The Oscar punditry world is humming along as it always does this time of year, the beginning of summer season, awaiting the pivotal fall festivals where the Best Picture winners have emerged for the past decade — Telluride, Venice and Toronto. A few websites have started to gather their predictions, put out feelers, and even make predictions of how some categories might go. In general, though, there isn’t yet an acknowledgment of the ways the Academy has changed after last year.
Last year’s surprise win for Moonlight was a big deal for the Academy, and should change the way we all look at the Oscar race. There was a disruption of the status quo, in a way, when a film that was written off as “too black and too gay” to be considered a Best Picture winner actually won. That the wrong title was read and the correct title had to be announced by La La Land’s gracious producer has now become an evergreen meme.
Moonlight’s win, La La Land’s near-miss, and the drama that surrounded it all have invited the public to once again participate in an awards show that was becoming more and more insular. Predicting the Oscars had become all too easy because in some sense the fix is in. We in the business know what films target the Oscar race. We hold their place in line, expecting them to hit their target with audiences and voters. Some make it, some fall away. We’re surprised with some of them and not surprised with others. However, it’s a mistake to enter this year, 2017, thinking things are going to be business as usual. They aren’t. Not any more.
Yet, there are some rules we tend to live by and pundits seem to prop them up rather than think outside of the norm. For instance, movies that come out very early in the year are often forgotten unless they have something about them that Academy voters might ultimately embrace (the Grand Budapest Hotel comes to mind). If they’re released too early, or if they exist in a non-Academy-friendly genre (like this year’s Get Out), they might be dismissed.
A bit of a ruckus erupted when The Hollywood Reporter’s Scott Feinberg posted a story about whether or not Wonder Woman could be considered for Best Picture. Apparently there had been an Academy screening with a rousing reaction. Immediately there was irritation and blowback from some who cover the Oscar race, thinking no way can this be a real headline. Skeptics called it clickbait. Feinberg specifically asked whether Wonder Woman might be the film that breaks the bias against “popcorn movies.”
In fact, Jaws already did that back in the 1970s, as did Star Wars. It could be argued that E.T. was also a popcorn movie. It isn’t really the popcorn aspect that made people like David Poland chafe at the notion – it probably was, more or less, because Wonder Woman is a superhero movie. There’s a sense that many veteran Academy members believe superhero movies are ruining Hollywood, hence the vote for Birdman over Boyhood. Birdman was an explicit screed against superhero movies, and thus, perhaps that message resonated among industry voters.
A brief refresher of history for those who don’t know:
The closest a superhero movie ever came to being nominated was The Dark Knight. After it was excluded from a Best Picture nomination, the Academy sensed a public backlash, so they expanded their Best Picture list to ten nomination slots and ten nominees for Best Picture. Voters chose ten movies on their nomination ballots. The new freedom that they had with ten openings allowed voters to step outside their wheelhouse and pick a wider variety of films, like long-neglected sci-fi genre, lower-budget indies, perhaps even superhero movies and animated features (no animated feature has been nominated since they shrunk the nominations ballot back to five choices).
But the change lasted for only two years as many voters complained that they had trouble naming more than five; others felt ten was pushing it. So a compromise was struck. Each voter ranks five films, but the Academy advances those with the most passionate support, nominating any film ranked the highest on at least 5% of all ballots. So the final number of Best Picture nominees can end up being between five and ten, depending on how those #1 votes were distributed. Ever since this compromise system was enacted, there have only been eight or nine nominees. Because this process (by design) tends to exclude movies which lack deep support, with few exceptions the nominated films have returned to more Academy-friendly fare — same range of taste, just more of them.
Meanwhile, Anne Thompson has stuck more to the traditional approach with her Best Actress predictions — sticking to the kind of thing she knows the Academy generally goes for, but also helping to sort of shape how the race might go, with Nicole Kidman topping the list. Kidman, as it happens, might be a strong contender for both the Oscars and the Emmys this year. Thompson has her out front for The Beguiled. With not enough information yet to make the call, I’d put my chips on Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill as a leading Best Actor contender (sight unseen) for Darkest Hour. Those two seem like strong bets at the moment, but it’s very very early yet.
After the 2015 controversy surrounding the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag, the Academy faced immense pressure for having nominated nothing but white actors for the second straight year, even when they had so many brilliant performances by non-white actors that year. The hashtag led to a boycott and to anger thrown the Academy’s way. As a result, they took action — some thought too harsh — to change things by changing the makeup of membership. That prescription included inviting more filmmakers of color and many more of women to try to balance things out a bit. As a welcome side effect, in order to introduce more diversity in their ranks, the Academy have inducted many new members from all around the world.
