One of the hardest things about predicting the Oscars is predicting the backlash to the predictions. Human beings are unpredictable because they don’t like being predictable. Level Two Chaos System refers to predictive models that break down because the very act of predicting them changes the course of events. That is also true of the Oscar race because the conversation doesn’t happen in a vacuum anymore. It isn’t even a small online bubble of Oscar pundits and their readers. It encompasses much more than that – film criticism (what’s left of it), box office analysis, and even gambling.
The first wave of backlash happens usually after a festival like Cannes or Telluride or even Toronto when Oscar blogger types like myself or Jeff Wells or Kris Tapley or David Poland or Scott Feinberg praise a film that hasn’t yet been reviewed by the major critics. Two things happen. 1) the film critics are then primed for an immediate negative response to the hype and praise, and 2) their expectations are raised too high. They bring with their viewing of the film all of that hype from people they mostly don’t respect anyway because they’re taking their jobs, essentially – those who are attempting to set the tone for how a movie will be received.
The most clear-cut example of this, and an inexplicable one at that, was 12 Years a Slave coming out of Telluride. Though the film eventually became the year’s best reviewed film and did win its share of critics awards, it did not win the major film critics awards – not New York, not Los Angeles and not the National Society of Film Critics. These groups, essentially, contain the “power elite” of film critics. They are the only groups who can even remotely influence the Oscar voters. Once 12 Years a Slave was predicted to win by Oscar blogger Kyle Buchanan, the critics bristled at being predictable and they went a different way.
Somehow, calling Beasts of No Nation a masterpiece out of Telluride, having it blurbed on the poster, probably set it up to fail with the first wave of film critics seeing it. After all, it wasn’t Manohla Dargis calling it a masterpiece but a lowly Oscar blogger. No one likes to be a foregone conclusion and no one likes to be predictable. Tell people a masterpiece is coming their way and nine times out of ten they will say “it wasn’t all that.”
After the first wave of backlash, comes the second wave. That’s when the critics start praising one film to high heaven, thus setting it up to ultimately fail with Oscar voters who hate the critics telling them what the best films of the year are. Boyhood, The Social Network met this fate. Some films can withstand the backlash gauntlet, as 12 Years a Slave ultimately did – although one wonders if the big city critics had all awarded 12 Years a Slave the winner whether the industry would have gone all the way for Gravity.
The second wave of backlash is the beginning of the end of the story. Once a film wins at the Producers Guild, that’s it. The race is over. It could be that it’s the industry’s backlash to the critics favorite, but it could also be the Level Two Chaos System rule that says just by predicting something to win changes the outcome of the prediction model. It sets up a dynamic where people watch a film and think “yes, that is absolutely the best film of the year,” or the opposite, “really? That’s what all the fuss is about?”
There are other factors that feed the chaos – like the underdog versus the MEAN OLD FRONTRUNNER. Argo vs. Lincoln, The King’s Speech vs. The Social Network, even The Hurt Locker vs. Avatar. Are voters really voting for the best film or are they voting for the film that makes them feel best? It’s hard to know because the chaos system makes the whole thing mostly unpredictable but for those odd guesses here and there that somehow factor in the chaos system in the first place.
There should be a third wave of backlash of Academy voters who go against what the big guilds tell them to do but there never has been. There just isn’t enough time. The guild voters and the Academy voters are doing the voting essentially all at the same time.
How have the films fared so far? If we go by most of the movies that have won Best Picture in the era where there is less time to choose and more than five films up for Best Picture, the one that flies under the radar out of Telluride, that is deemed a film people like but one that won’t win the Oscar:
2014: Birdman — critics liked Boyhood — Birdman won PGA and it was all over but the shouting.
2013: 12 Years a Slave — hit hard by second wave backlash, won only 1/2 the PGA before taking Best Picture in a bit of a surprise.
2012: Argo — critics preferred Zero Dark Thirty and Lincoln, industry liked Life of Pi — Argo won PGA and it was all over but the shouting.
2011: The Artist – won everything.
2010: The King’s Speech – The critics went for The Social Network in a way never seen before or since. King’s Speech won the PGA and it was all over but the shouting.
2009: The Hurt Locker — critics loved it. Sustained both first and second wave of backlash. Jim Cameron and Avatar won the Golden Globe but then Hurt Locker won the PGA and it was all over but the shouting.
The only film of these that was an unstoppable frontrunner was The Artist. It was the inevitable winner partly because it had no real competition, and partly because it was chaos-theory-proof, like some movies are – Slumdog Millionaire was another one of those.
