As of today, we still don’t have a definitive precursor to nail down Best Director or Best Picture.
In terms of Best Director, the Golden Globes and the DGA are still the best predictors to tell us who will win Best Director in the era of the preferential ballot.
Let’s go back to look at 20 years of Oscar-winning directors — keeping in mind two factors necessary to understand stats:
- In 2004, the Academy pushed the date of the Oscars up one month, from late March to late February — that shifted the movies seen earlier at film festivals like Telluride and Venice to the front of the line.
- Since 2009, the Academy expanded its ballot to embrace more that five movies per year for Best Picture. In 2009 and 2010 they had ten nomination slots and ten nominees; from 2011 onward, just five nomination slots and a sliding number of nominees that would range between five and (theoretically) 10. This would prove to make a significant difference for Best Picture outcomes.
Here’s how the Globes and DGA have synced up with the Oscar for Best Director over the past two decades:
2000: Steven Soderbergh, Traffic — Gladiator
2001: Ron Howard, A Beautiful Mind (DGA)
2002: Roman Polanski, The Pianist — Chicago
2003: Peter Jackson, Return of the King (Globe/DGA)
2004: Clint Eastwood, Million Dollar Baby (Globe/DGA)
2005: Ang Lee, Brokeback Mountain (Globe/DGA) — Crash
2006: Martin Scorsese, The Departed (Globe/DGA)
2007: Joel and Ethan Coen, No Country for Old Men (DGA)
2008: Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire (Globe/DGA)
2009: Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker (DGA)
2010: Tom Hooper, The King’s Speech (DGA)
2011: Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist (DGA)
2012: Ang Lee, Life of Pi — Argo
2013: Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity (Globe/DGA) — 12 Years a Slave
2014: Alejandro G. Inarritu, Birdman (DGA)
2015: Alejandro G. Inarritu, The Revenant (Globe/DGA) — Spotlight
2016: Damien Chazelle, La La Land (Globe/DGA) — Moonlight
2017: Guillermo del Toro, The Shape of Water (Globe/DGA)
2018: Alfonso Cuaron, Roma (Globe/DGA) — Green Book
What becomes immediately clear from the outset is how common Best Director/Best Picture splits have become in the era of the preferential ballot, and especially the era of five nomination slots and variable nominee slates. The main reason is that passion drives films to the top of a ballot during nomination time but when it comes time to win, passion isn’t as reliable as general favorability. It’s the nature of the preferential ballot for overall favorability to be measured.
You can also see that when there were only five Best Picture nominees splits were less likely because the same passion drove both Picture and Director. Right? So to predict our winner in a competitive year, we are generally not looking for passion to drive our preferential ballot champ.
Now let’s look at the only other preferential ballot in the race, the Producers Guild, to see how well that matches up in the 20-year sample of Best Picture Oscar mismatches:
Moulin Rouge! A Beautiful Mind
2003: The Return of the King
The Aviator _ Million Dollar Baby
Brokeback Mountain — Crash
Little Miss Sunshine — The Departed
2007: No Country for Old Men
2008: Slumdog Millionaire
2009: The Hurt Locker
2010: The King’s Speech
2011: The Artist
Gravity/ 12 Years a Slave (PGA tie)
The Big Short — Spotlight
La La Land — Moonlight
2017: The Shape of Water
2018: Green Book
What you see now is a bit of a reverse from the DGA — where before the five slot Best Picture race often produced conflicting winners with PGA and Oscar, since they now both employ the preferential ballot the films match more than they don’t. Not by much, but enough for the influence power to tip in the direction of the PGA.
We’ve already done our Globe/PGA challenge, but as a refresher, since 1917 has won the Globe, let’s look at which films have won what from 2009 to the present:
The Artist (Globe/PGA/DGA)
12 Years a Slave (Globe/PGA)
Green Book (Globe/PGA)
And the only film to win all three and not win Best Picture:
La La Land (Globe/PGA/DGA)
So why is that? Well, it’s because the way the preferential ballot works is that it discourages passionate choices if passion is all you got. A film has to land not just at the top for a lot of 1st choice placements, but when it missed the top spot it also needs to land in the 2nd and 3rd positions. It needs to be able to pick up votes in each round of balloting for however long voting goes until someone reaches a majority. That means a couple of things. You really like the movie but it isn’t your #1 favorite. You appreciate it more than you love it. You can imagine, in Moonlight’s case, a lot of people would have picked La La Land as number one but would have had no problem putting Moonlight as number two. Green Book benefited from the backlash against it last year because though it might not be everyone’s favorite, they like it enough to push it to the top of their ballots relative to other films.
