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The State of the Race – Predicting Best Picture with the Preferential Ballot

Although it seems like we keep writing this same article over and over again, the point still needs to be made about why predicting a Best Picture winner with the preferential ballot can be so tricky. It’s the reason Gravity could not win, or last year’s The Revenant. The preferential ballot does not reward artistic daring, nor does it reward a last minute surge, as we saw last year. It can’t. It isn’t designed to do that. It rewards films that are loved but also films voters feel obligated, for whatever reason, to push to the top of the ballot. As always, these rules apply:

  1. Actors rule. Actors will drive your Best Picture winner every year but especially where the preferential ballot is concerned because there are just plain more of them.
  2. High art is usually loved and hated, but the preferential ballot prevents a film like that from winning because it will land at number one but possibly not as a number two or three.
  3. The more competitive the year, the more safe the choice for Best Picture will be.
  4. Most years everything lines up with guilds and Oscar (The Hurt Locker, The King’s Speech, The Artist, Argo, Birdman), some years they don’t (12 Years a Slave, Spotlight). We don’t yet know which kind of year we’re in.
  5. Getting a nomination with the preferential ballot can result from passionate love. Winning doesn’t necessarily follow suit.

The only way a film can really surge that is somewhat challenging is if the race is not close. This is likely why Birdman, which was probably the most divisive film we’ve seen win with the preferential ballot, won – its only competition was Boyhood but that film only ended up winning a single Oscar for Patricia Arquette. Birdman tied with The Grand Budapest Hotel, each winning four Oscars, Whiplash won three, but every other film in that Best Picture lineup won just one Oscar.

Last year just before the Oscar ceremony I asked my 2,000 some odd Facebook friends to rank these three movies 1 – 3: Spotlight, The Big Short, The Revenant. I did it two ways. The first was to rank the top eight nominated films. And the second way was to rank their top three potential winners. Why Facebook is a good place to do this is that I knew I would be getting a cross-section of opinions, from movie fans to critics to people who were not inside the Oscar bubble. Both times, Spotlight was the clear winner and it wasn’t even close. That’s because both The Revenant and The Big Short were brave number one choices, not safe choices.

In both cases, Spotlight was, on average, their second choice. It was pushed to the top of the ballot whether it was a favorite or not because, it seemed to me, people felt compelled to reward it. The key thing was that it was not hated. By anyone. Like who could ever hate Spotlight? You might not see it as anything special or spectacular or worthy but you had no reason to hate it and in fact, because you love what the characters stand for in the film, you are compelled to push it higher on your ballot to reward good people doing good things.

What ultimately pushed Spotlight ahead wasn’t that it landed on the most number ones. In fact, it didn’t. It had a fair amount but it really picked up steam with number two votes, easily beating the other two. This was only a sample size of about 300 but it definitely translated to a winner.

So why did I choose to stick with The Big Short? I did so only because I knew for sure that The Revenant could not win but I always thought that Spotlight was not an exciting enough Best Picture contender. It was subdued, with no big moments and seemed to me like a very very good film that could have been made at any time, in any decade. It also could have been a TV movie, come to think of it, especially now. Spotlight was a safe choice for the win, but it was also a boring one. So many were inclined not to go in that direction, though some did. I didn’t because The Big Short had won the Producers Guild. Whenever people offer up some explanation like “they like Brad Pitt” it never flies with me. Thousands don’t “like Brad Pitt.” There was more to it than that. It was about how the ballot was counted. At that time The Big Short was still mostly an underdog, thus, no one was attacking it. The second it won the PGA, that put a target on its back. Suddenly people looked at it and thought – why am I awarding these creeps? If the Best Picture race is between a bunch of Wall Street assholes and earnest journalists doing the right thing – well, people’s opinions might shift. The Spotlight team drove the point home when they got on stage after winning the SAG Ensemble award, “we’re the good guys.”

We know that many Best Picture winners would not have survived the preferential ballot, like Braveheart. Just like we know that The Revenant probably would have won last year if not for the preferential ballot, just as Avatar might have. We’ll never know, of course, unless the Academy gave us access to those ballots.

With that in mind, I asked my Facebook friends to do an early ranking of their top three films so far. What surprised me was where Manchester by the Sea was landing. It was pushing to the top of the ballot for whatever reason. Is it because they like the characters and want to reward them, even if it isn’t their favorite film of the year? It’s too early to know, but something about the way that was ranking made me think Manchester might have the edge. On the other hand, once it becomes the frontrunner it will immediately become a target, as La La Land has. Moonlight is also one that could push to the top of the ballot for the same reasons but I suspect, and we’ll see if this turns out to be right, and it’s WAY TOO EARLY TO KNOW what will even be nominated, that Moonlight and La La Land will be number one movies where Manchester could be that Spotlight type of winner hitting number two on most ballots.

Why Manchester right now? It appeals across the board, male or female. Moonlight also seems to be crossing over pretty well overall, but we all know that it will be met with certain prejudices. La La Land is loved by many, which is why it will do very well with nominations and might win on a preferential ballot, but the lack of a SAG Ensemble nomination, whether it can be explained away or not, throws this prediction off.

When it comes to nominations you have to flip things completely. To get nominated, the film has to have PASSIONATE love. That means it HAS TO BE a number one film for a decent number of voters – let’s say around 150 minimum. La La Land, Moonlight, and Manchester should do very well here. So should Hell or High Water, Arrival, and Fences. These movies seem like slam dunks for Best Picture. That’s six. Both Lion and Silence are probably going to be passionately loved to hit enough number ones, maybe. Those could be the last two slots. But that last slot or slots could also be filled with:

Hacksaw Ridge
Hidden Figures
Nocturnal Animals
Captain Fantastic
Florence Foster Jenkins

At this stage of the game, we really can’t know how this all will go because getting a nomination in the first place is a whole different game from finding the winner.

If the following films do land in the Best Picture race, as we are almost certain that they will, I expect, then these are the films that have the best chance of actually WINNING Best Picture:

Manchester by the Sea — SAG
Moonlight — SAG
La La Land
Fences — SAG
Hidden Figures — SAG
Hell or High Water

The one movie I would be really keeping my eye on right now is Denzel Washington’s Fences. For some reason, of all of the films swirling around the race, that’s the one I think has the best shot of potentially upsetting.

But we can’t know anything until all of the cards are played. In the next few weeks, we will know a lot more, when the DGA and the PGA ring in.