If you are as absorbed in the Oscar race as I am, then odds are you pay close attention to the precursors that lead up to the Academy Awards. For those less familiar, the precursors are the awards that lead up to the Oscars. They act as the tea leaves that gurus fixate over in hopes of predicting which way AMPAS will go. When deliberating over these awards, it is important to distinguish which groups matter more than others, historically. At this point, most critics’ groups have weighed in. The Globes have been handed out. There was an explosion of Guild nominations that took place in the last week of January. Then, BAFTA put the final touch on phase one of the awards race. While we still need to see how these groups award their prize – phase two coming soon! – a consensus has been formed around which films, performances, and craftwork are the “best” of the year.
On Tuesday, February 8, AMPAS will release their nominations for the 94th Academy Awards. While predicting the winners is certainly fun, some races begin to feel over once the nominations drop. The period we are in now is the most exciting chapter of Oscar season. Predictions can be found all over the internet. Podcasts are full of experts ruminating over whether SAG means what it used to mean or if BAFTA has become the new dominant signal caller. While many of us are well-studied and know a thing or two, you will find a wide-ranging span of variances in our predictions. It is fun to see how different experts break down the race.
I surveyed a few colleagues to see if there were similarities in the methods we use to make our predictions. I concluded that Oscar predictions are often based on a combination of four rationales.
- Data analysis – In most analytical cases, the larger the data size, the better chance we have at an accurate result and the less likely we are to commit errors from testing a small number of atypical samples (outliers skew small data). We use predictive analytics to anticipate the likelihood of future outcomes based on recorded history. Where it gets really fun is using this information to identify trends that might lead us to the right conclusion. One of my favorite examples of this form of analysis was when I discovered how Production Design impacted the Visual Effects race (circa 2012). The stats have held up pretty well since then: 18 out of the last 21 winners in Visual Effects were also nominated for Art Direction/Production Design. Using data to identify a tendency that we might not have connected otherwise makes this approach the one I enjoy the most. But, to paraphrase Olympic champion Mark Spitz, records and stats are meant to be broken. Data and analytics might help you see trends that allow reactive predictions. However, they are less helpful with proactive decisions. That is where you must incorporate additional steps in the process.
- Cultural zeitgeist – Merriam-Webster defines this as the general beliefs, ideas, and spirit of a time and place. In short, how do the awards reflect the era we live in today? Look back to last year, with Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland. It feels like the proper film for post-Trump America. Nomadland is set in parts of the country that are consistently red. The film can be perceived as being aimed at an older demographic – a faction that feels society has failed so many people. Perhaps they are the ones most disappointed in the direction of our country, and thus: Nomadland. The same can be said about 2016, and the way Moonlight hit the zeitgeist of that election year. In the back of my mind, I will always feel that La La Land might have prevailed had the election gone a different way. It was a dark time for the liberal left of Hollywood, and their selection reflects that. Moonlight is also a fantastic film, so don’t get me wrong about it. It just represents that time. So, what represents this time? That’s something every Oscar pundit should consider. One authority I spoke to stated “even more important (than data and stats) is isolating every year on its own. It’s especially important as the industry constantly wrestles with diversity issues and shortcomings, and how they choose to implement change.”
- Conversations with voting members of AMPAS – If you’re lucky enough to have this kind of access, it helps to know directly from the mouths of voters which films they lean towards and which they are turned away from. However, even an Oscar guru from a major trade only gets access to a few hundred members per year. That’s kind of a small sample size out of a membership nearing 10,000 people. To me, this rationale is the most volatile (and the one I have the least access to.) As one highly respected Oscar guru told me, “these conversations have become increasingly pointless, at least as an aggregate data point.” I agree with this wholeheartedly. I would probably only use this intel – if I were ever to have such a thing – as a tie-breaker when I can’t decide between a contender or three for the last spot in their category.
