The Oscar race really doesn’t officially start until the beginning of December, when the New York Film Critics and the National Board of Review make their picks. They are usually first out of the gate, and though they are too early on the scene to really predict how the eventual Oscar wins will go, they can sometimes help thin the herd, enough so that Academy voters have an easier time choosing from the vetted contenders.
Not all precursors are created equal in terms of influence. Some have more power to move the needle than others. Lately, the Oscar race has been mostly guided by the guilds. The guilds picks are determined (mostly) by the critics. The critics are determined by the early buzz — the bloggers and journalists and publicists who help shape the consensus. All roads eventually lead to the Oscars, but they are all connected starting with right now.
We are in the early phase, where talk, sometimes box office, sometimes actual buzz, sometimes manufactured buzz makes all the difference. Now is the time to highlight contenders that might not have a shot otherwise. If an early critics award picks up one of those names that could give them enough of a boost to be a viable contender in the race. Sometimes. Other times those names and films die on the vine, only to show up at the Spirit Awards.
A word about that. As the Oscars have become more conventional, less daring, the Spirit Awards offer a healthy alternative. They have become hip enough, and popular enough, so having the cred of “Spirit Award winner” is enough prestige to get that film noticed. Sure, having the Oscar gold label is still the best but the awards race has become about more than just the Oscars.
But if I had to rank the precursors in terms of importance or influence to the Oscar race it would be different today than it would have been when I first started 15 years ago. Back then, the critics had more influence and the guilds had little, if any (minus the DGA). Now, the guilds rule.
I’m taking into consideration influence both on the level of picking nominees and picking winners. Some awards I see as more “important” than others. All in all, the abundance of critics awards that pop up every year from every corner of the world it seems can work together to create a consensus. For instance, this time last year that consensus was building around Zero Dark Thirty. You can actually track the rise and fall of that film by the awards the critics were giving it. At some point, though, the political controversy took the film down. The alternative, it was collectively decided, was Argo and it then began winning awards at the same time Zero Dark Thirty took a fall. While one critics group from, say, Denver or Detroit, doesn’t have much influence on its own, the collective consensus among them does mean something.
Here is how I personally would rank them in terms of importance.
1) The Directors Guild - when it comes to picking Best Picture winner the DGA still rules. It always has, going back 66 years since the DGA began. Even when the Academy didn’t choose Ben Affleck, the DGA overrode that decision, picked Affleck, thus picked Best Picture. The DGA sometimes chooses a winner that the Academy doesn’t agree with and a split occurs. But that happens rarely. Compared to every other group, the DGA rules. This year, like last year, the Academy will be flying blind with their picks, since the DGA won’t announce their nominees until one day before the Academy ballot deadline. Therefore, we’ll probably see another mixed bag of Oscar contenders. But Best Picture will be down to either DGA winner, or the DGA winner and one other film.
2) The Editors Guild – you’d be surprised that the editors have so much to do with determining Best Picture but they do. The Eddies, and the editing category at the Oscars, go hand in hand with Best Picture. It’s even more rare to win without an editing nomination from the Editors Guild. Any film hoping to win the big prize must impress the editors and either win their Eddie award or come close. The editing prize at the Oscars can sometimes be a fluke, and not always match the Best Picture winner. But to want to win Best Picture and not have a corresponding Oscar nomination for editing is never a good thing. Directors and editors are as important to Best Picture as the acting branch. Despite the power and influence of the actors over the Best Picture race, the Screen Actors Guild does not hold the same weight of influence as the DGA or ACE.
3) The Producers Guild - the PGA did not always have that much influence over the Oscar race but since the Academy made the switch from five nominees to ten, and then back to a random number between 5 and 10, the PGA has been the most reliable predictor for Best Picture. Whether it’s a predictor or an influencer cannot be proved but what we do know is that the PGA is the only group that uses what the Academy uses: the preferential ballot with more than five nominees. The PGA still uses a solid ten rather than a random number but it’s their preferential ballot that is really telling. Now, after a film wins the Golden Globe but fails to win the Producers Guild it is stopped dead in its tracks. The last time the PGA did not match Oscar was in 2006 when Little Miss Sunshine beat The Departed (which then won Best Picture). But since the expansion of Best Picture? 100% match of winners and a fairly close match of nominees. As to whether the PGA influences Oscar, they don’t seem to have the same weight as the DGA – but they are a reliable predictor, if nothing else. The PGA also has a group size that matches the Academy’s, or thereabouts – they are at 4,500, where the Academy is at 6,000 or so. The DGA has 14,500 and the SAG has 100,000 or so voting members.
