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Best Picture: A Brief History of Meaningful/Meaningless Stats

It’s “throw up your hat and see what comes out” time here in the Oscar race, where indeed anything can happen. We will know the PGA winner for Best Picture and every one of the SAG winners before we know if any of them will even be nominated at the Oscars this year. When Idris Elba won supporting actor for Beasts of No Nation at the SAG, he was not nominated for an Oscar. Most people probably wouldn’t know how unprecedented of a scenario that was unless they’d been paying close attention to Oscar history. In general, a corresponding Oscar nomination boosts the chances of the nominees to win at another event. This year might result in a very strange outcome where there is a divergence between the guilds and the Oscars.

Here is a quick rundown of the stats we have generally relied upon to find Best Picture and when was the last time they “failed,” meaning a film won Best Picture without it.

  • Landing on the NBR Top Ten — last known incident of failure was 2003 with Return of the King.
  • Golden Globe director nomination — last known incident of failure was 2005 with Crash.
  • SAG ensemble nomination — last known incident of failure was 1995 with Braveheart.
  • DGA nomination — last known incident of failure was 1990 with Driving Miss Daisy.
  • PGA nomination — last known incident of failure: never
  • BAFTA Best Picture nomination — last known incident of failure was Million Dollar Baby in 2004.

It’s key to remember that none of the above stats have “failed” after the implementation of the preferential ballot. 

Now, we’ll deep dive a little further into the stats we wind our clocks by in the Oscar predicting business.

The Braveheart Stat

Moonlight won Best Picture without winning any of the three major guild awards. The last time that happened was Braveheart in 1995. Braveheart won the Golden Globe for Best Director and also won the WGA, but nothing else. That was supposed to be Ron Howard’s big year. Nowadays, thanks mostly to Harvey Weinstein’s brand of Oscar wins, Best Director can be won by someone who is just starting out, like Tom Hooper. But back in the Braveheart days winning Best Director was meant to be a crowning achievement to a successful career. Apollo 13, for whatever reason, didn’t catch on like it should have. It was designed in every way to win Best Picture. It was ‘important,’ it starred Tom Hanks. Everyone liked Ron Howard. It won the PGA, the DGA, and the SAG ensemble, but didn’t end up winning Best Picture because back then having no director nomination really did matter. It mattered because (unlike poor Bruce Beresford who wasn’t nominated for Driving Miss Daisy at either the Globes, the DGA, or the Oscars) Ron Howard or Steven Spielberg getting snubbed was a big deal. It meant something. Somehow Mel Gibson, without a SAG nomination but with enough star power at the time, captivated the Academy and especially audiences with his successful epic Braveheart, which won Best Picture, director, cinematography, sound editing, and makeup.

Though Moonlight won via the Braveheart stat, La La Land winning also would have as well, and this is how the stat is more commonly used for our purposes: movies that won without a SAG ensemble nomination, which also hasn’t happened since Braveheart. Movies that could ride that stat to Best Picture this year would be The Shape of Water and Dunkirk. For Call Me By Your Name or any other film to win, they would have to beat both the Braveheart stat and the Driving Miss Daisy stat, which will be explained next.

The Driving Miss Daisy stat

This refers to when a film winning Best Picture without its director being nominated for a Globe, DGA, or Oscar. It has happened, though, most recently with Argo. Strange that it did, but it did. So what might win this year? Well, Call Me By Your Name is one that has a lot of wins, like at the Gothams, for instance. This year, wins have been split up all over the place, as the following chart shows:

Call Me By Your Name, despite not having a DGA nomination, has two significant wins. I haven’t gone all the way back but having two wins at this stage, alongside The Shape of Water, Lady Bird, and Three Billboards seems significant. Maybe it will be, maybe it won’t be, but it’s worth noting. When we think about it possibly winning, this is the only stat we have to cling to.

The Chariots of Fire stat

Chariots of Fire was up against Reds in 1981, during an era well before there were even awards from SAG or PGA. Still, it only won Best Director at the Globes before going on to win Best Picture, screenplay, costume design, and score, much more like a Best Pic winner would win today under the preferential ballot compared to how it might have won back then, where sweeps were much more likely. So our Chariots stat can be hauled out if you don’t like the results of the DGA win. Braveheart is really just an reboot of the Chariots stat in that it won a major Globe award but nothing else. How to explain this one? It’s impossible, except to say that On Golden Pond (which you know would have won a SAG ensemble award if there had been one back then) quite possibly pulled votes away from those who didn’t like Reds. Somehow, Chariots of Fire pulled through to a win. It was quite popular with audiences, as I recall. I was in high school but I remember loving it, mainly due to its uplifting ending and its ubiquitous Vangelis score.

The Crash stat

The Crash stat is a two-parter:

Part One — Crash vs. Brokeback

Nobody particularly likes the Crash stat, but it is also the Shakespeare in Love vs. Saving Private Ryan stat, meaning two films that won the SAG ensemble went on to beat two films that won the DGA/PGA and people seemed to like better. Reds, Saving Private Ryan, and Brokeback all won Best Director, while another film surprised and won Best Picture. That’s what most people think of as the Crash stat.

