I was here when it all began. Not just the blogs and websites that cover the Oscars, but the way media and information have evolved from traditional print to online, from opinion and eventually to advocacy. Much of the coverage you see online with regard to the Oscar race is advocacy. It is either obvious advocacy (sites explicitly pushing contenders) or it’s veiled advocacy (sites that have a pretense of objectivity but push contenders nonetheless). Even now, you can see advocacy at work if you know the site you’re visiting and you know what their biases are. Even those who really try not advocate do advocate, but you’ll only know this if you know them and you understand what they’re doing and why. It can be effective if someone like Anne Thompson or Scott Feinberg puts a name in their predictions that seems ludicrous to those who watch the Oscar race. But when you see it there, it becomes a proposition to voters: What if? Why not this film or person?
Advocacy and activism are dominant threads with the blogs and voices that cover the race, all the way up to the New York Times. The Oscars have always been political, but now they are more political than ever thanks to Twitter, outrage culture, and the algorithms that drive that outrage. The Oscar host, the popular film category, Green Book – it’s all down to a massive wave of opinion-driven, activist-driven culture that seems to focus its attention 100% on the Oscar’s own image, rather than the steps that go into building each Oscar contender.
What the bloggers do is look at the films coming out in a given year and assess their Oscar strength. Activism means they will be on the lookout for women and filmmakers of color, where it used to be on the lookout for “important” films, epics, or star vehicles about “important” issues. Now it’s more about the filmmakers. Subject matter still counts, but more often than not, the old way of doing the Oscars was more about what is written off now as “Oscar bait,” e.g., anything British, any period film, anything to do with the Holocaust. While that still can be a powerful vehicle heading into the race (Darkest Hour, for instance) it will have to do battle with the hive mind. Maybe it will still make it in. Maybe not.
Everyone called Green Book an “old fashioned Oscar contender.” But really, it wasn’t. Green Book was about two great performances. Yes, it was a feel-good movie. Yes, it was about racism from a white perspective and homophobia from a straight perspective. But at the end of the day what sold that movie were the dazzling Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen. Green Book won because people liked it, and they liked it because of the chemistry and charisma of the actors. What other movie did that last year in the same way without reservations? For some, Roma was hard to sit through. Black Panther had no writing or directing nominations. BlacKkKlansman was brilliant but wasn’t exactly feel-good. The hive mind asks voters to think like critics or think like activists in making their decision. Critics that slammed the Academy for choosing Green Book did not also extend their outrage to the other places Green Book won, like the Toronto Audience Award, the National Board of Review, the Globes, or the Producers Guild. Nope, all the ire went right to the Academy.
An Oscar contender doesn’t just appear out of nowhere – it has to run the gauntlet. And what a gauntlet it is. In the old days, there was a gauntlet that a movie ran, but it really happened out of sight of media coverage, film critics, and audience members. The critics and guilds still voted on movies and chose the winners they preferred – we know because we have been tracking them going all the way back to the 1930s – but no one looked at the patterns or the stats and measured those against what’s happening now.
For those of us who rely on or follow the stats, we watch carefully how contenders do as they run the gauntlet. Bloggers and activists will be working, always, to game the system, to influence the outcome of the early awards. But as you saw with A Star Is Born last year, that only takes you so far. Sooner or later it comes down to one person, with one anonymous ballot and one vote, and in general, people vote for what they like unless forced to vote for something for a different reason.
The flip side of activism/advocacy is pure predicting: the game of guessing how the awards will go. Some argue, like Mark Harris for instance, that this game greatly limits choice early on, narrowing the pile to an absurd degree that it can’t possibly help to keep the Oscar race as open as it would need to be if it is to retain any value whatsoever. And that’s probably true, but the game is the game and it isn’t going anywhere any time soon.
Predictions are what you see over at Gold Derby, at least once you move away from the experts – who continue to advocate with their predictions, even at this early stage. Especially at this early stage, with most films being assessed sight unseen, predictions often comes down to naming films and filmmakers they want rather than those they think will get in. Blind loyalty like that can be just as wrong as activism/advocacy can turn out to be. It’s usually based on an echo chamber – a quick glance at what everyone else in the peer group is predicting. Or else they rely on evidence that we’ve all gleaned over the years, like:
“That’s A24 so they will push it hard.”
“Amy Adams hasn’t yet won an Oscar.”
“It’s about Nazis.”
“Oh, but that’s Sony Pictures Classics.”
“Scorsese directed it.”
“Test screenings were through the roof.”
“It’s right in their wheelhouse.”