Now, for the hell of it, let’s look at SAG ensemble and Best Picture in the same period:
2000: Traffic (won Best Director) — Gladiator
Gosford Park A Beautiful Mind
2003: Return of the King
Sideways – Million Dollar Baby
Little Miss Sunshine – The Departed
2007: No Country for Old Men
2008: Slumdog Millionaire
Inglourious Basterds–The Hurt Locker
2010: The King’s Speech
The Help – The Artist
American Hustle-12 Years a Slave
Hidden Figures – Moonlight
The Shape of Water – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Black Panther–Green Book
There again, the chances for a match-up are slightly higher with a five-nomination ballot at the Oscars.
Finally (because we’re here so why not), let’s quickly look at another five-nomination ballot, the BAFTA, and see how that has fared in the same period. A quick note about the BAFTA, though: they have changed around their voting over the years. In 2012, they changed their nominations procedure which may or may not have impacted how closely the Oscars and BAFTA mirror each other.
2000 – Gladiator (Ang Lee, Crouching Tiger-DGA), Steven Soderbergh, Traffic-Oscar)
Fellowship of the Ring +Peter Jackson A Beautiful Mind + Ron Howard
The Pianist Roman Polanski Chicago
2003 – Return of the King (Peter Weird Master and Commander), Peter Jackson
The Aviator, Mike Leigh for Vera Drake – Million Dollar Baby + Clint Eastwood
Brokeback Mountain, Ang Lee – Crash
The Queen, Paul Greengrass United 93 The Departed, Martin Scorsese
Atonement, Joel and Ethan Coen, No Country for Old Men
2008 – Slumdog Millionaire, Danny Boyle
2009 – The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow
2010 – The King’s Speech,
David Fincher The Social Network, Tom Hooper
2011 – The Artist, Michel Hazanavicius
2012 – Argo, Ben Affleck
2013 – 12 Years a Slave, Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity
Boyhood, Richard Linklater, Birdman, Alejandro G. Inarritu
The Revenant, Alejandro G. Inarritu, Spotlight
La La Land, Damien Chazelle, Moonlight
2017 -Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Mo, Guillermo del Toro, the Shape of Water
2018 – Roma, Alfonso Cuaron Green Book
Looking over this list, it seems like director often matches more than picture and the reason is extremely likely to be the preferential ballot. The films that win have to be films that are generally appealing across the board and aren’t really disliked by many people or divisive in any way. All three films, La La Land, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and Green Book were attacked in the U.S. press and on Twitter for their handling of black characters or the subject of race. The directors were all white male filmmakers whose films did not start out being divisive at all but became divisive in the Trump era where Democrats — or the left, or liberals or whatever you want to call us — are in hyper-reactive mode following the shock of the Trump presidency. I believe this has led to a wave of skepticism and outright disdain overall toward white male directors specifically, or at the very least led to a lack of enthusiasm for rewarding them. This trend definitely works in Parasite’s favor: it will never be attacked by anyone who is racially sensitive.
Looking closer at the SAG ensemble comparison, the only time a film won SAG ensemble without also winning one of PGA or DGA was Spotlight, which won in a crazy fluke year. And honestly, we might be headed for another one of those right now, as we see all of the major guilds go in three different directions — the same things that happened in 2015. In general, though, the PGA is still the best predictor for Best Picture, while the DGA is the best predictor of Best Director.
That means waiting to see who will win the DGA next week is going to be a cliffhanger. So far, Parasite has shown it can win on a five nomination ballot:
Parasite beat The Irishman, Ford v Ferrari, Joker (did not go up against 1917)
Parasite beat The Irishman, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Jojo Rabbit (did not go up against 1917)
1917 beat Parasite, The Irishman, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Jojo Rabbit, Joker, Marriage Story, Little Women, Ford v Ferrari, Knives Out
Here are a few random thoughts about last night’s Parasite win.
In Parasite’s favor:
- Parasite’s cast and crew are a joyous, charismatic group, especially director Bong Joon Ho. Not only is the film brilliant and speaks to the right now like no other, but Bong himself has a long career of dazzling original satirical films that expose society’s hypocrisy.
