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Predictions Friday – Why Release Date and the Big Guilds Matter for Best Picture

The next shockwave that will reverberate through the slowly-forming Best Picture race will be the AFI Film Festival. Traditionally, a few significant films have been known to enter the race late in the game, around November, when the AFI Fest kicks off. Some films, like Django Unchained or The Wolf of Wall Street, can skip the AFI Fest, get seen later in the year with a December release, and still make it into the great game. But there has to be enough excitement generated for that to happen and usually that means a high profile film or a high profile director.

For whatever reason, though, the AFI Fest has launched a number films into the Best Picture competition, like:

2015
The Big Short

2014
American Sniper
Selma

This year, Ridley Scott’s All the Money in the World hits AFI and maybe Clint Eastwood’s new film as well (although that has not yet been announced). While not the most reliable stat, it’s worth noting that it’s difficult to get into the Best Picture race if you’re arriving late — meaning, no one has seen your movie until late November or December. The probable reason for this is that it takes a while to build a consensus among a lot of people. You can hit with critics and with smaller voting groups like the National Board of Review or the Golden Globes, but to reach the massive numbers of voters in the guilds and the Academy there has to be broad consensus and word-of-mouth.

Every year is different, but history tells us that the majority of the films that land in the race are seen before or around Venice/Telluride/Toronto. Let’s do a quick rundown keeping in mind two essential truths about awards season:

1) Ever since the Academy moved up the date of the Oscars by a month (roughly 2003/2004), it changed the way movies win Best Picture. No longer does the response of the movie-going public factor into the decision. Instead, Best Picture is solely determined by people in screening rooms and sitting at home with FYC screener DVDs. The choices are narrowed down by critics, bloggers, and early awards groups, giving Academy voters a whittled-down group of films to consider. There is no time for the box office or the public reaction to matter.

2) In 2009, the Academy switched to the preferential ballot to find a Best Picture winner. Since then, no film that wasn’t seen before Telluride has won Best Picture.

Let’s take it back ten years to see how many nominees and winners came from which month in the year:

2007: No Country for Old Men — Cannes (May)
Atonement — Venice (August)
Juno — Telluride (September)
Michael Clayton — Venice (August)
There Will Be Blood — Fantastic Fest (September)

2008

Slumdog Millionaire — Telluride (September)
Benjamin Button — late breaker (December)
Frost/Nixon — October
Milk — late-October
The Reader — late breaker (December)

2009

The Hurt Locker — Toronto (September, the year prior)
Avatar — late breaker (December)
The Blind Side — November
District 9 — August
An Education — Sundance (January)
Inglourious Basterds — Cannes (May)
Precious — Sundance (January)
A Serious Man — October
Up — Cannes (May)
Up in the Air — Telluride (September)

2010

The King’s Speech — Telluride (September)
127 Hours — Telluride (September)
Black Swan — Venice (August)
The Fighter — late breaker (December)
Inception — July
The Kids Are All Right — Sundance (January)
The Social Network — New York (September)
Toy Story 3 — June
True Grit — late breaker (December)
Winter’s Bone — Sundance (January)

2011

The Artist — Cannes (May)
The Descendants — Telluride (September)
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close —late breaker (December)
The Help — August
Hugo — October
Midnight in Paris — Cannes (May)
Moneyball — Toronto (September)
The Tree of Life — Cannes (May)
War Horse — late breaker (December)

2012

Argo — Telluride (September)
Amour — Cannes (May)
Beasts of the Southern Wild — Sundance (January)
Django Unchained — late breaker (December)
Les Misérables — late breaker (December)
Life of Pi — New York (September)
Lincoln — New York (September)
Silver Linings Playbook — Toronto (September)
Zero Dark Thirty — late breaker (December)

2013

12 Years a Slave — Telluride (September)
Captain Phillips — New York (September)
Dallas Buyers Club — Toronto (September)
Gravity — Venice/Telluride (September)
Her — New York (September)
Nebraska — Cannes (May)
Philomena — Venice (August)
The Wolf of Wall Street — late breaker (December)

2014

Birdman — Venice/Telluride (September)
American Sniper — AFI (November)
Boyhood — Sundance (January)
The Grand Budapest Hotel — Berlin (February)
The Imitation Game — Telluride (September)
Selma — AFI (November)
The Theory of Everything — Toronto (September)
Whiplash — Sundance (January)

2015

Spotlight — Venice/ Telluride (September)
The Big Short — AFI (November)
Bridge of Spies — New York (October)
Brooklyn — Sundance (January)
Mad Max: Fury Road — Cannes (May)
The Martian — Toronto (September)
The Revenant _ late breaker (December)
Room — Telluride (September)

2016

Moonlight — Telluride (September)
Arrival — Venice/Telluride (September)
Fences — late breaker (December)
Hacksaw Ridge — Venice (August)
Hell or High Water — Cannes (May)
Hidden Figures — late breaker (December)
La La Land — Venice/Telluride (September)
Lion — Toronto (September)
Manchester by the Sea — Sundance (January)

In the years before the date change, before the internet, and before the explosion of awards watching sites and critics (which really did change how the Oscars were decided), there were really two kinds of films: the ones released throughout the year and the ones released during Oscar season. In those days, a late breaker like Shakespeare in Love could come along and steal the whole thing, but that was because the Oscars were held in March and there was time to rally a consensus for an upset. Now, there really isn’t time. My guess is that if any film ever did win Best Picture as a late breaking entry, it would have to be one where the director was well known enough and the film highly anticipated enough that it could rally a quick consensus with no detractors. Otherwise, since the date change and the ballot expansion we haven’t seen a late breaking December entry win Best Picture.

