Oscar’s Weird Science Remains a Head-Scratcher

It’s 3½ months until the Academy Awards, and the general campaign lament is “It’s a weird year.” In truth, every year is unpredictable, but 2015 seems weird because people expect it to follow patterns — they WANT it to follow patterns. And with Oscar, that’s never gonna happen.

Studios and Oscar analysts try to apply mathematical precision to something that cannot be measured: Personal taste. So there is a lot of pontificating, speculating, arguing, but it’s all ultimately guesswork about what people like and why.

This year seems strange because of four key factors: history, timing, overpopulation and misperception.

1. History. At this point in the race, we had front-runners for the past two years: “12 Years a Slave” and “Gravity” in 2013; and “Boyhood” and “Birdman” last year. But those two years were oddities and spoiled us. In 2012, for example, people liked “Argo” but it wasn’t necessarily The One to Beat. This year, there are several great films, but no one knows what to make of them. Some people are convinced “The Martian” is the front-runner. Others aren’t sure it will even get a best-picture nomination. That same yin-yang confusion applies to a dozen other pictures. There is great filmmaking in “Inside Out,” “Straight Outta Compton” and “Mad Max: Fury Road.” Will they be nominated? Yes, no, maybe. The Oscars are like a political race, but with no polling and no voting records from past elections to provide clues. And while the notion of “no clear front-runner” is upsetting to many, it’s standard.

2. Timing. We still haven’t adjusted to the fact that the Academy moved its awards a month earlier (which started with the films of 2003). With Oscar, timing is a crucial factor and studios are trying to gauge how to continue the buzz on such fest offerings as “Bridge of Spies,” “Brooklyn,” “Carol,” and “The Danish Girl.” Screenings, Q&As and parties/receptions are already in full swing, but strategists are trying to build interest without overselling a film. And everybody is focusing on films that are largely unseen, including “The Revenant,” “The Big Short,” “Joy,” “The Heart of the Sea,” “Hateful Eight.”

3. Overpopulation. The Oscar uncertainty is no greater this year than in the past. It just seems more confusing, because there are more people talking about it. Every year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences gets an increase in the number of news outlets applying for credentials. Because this, studios are hiring more PR companies to deal with all these pesky reporters. The number of participants has grown significantly since olden times (i.e. 10 years ago). With more reporters and more publicists, the noise gets louder.

4. Misperception. Many Oscar pundits are speculating whether the box office for “Black Mass” and “Steve Jobs” will be a factor in their awards futures. Maybe. But here’s some perspective: Best picture winner “The Artist” had $9 million in box office when Oscar nominations were announced — and both “Mass” and “Jobs” have already passed that mark. The worldwide total of top prize recipient “Hurt Locker,” after the final ceremony, was only $49 million. So there’s no consistent connection between boxoffice and awards. In terms of tastes, some Oscar handicappers have worried that no film so far has across-the-board love. But actually, that’s true of most nominees and even winners. Some films have been described as tough to watch, including “Beasts of No Nation,” “Room” and “Son of Saul.” But the people who like those movies REALLY like those movies, and that’s what’s important. In Oscars, passion will always outweigh mass acceptance.
Did we answer your questions about this year’s race? Of course not, because there ARE no answers at this point. The season is just getting under way — so try to enjoy the ride.

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  1. Jesse says:

    Dude, please don’t compare the huge bomb Steve Jobs with The Artist and The Hurt Locker. Jobs won’t gross more money in the future and see yourself the other two films results:

    The Hurt Locker: 15M budget, 17M in domestic and 32M abroad. Jobs grossed HALF its budget so far in US.

    The Artist: 15M budget, 44M in domestic (until Oscar’s nominations, it had incredible PTA’s, something Jobs only had in four theaters) and 88,7M overseas.

    Not a good comparison, sorry. I am sure Academy will give Jobs a few nods because it’s obvious they won’t snub their beloved Sorkin and Boyle. But we can expect only nods to Winslet, screenplay, editing and maybe best picture. Fassbender isn’t campaigning and all his contenders are so he can be easily out.

  2. Aga says:

    Last year’s winner “The Birdman” made only $42 million in the USA and another 60 oversea with all the Oscar promotion and is presented by trade journalists as a big success. Black Mass made more than another adult oriented movies of the fall and putting it together with Steve Jobs in one sentence is simply unjust.

  3. “Many Oscar pundits are speculating whether the box office for “Black Mass” and “Steve Jobs” will be a factor in their awards futures. Maybe. But here’s some perspective: Best picture winner “The Artist” had $9 million in box office when Oscar nominations were announced — and both “Mass” and “Jobs” have already passed that mark. The worldwide total of top prize recipient “Hurt Locker,” after the final ceremony, was only $49 million. So there’s no consistent connection between boxoffice and awards.”

    By simply lumping all of these together you misrepresent the reality of each of them and how each was able to win. “The Artist” began its run at Cannes and was Weinstein in his prime. “The Hurt Locker” was the first Iraq war movie that AMPAS wanted to embrace and it being directed by a woman who would go on to be the first to win Best Director, that’s a huge narrative. It also came from a small and totally untested studio.

    Speculating on Black Mass or Steve Jobs based on their box office, stars and studio is not only fair it’s vital. Studio failures are not looked upon well by AMPAS in Best Picture unless you have a seriously exceptional studio and PR team that can make it happen. WB managed it with Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, a film that was both a critical and box office failure. That helps Black Mass if WB chooses to put everything they have into it and give the short shrift to Mad Max, Creed and In the Heart of the Sea.

    I agree with the majority of the rest of you piece though but with the box office thing it’s simply not explored enough to be accurate as is.

  4. Ken says:

    BRIDGE OF SPIES, TRUTH, TESTAMENT OF YOUTH and THE WALK are outstanding. Hope to see them all in the mix early next year.

  5. Marshmallow says:

    Mark Watney has botany powers. Just sayin’.

  6. john says:

    Can’t wait to see JOY, The Revenant and Star Wars!

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