After witnessing how Argo took last year’s very competitive Best Picture race, the key to winning Best Picture seems to be clear — find a way to fly under the radar so that no one really pays much attention. We all learned this trick years ago as we watched the early episodes of Survivor, you know, before reality TV ruined network television. Flying under the radar was an effective strategy because the last thing you want is for others to think you have any chance of winning the game. Oscar strategists often have to think that way in order to bring their film to the big win. It is naive at this point to expect the best film will win. We know from roughly 75 out of 85 years of test cases that it’s rarely that simple. The film that wins most often is the one that is the general crowd-pleaser with the least amount of baggage. You accumulate baggage by being out front. It is as simple as that. Lincoln was that movie last year — as were Zero Dark Thirty and Silver Linings Playbook at different points. They each took their turn in the hot seat and thus, were ripe to be pummeled. That made it easy for Argo, a film no one really thought (early on) would win Best Picture, except perhaps Roger Ebert. Ebert was invested in the Argo win, however. The film was screened for him personally before Telluride. He probably made that proclamation then, and later confirmed it in his column in what would be his last year of Oscar prognostication. But few other watching Oscar wasn’t looking at Argo. That means, this year we have to look where no one else is looking. Unfortunately for David O. Russell, pundits are already elevating American Hustle, before it’s even been seen, based on how close (supposedly) Russell has come to winning these past few years with The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbooks. It is an odd thing to watch people put that movie at number one without having any idea whether it will be good or not. Last year, Silver Linings Playbook was the surprise hit of Toronto. After that its status was elevated to become one of the favorites to win Best Picture, if not THE favorite. Argo faded expertly into the background at that point. Along came strong rivals like Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty and Life of Pi and soon, no one was thinking about Argo at all. It was seen already as an also-ran. But soon, each of those movies that were being touted as Best Picture winners began to suffer from frontrunner’s syndrome — that is, they receive an inordinate amount of criticism, mostly undeserved. Frontrunners proclaimed early victors are almost immediately hated by some and judged too harshly by everyone else. Soon, they are saddled with baggage and no longer the sexy pick for voters, thus allowing a film with the fewest bruises to slip in for the surprise victory in the 11th hour. The films with targets on their backs right now are Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity and Steve McQueen’s 12 years a Slave. Both seem to be headed into the Oscar race with an equal amount of heft and excitement, not to mention rave reviews. Gravity is currently the best reviewed film of the year and is set to make $200 million at the box office. Word of mouth is as good as it gets. 12 Years a Slave is likewise getting great reviews but sits way way out front after Telluride, then winning the audience award in Toronto. So much so that Kyle Smith has declared “12 years a Slave will win Best Picture.” Since then, there has been some confidence that it will still win, but some are switching their predictions to Gravity. What does it mean to have a target on your back? It comes down to something fairly simple: managing expectations. If you walk into 12 Years a Slave or Gravity not knowing anything about it you will be blown away by both. If you walk in under the thought umbrella of “this movie is predicted to win Best Picture” you might walk out thinking, really? That? This would have greatly hurt Argo had it been the film to beat out of the Telluride/Toronto. As it happened, several films came out to upstage it. It had the stuff to win but expectations were also expertly managed. It is like clockwork, this kind of reaction to films. You can see it play out on Twitter with those who saw Gravity after hearing all of the “best picture talk.” Tweets like “it’s a good movie, but best picture??” You see, the notion of a film being the greatest movie of the year before you ever see it almost always colors your reaction, asks you to judge its greatness, required you to agree or disagree with the assessment. But if you can see a movie fresh, without being told it’s the Best Picture, then your feelings have nowhere to go but up. Sure, there are films that can overcome all of this. Slumdog Millionaire and The Artist are two recent