Sometimes it’s hard to separate your heart from your head during Oscar season. Despite trying to keep your bias from creeping in, it inevitably does for various reasons. Loving a winner often means you line up with the consensus, the consensus that you often rail against. The consensus that you’ve deemed too white, too old and too out of touch. When they agree with you, suddenly they’re a reputable group. When you agree with them, you fall back in love, ever so briefly, until they disappoint you again. There is no point in fighting the tide — though I’ve tried and tried over the years. One would think that we would wear our unique tastes like a badge of honor, taking pride in our individuality whenever we disagree with a large consensus. For some reason, we don’t. We humans like to think we are not only on the winning side, but that the winning side is with us. If we pick our favorite and it becomes a winner, that’s one thing. If we can feel that they pick a winner that we’ve helped them chose, though? Whole different thing. “You get the sundae, Vinnie. You get the sundae.”
My sundae is The Big Short winning Best Picture. Alas, we’re hearing a lot of people say that it’s a long shot. It didn’t win the largest group of industry voters so far, the SAG Ensemble. Spotlight did. It didn’t win the second largest group of voters so far, the DGA. The Revenant did. It only won the third largest group of voters, the PGA — though, significantly, the PGA is the only one who uses the preferential ballot.
Still, many people are are saying The Big Short can’t win. Everyone is saying it’s too confusing, too much of a comedy, doesn’t have the wow factor, or a feel-good ending. It won’t matter that director Adam McKay has been invited to screen his film for members of Congress with bipartisan support, or that he fervently believes he needed to make the leap from comedy to drama to get an important message across to people out there in the world who might not know about the Wall Street meltdown. He didn’t choose to make The Big Short to win awards or wow people with his genius; he did it because he wanted to help show what the 2008 crisis meant to the country and the world, and help explain what everyone should know about it.
The American electorate can “feel the Bern” at rallies and scream “GOLDMAN SACHS!” at Hillary, but do they even really know what those words mean? McKay’s film doesn’t say “WALL STREET BAD.” The Michael Lewis book doesn’t either. They both say very specifically: there were crooks on Wall Street who saw an opportunity to rob the average citizens and taxpayers blind. Almost every politician — everyone who’s running for president and most people on Capitol Hill agree with that. It isn’t a Right or Left issue – it’s an American issue.
Our three remaining frontrunners: The Revenant, The Big Short, and Spotlight are all great films for different reasons. The Big Short has brilliant writing and hits us with a powerful punch at the end, albeit a downer. The Revenant is strong on visuals and abstract emotion, and hits with its own powerful punch at the end, also a downer. Of the three, Spotlight is the bright spot in an otherwise bleak worldview because it portrays heroes doing right by those wronged. Its ending is subdued; not a downer but still troubling.
A word about the stats worth noting: so far, no win has defied history except one. Alejandro G. Iñárritu has become the first director to win the DGA in back-to-back years. That’s not a broken stat: it’s simply a brand new milestone. In terms of what a film needs to win, though, the traditional stats have held firm. No director other than Iñárritu and Adam McKay could have won the DGA award, according to the stats, because they each had BAFTA/DGA/Oscar nominations. Only The Big Short could have won the PGA because it was still the only film that had all of the prerequisites a Best Picture winner normally requires. Spotlight winning the SAG Ensemble award confirmed that only two films could have won there: the two Best Picture nominees that were nominated for the Ensemble award.
Now we’re entering the BAFTA phase and the question comes up again: will The Revenant bust the stat there that says no film can win Best Picture without a BAFTA screenplay nomination? Even Gravity had one. The Revenant wasn’t nominated for Best Screenplay by BAFTA or Oscar. What does that mean? It means writers who voted for the nominees believe the story is thin. The Revenant is a movie is driven by visuals and Leonardo Dicaprio’s struggle to survive. There isn’t a deep or complex story. It is as simple as they come on its face: Man loses family. Man almost dies. Man survives. Man seeks revenge. That doesn’t make it a bad movie — it only means the writing isn’t all that. Still, Titanic actually had a bad screenplay and it still swept the Oscars.
The lack of a BAFTA screenplay nomination defies really a long and deep tradition for them. But again, stats like that can’t tell you what will happen. They can only tell you what normally happens — and what has never happened. The Revenant has already set one new milestone. We have to ask how many more breakthroughs it can make. You can apply almost any stat retroactively, too. You could have said a lot about Ben Affleck’s lack of a directing nomination when it came to predicting whether it would win any awards. The fact was: Oscar voters liked the movie best and they wanted it to win.
I’m not trying to talk anyone out of predicting The Revenant to sweep. It has the most powerful forces in town pushing it to a win. It has the most nominations. It stars a popular actor and was directed by a popular director. It is about a man in crisis who becomes a victim, then somehow triumphs against all odds — that premise is in keeping with almost every modern Best Picture winner in recent history. It seems to have all its sails tied down, though I have to admit I never thought it would win.
Here are the stats the Revenant has to break:
No SAG Award Ensemble nomination (a disadvantage that could have been the deciding factor as to why Gravity, which had more nominations and a PGA/DGA win, didn’t topple 12 Years a Slave.)
No screenplay nomination – (again, Gravity didn’t have that ether. It will need to break decades of history to win without the seal of approval from screenwriters.)
It did not win the PGA – (in the era of the preferential ballot, no film wins Best Picture without a PGA victory.)
That’s pretty much all the deficits for The Revenant. Both Spotlight and The Big Short are covered with writing, acting, and directing nominations. Stats we’re dumping: Best Director nomination – Argo toppled that one. Best Editing nomination – Birdman toppled that one. So one by one, they will get toppled. This year, a whole bunch of them might get toppled.
