readers of this site know that I follow the stats and for the most part they have not failed me yet. The SAG ensemble is, I think, a big stat. It doesn’t mean everything but it doesn’t mean nothing. Here is why it matters: the preferential ballot.
It’s a difficult concept to get across because our minds don’t work that way. We’re trained to think: the film people like best will win. Period. But that isn’t how it works with that ballot. There has to be lots of crossover appeal. It can’t just be loved. It has to be liked a lot and not hated — which translates into lots of 2nd- and 3rd-slot placements on ballots, and keeps the 8th- and 9th- placements to a minimum. The only film that has won with the preferential ballot that had even a tiny modicum of hate was Birdman. And even that wasn’t hated all that much. So why would La La Land, a great movie by all accounting, be hated? It isn’t that it’s hated so much as its style it so unique — its concept either works with you or it doesn’t.
Why would it matter that a SAG ensemble nod makes a difference? Maybe it won’t matter. After all, last year, when Spotlight missed out on the usually all-important editing nomination by the ACE editors guild I said the same thing: uh oh. And then when Spotlight also missed out on a Best Director nomination at BAFTA it similarly seemed like a problem. What we ended up with in that case was a pretty tight race with three movies in contention — Spotlight, The Big Short and The Revenant. The Big Short ended up being a moderate spoiler to one or the other two. 3-way splits can screw things up in ways that are nearly impossible to gauge. And in the end, Spotlight took a near record-breaking minimum of wins: just two. We did not think we were in that kind of a year. We thought we were in a sweeps year. And in a sweeps year, a movie is supposed to hit all markers across the board because it’s supposed to be universally loved.
Having said all of that, it’s important to remember that SAG has now merged with AFTRA and these most new members aren’t actors exclusively, if at all. Still, when we’re talking about Best Picture maybe it’s not supposed to matter. I’m saying all of this to you to explain why I now have Moonlight in the number one spot and not La La Land. I feel like Moonlight is just as much of a longshot to win but we could be heading into a situation where there are once again three movies competing, like last year. So we’re not, maybe, in a sweeps year at all.
Of course, it’s also important to remember that La La Land is really only two people and not an deep ensemble. The SAG-AFTRA nominees in that category tend to be very large casts — but coincidentally, so do Best Picture winners. Slumdog Millionaire is a good example of not a large cast of well known actors (lots of actors, like La La Land, just not well known actors). Beasts of No Nation is another example of that. And finally, The Theory of Everything was mostly just the two main actors. So you see, they make room if they want to make room and here, they made room for Captain Fantastic instead — a decent enough movie but nowhere near the level of La La Land.
At any rate, in case you were wondering, here are the tried and true stats I tend to follow with regard to the preferential ballot years — 2009 to current. Before that, the most votes picked the winner in a simple plurality ballot tabulation, so stats weren’t so locked in. And they might not be now. We follow them anyway because that’s what we do.
1. The SAG ensemble slot – Why it matters: the actors branch is the most populous in the Academy, almost double the number of voters of any other group. They rule. They’re the reason genre movies, unless driven by serious actors, do not win. Not in all of SAG history except the very first year, 1995, and there was no preferential ballot then. Incidentally, I don’t think Braveheart could have won with the preferential ballot anyway. I think Apollo 13 might have. Those two movies are a good example of how different the balloting is now and how it makes an impact. Braveheart was like The Revenant. It took hold strong and fast at the end. Apollo 13 was more broadly liked all around, despite receiving no director nomination for Howard.
2. DGA nomination – You really have to have that. Sure, the preferential ballot can overcome it, just like it can overcome missing the SAG ensemble slot, but ideally you like to have both of these. It’s more important to have a DGA nomination than an Oscar nomination for Best Director. DGA names we expect will be:
Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea
Barry Jenkins, Moonlight
Damien Chazelle, La La Land
Then we have two slots that could and will probably include:
Denis Villeneuve, Arrival
David MacKenzie, Hell or High Water
Or they might go with:
Denzel Washington, Fences
Martin Scorsese, Silence
We have to wait until the PGA, the WGA and ACE Editors and the DGA ring in before drawing any major conclusions regarding guild stats but here is generally the two basic rules of finding Best Picture under the preferential ballot:
1) Is it “important”?
2) Does it pass the puppy-kicking test.
Important means “good guys” vs. “bad guys.” That seems to make a difference. It makes a difference whether or not there is a broad theme at play that matters. This was best illustrated last year with Spotlight. While The Revenant and The Big Short were both important, neither was really about a good person doing a good thing. They were examining bad people doing bad things. Every Best Picture winner after The Hurt Locker (the last ambiguous film to win Best Picture) has been about good people doing good things.
The puppy-kicking test means you can’t hate it. You can’t kick it no matter how hard you try. It’s too likable. That means no one hates it. No one can hate it because hating it is like kicking a puppy.
Three of our frontrunner films — La La Land, Manchester by the Sea and Moonlight — fit the bill. You can fold in Fences and Hidden Figures, come to that. You can fold in Lion. You can fold in Loving. You can fold in Hell or High Water. Of all of these, only La La Land isn’t perhaps “important” enough by the traditional measure of such things. It’s about love – and regret. And cinema. But nothing more than that.
Best Picture in recent years has always come from a film seen around the time of Telluride. So that gives us the following films:
La La Land
Manchester by the Sea
Hell or High Water
Next come the late breakers:
That’s 11. Which fit the good people doing good things? Pretty much all of them represent good people doing good things. Which of those would be considered “important” by a good many voters? That’s a tougher question to answer. The obvious ones are Loving, Hell or High Water, Lion, and Hidden Figures. But “important” can also mean being about something important, like being gay and black and standing out and proud in America, or a film that represents middle-class black Americans during a time most Americans never see those stories on screen. But it only really matters when it comes to choosing a winner.
All of this to explain to you why I have Moonlight in the number one spot:
1) It’s about something important.
2) It was seen in Telluride.
3) It has a SAG ensemble nomination.
4) It passes the puppy-kicking test big time.
And finally, here is the best reason I can think of: a Best Picture winner is often driven by how good people feel when voting for it or when seeing it win. Whatever that thing is, Moonlight has it. People are happy when it wins. Period. The director is incredibly likable; all of the actors are humble and grateful.
What’s Moonlight’s negative? It actually doesn’t have any. The negatives are suppositions that outsiders have put on the people who might be voting for it and that is: “It’s too black and too gay for them.” And yeah, after covering the Academy for almost 20 years, you think I don’t know that? I DO KNOW THAT. But I also know they just went through a terrible year where people were threatening to boycott the awards because they were too white and have always been too white. It was such a dramatic story for them that it was all anyone covered — actually for two years straight because the year before that was the year Selma got a Best Picture nomination but missed every other category, including Best Actor and Director. I’m not sure this is the year that the Academy is going to ignore that. Too black and too gay? Perhaps for a few of the most moribund voters. But this is an unprecedented year of contenders with strong black casts: Fences, Moonlight, Hidden Figures, Loving. Do we really think that’s going to go ignored? I’m not so sure.
Having said that, Manchester by the Sea is also a strong contender and La La Land is still a strong bet to win. Heck, I might switch up to Fences if it wins the SAG ensemble award, which it might. The only reason I’m not predicting La La Land it is that lack of a SAG ensemble nod. But I might change my prediction tomorrow. I don’t know. I thought I would share my thought processes with you in case you were interested.
Check out the rest of the predictions for the Golden Globe winners over at Movie City News.