Yesterday I spoke with Daniel D’Addario over at Salon about Nate Silver covering the Oscars. What he said was spot-on – it really comes down to this – in the Oscars the narrative matters. In politics, not as much, or certainly not in the same kinds of ways you can turn around an Oscar race. One great debate by Romney wasn’t going to really change how the poll numbers were stacking up for Obama, for instance.
There are two kinds of people who cover the Oscars – those who care about how they turn out and those who just want to be right about how they will turn out. In the fifteen years I’ve been covering the Oscars I went from being someone who really just wanted to be a good Oscar predictor to someone who cared more about the outcome – I did what you are never supposed to do whether it’s National Geographic shoot, a court case, an NSA hookup, politics or Oscar predicting: I got emotionally involved and there is no turning back. But some people really want to be the Nate Silver of Oscar predicting. They want every year to be a good year because their method, whatever it is, “works.” I would posit that whatever method worked one year won’t work the next year and that you can get really close but at the end of the day you will never be REALLY good unless you take risks that defy logic. Ultimately, though, predicting the Oscars well is, to me, is less important even than predicting the weather and in both cases you can still be wrong. I’ve seen even the most confident of Oscar predictors be completely wrong. But if you’ve just had a good year, as Scott Feinberg had last year, you are in a position to tell people what it takes to be a good predictor.
So when it was announced that Nate Silver, whiz kid with numbers who stole the show in election 2012, was headed to ESPN where he wanted to be their Oscar guy, it caused a minor ripple in my world. Many of the pundits already think of themselves as the “Nate Silver of Oscar predicting.” But now there is going to be an actual Nate Silver of Oscar predicting. Feinberg, has some words of advice for Mr. Silver on the Hollywood Reporter and explains the ins and outs of being a good predictor this way:
To be a consistently strong Oscar prognosticator — someone like Fandango’s Dave Karger, or Deadline’s Pete Hammond, or The Wrap’s Steve Pond, or InContention’sKris Tapley, or me — you have to watch everything (dozens if not hundreds of contending films), know your history (familiarizing yourself with lots of older movies and the dynamics of past Oscar races), show up everywhere (there are rubber-chicken dinners and awards ceremonies almost every week), build relationships (with talent, awards strategists, publicists, voters) and know what and who is and isn’t worth factoring into your projections. It’s a full-time job, though it doesn’t look as if Silver, with his expanding empire, intends to treat it as such.
And that’s probably true. The funny thing is, people who live in far flung countries, who don’t see any of the movies and don’t attend Hollywood parties kind of clean all of these guys’ clocks in my contests that I run every year. I don’t think it’s a matter, necessarily, of doing that. It takes the ability to not care about how they turn out because when your heart gets involved it muddies the outcome.
These guys mentioned above rarely get their heart involved. However, take Anthony Breznican or Anne Thompson who, along with me, had Life of Pi way up on their lists last year before any of these “good predictors” did. Breznican, in particular, was laughed out of the game for his early prediction. That IS a matter of getting your heart involved. When the year came to a close and many of those mentioned above predicted Ang Lee to beat Steven Spielberg it really did have to do with being on the ground and talking to voters and acknowledging the Spielberg/Lincoln hate that was brewing in Hollywood during Oscar season. But few of them would have picked Ang Lee because they loved Life of Pi. Still, whether your heart was involved or you were talking to voters the outcome would have been the same. Fans of the Lord of the Rings series did really well the year Return of the King ran a clean sweep at the awards because their hearts were involved. It’s funny like that.
Feinberg is right in that it’s not about statistics or numbers when it comes to the Oscars. I’ve proven that again and again. I crunch the stats every year and come up empty. They simply don’t have anything to do with how the Oscars will turn out. I sort of wish they did. I would prefer it if the numbers made sense, as they did in 2012 when Obama beat Romney. And there, Nate Silver was a god because he had his feet on the ground and he was counting on the math.
But the Oscars aren’t even the Oscars anymore. That is how much the game has changed since I began. It used to be that the big game in town depended on what those 6,000 Academy voters thought. Not anymore. The date change compressed the season and more awards shows positioned themselves in front of the Oscars and now, there just isn’t much time to rethink things before voting. Everyone votes roughly at the same time. This past year was the first time in Oscar history that the Directors Guild announced their nominees after the Oscars. But it didn’t matter, as we all observed. Whether the Academy’s director branch thought Argo was good enough or not didn’t matter. The narrative took over — it was Clooney/Affleck all the way. This scenario was in direct opposition with the numbers.
But at the end of the day, who really cares? Maybe it matters if you want to enter a contest and win a new car or maybe it matters so you can win your office pool. But for some of us, the way the industry is shaped by the awards matters much more; what films get made as a result of their outcome, who gets the power grab in Hollywood, what does it say about our culture, about Hollywood? Fighting for films that have no chance matters. But that is less the business of weather predicting and more the business of advocacy.
During the election, despite what the conservatives said, Nate Silver did offer an objective point of view of the race and he would have predicted Romney if the numbers had supported Romney. In that sense, he’ll fit right in with the Oscar prognosticators who don’t care about the outcome. If Silver is in the game this year, you can bet he’ll wind up either at Gold Derby or Movie City News where he’ll get to compete with the likes of Feinberg, Karger, Tapley, etc. Or maybe this year the Oscars will stop following the herd and they’ll become, once again, as unpredictable as they used to be. After all, predicting the Oscars now is a lot easier because there are so many awards heading into the race. Knowing that Meryl Streep was going to beat Viola Davis anyway, despite Davis’ SAG win is the kind of thing the numbers won’t help you with. That was a really close race and very few pundits had Streep down. Because to pick Streep you would miss out on the Oscars maybe making history with Davis. And who wants to do that?
At the end of the day, I don’t think either Feinberg’s method nor Silver’s is the “right” one – but that’s because there is not right one. It changes up every year – and your high score one year might suddenly dip the next. Unless you take the big risks you’re always going to top out at the average because everyone copies everyone else. I don’t expect Silver to be any different – I secretly hope he will be.