[quote_colored name=”” icon_quote=”no”]As of next week, this column will be an AwardsDaily weekly feature landing every Monday.[/quote_colored]
Last year, Anne Thompson at Thompson on Hollywood @Indiewire did an interesting thing. She decided to only make predictions about films she had seen as opposed to what 99% of Oscar predictors do — give an assessment of movies already seen and make assumptions and educated guesses about all the rest. I adopted her approach last year to see whether it made a difference as far as being a “good” predictor versus doing more harm than good. The main complaints against Oscar prognosticators come from, well, everywhere. Oscar coverage is one thing but nobody likes to see a sideshow attached to their work. Film distributors have enough headaches managing hype without the added pressure of prediction anticipation. Real journalists throw up in a little in their mouths when they either, 1) have to think about us at all, or 2) have to dwell for financial reasons in our midst. Filmmakers who find themselves thrust into the running are completely annoyed by the whole thing — the dog and pony show of it all. And most voters in the Academy believe we have no impact on the outcome of the awards at all.
And then there is Mark Harris at Grantland who is opposed to the idea of Oscar pundits being sheepherders, as I like to call them. That is, they do what script readers do in Hollywood — they weed out the most likely contenders from the vast number of films that voters need to see each year. Once the Oscar sorting and vetting has been done, a more manageable number of supposedly best-buzzed films remain. These are the movies critics have praised (mostly) and usually have publicists already attached to them because they were either made with awards in mind or else they are impressive enough to seem like films voters will go for. Either way, these are the movies that end up in the pen. Voters then watch THOSE movies and pick from that pre-selected pile as opposed to plucking a film out of thin air that perhaps none of Oscar shepherds was thinking about.
Oscar prognosticators or predictors or bloggers or pundits or -ologists are considered bottom feeders. We are let in through the back door and most respectable folks don’t want to be seen with us. Can you blame them? Almost everyone in Hollywood would love it if we went away except for those rare times when they want under-the-table coverage to help their movie. The game is the game and it hasn’t changed THAT much in decades. What has changed is the amount of visible campaigning.
Before we look at whether Anne Thompson’s method is more reliable, let’s look at a few Oscarwatching principles.
- Nobody knows anything. All we know is what have seen happen countless times before. Until the Producers Guild weighs in we’re mostly in the dark with nothing but our instincts to guide us, and that gut feeling is unavoidably driven by personal preference. More often than not, the PGA winner is a slight surprise but rarely do we encounter as big a surprise as last year’s Birdman win over Boyhood, especially after so many other precursors had gone for Boyhood. We know it had to have been close because a week after Birdman won with the PGA, the BAFTA went for Boyhood. Usually the consensus leans strongly in one film’s favor and we stop seeing major divisions that close to the finish line. Awards groups have become mostly consistent these days as time constraints compress the selection process.
- Money changes everything. Just as in politics, you have to juggle public perception (don’t look like you care enough to overspend = PAC money) with reality (you can’t really get anywhere unless you spend lots of money). We bottom feeders come into healthy play here because we can give a boost to movies without an FYC presence by generating word of mouth for distributors with no money to spend. See, we’re not ALL bad.
- Flying under the radar is one of the hardest goals of an awards strategist because of people like me who get excited about a film and think “this one is going to win.” That expectation builds and sooner or later the film has nowhere to go but down because most of the time people see it and think, “really? That’s it? I was expecting more.” You want to remain lowkey like Argo and not out front, but if you find yourself out front there isn’t much you can do about it except cross your fingers and hope for the best.