- Gut instinct – Finally, there’s that old intuition that comes from years of Oscar-watching. That one that’s telling you to go with something unconventional. While history and precursors don’t paint an obvious path, you still choose the road less taken. “Follow reason, but don’t ignore that gut feeling.” – Debasish Mridha. Damn straight. It’s gut instinct that will separate your predictions from everyone else. I still brag about calling BOTH Supporting Actress Tilda Swinton (Michael Clayton) and Lead Actress Marion Cotillard (La Vie en Rose) wins in 2007. Few were predicting one, let alone both. Most were predicting Ruby Dee (American Gangster) to take Supporting after winning SAG. Amy Ryan (Gone Baby Gone) had won CCA (BFCA then) and Cate Blanchett (I’m Not There) had won the Globe. In Lead, most were feeling it was Julie Christie’s year (Away From Her). Christie had won SAG, CCA, AND the Globe. She looked unstoppable. While BAFTA was not as foretelling as it is today, that was the prize that both Cotillard and Swinton won. For whatever reason at the time, I went with my gut. And, as you can see, I am still bragging about that pair of lucky breaks 15 years later.
While I tend to use data and analytics for most of my reasoning, the other three components certainly play their part in my method of forecasting Oscar (I’ll get my word of mouth info from those who have that connection). It’s interesting how this case study could be applied to most decision-making processes: We should always consider our history, our present, the voice of the people, and our own intuitions before coming to a conclusion.
But let’s cut to the chase. You didn’t come here to listen to me pontificate on social or political matters, did you? You want the good stuff, right?
If you want to skip ahead, you can see my final predictions in all 23 categories here. For those more interested in the breakdown, I have provided a little of my thought process below.
In the last 12 years, 101 out of 115 Best Picture nominees received a Producers Guild (PGA) nom first (88%.) Odds are one of their 10 will miss. But which one?
I won’t be betting against one that has both PGA and Directors Guild (DGA), so Belfast, The Power of the Dog, Dune, Licorice Pizza, and West Side Story are the easy picks. Belfast is the only film to receive PGA, DGA, and Screen Actors Guild (SAG) Ensemble.
Speaking of SAG Ensemble, three other PGA noms received that prestigious precursor: Don’t Look Up, King Richard, and CODA. So those three join the other five as films I will not be betting against.
That leaves two spots for about five or six films. Time for that gut instinct component to get to work!
Here’s why I went with tick… tick… Boom! in the ninth spot: Aside from PGA, Boom! received recognition from four other Guilds – Editors (ACE), Writers (WGA), Set Designers (SDSA), and Sound Editors (MPSE.) The film also received a Best Picture nomination from the Globes and the Critics’ Choice (CCA), as well as a place on the American Film Institute’s (AFI) Top 10 list. Many are arguing that one studio (Netflix) getting three Best Picture nominations is unlikely – it’s a feat no studio has accomplished since United Artists in 1976 – but I would point out that only twice in those 45 years were there 10 Best Picture nominees. In 33 of those years, there were half that many. The odds of getting three this year are much higher than in years past.
Here’s why I picked Being the Ricardos as the odd PGA out: The film was nominated by the Globes, BAFTA (British Academy), and CCA. But in all three cases, it was nominated for Screenplay and skipped over when it came to Picture. The love for Aaron Sorkin and Nicole Kidman is real, but is the love for the film as genuine? There is a pattern where Ricardos misses for Picture, so I am betting on the miss here as well.
That leaves me looking at House of Gucci (the only SAG Ensemble nominee not listed above), Drive My Car (the international sensation and critics’ darling), and Nightmare Alley (Guillermo del Toro’s film) for that last spot.
While Gucci did well with SAG, that might be more of an indication that Jared Leto has a shot in Supporting Actor. Despite The Power of the Dog, The Lost Daughter, and Drive My Car all being ineligible for WGA’s Adapted Screenplay, House of Gucci still missed. That might indicate what they think of the film and where it might or might not show up on nomination morning. Aside from SDSA and CDG (Costume Designers), Gucci laid an egg with every other major precursor. It’s a film that does well with the acting branch, and not much else.