Now, what are the strongest stats for predicting a Best Picture win?
1. A PGA win (Big Short)
2. A SAG Ensemble nomination (Spotlight, Big Short)
3. An ACE Eddie nomination (Big Short, The Revenant)
4. A DGA nomination (Big Short, Spotlight, The Revenant)
5. A BAFTA director nomination (Big Short, The Revenant)
6. A BAFTA or Oscar (or both) screenplay nomination (Big Short, Spotlight)
Only one film has everything on this checklist: The Big Short.
Now, let’s take a look at the Best Pictur / Best Director splits in the years when the preferential ballot was in play. Back in the 1940s, there were no DGA, SAG, or PGA awards. The DGA began handing out awards in 1948, the PGA in 1989, the SAG in 1995. So we’ll emphasize another important stat that extends back for many decades — a screenplay nomination.
2013 – 12 Years a Slave (9 nominations, won 3 + screenplay)/Gravity (10 noms, +
screenplay, won 7)
2012 – Argo (7 nominations, won 3, + screenplay)/ Life of Pi (11 noms, + screenplay, won 4)
1940 – Rebecca (11 nominations, + screenplay) won 1/John Ford for The Grapes of Wrath (7 nominations, +screenplay )
1937 – The Life of Emile Zola (10 nominations, won 3 + screenplay)/Leo McCary, The Awful Truth (6 noms,+ screenplay, won one)
1936 – The Great Ziegfeld (7 nominations + screenplay)/Frank Capra, Mr. Deed Goes to Town (5 +screenplay)
1935-Mutiny on the Bounty (8 nominations + screenplay)/John Ford, The Informer (6 noms + screenplay)
I’m not going to look at the distant years when there was no preferential ballot in puse because we’ve already seen how the largest number of votes on a simple plurality ballot will benefit Spotlight or The Revenant. The only film that has thus far benefited from the preferential ballot is The Big Short.
What I notice in looking over the preferential ballot then and now is the way things have swapped. In the old days, the big movie with the most nominations would win Best Picture, where the more serious character dramas would win Best Director. Cut through time to the modern day, and that’s often reversed now. The films with more nominations and are high crafts achievements are winning Best Director, mostly based on acute visual brilliance, while Best Picture is going to the more serious character drama or films that aren’t as crafts-driven.
Going by the recent pattern, if this ends up being a split year, we could be looking at a situation where The Big Short, like Argo and 12 Years a Slave, wins just three Oscars, while the film that could win Best Director, The Revenant, also takes home a bunch of other Oscars, more than 3.
Now let’s look at the years of preferential balloting where there wasn’t a split –, where there was just a sweep — to see how The Revenant might fare if it does break all stats and sweep the Oscars, as Erik Anderson at AwardsWatch is predicting it will:
2014 – Birdman (9 nominations, 4 wins, + screenplay BAFTA director, SAG ensemble, ACE Eddie, DGA+PGAwin) / Boyhood (6 nominations, 1 win, +screenplay, BAFTA director [win], SAG ensemble, ACE Eddie [win], DGA, PGA)
2011 – The Artist (10 nominations, 5 wins, + screenplay, BAFTA director [win], SAG ensemble, ACE Eddie [win], DGA+PGAwin) / Hugo (11 nominations, 5 wins, screenplay, BAFTA director,
SAG ensemble, ACE Eddie, DGA, PGA)
2010 – The King’s Speech (12 nominations, 4 wins, + screenplay [win], BAFTA director, SAG ensemble [win], ACE Eddie, DGA+PGA win) / The Social Network (8 nominations, 3 wins, +screenplay [win], BAFTA director [win], SAG ensemble, ACE Eddie [win], DGA+PGA)
2009 – The Hurt Locker (9 nominations, 6 wins, + screenplay [win] BAFTA director [win], SAG ensemble, ACE Eddie [win], DGA+PGA win) / Avatar (9 nominations, 3 wins, +
screenplay, BAFTA director, SAG ensemble, ACE Eddie, DGA+PGA)
What all of this tells me is that it would be an extreme anomaly for a film to win Best Picture if it didn’t have a screenplay nomination. That The Revenant doesn’t have a screenplay nomination nor a SAG Ensemble award nomination is another thing that has never happened before for a Best Picture winner. That means two branches, the actors and the writers, didn’t think your film was among the best of the year.
On the other hand, we’re all living through it and we can sense the buzz for The Revenant. Maybe enough voters didn’t seen it in time for the nominations ballots were due. Maybe the SAG nominating committee picked Leo without seeing it. Maybe the writers branch didn’t see it in time. Or maybe it’s thought of as a visual spectacular that might win Best Director, but not Best Picture.
The reason I’m spending so much time on stats and history is that it’s fun, for starters. It’s the best part of covering the Oscars, especially during a wide open race like this. You can rely on intuition, or you can rely on stats. You can also certainly use both. Right now, so far, the stats have not really failed. Well, except for Iñárritu making history at the DGA – but again, he was one of the two Best Director nominees that had all the major directing precursor nominations. Honestly, it will be great if any of the nominated films win Best Picture. They are all worthy.
The next thing we can do for fun, perhaps in the next post, is look at the split years when the preferential ballot was not in play, to see how Screenplay, SAG Ensemble, etc. fit into the Best Picture race.
This is the first year since the implementation of the preferential ballot that the three main industry guilds each selected a different film, so people like me are having a great year in that we can really put the stats to the test.