It’s been a while since we’ve tackled the rules of Oscarwatching, eh? Longtime readers might remember that we used to do them a lot. I thought it might be a good time to check in. The last time I wrote one up was back in 2016.
But first, a brief lived history for anyone who might not know. When I first started in 1999 the Oscars were covered primarily by journalists or film critics in newspapers – yes, remember those? And magazines. Premiere (now defunct)(Anne Thompson), Entertainment Weekly (Dave Karger), the Los Angeles Times (Kenneth Turan), the Chicago Sun Times (Ebert). They were the high priests of Oscarwatching in the early days, the model to which many of us aspired in the early days.
Most everyone I knew who loved movies also loved predicting the Oscars. The game of it. The film snobs believed that the Oscars were, at that time, considered crass – or too populist to be respectable. Needless to say, that is among the many things that have changed. When the internet became a Wild Wild West, where anyone could start a website, I figured I’d take a crack at starting one called “Oscarwatch,” taking the name from Dave Karger’s column and the way most journalists referred to the month or so they paid attention to the Oscars. It was commonly used and not original. But me, thinking it was super smart and not, you know, copyright infringement, I bought the domain name and ran with it.
If you want to hear my podcast memoir on this I have been slowly recording episode by episode over at Gold Tripping. It is half about the Oscars and half about my own life. I am up to the year 2013.
My challenge, as I chose to accept it, was to figure out why Citizen Kane lost to How Green Was My Valley. The idea was, I would track the entire year from beginning to end. January to the Oscars to look at the movies presented, how they are reviewed and received overall, look at all of the factors that build an Oscar contender and finally, what makes one film win and another not win, especially when oftentimes that other film will come to be regarded as the best, or one of the best, films ever made.
I built my site to mimic a news site and pretended to be an actual journalist. Had I known I was going to be part of destroying actual news, actual journalism, and eventually film criticism and perhaps the Oscars themselves, maybe I would have stopped myself. Kidding! Only kind of not. But back then, it was move fast, break things. And it was fun, above all.
Our rules were things like “never underestimate the power of Judi Dench.” But a girl has learned a thing or two in over twenty years. Herewith, an updated version.
- You follow the race, you do not lead it. This is a tough one for me to remember as I sort of secretly see myself as the great maestro pulling the strings and directing the race as I want it to go. That is likely why I exploded in fits of fury whenever it didn’t go as I wanted it to. I tricked myself into thinking I had something to do with Halle Berry winning in 2001 or The Departed winning in 2006 or Green Book winning in 2016. The truth is, the more hands-off the Oscar bloggers, the better the health of the industry overall, and the more organic the Oscar race. But this is really hard to achieve.
- The Oscar race is fluid, not static. What that means is that your own personal experience with a movie in a screening or at a film festival might not necessarily translate when the film finally opens and people start seeing it, chattering about it, buzzing about it. Contenders are living things that have their own life cycle in the many-months-long Oscar race. That is why actors have to show up everywhere, shake every hand – or else take the opposite approach and shun the entire season so their aloof atitude in itself becomes the story. It isn’t always just about the work because everyone has their own individual response, but humans are communal. We are tribal. We like to like what others like, unless we’re the kinds of people who like to like what no one else likes. I can cite dozens of examples of films seen in a vacuum then predicted as FOR SURE winning before they have a chance to evolve into the season.
- Perception is everything. A publicist’s job is to make sure perception for a contender is pleasant all through the season. They manage perception more than anything else. In their toolbox: prestige, likability, euphoria, and now social justice optics. By contrast, if they want to knock out the competition they can simply mess with the perception of one to boost the other. This is called “dirty pool” but it has always existed in the Oscar race, even before I started. A great example of this was the competing casts in 2015 – Spotlight and The Big Short. Both had predominantly white casts but one had good people doing good things and the other had bad people doing bad things. The Spotlight crew were able to highlight their goodness with press but the Big Short crew had no way to do that. They were stuck selling a darker movie which is harder in an era of aspirational movies rather than darker ones (Parasite being the lone exception in the Trump era).