Drive My Car laid a similar egg with the guilds. Literally zero. It missed in the three biggest categories with the Globes (Picture, Director, Screenplay) as well as with CCA. And if ANY group was going to go for Drive My Car, you would think it would be the group (critics) that have been bestowing prize after prize on the film. Even BAFTA left Drive My Car out of its Picture race, despite giving the nod to Ryûsuke Hamaguchi in Director and Screenplay there.
That leaves me with the film I landed on for the tenth spot: Nightmare Alley. As Sasha often mentions, Guillermo del Toro is beloved. Not only did his Shape of Water win Best Picture in 2017, but Sasha also often cites del Toro for championing Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite to win Best Picture in 2019. The man is a giant, passionate teddy bear. If you’ve ever listened to him speak about a film, you know how convincing and charming he can be. Nightmare Alley did better than most will remember on the precursor trail. The film was able to capture that WGA nom that Gucci could not. Aside from WGA, six other guilds supported the film. The CCA gave it a nod for Best Picture, and AFI listed Nightmare Alley in their top 10 list as well. Broad support and in the right categories.
- The Power of the Dog
- Licorice Pizza
- Don’t Look Up
- West Side Story
- King Richard
- tick… tick… Boom!
- Nightmare Alley
Alternates: Being the Ricardos, House of Gucci, Drive My Car
Brief summary of other challenging fifth spot selections above the line
Director – I didn’t have the balls to bet against the DGA five. Hamaguchi, del Toro, Maggie Gyllenhaal (The Lost Daughter), and Adam McKay (Don’t Look Up) all feel like strong bets to upset. The problem is which one? And even more problematic: which DGA nom do you pull out? If I had to break from the DGA five, I would bet on Hamaguchi, who is coming off the BAFTA nomination. I would replace Steven Spielberg (West Side Story), who seems the weakest now. But he’s STEVEN F’ING SPIELBERG!! I will play it safe and ride with DGA.
- Jane Campion (The Power of the Dog)
- Kenneth Branagh (Belfast)
- Denis Villeneuve (Dune)
- Paul Thomas Anderson (Licorice Pizza)
- Steven Spielberg (West Side Story)
Alternate: Ryûsuke Hamaguchi (Drive My Car)
Lead Actor – I pulled Ricardos out of Picture, where I have Don’t Look Up in my top five. I am going with Leonardo DiCaprio (BAFTA) over Javier Bardem (SAG) for the fifth spot.
- Will Smith (King Richard)
- Benedict Cumberbatch (The Power of the Dog)
- Andrew Garfield (tick, tick… Boom!)
- Denzel Washington (The Tragedy of Macbeth)
- Leonardo DiCaprio (Don’t Look Up)
Alternate: Javier Bardem (Being the Ricardos)
Lead Actress – Good luck! When Kristen Stewart – my personal pick for Best Actress this year – misses SAG and BAFTA, then who the hell knows what is up with this category?! I went with Alana Haim (Licorice Pizza) over Jennifer Hudson (Respect) and kept the rest of the SAG five. Of the big four acting prizes (SAG, BAFTA, Globes, and CCA), Haim only missed SAG. SAG was the only main prize Hudson was recognized at. One of these films is a Best Picture/Director/Screenplay contender. The other is… not. The biggest argument I can make for Hudson (outside of her actual performance) is that she is the African American with the best chance of being nominated in this category. And, as we are often reminded, the Academy has bestowed this award to only one Black actress in 93 years (Halle Berry, Monster’s Ball 2001.) The hopes of that streak coming to an end led me to pick Viola Davis (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) to win last year, and we know how that turned out in the end. An additional note on Penelope Cruz – this is probably the greatest example of Conversations with voting members of AMPAS coming into play this year. It must be the reason so many well respected Oscarologists are predicting her to land. There is literally nothing in the precursor trail that would point to Cruz even being in the top seven or eight (no SAG, CCA, Globe, and even failed to make the BAFTA longlist). But she’s right there, on multiple prediction lists. I can only imagine the volume of Academy members that must have been gushing about her performance (deservedly so) that would point these folks to predicting her in the five. I just couldn’t get myself there.
