No one really seems to know if this year will indeed be as unpredictable as it seems right now. If you take a look at Marshall’s excellent Statsgasm piece, you will see how the stats say things should go, give or take. In Best Picture, for instance, the stats model can’t and doesn’t account for Roma being a Netflix movie or it being a foreign language film: these things are uniquely unprecedented elements that will factor into whether it’s going to win or not. However, it has come to pass that Roma is the consensus favorite to win. As Kris Tapley said on Twitter yesterday, if it does win, nothing is ever going to be the same. By that, he means a Best Picture win for a film distributed on a streaming platform completely changes the game. Not just the Oscar game, but every part of the film industry. It blows it wide open. We’re all waiting and wondering to see if that will indeed come to pass. More importantly, if it isn’t Roma — what will it be?
In general, for the past two decades I’ve been covering the Oscars on this site — with the sole exception of my first year, 2000, with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Traffic and Gladiator all going to head to head — the Oscar race has been a well-oiled machine. Films are made,and shown during festival season, wherein almost everything is decided way before they ever get to the public. That has been consistently true for years, with a few notable exceptions here or there. Publicists rule and pretty much are hired for their expertise at pushing their contenders through awards season. This is done with the help of the growing population of film critics and bloggers, all of whom helped to build the consensus, to shape it, and eventually to decide it. They always winnow down the choices, which were then handed to Oscar voters as a smaller pile to choose from. The voters, in turn, mostly watch only what they either want to watch or felt required to watch. That was then. This is now.
When the Academy pushed the date of the Oscars up by one month to late February, it pushed everything else up and eventually handed the power completely to the festival circuit, the critics, the bloggers, and publicists who all worked out the Oscar race without the public being involved. The public was invited, by the end, to watch the films that have been selected. That was a reversal from most of the earlier decades of the Oscars, where the Oscars broadcast came later, in March or even April, when the public reaction, what ticket-buyers saw and liked, played a role. Public reception was measured in box-office receipts, so it mattered how much money a movie made before Oscar night. It also mattered if a film made news, if it was seen to shape culture. Once the public was selected out, however, all that seemed to matter was what people inside the bubble liked and responded to. That has shifted over time to move away from the traditional Hollywood film — even the traditional Hollywood OSCAR film — towards more independent fare: more wide-ranging in many ways, but just as insular in other ways.
It’s theoretically possible that this year, 2019, twenty years after 1999/2000, is itself a signal of the system in the throes of radical change. After 2000, when Gladiator won, there didn’t seem to be that much of a dramatic change — until we think about the social and cultural impact of 9/11. And George W. Bush. And the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and how that led to 2008, when Obama came into power and what that did to America’s psyche. These seismic jolts to the core of America’s character indirectly impacted the Best Picture race because they impacted the people voting on the films. It was also the beginning of an era of extreme partisanship, a jagged fissure in our society, now as bad as it’s ever been.
At the same time, there was a shift taking place in Hollywood too. Where the Oscars went from big (the big studios) to more personal (the indies), to a hybrid of the two (smaller boutique divisions of studios like Fox Searchlight, Sony Classics, Universal’s Focus, Paramount Vantage). In the Oscar race, the studios were going big and they were going international. For their bread and butter (and for their stockholders), they were going to target burgeoning markets in China and South Korea and Europe where they could make twice as much money. The studios began focusing the bulk of their resources and their talent more on the movies that would blow up overseas. What did the Oscars do for them anymore? I have been here watching this shift over time, where the studios really stopped caring whether or not they won Oscars, because the Oscars only seemed to make money for their smaller-scale “Oscar movies.”
This year, all of that was disrupted because suddenly the Academy looked at its plummeting ratings and concluded, at least partly, that the Oscars had become too insular, so marginalized that they would need a whole new separate category to honor the films the public paid to see. Like the Oscars used to do as a matter of course. But the clumsy and unfortunate word to describe the category “popular” caused the critics, bloggers, industry, and fans to rise up in protest. Where once the Oscars were seen as a silly popularity contest by critics, now they have become the year’s culmination in esteem, the utmost certification of prestige and taste, right up there with Sight & Sound’s list. That’s because the critics now wield enormous influence over the first sifting and preening of the Oscar candidates. In fact, you might even call the Oscars the critics awards now. “Critics” itself has become a relative and fluid term, because basically anyone with a blog can be one now. Literally anyone and there are hundreds of them. Nay, thousands.