- It gains momentum every time someone prints the headline, “Parasite becomes the first foreign language film to win the ___ (e.g., ACE or the SAG Ensemble award.”
- It benefits from a season of complaints against predominantly white nominees. Can you imagine the headlines after the SAG ensemble honor had it not gone to Parasite? If all of the film winners were 100% white? Parasite’s win gets them off the hook from the angry mob on Twitter.
- Enthusiastic word-of-mouth is getting people to watch the movie. That usually means it quickly becomes the number one favorite of a good many people.
- Some have said it’s the perfect anti-Trump movie. I don’t see it that way. I think poor people put Trump in power, not rich people. Oh sure, the rich are pulling the strings, you can be sure of that — but many who voted for him are voters in the lower economic strata who are sick of the rigged system. I don’t see it as an anti-Trump message but I do see it as a film about right now, as Okja was, as Snowpiercer was. Bong Joon-ho is a deep thinker, a realist and a great satirist. But he didn’t make a movie about Donald Trump. His thinking is too broad for that.
- Parasite is likely a polarizing choice on a preferential ballot. I’m guessing that’s why it didn’t win PGA. Part of that could be that it’s a love it/hate it, like Gravity, like La La Land. It’s the kind of movie that you don’t just like. You LOVE. So if it isn’t at number one then it’s likely not going to be high on many ballots. Also, people who will resist seeing it because of subtitles or some other reason obviously won’t place it high on their ballots.
- No matter what people think, that Best International Film category is still there to represent a major win. Everyone already knows Parasite is winning that. So how many will feel an urgency to vote for it for Best Picture as well? Well a good many will. People who love it certainly will vote for it. People who do not want to award a film with an all-white cast might as well, and finally, people who want to see a foreign language film break that Best Picture barrier will vote for it.
- Best Picture is usually a film you can sit anyone down in front of and they will get it if not love it. This is true about Parasite but it’s still a movie you have to convince people to see. This is The Irishman’s problem too, by the way, because of its length. You have to talk people into watching it. Maybe this matters, maybe it doesn’t — but which films can you think of that work across the board? Well, 1917 is one. You can sit anyone down in front of it and most will get it. Sure, there will be the odd film snob here or there who is annoyed by the one-take thing, but for the most part it is a universal story about war. Like Green Book was about friendship, like Spotlight was about the cover-up of abuse in the Catholic Church, like Moonlight was about a guy accepting his sexuality. Every Best Picture winner in the era of the preferential ballot was about something you can easily explain to someone. Of all of them Birdman is probably the most complex.
The DGA will likely put things into clearer perspective, but if Parasite and 1917 are the two Best Picture frontrunners, then Houston, we have a problem. The reason being the long-standing importance of acting nominations and acting wins for a Best Picture winner. Which of the Best Picture contenders have Oscar acting nominations?
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood — 2
The Irishman — 2
Jojo Rabbit — 1
Joker — 1
Marriage Story — 3
Little Women — 2
How many Best Picture winners in this preferential ballot have had acting nominations? Well, all of them, but how many?
Green Book — 2 (won 1)
The Shape of Water — 3
Moonlight — 2 (won)
Spotlight — 2
Birdman — 3
12 Years a Slave — 3 (won 1)
Argo — 1
The Artist ‚ 2 (won 1)
The King’s Speech — 3 (won 1)
The Hurt Locker — 1
Now that Parasite has won the SAG ensemble, it might not matter that it has no individual acting nominations because the goodwill for the film, combined with a desire to make history, might overcome that obstacle where actors are concerned.
In the case of 1917, the movie itself will have to drive votes with actors. We have yet to see 1917 win a large consensus with actors involved because it wasn’t at nominated SAG. The DGA will be the next big test for Mendes and that movie.
And even though it hasn’t won anything, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood remains a threat because Brad Pitt’s magnetism and last night’s SAG Best Supporting Actor win could lift that film up in esteem and boost it to win on a preferential ballot.
I do think it’s down to these three with Once being the dark horse.
Even if Bong Joon Ho wins the DGA, that still doesn’t mean Parasite will definitely win Best Picture. This is the hardest concept, I think, for pundits to grasp — how the preferential ballot can cause things to go haywire in a competitive year. If Tarantino wins the DGA — well, then, that tips the power in Once Upon a Time’s favor, needless to say, and ditto Sam Mendes. The reason being, they do not have an additional category for Best Picture they can win, unlike Parasite.