- Nicole Kidman (Being the Ricardos)
- Lady Gaga (House of Gucci)
- Olivia Colman (The Lost Daughter)
- Alana Haim (Licorice Pizza)
- Jessica Chastain (The Eyes of Tammy Faye)
Alternate: Penelope Cruz (Parallel Mothers)
Supporting Actor – I mentioned Leto above getting carried in alongside Lady Gaga by the actor’s branch. I went stray from the SAG five by taking Ciaran Hinds (Belfast) over Ben Affleck (The Tender Bar.) Reasoning there is pretty simple: Hinds gives (perhaps) the best performance in (perhaps) the best film of the year. It would be a shame if he missed.
- Bradley Cooper (Licorice Pizza)
- Kodi Smit-McPhee (The Power of the Dog)
- Troy Kotsur (CODA)
- Ciaran Hinds (Belfast)
- Jared Leto (House of Gucci)
Alternate: Ben Affleck (The Tender Bar)
Supporting Actress – I expect this category to be a mess, like Lead Actress. I have Ruth Negga (Passing) out, and Aunjanue Ellis (King Richard) in. Otherwise, same SAG lineup. Same logic applies to Ellis that applies to Leto (Will Smith in place of Gaga). Also, if King Richard is a Best Picture nominee and Passing isn’t, doesn’t that help?
- Ariana DeBose (West Side Story)
- Caitriona Balfe (Belfast)
- Kristen Dunst (The Power of the Dog)
- Cate Blanchett (Nightmare Alley)
- Aunjanue Ellis (King Richard)
Alternate: Ruth Negga (Passing)
Adapted Screenplay – It feels like Drive My Car is showing up SOMEWHERE above the line. While it could land Picture or Director nominations, I feel Adapted Screenplay might be the easiest place for it to sneak in. This move could come at the expense of Tony Kushner’s West Side Story, a film that seemed to be falling short in the final days of precursors (missing SAG, ACE, Globe Screenplay, USC Scripter, and all three of BAFTA’s Picture, Director, and Screenplay awards.)
- Jane Campion and Thomas Savage (The Power of the Dog)
- Maggie Gyllenhaal (The Lost Daughter)
- Sian Heder (CODA)
- Jon Spaihts and Denis Villeneuve (Dune)
- Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, Haruki Murakami, and Takamasa Oe (Drive My Car)
Alternate: Tony Kushner (West Side Story)
Original Screenplay – I toyed around with the idea of King Richard missing here in favor of Pedro Almodovar’s Parallel Mothers. As Variety’s Clayton Davis pointed out, we often get a lone screen play nomination (the last few years have seen Knives Out (2019), First Reformed (2018), The Big Sick (2017) and 20th Century Women (2016) nominated for Screenplay and nothing else.) Being that Almodovar’s film was passed over by Spain for its International Feature submission, there aren’t a whole lot of places the film could show up (Cruz in Actress perhaps.) If we have a lone Screenplay nomination, I think that’s your best bet. But why should we assume Zach Baylin’s script is the weak link? No signs point to this. The screenplay was recognized by WGA, BAFTA, and CCA, while the film landed PGA and SAG Ensemble nominations as well. All signs point to strength, not weakness.
- Kenneth Branagh (Belfast)
- Paul Thomas Anderson (Licorice Pizza)
- Adam McKay (Don’t Look Up)
- Aaron Sorkin (Being the Ricardos)
- Zach Baylin (King Richard)
Alternate: Pedro Almodovar (Parallel Mothers)
Listen, we are now over 3,000 words in. I can’t imagine you are still reading this. It’s like that scene at the end of the credits in Ferris Buehler’s Day Off when Matthew Broderick comes back out and says “You’re still here? It’s over. Go home. Go!” All kidding aside, if you actually got to this point, then know you are appreciated. Thank you for reading my work this year. If you’d like to discuss the rationale for my choices in the crafts, please comment below or tweet at me (@marklikesmovies) and let’s discuss!
Best of luck with your own predictions!