The biggest change that’s making the most waves and causing the most heart palpitations right now is that streaming is beginning to dominate the way movie consumers consume movies, specifically Netflix. Netflix has been putting out such exciting original content that it’s capturing the attention of people in a way that theatrical exhibition simply can’t anymore. Just look at what happened with Bird Box. Heck, look at the show about cleaning up clutter. These things enter the public’s consciousness and become water-cooler topics while network programs and feature films just don’t. The studios are all trying to get on board with streaming, but Netflix won out of the gate. They got there first. They continued to evolve and adapt and grow — and to their enormous credit, they don’t really seem to want to control, micromanage, or stifle creativity. I’m sure that is alluring for a good many people who want to create creative things, not just branded products highly dependent on pre-awareness and marketing.
The Academy, for its part, has changed swiftly to meet the protests of the public by inviting more women and people of color into its ranks, and consequently many more international voters. The theory this year goes than none of them are going to have any problem whatsoever voting for Roma or Netflix. Then there is a theory that many of the older voters are going to resist giving over that much power and prestige to Netflix.
From a predicting standpoint, this means so many ingredients have been thrown into our recipe that none of our familiar bellwethers hold steady, none of the usual anchors or markers feel reliable. Nothing makes any real sense anymore, and stats (forever in flux) seemed to completely dissolved (at least until the new normal can be quantified and stabilized). Of course, there are some areas where the “Old Ways” still might count: for Best Actor and Best Actress there seem to be two clear frontrunners, but some people think even that is up in the air. Why it’s all so unpredictable this year is that each of the major guilds has given their awards to a different movies. We’ve seen out and out industry mutiny in terms of giving their top wins to non-Oscar nominees, like Eighth Grade at the WGA, Emily Blunt at SAG, Leave No Trace at Scripter. Such glorious disarray is completely unheard of. If we can’t see the consensus, we can’t predict the consensus. So here we all are. Riding a speedboat without a rudder.
And this, our last Predictions Friday before next year.
Best Picture: Roma vs. Green Book vs. Black Panther (personal preference: not nominated First Man)
I will be predicting Green Book but only because it won the PGA on a preferential ballot.
Best Director: Alfonso Cuaron, Roma (preference: not nominated Damien Chazelle, First Man)
Best Actor: Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody (preference: Christian Bale, Vice)
Best Actress: Glenn Close, The Wife (preference: Grande Dame Glenn Close)
Best Supporting Actor: Mahershala Ali, Green Book (preference: Ali)
Supporting Actress: Regina King, If Beale Street Could Talk (Alt. Marina de Tavira, Roma) (preference: King)
Original Screenplay: Green Book (alt. The Favourite) (preference: First Reformed)
Adapted Screenplay: BlacKkKlansman (alt. Can You Ever Forgive Me) (preference not nominated First Man)
Cinematography: Roma (alt. Cold War) (preference: Roma)
Editing: BlacKkKlansman (alt. Vice) (preference: not nominated First Man)
Foreign Language Film: Roma (alt. Cold War) (preference Roma)
Sound Mixing: Bohemian Rhapsody (alt. Black Panther) (preference: First Man)
Sound Editing: Bohemian Rhapsody (alt. First Man) (preference: First Man)
Production Design: Black Panther (alt. The Favourite) (preference: First Man)
Costumes: Black Panther (alt. The Favourite) (preference: Black Panther)
Original Score: Black Panther (alt. Beale Street) (preference: not nominated First Man, hang your heads in shame, Oscar members)
Visual Effects: First Man (preference: First Man)
Hair & Makeup: Vice
Doc Feature: RGB (alt. Free Solo) — but honestly Hale County and Minding the Gap could easily win. (preference: Hale County)
Doc Short: Period. End of Sentence (alt. Lifeboat) (preference: Lifeboat)
Animated Feature: Spider-Man into the Spider-Verse (preference Spider-Verse)
Animated Short: Bao (alt. Late Afternoon) (preference: Late Afternoon)
Live Action Short: Skin (alt. Marguerite) (Preference: Mother)
Stay tuned for Big Fat Predictions Chart coming in a little bit.