4) The Golden Globes – the reason they are influential is that they serve as a kind of audition for award wins. How a winner “performs” at the Globes can sometimes influence how voters vote. The 100 some odd Hollywood Foreign press aren’t seduced, entertained and catered to for nothing. They matter – partly because, like the DGA and the Eddie, they’ve been around for a long time. They have their own TV show and are well known throughout the world. It lends a certain amount of prestige to see a winner holding the statue but more importantly, they get to give a speech. Whether the Globes match with Best Picture or not (they are hit and miss in this regard) they can and have changed the conversation about a contender. The voters themselves can sometimes be a litmus test for Oscar voters in as much as many of them are on the older side. They also seem to work pretty well now, as we’re living in the era of international cinema; films that do well right now can be seen in any country and be understood. Films specific to America don’t seem to do as well. The latest Best Picture winners have been “plug and play” – with many of the production companies and filmmakers hailing from other countries. The Oscar race isn’t an American game anymore – it’s become somewhat bigger than that. The Globes fit in nicely with this new normal.
5) The BAFTA – the BAFTA have become increasingly annoying over the years. They have cuddled up to Oscar so much that they’ve lost the thing that used to make them cool: their willingness to be different from the Oscars. They moved their date to happen before the Oscars right around the year 2000. They changed their voting last year to be more like the Oscars and they gave Argo their top prize. But because they can sometimes influence the Academy to choose a particular performer or film more so than any other group (The Pianist, for instance, was noticed first by only BAFTA) they have a fairly high place in the line of influencers, so much so that pundits look to BAFTA to figure out what surprises might be in store at the Oscars. Add to that, the Academy’s anglophile streak, and its large contingent of British voters. The BAFTA has become like Oscar’s twin – one year they’re identical twins, another year they’re fraternal twins. But they seem to be moving closer to being conjoined.
6) The National Board of Review / New York Film Critics – it used to be that the National Board of Review was influential because it was the first critics group to announce. It also used to be that the New York Film Critics were an elite enough group that their choices really made a difference in how the Oscar race went. But the NYFCC isn’t what it used to be in terms of membership. It isn’t just that film criticism has changed so that anyone can be a critic now, it’s also that there are so many competing critics groups that, many of them housing the same members even, that it’s hard to stand apart as the critical voice of the season. No group really holds that kind of sway anymore. But the NYFCC and the NBR announce first. That makes their influence still on the stronger side. The NBR can help give a boost to a film that is hovering on the fringes. The New York Film Critics have, in the past, been the better decider of what will eventually be Best Picture.
7) Screen Actors Guild – the SAG is influential for actors, for sure. But often the largeness of its voting body (100,000) dwarfs the Academy’s 6,000 or so. Nonetheless, it can sometimes be the best predictor for Best Actor and Actress, or even the supporting categories. Lately, it feels like the consensus builds and nothing can set it off course. The SAG gave Viola Davis Best Actress recently but the Academy went for Meryl Streep. Still, it is televised, which means a contender can get a healthy share of publicity. A good speech to a large audience will always go a long way towards an Oscar win and in that way, the SAG can be a platform for a potential winner to showcase their respectability. When Jennifer Lawrence won last year she gave a poised, well-coached speech at the SAGs, thus ensuring her slam-dunk Oscar win to cap off her streak.
8) The Los Angeles Film Critics – I still don’t know what to make of last year’s LAFCA decision making process. They went into the thing vowing to take down Zero Dark Thirty, which had been winning everything. They did just that, but in so doing, they made their choice based on the choice of other film critics that came before them. I don’t think that’s a great way to go about choosing the best. Still, they do have influence, as they’ve been around almost as long as New York and they are here, in Los Angeles. Their Best Picture winners do tend to go on to get nominated at least. Like New York, they have retained a certain amount of respectability by having been around so long, but also like New York, their membership isn’t exactly exclusive as it used to be – and there tends to be a lot of crossover between various voting groups that it renders the whole thing kind of pointless. Still, LA is LA and they hold their place in line of influencers.
10) The Writers Guild – The WGA sometimes matches Oscar, sometimes doesn’t. Getting a WGA nomination doesn’t mean a corresponding Oscar nomination all of the time. Not getting a WGA nomination doesn’t mean not getting an Oscar nomination, particularly since often times the best scripts aren’t WGA eligible. But they do have influence nonetheless just terms of which scripts they pick to win. Their winners matter much more than their nominees.
10) The Critics Choice/BFCA - this group wants to be like Oscar, so much so that it often publicizes this during their press releases. They aren’t so much influencers as they are predictors – on the occasions that they pick a movie out of the blue in hopes that it can be pushed into the Oscar race that never really materializes. Nonetheless, they are trying to be a bigger player with their telecast (the horror, the horror) and if they can manage to be watched by more people, they might become as influential as the Globes. They do draw the same number of stars as the other big awards shows. There is no exclusivity with their membership - the Oscar bloggers, most of them, are BFCA members – Kris Tapley, Jeff Wells, Anne Thompson, Pete Hammond, David Poland, etc. Take it for what it’s worth. Some are legit critics, of course.
And there you have it. Some of the other guilds can sometimes make a difference, like the Cinema Audio Society, the American Society of Cinematographers, the Motion Picture Sound Editors Guild, the Annies, etc. But they are generally specific to their categories – except when you can count how many times a favorite appears on one of their lists. Though it’s not always the case, most of the time the more lists a film appears on the better its chances in the Best Picture race.
The madness begins early in December.