- Don’t be an easy mark. Old timers in the race can spot a mark a mile away. They are usually out there flapping their gums and doing the work for a particular publicist to smear a contender and knock them out of competition by messing with perception. We’ve all been there. We’ve all been “worked” and some of us still are vulnerable to this. But the reason you don’t want to be a mark, necessarily, as it can sometimes and often does backfire. For example, “I’m hearing the love for Green Book is overblown and no one really likes it very much. It might not win.” That’s not to say that on the ground chatter isn’t useful but it has to be something you keep hearing, not something someone told you about something they heard. An example: David Carr back in 2005 was able to predict Crash winning based on the buzz on the ground. Had I been smarter I would have picked up the buzz for Parasite post-SAG but especially how people were talking about it inside the Dolby on Oscar night. THAT is genuine buzz. But approach every rumor and every conversation with healthy skepticism. My own personal credo has always been or tried to be: first, do no harm. I haven’t always lived up to it but my job is not to destroy things but rather to objectively analyze them or prop them up.
- Twitter is not the film industry at large. Twitter warps perception across all aspects of American culture. It is a sad day that the media suckles at the Twitter nipple too much, such that they amplify what is the distorted reality of Twitter. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it will trickle down to Oscar voters or that the vibe you are getting about a contender on Twitter necessarily will match that will a large consensus of thousands of people who don’t follow Twitter might think. This is a tough one because this year there is little else to springboard off of than Twitter (which, to my mind, is worst case scenario). But the objectives of your average Film Twitter user is going to be different from your average industry voter’s. To my mind, with Film Twitter you either have one extreme (virtue signalers) or the other (trolls) and the former tends to win out. Thus, you might not necessarily go wrong THIS year predicting that way (virtue signaling) but in general it is important to try to have an objectivity about Film Twitter vs. reality. This is a place where films will be routinely sabotaged, heavily policed, slammed or celebrated. I sort of think that Parasite’s win had a lot to do with Twitter last year because very high profile people were using their massive platforms to advocate for the film (like Ava DuVernay and Rod Lurie, to name a couple). Now because of social media we have to know what people like Paul Schrader and James Mangold think about movies and that might make us falsely believe that they speak for the entire body of voters. They might, they might not. This rule is a work in progress. 2021 might be the year Twitter swallows up the Oscar race entirely. We’ll have to wait and see on that.
- Don’t dumb down or “smart up” the race thinking FOR voters. One of the biggest problems with how the Oscars go is that people like me are too quick to write off a movie that may or may not be a crowdpleaser or popular film just because we have typecast Oscar voters. Thinking FOR THEM means we winnow down the pile into something manageable for insular and isolated from the broader public. What will THEY like? Really, it would be ideal to gather as many as possible onto the pile and watch to see which ones continually rise. For one thing, we’re not always right, as was proven with Bohemian Rhapsody. Films will be attacked if they aren’t acceptable for Film Twitter, as that one wasn’t, and this year those protests will be loud and impossible to ignore if one movie becomes a target somehow (see: Perception is everything). But overall, our job should not be to say “no” as much as it should be to say “maybe.” For one thing, we all have a different idea of what “they” will go for. I remember as far back as A Beautiful Mind vs. Fellowship of the Ring and people thought for sure Fellowship would be the favorite. But it wasn’t. Not even close. Maybe those days are behind us. But to first do no harm is to always try harder to broaden the choices, not narrow them. Let the voters narrow them and see where it all leads.
- Keep an open mind in the age of paranoia and witch hunts. We’re living through extraordinary times. A person can be accused of something and they become the thing they are accused of. One accused, forever guilty. We saw a bit of this with Green Book and Three Billboards, with the former having their private life exposed and the latter because of how people interpreted the film’s treatment of police brutality. The industry broadly loved both films. Green Book ended up winning but Three Billboards didn’t. These two movies are good templates for how the Oscars are going to go for the foreseeable future – meaning, they will be judged not just on the kinds of films that get rewarded but also the people who made the films.Look at what happened to Armie Hammer and how quickly what is sort of a vague exchange of kinky texts ended up destroying his career. Now, if there is one letter from one person who worked on a movie and felt like they were treated badly that is all it would take to knock out a film from contention. What we have here is an ecosystem of people who see themselves as so good as to be nearly puritanical in their goodness, or certainly reaching to attain a utopian ideal for all things they can control, the Oscars being one of those things. Every winner will define not just who the Academy is but who the collective that gathers on Twitter and populate the news cycle also are. That is a lot of pressure for artists for sure but it is currently baked into the system. Thus, you have to decide who you want to be in this fight. I am usually the defender of people who are getting attacked. I am rarely, honestly probably never, the person who joins an angry mob on twitter or anywhere else attacking someone. That comes from having been bullied as a kid and what it left me with: a need to defend people. But that doesn’t always work out so well because you yourself can become a target. If I was influencing people to follow in my footsteps I would say that, in general, history does not look kindly on mob rule. It does not look kindly on witch hunts. If you want to be on the right side of history try, at the very least, not to join in.