“Because it’s Fox Searchlight.”
“Scott Rudin’s name is attached.”
“Lisa Taback is handling that movie.”
“They won’t touch it.”
In the early days, very little of the process was based on how films checked off the prerequisites. But herding movies based on the new metrics means that much of the power in shaping the race is down to studios and strategists who select movies for the race. Sometimes these plans come off as expected, but sometimes they don’t. First Man is a really great example of a film that was positioned for the awards race and had everything going for it, but launched at the wrong time and got hit with unexpected turbulence. Last year wasn’t the year to honor Neil Armstrong, a white American male hero. But worse, it got hit with a fake controversy because Damien Chazelle didn’t pander to virulent ‘patriots’ and spotlight the American flag being planted on the surface of the moon. Because of that, millions of people who might have turned out for movie about American dreams and ingenuity failed to show up to buy tickets. Add to that, unlike most movies set in outer space, it was emotionally low-key and largely earthbound visually (which are things that made it great, IMO). For whatever reason, space movies headed for the Oscar race these days are expected to hit those Gravity-like notes of emotional crescendo with breathtaking set-pieces. First Man was a somber, intimate film, not a grandiose, celebratory one. But history will remember it well and that’s about all that there is.
In general, an Oscar contender needs to first emerge in the festival phase, hitting Cannes, Telluride, Venice, or Toronto, where critics see it in advance and decide its Oscar-worthiness. That, too, can be hit and miss, as pundits can often draw the wrong conclusions based on their own preconceived ideas of how the race should be going.
For instance, returning again to last year, Green Book somehow flew under the radar and even when it bested A Star Is Born and Roma at Toronto, most people were still underestimating its chances. Although some believed it had the stuff to go all the way, others were skeptical. Toronto hadn’t driven a Best Picture winner home since The Hurt Locker, which screened at the fest the year prior to the year it won Best Picture. Furthermore, since Peter Farrelly didn’t have a typical awards bait backstory, he became only the second director in the era of the expanded ballot to win Best Picture without a Best Director nomination, following in the footsteps of Ben Affleck for Argo.
Green Book won both preferential ballot contests, the PGA and eventually the Oscar, but it also won the Golden Globe. The attacks leveled against it were so bizarre and overblown that at some point voters began to feel defensive about it. After all, this was not a movie out to do evil – quite the opposite. It was telling a story of warmth and friendship, of tolerance, love, and acceptance. That it was not seen as woke enough because of things like the playful scene where Mahershala Ali is “taught” how to eat fried chicken was literally the end of everything. Even now, that one bit is trotted out to dismiss the film, even though those closest to Don Shirley said that it was very much in keeping with his character to not want to appear as a cliche. That requires complex thinking, however, and the hive mind can’t.
Green Book upended everything we know about the Oscar race, broke many rules we all count on to decide how the race should or will go. To some, that means all bets are off and anything goes. To a degree that’s right. But last year also proved that if none of the other films can build a consensus, a movie like Green Book can easily win because it’s the only film the most people can agree upon.
Here is how the race goes, in general, from Cannes onward:
The festival phase, in order of appearance:
Cannes – The Artist, No Country for Old Men are examples of films that premiered there and won.
Venice – A good dry run for a potential contender in Best Picture, director, screenplay, or actor.
Telluride – Pretty much every movie in recent years that has won has screened there. Remains the most prominent awards fest.
Toronto – So many films means less focus on specific movies, but films can have a breakout moment there and be thrust into the race, like I, Tonya, or of course Green Book last year.
AFI – The last gasp of awards season, with gala presentations which occasionally can push a film in at the last minute (American Sniper, Selma)
The AFI, New York, The National Board of Review begin to shape the race. Los Angeles has a bit of impact but it comes later.
Way too many critics awards follow, often giving a false impression of consensus since it’s only a consensus of what the critics think.
The Golden Globes:
The biggest high profile event in the run up to the Oscars is still a pretty big deal, as it can be a dress rehearsal for the Oscars. If a movie wins big there, do people feel good about it? Both Bohemian Rhapsody and Green Book won big at the Globes and that gave them momentum which carried through to Oscar night.
Now we get down to what really matters where the Oscars are concerned. Not always, but often we rely most on the Producers Guild, the Screen Actors Guild, the Directors Guild, the Editors Guild, etc. They show what a broad consensus thinks – thousands and thousands of industry people voting.
When at last it’s time for the Academy to vote, they have more than enough information to make their final decision of who gets to walk away with a gold statue. Then the whole thing starts all over again.