First, I’d just like to thank you readers for listening to what I write about the preferential ballot. Many in the pundit world, the top pundits in fact, completely disregard what I have to say. It is as though I do not exist for them. That’s why Hollywood Reporter’s Stephen Galloway wrote this article about the pundits all getting it wrong. Well, no, all of them certainly did not get it wrong. Some of us were ruminating on the possibility of a split, even if it seemed unlikely. Why, because the preferential ballot experiments we were doing kept showing Moonlight way ahead, with no challenger.
The second reason is the crucial one: the SAG ensemble stat was disregarded by everyone. It didn’t matter, they said. But the reason it matters is simple: the actors rule the Academy. In split years, you can almost always point to the actors for the splits – like Shakespeare in Love winning the SAG ensemble and then winning Best Picture. The same thing happened with Crash. The actors branch makes up more than double the largest branch in the Academy. If you ignore the actors you’re going to miss everything you need to know about Picture/Director splits.
Picture/Director splits are always going to be more likely under the expanded ballot system. Here is how it has gone down since the Academy made the switch from five to ten:
2009 – Picture/Director The Hurt Locker
2010 – Picture/Director The King’s Speech
———–ballots go from ten nomination slots to five but Academy keeps expanded ballot——
2011 – Picture/Director The Artist
2012 – Picture Argo, Director – not nominated, Director goes to Ang Lee for Life of Pi
2013 – Picture goes to 12 Years a Slave, director to Alfonso Cuaron for Gravity
2014 – Picture/Director goes to Birdman
2015 – Picture goes to Spotlight, Director to Alejandro Inarritu for The Revenant
2016 – Picture goes to Moonlight, Director to Damien Chazelle for La La Land
Right now, history has it with 4 splits and 4 non-splits. Look at the previous eight years:
2008 – Picture/Director to Slumdog Millionaire
2007 – Picture/Director to No Country for Old Men
2006 – Picture/Director to The Departed
2005 – Picture to Crash, Director to Ang Lee for Brokeback Mountain
2004 – Picture/Director to Million Dollar Baby
2003 – Picture/Director to Return of the King
2002 – Picture/Director to A Beautiful Mind
2001 – Picture to Chicago, director to Roman Polanski for The Pianist
The only one of these that would have been harder to call now is Brokeback losing to Crash because Brokeback had a SAG ensemble nomination and it won the PGA/DGA/BAFTA, which made it seem like it would probably win. The only thing that showed a weakness was that SAG ensemble win. There was no preferential ballot in place then but somehow Crash won anyway.
I can’t pretend that I knew for sure it would split this year. Like everyone else I thought La La Land was unstoppable. But I could never really let go of its lack of a SAG ensemble nomination. It didn’t matter how many times people tried to explain it away none of that sounded right to me. It was a movie about an actress going on auditions, a musical – if it was a runaway favorite it would have had that nomination no matter how many actors were in it. But the actors showed where La La Land had trouble because many of them were people who acted in musicals and didn’t really respond to the style employed in La La Land, where the actors could sort of sing and sort of dance. That division mattered more than any backlash.
The problem with relying on the Producers Guild entirely to figure this out is that the producers aren’t actors. The producers had no problem with La La Land. But for whatever reason the actors did. This is the lesson I’m taking away from 2017 – the preferential ballot at the Producers Guild is different from the preferential ballot at the Oscars because producers are producers and actors are actors.
Actors rule the Academy. They are the reason why no animated films can get in for Best Picture. They are the reason effects driven films aren’t as beloved. Their careers are based on their faces. Their bodies are their instruments. They want to matter so they will always pick films that are driven by actors. Always.
The key to figuring out this year, and last year and 2013 was simply that: which films had the SAG ensemble and which films didn’t? Last year made this abundantly clear. Only two did. Spotlight and The Big Short. The Big Short won the Producers Guild but Spotlight beat The Big Short with actors. That is how I should have known it would beat the Big Short, and The Revenant, at the Oscars.
Here is the other thing to remember and it’s the one thing Oscar publicists know over all things: people have to feel like they’re doing something good with their vote. They have to feel like they’re voting for the good guys, the honorable people who are fighting the good fight. A film that will win Best Picture on a preferential ballot almost always has that going for it: there is no ambiguity there.
For instance, ask yourself whom you are rooting for with La La Land? Well, you don’t really because the lovers don’t get together at the end. Are you rooting for each of them to fulfill their dreams? Maybe, but there is nothing they are doing to better humanity and there is no uptick at the end. There is no satisfying resolution. This is also true of Manchester by the Sea. While that can work with films like No Country for Old Men, it’s harder on a preferential ballot to deny basic human emotions.
While many believed Hidden Figures would be the film to upset, since it won the SAG ensemble, I might have thought that too but once I conducted my polls I learned 2 things. 1) Hidden Figures wasn’t getting a lot of top votes – it was a number one but nowhere else did it show up. 2) Moonlight was the most popular film across all demographics, and 3) Hidden Figures’ popularity only helped Moonlight since the second choice on a lot of those ballots was Moonlight. In fact, Moonlight picked up votes from discarded ballots of Fences, Hacksaw Ridge, and Hell or High Water. Arrival and Lion tended to split between the two. Moonlight, unlike La La Land, leaves you with a sense of some satisfaction – finally this character was going to maybe have some peace in his long hard life.
So remember, if a film has done well across all guilds – PGA/DGA/SAG – it really can’t be beat (Birdman, Argo, The King’s Speech, The Artist, etc) but if there is any sort of weakness with any of those guilds, no nomination especially, then you know there is a chance for an upset.
And remember that good people doing good things will always triumph over any other kind of film.
These rules, like all rules, are made to be broken. Unfortunately, pundits spend way too much time trying to call the race way too early, to herd a few select films into the pile that it seems to limit variety and choice. We could all afford to keep our minds open heading into the next year. An improbable film just won Best Picture. If that can happen, well, what else might?