As we head into the Oscar year that will go down as “The 2020 Oscars,” with all that might one day imply in the context of history, no doubt there will be reasons why some films and performances resonated while others fell flat. How a film does in any given year with a consensus doesn’t necessarily make it “Miss Right.” Instead, it’s “Miss Right Now,” to borrow a Robin Williams joke. Miss Right Now speaks to the mood of the moment, tells us much about how a certain demographic was thinking about the world the artists have offered up and mirrored back at us. To figure out what will resonate, one has to understand that demographic: Your Typical Academy Voter. You can broaden it a bit to understand other factions: Your Typical Golden Globes Voter and Your Typical Industry Voter. Your Typical Rotten Tomatoes Critic and Your Typical Mainstream Critic (they are not the same).
This is how I’ve come to see these factions in my meditations about them over the years, in chronological order of when and how the awards come down:
1 – People who influence the Oscar nominations:
Your Typical Mainstream Critic: votes in the LA or New York circle, or the National Society of Film Critics. They are the “cream of the crop” on Rotten Tomatoes or those better-known names who get aggregated on Metacritic. This is an elite group driven by high status critics who are sometimes able to influence those of lesser status, so much so that it becomes uncomfortable for dissenting voices to go against the status quo, though some do if they’re feeling bold.
LA tends to be more “inclusive” and often wants to make bolder, off brand choices (as in, diverging from New York or the status quo). In New York it is less about “shoulds” and more about their bizarre voting process — where there are rounds of voting, with debates and discussions between rounds, and odd winners can emerge as the result of something resembling negotiation. In this circumstance there are often status quo voters and rebels. The rebels, if they are high status, can sometimes win on the strength of the cases they make for their favorites.
Both New York and LA like to be “shock and awe” awards people, as opposed to lemmings who go along with the status quo.
Influence power of New York Film Critics: HUGE. Their choice of film almost always becomes a strong frontrunner. Going back 20 years, only 4 films have not gone on to be nominated at least.
Influence power of Los Angeles: Pretty good – not as big as New York but they can push a contender into a long-lasting spotlight with their occasional quirky choices.
Influence power of National Society: Minimal, but that’s only because they announce so late. NYFCC has so much power because it announces early.
Influence power of all other critics groups: Minimal individually, powerful iif they align in a consensus. What the critics think often runs counter to what the industry thinks because the sheer number of movie makers can override the choices of a few dozen movie writers.
What drives critics, no matter where they are, whether Twitter or in groups or on Rotten Tomatoes, remains status. What David Ehrlich thinks seems to matter a lot. What Mark Harris thinks seems to matter a lot. What AO Scott and Manohla Dargis think seems to matter a lot. They carry with them a lot of influence because their readership includes a lot industry voters. So if you want to understand the critics group, first find the high status people and go from there.
What might win Best Picture at New York? Magic 8-Ball says:
(leaving off 1917 and Little Women for now)
or Marriage Story
What might win Best Picture at LA?
Magic 8-Ball says probably Parasite.
What is likely to sweep the critics groups across the country? Parasite.
Your Typical NBR voter is not really a critic. In fact, it’s hard to know who they are, really. Many people have tried to figure them out over the years, and have accused them of all manner of corrupt behavior, from being bought off by studios to having favorable ties to a certain studio.
Influence power (despite their dubious reputation): HUGE. It doesn’t matter what people say about the NBR, they remain influential because they announce early.
What might win the NBR?
I know my savvy Oscar peeps would say: Richard Jewell and Clint Eastwood
2. People who influence Oscar wins:
Your typical Hollywood Foreign Press – or Golden Globes voter: They are treated to exclusive perks by the industry with screenings and parties and access to famous people. They work at various outlets across the world. There are about 90 to 100 individuals, and you’ve never heard of any of them. They are made fun of by almost everyone, respected by no one, and yet all of Hollywood KISSES THEIR ASS because their influence factor is HUGE. Why, because they have a glitzy show that is almost as big a deal as the Oscars, and they’ve been around since forever. 77 years. Was a time when high status Oscar contenders wouldn’t show up at the Globes. That time is long gone.
The Globes can either be the kiss of death for Oscar or they can be a predictor of the Oscars — it’s always a tough call on that front. Last year’s winner was Green Book, which went on to win Best Picture at the Oscars. They can be hit and miss. The Shape of Water didn’t win at the Globes. Spotlight didn’t win. The Hurt Locker didn’t win. They function best as an audition for winners – how do spectators feel when the GG winners take the stage? Good? Or should someone else have won? Is there satisfaction after we hear the acceptance speech? Or buyer’s remorse.
What films will do well with the Globes? Magic 8-Ball says maybe:
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Dolemite Is My Name
Questions to ask: can Parasite break into the Best Picture circle at Globes? (Factor in the fact that the Globes voters will call any movie a comedy if it can elicit a single chuckle.) Can any woman director breakthrough at Globes?