The reason there are first, second, and third level backlashes now is that everything is kind of combined into a bubbling brew. Thoughts are shared on Twitter, headlines are retweeted and eventually it all trickles down to Academy members who hear it from so and so. There are a few choice phrases you always want to hear about town:
“I loved that movie but it doesn’t have a chance to win – it isn’t serious enough.” “Go see that movie – it’s so good but it won’t win.”
“Most people are voting for Movie A but I really want Movie B to win.”
What you don’t want to hear:
“It’s going to win but it wasn’t that great.”
“It will probably win Best Picture but I was bored.”
“I didn’t like anyone in that movie.”
“I hated that movie.”
Best Picture winners are not hated by anyone. Best Picture winners are liked by most. Best Picture winners are the movies you want to have a beer with, as opposed to have awkward conversation with at a fancy party. Of course, there are always movies that do not follow any of the rules and win anyway – no one wanted to have a beer with Titanic or Schindler’s List or even 12 Years a Slave. Things work differently now than they used to. No matter how many times I say it, it never really stops being true. Pushing the Oscars back one month and expanding the Best Picture race has had an odd impact on how films win now.
But probably more influential than any other force has been social networking, which has changed the way films are rolled out. They are given a kind of pass/fail test in order to even make to the qualifying round. Remember, most Oscar voters rely on pundits and critics to thin the herd. No one wants to sit through a hundred depressing movies. They pick the biggest ones, the ones with the most ‘buzz’ going in and the ones the publicists are pushing the hardest. You can bring these horses to water, baby, but you can’t make them drink. Thus, the “scrappy little underdog that could” has emerged as your usual Oscar favorite to win. Lately that movie has been the one that has the least amount of negative baggage heading into the race.
What counts as negative baggage? Too much praise from critics, not enough money made at the box office, any sort of scandal about anything, too much money spent on campaigning, not enough likability in the baby-kissing department.
The latest speed bump in the run up to Oscar voting has been the latest hysteria headline about “Steve Jobs bombing.” It is too delicious to pass up because it recalls the Sony hack, wherein we all watched the dramas play out in email conversations we were never meant to see. We found out all of the dirty little secrets among power players. Scott Rudin and Amy Pascal and Angelina Jolie – all rolled into the the Steve Jobs roll out. Now we all know because we read it in emails that Pascal didn’t think the movie would make that much money. Universal took it on, opened it big and it didn’t make THAT much money. The press reacted — I’m just gonna go ahead and say that they reacted more strongly to Steve Jobs’ box office than they did Hurricane Patricia being the biggest ever hurricane on record.
That puts Steve Jobs in a slightly different position than it was in before. It is a slight ding, the way The Insider’s box office was a slight ding. You roll the dice and you miss sometimes where box office is concerned. So many recent Best Picture winners don’t ever open big because they don’t want Hollywood to know that the movie they like the best can’t make big money. They keep it in a limited number of theaters. Birdman never opened in more than 1,000 or so theaters, for instance. Once the movie wins Best Picture they can deal with the box office nightmare to come.
Steve Jobs was getting raves from people who saw it. It had strong word of mouth. There was no reason to expect it wouldn’t make money except when you take into account the “dumbass factor.” The majority of ticket buyers are not that sophisticated anymore. They are looking for either the world’s biggest stars or else they’re looking for visual effects. If they’d tarted up Kate Winslet for the movie poster, making her look sexy, they might have done slightly better. But that would have betrayed both the character and the film.
Still, you can’t really put Steve Jobs into any of the backlash waves. It didn’t get a chance to build a backlash. The best thing Spotlight has going for it coming out of Telluride is that no one thinks it can win. The same goes for The Martian, which almost everyone is saying can’t win. That might turn out to be true, but those films are entering the race at an advantage, as opposed to the films coming up that have a great amount of anticipation glued to them. The notion that they are going to WIN Best Picture without having been seen makes it doubly hard for them to live up to those expectations.
Oscar predicting is probably here to stay. The internet is certainly here to stay. Film criticism, as its known today, is probably only going to get bigger and bigger until it looks a lot like Amazon, with hundreds upon thousands of reviews attaching themselves to movies. Those movies, though, probably won’t get anywhere near the Oscar race. The Oscars are still mostly involved with an ever shrinking pile of movies aimed at that rare breed of ticket buyer: the adult.
The movies that are still very much in the race for Best Picture:
Bridge of Spies
Beasts of No Nation
The Danish Girl
And the ones coming up:
The Hateful Eight
The Big Short
By the Sea