- You are not a publicist. You are not a critic. You are somewhere in between. That means looking at the industry as a whole is the better way to cover what is supposed to be not just something for an elite group of people who are interested but rather, a big event meant to include everyone who loves movies. This is a hard one to navigate as well because a lot of times it feels like the job of someone who covers the Oscars is to be a hybrid between actual film criticism or journalism and publicity. But you don’t necessarily have to provide publicity if you don’t mean what you say. This probably goes without saying, but you don’t necessarily have to take orders from publicists who want you to drive the narrative they desire. It is important, always, to see both the narrative and the truth. The truth is ever-elusive but it is there and you can find it if you keep your mind free from falling into the trap of believing a narrative. Here is an example of that – last year, Joaquin Phoenix played The Joker and because of that he was treated to dozens of angry screeds about his participation in the film and his winning performance. He and his publicity team set about making sure the narrative of the season wasn’t “Joaquin Phoenix is winning for playing a dark character” but rather “Joaquin Phoenix is a good person and is standing up for animal rights.” They succeeded in that narrative, I think, because their job was simply to make voters feel okay about voting for him despite the role he played. The Joker did well regardless of the angry screeds against it. It was another film that pundits mostly misjudged (a few didn’t, Jazz Tangcay being among them).
- Be careful with certainty. Remember: nobody knows anything. What William Goldman meant by that wasn’t that no one knows anything ever about how the Oscars work. Of course we know how they work since we micromanage them every year. They tend to work how we say they should work. But, what Goldman meant was sometimes people can surprise you. Sometimes the season can surprise you. It might mean less now than it did for much of the time I have covered the Oscar beat, where we remember the stinging shame of our certainty when we got something really horribly wrong. My advice: always leave a tiny bit of room for doubt to cover yourself if you get something wrong in the end. “I think Avatar is going to win Best Picture but I don’t know, the Hurt Locker might.” As opposed to “Are you insane? Of course Avatar is going to win.”
- The Oscars are Miss Right Now, not Miss Right. The Oscars are a snapshot of a moment in time that tells you who people are in a given year. They are not, and cannot, be about films that stand the test of time. Each generation has its own idea of what is good and what isn’t. Those that resonate through the years do so because they never age badly and they tell some kind of universal truth. David Fincher’s films tend to age well and sometimes don’t do as well in the year they are released. I am not sure why this is exactly – my loose theory is that they are films that take a while to digest and understand – and to see them bounce off the eras as the years move forward. Like, who would have thought Se7en would be even more resonant today than it was in 1995? Never mistake a film doing well in Oscar season for what defines a great movie. Greatness can and must live outside the game of the Oscars. Sometimes they overlap (Parasite, Casablanca) and sometimes they don’t. But a film that wins Best Picture will always be the movie you can sit almost anyone down in front of and they will get it, at the very least, if not love it. They have to be able to get it – and many of the best films ever made are films not everyone gets, at least not on first viewing.
Here are a few more tips that will come into play in a given year:
Stats can only take you so far but some matter more than others.
Preferential ballot awards passion for nominations, but general liability + passion for the win. Divisive movies have a hard time overcoming hundreds of ballots where they rank 9th or 10th.
Actors rule the Academy with the largest branch. What they like most is usually what wins Best Picture.
Best Director and Best Picture tend to split in the era of the preferential ballot because Director tends to reward risk taking and passion where Picture tends to reward general likability.
Screenplay drives the Best Picture race in the era of the preferential ballot, meaning they are linked more often than Best Director ad Best Picture.
In general, collaborative efforts tend to win Best Picture more so than a singular writer and director. Even Parasite had a co-writer.
Big casts tend to do better than films with smaller casts.
And that, my friends, is all I got. Happy Oscarwatching. I’d love to hear some of yours.