Your typical industry voter — PGA and DGA
Both the PGA and DGA are very large consensus voting blocks. By the time the PGA comes out with their list of 10 nominees (unlike the Oscars, PGA voters have 10 nomination slots and 10 nominees, where Oscar has 5 nomination slots and a random number of nominees), we have a pretty good idea of what the consensus is. There are roughly 8,000 PGA members and they employ the preferential ballot to determine the winner.
The DGA has around 16,000 members, and the director with the most votes wins. Neither the PGA nor the DGA has an exclusive membership, not like the Academy. If you work, and pay your annual guild dues, then you’re in. Producers tend to pick movies they like, regardless of who directed them. The DGA is all in for the director as star and less often picks the director whose movie they simply liked (sometimes it happens, like The Artist).
What might the PGA pick?
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Ford v Ferarri
Queen & Slim
Influence factor: HUGE, off the charts huge, like couldn’t be more huge.
Your typical SAG/AFTRA voter: by far, SAG has the most diverse membership. They were much easier to suss out when they were just SAG. Now they have folded in AFTRA members, and have a massive membership of around 150,000. The nominating committee remains small, as around 2,000 randomly selected members each year get to pick which films get nominated. They tend to be the more inclusive (and let’s say populist) of all of the groups because their membership is more inclusive.
Influence factor: Pretty good
SAG Ensemble is looking good for:
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Dolemite Is My Name
But don’t count out:
Your typical Oscar blogger, journalist, pundit — people like ME
Some of us know the race better than others because some of us have been around a really long time. And just as we were when I started back in 1999, we are still a game of wishful thinking vs. reality. Like the critics, we are often driven by high status people in our midst — Mark Harris is a big one — but our clan falls into two camps: advocates and predictors. Predictors often see themselves as objective when in fact, they aren’t. Most are in it not for the game but for love of movies. Some are simply in it because they like to be right (raises hand) or they need the money (raises hand) or they think predicting the Oscars is fun (raises hand). Others are in it because they believe the Oscars are important and that they matter — and to them, it is all a very serious business.
There are various cliques and/or tribalism in the Oscar blogging world — where people sort of take sides and pick teams. They can advocate strongly for a movie or against a movie. This was true in the worst way with Green Book last year. The age old crossover between movies and politics means that the Oscar race itself becomes political, as it’s one thing the people on the left can still control. (Since they can’t control Trump; only Putin and other global blackmailers can do that.) There is recently increasing pressure on the Academy to right the wrongs of society and that’s how we ended up last year with NO HOST! Nothing is ever going to be enough, though, to right the wrongs of society. That much I know for sure.
To predict how the Oscar race is going to go you have to have a healthy understanding of the groups and of yourself. If you are too deep inside the cocoon of any of the various groups online, you might emerge with a slightly distorted vision of the race. The early predictions are often made by people who are trying to check the boxes of inclusion, for instance. It can’t just be all five white men in the Best Director race. Among this type of pundit, it’s tough to agree on one woman. Ideally, it should be a woman of color, and even then it can’t be a black woman unless there’s a black woman AND an Asian woman. Their lists defines who they are. If you make a list of Best Director candidates and choose five men (still the most likely scenario any given year) you risk being mocked and shamed and blamed. [Cue the shaming for the writing of that sentence.]
So there you go, a quick and dirty guide to the fundamentals of Oscar watching.
I am sure some of you are wondering: Why are you underestimating Joker? I simply don’t know which way it is going to land with voters — not critics, not industry, not Globes. It is incredibly divisive — just because it made a lot of money doesn’t mean it will be rewarded. Rewarding something is an endorsement of it. A lot of people might feel comfortable endorsing and a lot of them might not. So for me, Joker is… a wild card. It’s still a “wait and see.”
That goes for the “Netflix factor” too. Since each of those movies would be included anyway I have included them. But yes, the biases are the biases and we don’t know yet know what they will be.
Finally, know your Oscar voter – they split, more or less, into three major groups.
1) The old-timers – aka “the steak eaters” – they are older, 60s and 70s, who have been there, done that and are the easiest voters to predict because they have a very specific kind of taste.
2) The actors – they make up the majority of the Academy, with a category that doubles almost any other. Actors tend to like films with a big cast — 4 or more main characters. They tend to like actor-driven films, rather than director driven or effects driven.
3) The newbies – these folks are brand new and unpredictable. They are often brought up when people think the Best Picture winner will be unpredictable. They are younger, a lot of them non-white, and some are new to the game of film awards. But for the most part, a consensus is a consensus is a consensus.
The total membership is not known. In 2017 it was 6,687. But that number has likely increased. What we do know is: “32 percent of its members were female (up from 25 percent in 2015) and 16 percent were people of color (up from 8 percent in 2015).”
Well, it’s a mess, ain’t it Sheriff.
If it ain’t, it’ll do til the mess gets here.