Oscar forecasters get passing grades

Guilds, other awards shaped an unsuprising nom pool

This was supposed to be the wide-open year, the Oscar picture race where no one knew anything, the contest that was anything but predictable, right?

Yeah, right.

When the nominations were announced Feb. 12, there were the usual quota of surprises (mostly who wasn’t nominated), but there were not as many shockers as a “wide-open year” would indicate.

By the middle of January, a consensus seemed to have developed around “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring,” “A Beautiful Mind” and “Moulin Rouge” as likely bets, with the remaining slots going to two out of a pool of about five titles.

But this is not to imply that all the nominees were easy to call. Every year, Oscar seers pore over critics awards, Golden Globes, and guild nominations as if they were tea leaves, looking for clues. And it turns out this year, one with no easy front-runners, their rate of accuracy was no better or worse than past years — which means that Oscar predicters were not bad, but not great.

The first place many Oscar watchers go for clues about who’ll get the best pic nods is the Directors Guild of America. One of the most familiar refrains is that the DGA honoree is a normally reliable predictor of the directing Oscar winner, and that win is in turn a strong indicator of the almighty best picture winner.

(True, the DGA winners often foreshadow Oscar’s helmer victor. But last year, the DGA didn’t even nominate Ridley Scott, and his “Gladiator” won Oscar’s top prize, so there you go.)

This year, DGA and Academy directing noms agree on Ron Howard for “Beautiful Mind,” Peter Jackson for “Lord of the Rings” and Ridley Scott for “Black Hawk Down.” The guild rounded out its list of finalists with Baz Luhrmann (“Moulin Rouge”) and Christopher Nolan (“Memento”), while the Academy opted for Robert Altman for “Gosford Park” and David Lynch for “Mulholland Drive.” In all, a 60% overlap: not bad.

Like the DGA, the Producers Guild of America has a three-for-five ratio as an Oscar predicter this year. Both picked “Beautiful Mind,” “Lord of the Rings” and “Moulin Rouge,” but the Producers Guild rounded out its list with “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” and “Shrek.”

What about other presenting organizations?

This year, the American Film Institute’s new awards and the British Academy of Film & Television Arts’ now-in-kudo-season affair have been touted as Oscar indicators. In some recent years, the Independent Feature Project’s Independent Spirit Awards were also seen as an indicator.

AFI gave its award to “Lord of the Rings,” which of course received the most Oscar noms.

BAFTA, meanwhile, seems to be following form, agreeing on three of the five Oscar contenders: “Beautiful Mind,” “Moulin Rouge” and “Lord of the Rings.” It rounds out its pic list with “Shrek” and “Amelie.”

As for IFP, not this year. Even with the presence of two indie-spirited films in the running for Oscar’s top prize — “In the Bedroom” and “Gosford Park” — the IFP was 0-for-5. Its finalists: “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” “L.I.E.,” “Memento,” “Things Behind the Sun” and “Waking Life.” Of that list, only “Memento” scored any Acad noms (it was cited for screenplay and editing).

OK, so if Oscar isn’t in an independent mood, then maybe the box office performance of the 2001 releases provides some clarity. In fact, the year-end B.O. champs aren’t much better at picking the finalists.

Of the top 20 films at the domestic box office of 2001, only five received any nominations — “Lord of the Rings,” “Harry Potter,” “Shrek,” “Monsters, Inc.” and “Pearl Harbor.” Of that group, only “Rings,” “Shrek” and “Monsters” received mentions in the “glamour” categories, and only the lofty “Lord of the Rings” made it into the pic finals. So much for that.

As befits a year where confusion seemed to dominate, at least early in the campaign, few media pundits actually ventured to predict nominations. But there were a few brave souls.

Kenneth Turan, film critic for the Los Angeles Times, did well, as perhaps the critic for industry’s hometown paper should. He was confident that “Lord of the Rings” and “Beautiful Mind” would get nominations, fairly certain “In the Bedroom” and “Black Hawk Down” would make the list, and included “Moulin Rouge” and “Gosford Park” as two possibilities for the final spot. (In addition to “Black Hawk,” his list of possibilities also included “Ali” and “Mulholland Drive.”)

Others media pros could be found at http://www.goldderby.com, the site run by self-styled kudo expert Tom O’Neil. He collected the predictions of a number of prominent entertainment journalists, like these two:

  • Entertainment Weekly’s Dave Karger did well, predicting “Lord of the Rings,” “Beautiful Mind,” “Moulin Rouge” and “In the Bedroom” would make the finals, and then assigning the fifth spot to one among “Gosford Park,” “Shrek” and “Black Hawk Down.”

  • Dave Germain, who covers film for the Associated Press, did almost as well, predicting “Rings,” “Mind” and “Moulin Rouge” would get in and giving slightly less certainty to his pick of “Gosford Park.” But he rounded out his list with “Black Hawk Down.”

  • But when it comes to Oscar predictions, a special mention must go to Anne Thompson in February’s issue of Premiere magazine. Given that publication’s long lead time, she had to make her choices back in November, before a number of contenders were even released. Given that handicap, it’s pretty impressive that her list included “A Beautiful Mind” and “Gosford Park” (OK, so she also included “Amelie,” “Ali” and “Black Hawk Down”). Among her spoilers were the other eventual nominees.

And there you have it. What does it tell anyone about whom to turn to to predict the ultimate winner March 24? Basically, your guess is as good as anybody’s.

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