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The State of the Race: Why Predicting Best Picture with the Preferential Ballot is So Hard

Someone texted me this morning about a movie I’d written about yesterday, Battle of the Sexes, and how I’d said it COULD win Best Picture, not that it WOULD win Best Picture. The blowback was odd. I think right now from those films we’ve seen already, there are a handful that COULD win: Dunkirk, Darkest Hour, Battle of the Sexes. At this time last year, I left Telluride saying Moonlight COULD win Best Picture, along with La La Land and Manchester by the Sea. COULD win is different from WILL win. The same person who texted me this morning about Battle of the Sexes said the exact same thing about Moonlight last year. Almost word for word.

Now if you were me, what were your reaction to that be? Mean: “don’t you tell me my business again.” Or politely brusque: “Thanks but… no thanks.” Or: “you were wrong last year and have been wrong every year except one so why should I listen to you?” Any of those would probably do. I simply told him that after last year I will no longer listen to people who tell me no. After all, many said Arrival would not be an Oscar thing. How could they possibly know that so early?

How I look for films I think MIGHT do well is simply by watching how the audience responds, asking around to find out what the majority of the people liked. I heard lots of good reactions about Darkest Hour (probably the most) and Battle of the Sexes. I also heard many liked Lady Bird, which I suspect could also do well, especially with actors. What I don’t do is pay attention to what critics are saying, especially those in the hothouse exhaustion of a festival setting. Most critics often chafe against Oscar coverage anyway, preferring to keep their coverage of movies pure and untainted from awards consideration. And that’s how it should be. But Oscar voters aren’t critics. They look more for films that they consider rich and satisfying rather than those that tend to be the kinds of films critics do backflips over. Sometimes, sometimes Dolores, these things cross over, and often when they do that is when you have a slam dunk Best Picture winner. But not always.

The point I’m getting at here is that with the preferential ballot, things tend to be a lot more fluid, less static. A lot of pundits tend to still think the old way, that the most popular-seeming film naturally will win. But that only really comes to pass in a year where there’s not a lot of competition. If there are two movies, say, The Artist vs. Hugo, or The King’s Speech vs. Social Network, or Birdman vs. Boyhood, you’re going to be in a better position to judge which film will prevail based on the old way. When there are three top contenders — Say The Big Short vs. The Revenant vs. Spotlight — anything can happen. With the preferential ballot, if a film accumulates more than 50% of the ballots on first count it wins the race. But in a year where there are more than two serious contenders is when it gets tricky. We don’t know what kind of year this is. At the moment, it feels to me like it could be a competitive year since there is no clear frontrunner heading out of Telluride. Next up is Toronto and then the last Oscar-designated films will screen around November and then we will have a better idea of what’s what.

Right now it feels like a year where there could be three or four favorites with roughly equal support. And in a year like that, you’re looking not for the film you think “everyone loves.” You’re looking for the film everyone loves and many like and no one hates – the Best Picture winner by process of elimination.

With more than two top movies in contention, all the films that receive number one votes will trigger a recount under the preferential system. And at that point, it won’t matter if your film is number one. It has to also place high on the ballot at number two or number three or even four or five. Last year I knew there were at least three films heading for first place: La La Land, Moonlight and, I figured, Hidden Figures maybe or Manchester or even Arrival. All of these were popular enough to earn many number one votes. So I did a Facebook poll of a cross section of people I knew to see how these films ranked. What I found each time was that Moonlight came out ahead — if it came down to La La Land or Moonlight for people whose choice wasn’t either of those two, Moonlight won. The reason for that was that fewer people disliked Moonlight than the number who had issues with La La Land. That is where divisiveness comes into it. If a film gets the majority of number ones on the first ballot, it wins whether it’s divisive or not. (Put another way, it’s so unlikely that a film would win on the first ballot, any film that does must necessarily, prima facie, be not divisive.)  But if there is a recount and voting is extended for multiple rounds, relative strength of favorability will make all of the difference.

The same thing happened with the trio of frontrunners in 2015, Spotlight, The Big Short, and The Revenant all competing for that number one spot. Least divisive: Spotlight. The movie many people would push to the top of their ballot even if it wasn’t their favorite? Spotlight. Why? Because many felt obligated to do so because it was about good people doing good things. The same goes for 2013 when it was Gravity and 12 Years a Slave. While it seemed like a two film race, it could not have been because Gravity did not have a SAG Ensemble nomination and 12 Years did not win the SAG Ensemble that year. That indicated some kind of break in the chain. American Hustle was popular enough, but so was Wolf of Wall Street. So if you’re picking these movies, Gravity is probably not your number two. But a voter might push 12 Years higher because he feels like he’s doing a good deed, even if he didn’t like it enough to give it his number one spot.

The pundits, though, seem slow to grasp this concept. For the most part, they continue to adhere to old school predicting — thinking that sheer popularity wins the day. That’s what you’re looking for when it comes to nominations, but it isn’t how you find a winner. Now, if Dunkirk is nominated across the board for every guild, then sweeps the guild awards and BAFTA, you know you have a one-movie race. But if it goes Dunkirk wins PGA and DGA but Battle of the Sexes or Darkest Hour or The Post wins SAG because Dunkirk isn’t nominated — well, then you’re probably looking at some kind of split. And then we have to start shuffling cards.

For now, though, we’re still in the “anything can win” phase and there is no need, nor should there be any reason, to slam the door shut on any movie, no matter where it comes from.

So just remember these golden rules:

  1. Nobody knows anything still applies to the Oscar race, and was proven again last year.
  2. A divisive film can win on a preferential ballot if it has no competition. If it has competition, it becomes harder to win, because it needs to sustain its lead as ballots are redistributed.
  3. If critics love a movie or if Oscar bloggers splooge all over one, that almost makes it divisive by default; humans love nothing more than kicking something in the gut that lots of people love.
  4. No, being in the Oscar game, or having Oscar buzz doesn’t necessarily judge worth or quality. It never has, it never will because awards are decided by a large consensus. What everyone likes doesn’t always equate to quality.
  5. Flying under the radar is often a great way to win reality shows, and as such, remains a great way to win an Oscar race that has way too many people covering it.

At this moment in time, I think any of these movies COULD win Best Picture:
Battle of the Sexes
Darkest Hour
The Shape of Water

I think these movies are still in pretty good standing for a nod, at least right now:
Lady Bird
Call Me By Your Name
Get Out

These movies, sight unseen, might be in:
The Post

Movies hanging in the balance:
Phantom Thread (or whatever the Paul Thomas Anderson movie will be called)
Roman Israel, Esq.
The Big Sick
Wonder Woman
Star Wars

Christopher Nolan, Dunkirk
Guillermo del Toro, The Shape of Water
Dayton and Faris, Battle of the Sexes
Darren Aronofsky, mother!

Also possibly:
Steven Spielberg, The Post
Greta Gerwig, Lady Bird
Paul Thomas Anderson, Phantom Thread
Patti Jenkins, Wonder Woman
Alexander Payne, Downsizing

Best Actress
Sally Hawkins, The Shape of Water
Emma Stone, Battle of the Sexes
Judi Dench, Victoria and Abdul
Jennifer Lawrence, Mother!
Saoirse Ronan, Lady Bird

Best Actor
Denzel Washington, Roman Israel, Esq.
Daniel Day-Lewis, Phantom Thread
Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour
Steve Carell, Battle of the Sexes
Tom Hanks, The Post

Still a long ways to go — but we’re slowly chipping away at the hunk of marble and eventually it will all take shape.