So, you’re really looking at a situation where all or most of the Best Picture nominees, give or take one or two, maybe three, have already been seen.

One thing that often happens is that the tried-and-true films that did really well earlier in the year tend to hold their status more than the ones that have a lot of hype built up before they’re seen. If you start at the top, you only have one place to go and that’s down. Thus, it makes sense that films that earned their hype from people seeing them as opposed to before they see them tend to do better overall in the Best Picture race.

A strong Best Picture contender will do three things — it will be nominated by:

The Producers Guild
The Directors Guild
The Screen Actors Guild in Ensemble

In addition, it might get Golden Globe nominations, win the Los Angeles or New York critics (or not), get a bunch of BAFTA nominations. But the guilds are key.

Since the Producers Guild and the Oscars are the only two groups that use the preferential ballot, they tend to match each other fairly closely, give or take 1-3 mis-matches. Often, the darker or more genre-y movies that hit the PGA will be left off when the Academy picks theirs.

Likewise, the SAG Ensemble can be hit-or-miss when it comes to matching with Best Picture. But having that nomination is KEY when it comes to finding a winner.

The five directors nominated for the DGA will also help determine the strongest Best Picture contenders heading into the race.

For any film you are predicting to win Best Picture, ask yourself: will it land with all three of the big guilds: PGA/DGA/SAG? If the answer is yes, predict it. If the answer is no, well, you might have to rethink it unless you want to take a big risk. Which, you know, no harm in that.

Right now, I feel like the three films with the best shot at hitting all three guilds are:
Darkest Hour — no problem for SAG Ensemble/DGA/PGA
The Post — no problem for SAG Ensemble/DGA/PGA
Shape of Water — no problem for DGA/PGA and SAG

Then, we have the following:
Call Me By Your Name — seems like it could land in PGA/DGA and SAG
Dunkirk — no problem for DGA/PGA, needs the SAG.
Battle of the Sexes — maybe SAG, PGA, long shot for DGA
Three Billboards — SAG probably / PGA / maybe DGA
Get Out — could be DGA/PGA, not sure about SAG
Lady Bird — seems good for SAG/PGA, long shot for DGA
Wonder Wheel — could hit SAG/PGA/DGA
Detroit — seems good for SAG, maybe PGA, long shot for DGA
Wonder Woman — PGA
Marshall — SAG
The Florida Project — maybe PGA, long shot DGA/SAG

But this is just spitting in the wind and really is not all that useful, except just to say that when you imagine your Best Picture winner, you have to imagine it as having all these three things at once: actors like it, producers like it, and directors like it as one of their top five of the year.

Now, herewith, a flying blind predictions list for you on this Friday afternoon — based on the following three essential rules:

  1. Actors rule the Best Picture race — they dominate the Academy as the largest branch.
  2. Academy voters have to pick five nominees for Best Picture, not ten. Remember that: five, not ten. So any Best Picture nominee has to be at least 200 to 250 members’ number one film of the year.
  3. There are still more films left to be seen.

Best Picture

Frontrunners

  1. Darkest Hour (Telluride)
  2. Dunkirk (July)
  3. The Shape of Water (Venice/Telluride)
  4. Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri (Toronto)
  5. The Post (not seen, late breaker)
  6. Call Me By Your Name (Sundance)
  7. Battle of the Sexes (Telluride)
  8. Get Out (Sundance)
  9. Lady Bird (Telluride)
  10. Wonder Wheel (New York)

Also in contention, though not yet known where they will land:

The Florida Project (Cannes)
Untitled Paul Thomas Anderson Movie (December)
Wonder Woman (May)
The Big Sick (Sundance)
Mudbound (Sundance)
The Greatest Showman (December)
Detroit (July)
All the Money in the World (AFI)
Downsizing (Venice/Telluride)
Suburbicon (Venice/Telluride)
Marshall (September)
The Meyerwitz Stories (New York)

For Best Director I’m looking at these for DGA:

  1. Christopher Nolan, Dunkirk
  2. Joe Wright, Darkest Hour
  3. Guillermo del Toro, Shape of Water
  4. Steve Spielberg, The Post
  5. Martin McDonagh, Three Billboards
  6. Jordan Peele, Get Out
  7. Luca Guadagnino, Call Me By Your Name
  8. Greta Gerwig, Lady Bird
  9. Valerie Faris/Jonathan Dayton, Battle of the Sexes
  10. Woody Allen, Wonder Wheel

For Oscar’s directing five, I’d go with:

  • Christopher Nolan, Dunkirk
  • Joe Wright, Darkest Hour
  • Guillermo del Toro, The Shape of Water
  • Steven Spielberg, The Post
  • Martin McDanagh, Three Billboards or  Woody Allen, Wonder Wheel

We really have no idea how it’s going to go. In a few months, we can check back and read this silly article and see whether it was right or not. Until then, Oscarwatchers, have a great weekend.