How to parse this stat now with the preferential ballot? Well, it doesn’t seem to work in the same way anymore because what drove those wins was a surge of popularity to one film at the last minute. The preferential ballot really doesn’t get affected by surges. Best Director can because Best Director doesn’t use a preferential ballot. The Best Picture winner has to be a movie a lot of people really love but even if they don’t love it they want it to win. The films like that where people have grumbled about the results — The King’s Speech, Birdman, The Artist — were all movies that won the major guilds heading in and won Best Director too, so they weren’t about the stats, they were about the status quo.

Part Two — the Globes Director / Crash stat

Crash also stands out because it was the last time a film won Best Picture at the Oscars without corresponding Globes nominations for Best Picture or director. This would apply this year to Lady Bird, Get Out, and Call Me By Your Name since none have a directing nomination from the Globes. This is the most commonly referenced stat this year because it is assumed that the two favorites are Lady Bird and Get Out.

We already know our five DGA nominees, which means if you go by most of Oscar history, only one of these five films can win:

Get Out
Lady Bird
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
The Shape of Water
Dunkirk

There is little doubt that all could make it in for Best Picture, but will all make it in for Best Director? Ben Affleck missed director but still won Best Picture for Argo, and ditto Driving Miss Daisy. But it is rare. Not impossible, but rare. Let’s say, for instance, Lady Bird wins the PGA and Greta Gerwig is left off the Best Director list. Mark Harris on Twitter insists the backlash against that would propel Lady Bird to victory (and who would argue against that). The same probably would go for Jordan Peele — a perceived snub based on gender or race might even be bigger than the Ben Affleck snub in this highly charged political climate. But I expect both will get directing nominations. Gerwig will be the fifth woman and Peele will be the fifth black director. Only one woman has ever won, but no black director has yet won in the directing category, even though two films by black directors have won Best Picture.

Three Billboards could win the PGA while Martin McDonagh could be left off the directing list and that wouldn’t necessarily spark the kind of outrage, thus it could tip the Best Picture win in a slightly different direction. For that matter, Three Billboards could win PGA and SAG ensemble and McDonagh could still be left off the Best Director list, and that would certainly confuse the hell out of everyone. Thankfully, the DGA winner will be determined AFTER the Oscar nominations.

It’s worth noting that Ron Howard (Apollo 13), Steven Spielberg (The Color Purple), and Ben Affleck (Argo) all won the DGA after being shut out of Best Director at the Oscars, though only Argo was rewarded with a Best Picture win. Being left out of the lineup actually propelled Argo to victory, many believe. It could easily do the same for Lady Bird or Get Out.

Those are the big ones. Here are a few random ones we call out on occasion:

The ACE Eddie stat — when Best Picture winners miss a nod there, broken by Spotlight in 2015.
The BAFTA director stat — when Best Picture winners miss a nod there, broken by Spotlight in 2015 and Moonlight in 2016.
The 14 nominations stat — La La Land ended the record for films with 14 nominations automatically winning Best Picture (although, to be fair, the sample size is very limited).
The Grand Hotel stat — the only film to ever be nominated just for Best Picture and also win Best Picture.

The “divisive” film stat — this is a hard one to gauge because the greatest films are divisive. It only really seems to matter if it’s a competitive year where number one votes are going to be split up all over the place. And why? When The Big Short surprised everyone and won Best Picture at the PGA, pundits scrambled, Hollywood scratched its head — how could a dark movie like that prevail on a preferential ballot? That could have been due, per the “Kris Tapley theory” that the combination of films nominated at the PGA changed the order of the voting. Spotlight was a low key frontrunner, meaning it had a lot of support, just not a lot of passionate support. Still, when it came down to it, the publicists did a really good job of distinguishing Big Short vs. Spotlight vs. The Revenant by making Spotlight the “one about the good guys.” On Twitter, people were carping about how The Big Short was “all white guys,” although, in fact, so was Spotlight. It was just verboten to say so because they were hunting down pedophiles.

What was the combination of films at PGA vs. Oscar?

The three left off at PGA were far more edgy and daring than the ones that ended up at the Oscars. Ultimately without the hard edge of the other films potentially shifting things, you were left with “good people doing good things” as a result of the Oscars being the top five choices by voters and the PGA being the top ten.

It’s certainly possible that something in there shifted things. It didn’t have the same impact the year before because it wasn’t a competitive year. It was Birdman vs. Boyhood and that turned out to be a really really easy choice for voters:

The key for us all this year will likely come down to what the actors do. We’re looking for showdowns between these movies:

Get Out
Lady Bird
Three Billboards

Dunkirk, Call Me By Your Name, Shape of Water, and any other film in the running isn’t going to be competing for the SAG ensemble trophy. Three Billboards was not eligible for the WGA so there we will be looking at the showdown between:

Get Out
Lady Bird
The Shape of Water

That gives us a chance to put all three films to the test. Which of these emerges victorious will be key to understand the thrust of what our frontrunner is. At this moment in time, I have no idea which of these will win at WGA. Ditto SAG ensemble.

Finally, if The Big Sick upsets either at SAG by winning ensemble or at WGA by winning screenplay (both things are within the realm of possibility), then we’re really screwed in terms of predicting. We will have NO CLUE what is going on.