My pundit pals mostly dismissed my insistence that this was going to matter, just as they dismissed my caution about the ostensible frontrunner, La La Land, missing out on a SAG Ensemble nomination. They were treating last year as “business as usual” when it turned out to be anything but.
Thus, while clickbait headlines can be exasperating, I don’t think there is anything wrong with Scott Feinberg floating his question about Wonder Woman. He’s just asking whether the Academy might take notice of the first film directed by a woman, starring a woman, to crack a $100 million opening weekend — and beyond those milestones, it’s a film that turned out so beautifully. I myself didn’t think of it and I wish I had. While it may be unlikely that Wonder Woman would get any Academy attention in the top-tier categories, it’s wise to never say never. The way things are going, change is in the air.
I would suggest that we keep our minds open as to what might happen this year, and be not so quick to dismiss possibilities. So how do we go about finding the “Oscar movies”? We generally follow these rules:
- Big-time director releasing a film. As in Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Clint Eastwood, Ang Lee, Christopher Nolan, David Fincher, Kathryn Bigelow, and the like. If they have a movie coming out, we sit up and pay attention.
- The studio and strategist(s) behind the movie. So if Focus Features or Fox Searchlight or Roadside or Warner Bros. or Sony Pictures Classics, or Weinstein Co. or Paramount, Fox, or the fierce newbies like Open Road, A24, etc. are handling a film, it goes right to the top of the list – but especially when publicists we know are pushing those movies. I won’t name them because they hate to be named, but they are usually attached to something that has a lot of buzz and we know they’ll be working hard to make sure those movies are seen in the right light.
- Any film that has massive buzz at a festival. Massive buzz is hit and miss for the Oscars. It lands or it doesn’t, but it’s worth paying attention to.
- Money made. While it isn’t everything, it still matters if a film unexpectedly makes a lot of money and becomes a hit with the general public. Again, it never hurts to have a prestigious director attached.
- The star with an Oscar-worthy performance. A nomination can sometimes happen just because the lead performance is really too good to ignore.
But now, with the all new Academy members, we should be also looking for:
- Whether or not the director or stars are actors of color or not. This matters because the idea going forward is inclusion. And that means we’re always on the lookout, or should be, for films directed by women. Many more voters will be thinking along those lines so that means we should too.
- Our current nightmare zeitgeist. Films that reflect or amplify the experience of having a terrible president like Donald Trump and what that means for our culture overall. Films with a political angle will likely rise this year, more than they might have in normal years.
- Films with women in strong roles. You don’t need me to explain this one to you, right?
- A younger, less-typical Academy voter in the house. Some of the new members are outsiders in terms of the kinds of people who get let in. That might mean they pick stuff outside the realm of “normal” – which could explain why some of the wins last year were so refreshingly unusual compared to what we ordinarily expect.
- The hive mind. Twitter and Facebook are now powerful forces with influence that seeps into the Academy’s voting bubble. So if Twitter decides to pitch a hive mind fit about a movie and it snowballs into think pieces, next thing you know a backlash is born. In the past, Academy members were more or less isolated and insulated from internet chatter, but now it matters. So that means a film really has to get its backlash over and dealt with before voting starts.
Best Picture considerations for several significant films that already have been seen — in rough order of most promising:
Call Me By Your Name seems to be the most auspicious “in” candidate at the moment, with very strong buzz coming out of Sundance. Tomris Laffly, who went to Cannes, said that she didn’t see anything else that was as good. (Sony Pictures Classics)
Get Out is a film that does dwell in a non-Academy genre of horror. With very few exceptions, they just don’t do horror. But it is so smartly written and dare I say groundbreaking in what it ventures to say about the black experience in America. It’s a profound, daring, and challenging work by a promising writer/director in Jordan Peele. The play-it-safe crowd has it only earning a screenplay nomination, which is probably the most likely. (Universal)
The Beguiled boasts a Best Director prize for Sofia Coppola in Cannes, making her the first woman in over 50 years to win that honor there. With Nicole Kidman starring and its status as a period piece, there is little doubt that it should at least be considered. (Focus)
The Florida Project might as yet be a long shot, but it’s headed for the awards race in one way or another, whether it be the critics prizes or the Spirit Awards or the Gothams or the Oscars. There is enough buzz around it that it will be considered for something.
