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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