Critics, studios butt heads over predictions

It’s finally here. The long months of planning for the awards season are starting to pay dividends, with the National Board of Review’s Wednesday announcement of its prizes, to be quickly followed by the L.A. Film Critics on Sunday; New York Film Critics on Monday; Critics Choice Awards (from the BFCA) on Tuesday; and Golden Globes noms Thursday.

These are the first official declarations of the year’s best films, but awards-obsessed bloggers, mainstream-media reporters and studio execs have been handicapping this year’s kudos race for ages, fearlessly making predictions about movies they haven’t seen.

They back up their prognostications with conventional wisdom about Hollywood film awards. But conventional wisdom is almost always wrong.

This year especially, traditional thinking should be thrown out the window.

Awards season is like a souffle: For most of the time, it’s just a bunch of goofy ingredients, and it takes shape only in the last few moments (as the gasps for Roman Polanski, Adrien Brody and “Crash” can attest).

Here are five common statements, always made as fact by journos, bloggers and campaign strategists — and rebuttals to all of them.

  • “It’s not a contender.”

Pundits love to look at films and say, “I liked it, but it’s not an Oscar movie.” But what is an Oscar movie?

Nobody proclaimed “Gladiator” or “The Departed” as front-runners when they opened. They were “just” entertaining.

A few years ago, one WB exec, who’d been among the first to see “Million Dollar Baby,” said to me, “It’s not an awards movie. (Hilary Swank) might get nominated, I guess, but I’m not even sure of that. It’s too depressing.”

Yes, Oscar voters have saluted some “noble” winners like “Gandhi” and “Dances With Wolves,” but there have also been “noble” films like “Snow Falling on Cedars,” “Beloved” and “Pay it Forward” that sounded good on paper — until they were screened.

The best-pic winners of the last decade resist easy classification, running the gamut from “Lord of the Rings” to “Shakespeare in Love.” Past nominees included “The Fugitive,” “The Full Monty,” “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” “The Sixth Sense” and “Chocolat.” None of them is “noble,” and none fits into the pattern of a “typical” awards film.

  • “Here’s how the race is shaping up so far …”

Awards oracles like to make predictions as early as possible. It’s fun, but futile.

If the balloting were held in September 2006, “Flags of Our Fathers” would have won best picture. (In January, it wasn’t even nominated.) Warner Bros.’ “The Departed” opened to a wave of huge enthusiasm, followed by the inevitable backlash, then a backlash against the backlash. Every campaign has a rhythm, and it’s impossible in November to predict what the mood will be when the final vote occurs in February. Remember those “Dreamgirls” lovers online, who predicted it would win — based on 20 minutes of footage? “Dreamgirls” campaigners had to deal with the backlash against unrealistic expectations. The result: The movie was not even nominated for best picture.

  • “It’s this year’s ‘Little Miss Sunshine.’ “ Some onlookers seem to think Oscar voters choose best-pic nominees like picking from a Chinese menu: One quirky little comedy, one period epic, one gritty drama, etc. And they think this extends to the other races: Kudos strategists say they hope an actor in a little indie “will get the Ryan Gosling slot” and that a foreign-language film “will do the whole ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ thing.”

Two years ago, the five best-pic contenders were all small-scale and serious (“Brokeback Mountain,” “Capote,” “Crash,” “Good Night, and Good Luck,” “Munich”). While it’s charming to think Oscar voters intentionally try to vary their menu, it doesn’t really work that way. They just vote for films they like.

  • “Attention from the critics is crucial.” There’s a kernel of truth here. When critics start handing out awards, it’s like an alert to Academy voters: “See this movie before you cast your ballot!” Many Acad voters are working stiffs and don’t have time to see endless films — so critics function like vidstore clerks, offering advice on what’s worth a look-see. But as a bellwether? Not so much. A few groups last year saluted “Departed,” but other critics picked “Letters From Iwo Jima” (L.A., National Board of Review) “United 93″ (N.Y., D.C.) and “Little Children” (S.F.).

And when Oscar noms are unveiled, we can all look forward to the inevitable lament over films that were overlooked. Last year, some reviewers were mystified (or indignant) that Academy voters didn’t give any attention to the Romanian “The Death of Mister Lazarescu.” But the voters’ reasoning is not so mysterious: They didn’t see it! Acad members vote for films they’ve seen, and some critics forget that not everybody sees a dozen movies every week.

  • “This is the worst year ever for films.”

When there’s no consensus on front-runners, some gripe that it’s a sign of too-few contenders. In fact, this complaint has been aired every year for the last two decades. It’s true, no single film has ignited — yet. But maybe there are too many good films. For example, just look at the lead and supporting actor races. Gordon Pinsent (“Away From Her”), Paul Schneider (“Lars and the Real Girl”), Song Kang-ho (Korea’s “The Host”), Michael Cera (“Superbad” and “Juno”) and Sam Rockwell (“The Assassination of Jesse James”) did stellar work. In a weaker year, they would be touted as hot contenders. But, in fact, both actor races are so jam-packed that a lot of great work is being shrugged off. That’s true in most other races as well.

All of these rebuttals aside, there is one easy prediction to make this year: Nobody will listen to any of this, the pundits aren’t going away — and all of this conventional wisdom will be repeated for years to come.

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more