Mudbound has great buzz out of Sundance and it’s one of three films on this list with a female director. Dee Rees directed Mudbound, which stars Carey Mulligan and deals with “two men returning home from World War II to work on a farm in rural Mississippi where they struggle to deal with racism and adjusting to life after war.” This is right in the Academy’s wheelhouse and is being distributed by Netflix, which suffered some unwanted publicity in Cannes for being seen as the enemy of cinema. Amazon made it in last year with Manchester by the Sea. It’s probably only a matter of time before Netflix is accepted. What is the problem if these companies are able to finance and distribute films that might otherwise have a hard time getting distribution? (Netflix)
Wonderstruck. Todd Haynes has long been unfairly ignored by the Academy, and each year he’s passed up the frustration of his loyal fans increases. That building enthusiasm might help give him a bit of a push for Wonderstruck, which we hear is an emotional watch (I haven’t yet seen it). So I would add it to our list of hopefuls. Not necessarily based on what was said at Cannes, but based on Haynes himself, what a talent he is, and how he’s beyond overdue for recognition. (Roadside)
Wonder Woman is a film I’m going to include simply because I believe that the Academy should be about “Best Picture of the year,” not “Best Picture that nobody but Academy members like.” If it is among the best films of the year, it should be considered regardless of genre, regardless of any moribund stigma attached. Would this Academy even choose Jaws if it were released today? Who knows, but Jaws was a popcorn movie at the time. I saw it as a ten-year-old and time has firmed up its status as one of the best films ever made.
Films that will likely be in the “conversation” sight unseen (you never know until you know – it feels like cursing these movies to mention them now, but oh well):
- The Papers – Steven Spielberg directing, starring Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep about the Pentagon Papers? Yeah, you can bet this one will be on everyone’s list, for better or worse. (Fox)
- Dunkirk – Christopher Nolan’s movie about the rescue of stranded soldiers in WWII and one of Winston Churchill’s finest moments. (WB)
- Detroit – by the great Kathryn Bigelow, written by Mark Boal, and about one of the largest citizen uprisings in American history. (Annapurna)
- Suburbicon – directed by George Clooney, written by the Coen brothers – “When a home invasion turns deadly, a picture-perfect family turns to blackmail, revenge, and betrayal.” (Paramount)
- Battle of the Sexes – directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, starring Emma Stone and Steve Carell. About the legendary cross-gender match between two tennis champs of the 1970s. (Fox Searchlight)
- Darkest Hour – directed by Joe Wright and starring Gary Oldman as the great Winston Churchill as he struggles in the fight to either appease or resist the Nazis. (Focus)
- The Current War – directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon and starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Thomas Edison and Michael Shannon as George Westinghouse, “The Current War” tells the story of two powerful moguls battling over the distribution of electricity in the late 1880s. (The Weinstein Co)
- Mother – directed by Darren Aronofsky and starring Jennifer Lawrence – it’s always hit and miss with Aronofsky and Oscar (he doesn’t make “Oscar friendly” movies), but with Jennifer Lawrence doing some serious work this is worth paying attention to. (Paramount)
- Victoria and Abdul – directed by Stephen Frears and starring Judi Dench and Ali Fazal.(Focus)
- Thank You for Your Service – starring Miles Teller, directed by Jason Hall about soldiers returning from Iraq. (Universal/Dreamworks)
- Mary Magdalene – directed by Lion’s Garth Davis and starring Rooney Mara and Joaquin Phoenix in what is being called a humanistic view of Mary as she joins the controversial but irresistible movement of Jesus Christ and his followers that would birth a global religion. (The Weinstein Co)
- Downsizing – directed by Alexander Payne and starring Matt Damon – sci-fi satire about a guy who becomes small after his life gets out of hand. His wife Kristen Wiig backs out. (Paramount)
- Untitled Paul Thomas Anderson fashion film with Daniel Day-Lewis. Guaranteed to be its own thing, thereby mostly outside the realm of Oscar, but you never know, and he’s never one to dismiss. (Focus)
There are lots of other films that will emerge to be considered, but these are the ones I think are, at the moment at least, at the forefront.
The thing to remember right now is that it’s way too early to be calling any kind of predictions, but changing times require changing analysis, and I for one plan to be thinking outside the box to see what the future might hold.