- A true consensus is thousands not hundreds. A consensus is a big snowball made up of perception, word of mouth, publicity and likability. You build that consensus via the “dog and pony show.” Just like our presidential election. It takes time for that consensus to build and time is the one thing nobody has enough of during awards season. The nomination period spans literally the one-week extent of the holiday season. Most voters are sitting with their families and a screener pile and wanting to watch movies that the whole varied group will like. How that group responds will often inform how that voter will vote. (That’s a total generalization – take it for what it is). December 30th through January 8th. That’s it. If voters haven’t seen your movie before then, you won’t get in. If they haven’t heard of your movie or if there aren’t any stars in it, they aren’t likely to watch it. Publicists work themselves sick to get those movies seen, at the very least. This is why early is almost always better unless you’re a big name like Clint Eastwood, Martin Scorsese or Jim Cameron — or Alejandro G. Inarritu and Leonardo DiCaprio. Big names draw eyeballs no matter what.
- Miss Right Now is never Miss Right. The whole thing happens so fast no one really knows what hit them. This is why a year after the Oscars most people can’t even remember what movies were nominated or whether they were really very good or not. There is not enough time anymore, not since the Academy pushed the date back a month and effectively took moviegoer’s reaction out of the Oscar equation. It is takes place in screenings and at parties and during holiday gatherings. It has nothing to do anymore with the zeitgeist unless that zeitgeist exists within the industry bubble.
Having any kind of integrity is hard in this business. Cry me a river, right? Poor us. If we care, we operate by our own set of rules. Kris Tapley doesn’t predict winners until after nominations, only those he thinks have the best chance of being nominated. Anne Thompson only predicts films she’s seen. I keep a contender tracker that lists only films that have been seen or reviewed and have actual buzz. But the majority of pundits out there predict based on the pedigree we see on paper: who directed it, who is the publicist, what is the subject matter, and whether or not we expect the campaigns to spend money on screeners and print advertising. It is naive to think it’s all based on merit alone. It never has been. It never will be. Movies don’t get made on merit alone and there is nothing fair about who gets to make movies and why they make money and why they win awards.
So, let’s look at a few predictions from last year at this time. August, 2014.
Anne Thompson — predicting only films she’d seen, had these:
Anne’s Best Picture predictions in August:
3. The Grand Budapest Hotel
4. Mr. Turner
5. Get on Up
Two out of five got in ultimately.
Susan Wloszczyna predicting several films she hadn’t seen had:
- The Imitation Game
- Gone Girl
- The Grand Budapest Hotel
- Mr Turner
- Into the Woods
She got four out of ten and only two if you did 1 – 5 as Anne did.
My own list was:
- Gone Girl
- American Sniper
- The Imitation Game
- A Most Violent Year
- The Homesman
I got 5 out of 10. So I won that round. But that was before I started predicting Anne’s way, by only making predictions about movies I’d seen. David Poland’s Movie City News Gurus of Gold will be putting out predictions that are divided into categories – films that have been seen and films that haven’t. That should be an interesting experiment to add to the pile.
Here are a few others who had predictions out early last year.
So here’s a little experiment. If I had to predict ONLY films I’ve seen, I would list my predictions thusly:
- Mad Max: Fury Road
- Pawn Sacrifice
- Inside Out
- Clouds of Sils Maria
- Love & Mercy
- The End of the Tour
- Ex Machina
- Sicario (which I have to see again)
- Alt: The Diary of a Teenage Girl
And predicting films I have not seen based on what’s “on paper” I’d go with what I have on Gold Derby right now:
- Steve Jobs
- Bridge of Spies
- The Revenant
Beasts of No NationMad Max: Fury Road
- Black Mass
TrumboThe Hateful Eight
- The Danish Girl
I think I need to swap out one of those for Mad Max: Fury Road which I think could have enough buzz and momentum to get it in. So I will have to trade, for now, Beasts of No Nation. I also want to put in The Hateful Eight and will have to take out something else, so I’ll swap out Trumbo for now.
Conclusion: I think it’s always better to strive for integrity in life, no matter what you’re doing. Anne Thompson cares more about sleeping at night than she does about being “right.” I admire that. At the same time, I’m not sure which is the better way to predict the Oscars. For me, it’s a work in progress with the main goal being “first, do no harm.”
Here are how the other pundits are predicting at the moment.