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Did the Backlash Take Down La La Land for Best Picture? In a Word, No

Now that the Oscars are over and the dust has settled, many will be wondering whether the backlash to La La Land was the reason it didn’t win Best Picture. The answer is complicated.  On the one hand, the amount of hate lobbed at La La Land felt unprecedented for a film that really did not seek to offend anyone seemed to, by the end, offend almost everyone. Many were left scratching their heads about what just happened. La La Land deemed fascist? Its portrayal of John Legend bigoted? They were narcissists representative of the Trump era? If you’ll notice, though, the backlash to the backlash was actually stronger. Many rose up to the defend the film, particularly high profile film critics. In fact, if given more time I think that defense of the film might have helped the film win in the end because it would have given something for people to vote FOR.

The key to what happened on Oscar night is the recognition of what happens with the preferential ballot. Not many seem to understand it even still. Either you enter the race with enough number one votes (more than 50%) or you don’t. And if you don’t, a recount is triggered. That recount often determines whether a film can hold its number one spot or not. Many can’t and the reason for this is that they do not have enough of a reason to vote FOR them.

You can’t fault the La La Land publicity team. They did their best to give people a reason to vote FOR La La Land. But those reasons just didn’t resonate. Holding out for your dreams? Making your dreams come true? Well, no because the whole movie sets you up to want the two leads to get togther. We care a lot less about their dreams than we do their love story and that’s the fault of the writing. Damien Chazelle did not up the stakes for either of the leads. There was nothing at stake for him because his worst problem was playing in a jazz fusion band and nothing particularly at stake for her because she was a pretty actress who had one bad night. So what? I mean, if she had been an actress of color who couldn’t get work – or she was so broke she couldn’t afford gas to drive to an audition, or she had to borrow money because her mom was dying – whatever it was there were no stakes involved to these dreams being achieved. They seemed to just have been handed to them on a silver platter.

Let’s take a quick look at how the races have gone down since the preferential ballot has been in place in the modern era:

La La Land—PGA/DGA — no SAG ensemble nomination
Moonlight — Globe/WGA – SAG ensemble nomination

The Revenant – DGA/Globe – no SAG ensemble nomination
Spotlight – SAG ensemble WIN

Birdman – PGA/DGA/SAG ensemble win

Gravity – PGA/DGA – no SAG ensemble nomination
12 Years a Slave – Globe/PGA/SAG ensemble nomination

Life of Pi – no SAG ensemble nomination
Argo – PGA/DGA/SAG/Globe ensemble win

The Artist – PGA/DGA/SAG ensemble nomination

The King’s Speech – PGA/DGA/SAG ensemble win

Avatar – Globe/No SAG ensemble nomination
The Hurt Locker – PGA/DGA/SAG ensemble nomination

So you can see by the breakdown that the SAG ensemble nomination matters a lot. The divisiveness of La La Land was already there long before the backlash set in. When it missed this key nomination that showed it had to be more divisive than people were admitting. The pundits rode out of Telluride with a story and they stuck to that story. I was one of the few that could not reconcile what I saw as an inconsistency in the pattern of Oscar Best Picture winners.

There were other things that were ignored so that pundits could keep driving the narrative that the Oscar race was over in September – like Jeff Wells reporting walk-outs of the film at some film festivals. Like Anne Thompson saying she was hearing a lot of mixed reactions from Academy members about the lack of professionalism of the dancing or the singing (intentional and appealing to many of the film’s fans but the old timers weren’t pleased). That is divisiveness.

All of that happened before the film was attacked. And if anything, the attacks on the film only made people more defensive – just as they did with Casey Affleck and his sexual harassment charges. The mostly white, mostly male voters in the Academy don’t care about what they think of as politically correct criticisms. Not when it comes to defending their white heroes.  So while it’s true that Russell Crowe lost to Denzel Washington because he had a violent outburst at the BAFTAs, had he been asked for forgiveness for behavior like that ten years ago he likely would have been given it. But it was too fresh.

Likewise, no white male voter in the Academy is going to care if a woman of color criticizes La La Land. That would not be enough to take the film down. Only people who perceive it as having hype it could not deliver on would hurt it. Films like Up in the Air, American Hustle are the kinds of films that suffer once people start to see the movie and think, “it’s not all that.”

And that is probably more what happened with La La Land. It was the frontrunner but it did not have enough of whatever it was that makes people want to vote FOR something. There was no cute dog saving the day. There weren’t impoverished kids from India finding true love. There weren’t even good reporters going after pedophile priests.

We can look at films that likewise fooled the majority of the best Oscar predictors because they, too, lacked urgency to vote FOR them. Like Gravity. We want her to survive but that’s pretty much it. You’re voting more for the genius of Alfonso Cuaron, so he won Best Director. The Revenant – what happens there? Well he endures a lot of painful shit.  Damien Chazelle won Best Director but people felt more compelled to vote FOR Moonlight.

I was one of the people who mistakenly believed that there was a chance Boyhood could still win Best Picture even though it was up against the rock solid and unbeatable trifecta of Guild wins: PGA/DGA/SAG. Birdman is a film that if it had any detectable weakness it might not have survived a recount. On the other hand, you have to ask what were people voting FOR with Boyhood? Voting for Richard Linklater for pulling off the feat of a 12 year shoot? Probably. But with Birdman they were voting FOR artistic vision over the superhero takeover of Hollywood – a much stronger force to be reckoned with. Also it was about actors and clearly the actors loved it as it earned four SAG noms and won ensemble.

Argo was up against Lincoln and Life of Pi. You would think that Lincoln would have enough good will so that people were voting FOR something. If Lincoln was in the race this year, in the post Trump era, it might have had more urgency to vote for it but as it was the sentiment was 100% with Ben Affleck, not to mention Argo being a crowdpleaser overall. They were voting FOR him because they liked him and because they liked his movie and it was also about Hollywood doing something good, saving the day. More importantly, Argo, like Birdman, was a first count winner. How do we know that? PGA/DGA/SAG ensemble win.

If La La Land had had all three in the bag – two hander or no two hander – it would have been unbeatable. Not having a SAG ensemble is like not having a DGA nomination, or a PGA nomination. It’s a big deal. And it shows that there was already a slight problem with this film and the preferential ballot. The backlash really had nothing to do with that.

Where the backlash might have had an impact for La La Land was lessening the number one votes. That triggered a recount and that’s what did the film’s Best Picture chances. On our preferential ballot experiments on Facebook and here on the site we proved that Moonlight had a much bigger advantage because it was almost always the preferred film on ballots where La La Land and Moonlight weren’t their number one choice. I myself would not have known that – and might have thought Hidden Figures could win – if I had not done the experiment for myself. The same thing happened with Spotlight last year. It kept coming out the winner. The conclusion is that people felt compelled to vote FOR it. It wasn’t that they were voting against La La Land. It was that they felt like doing something better for humanity than simply rewarding the genius of the film’s director. That is the lesson here.

La La Land, like The Revenant, like Gravity, maybe like Avatar would have no problem winning on a plurality ballot as it did at the Globes and the BAFTAs. So why did the film win the PGA’s preferential ballot? Because they weren’t actors and actors rule the Academy, which is why that SAG ensemble nod is key.

However, if a film has won the PGA, the DGA and the SAG ensemble? You can take that to the bank. If La La Land had won all three and still lost Best Picture? Then you could blame the backlash.