examples. We might be looking at one of those instances with Gravity and 12 Years a Slave. But I’m guessing flying under the radar is strategy for films that really CAN win Best Picture but no one is talking about them yet, like Captain Phillips, or Nebraska, The Butler, or The Monuments Men (sight unseen). The publicity teams on these films have done a great job of keeping them under the radar, so if they do manage to woo a large consensus vote they can pull a coup and win Best Picture. Over at Gold Derby most of the pundits are currently calling for 12 Years a Slave to win Best Picture — including myself, Jeff Wells and Mark Harris. A few, like Anne Thompson, Peter Travers and Guy Lodge are predicting Gravity to win. And the rest are predicting American Hustle, including Scott Feinberg. Has Feinberg seen American Hustle or is he really predicting a movie neither he nor anyone else has seen? Either way, he has probably a 50% chance of being right. It’s an easy gamble this early in the race. For Best Actor there appears to be a mostly two man race at Gold Derby — Robert Redford in All is Lost and Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave. They seem to be coming at the race with an equal amount of heft. Both are equally strong for different reasons. Ejiofor has the Best Picture frontrunner behind him, which is almost always the best way to win, though not always. A beloved veteran can trump that and Redford may very well do just that, especially if 12 Years wins. Thing is, the frontrunner curse doesn’t seem to apply the same way for the acting categories. Actors stand behind actors — and they dominate the Academy. Best Picture, though, has to include everyone, not just actors. The best example I can think of this dynamic playing out with actors was Viola Davis and Meryl Streep going toe to toe. Davis was touted as the frontrunner after the SAG awards but when voters saw the performances side by side they felt Davis’ performance was not big enough to warrant a Best Actress win. It was finally time to reward Streep, even though The Help was in the Best Picture race and The Iron Lady was not. Both things happened at once. The vet trumped the newbie and Davis’ part was undercut by her frontrunner status. Best Actress over at Gold Derby is dominated by Cate Blanchett for Blue Jasmine, with a few going for Sandra Bullock in Gravity. Again, you have Best Picture heft standing behind one contender (Bullock) and a mostly under-rewarded vet competing against her. Of course, Bullock is a vet too by now and has already won a lead actress Oscar, whereas Blanchett has not. Of the two, Bullock might be the one with a target on her back because of her subtle performance (like Viola Davis’), compared to the unequivocally flashy work Blanchett does. But Bullock’s character is likable; Blanchett’s is not. That often makes a difference in a close race. So far, there isn’t any major category that’s decided yet. In the screenplay categories, original is top-heavy. Adapted, for once, is mostly barren, thus it might be the easier category to predict. Check out the Original Screenplay candidates: Gravity Nebraska American Hustle Fruitvale Station All is Lost Saving Mr. Banks Enough Said Prisoners Rush Blue Jasmine Inside Llewyn Davis Her The Butler Dallas Buyers Club The Counselor Short Term 12 And by comparison, adapted: 12 Years a Slave Captain Phillips Labor Day Before Midnight Wolf of Wall Street August: Osage County We won’t really know how screenplay will go until we know how Best Picture will go. Two films have taken the early lead in tech categories, all but guaranteeing them to win at least one Oscar. Gravity is winning Visual Effects, and it could win a few other awards, like Cinematography and Sound, and perhaps Best Actress. 12 Years a Slave has many opportunities for wins, from Supporting Actress to Actor to Screenplay to Best Picture. Managing expectations will be key for both films. The ones that are flying under the radar? They have a green light to speed ahead in the next few weeks. Nothing can really stop the Oscar pundits from lifting a film to extreme heights. They (we) are motivated by the desire to be right. And more than right, first to be right. That is the silly game we all have agreed to play and there doesn’t seem to be a way out of it. Even in the years when the pundits looked foolish for their early proclamations, like Munich winning Best Picture before anyone had seen it, still doesn’t deter the urge to be right, and to be first to be right. Unfortunately, this makes it even more difficult to find the Best Picture of the year — because now the pundits themselves act as saboteurs to the process. I say this as one who participates in the sham every year. 2013’s story has yet to be told. But you can’t stop what’s coming.