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Oscar forecasts: A tale of prophets and losses

Frenzy of predictions will increase with ballots in

Final Oscar ballots were mailed Wednesday and are due back Feb. 22. Here’s what to expect:

• Behind frozen smiles, awards strategists will look even more frantic, and contenders will look even more exhausted.

• Mudslinging will increase. Rivals will target films based on real people — “The King’s Speech,” “The Social Network,” “The Fighter” and “127 Hours” — by uncovering every naughty thing the real-life character said or did, every bad check written, every angry word ever spoken (and every breach of accuracy in the film).

• Oscar pundits will go into a frenzy of predictions.

These “experts” study the season’s earlier awards — the critics groups, the guilds, etc. — for omens. They’re like primitive tribes who watch volcanic activity, convinced that every change is a sign from the gods. In truth, volcanic eruptions are due to gasses, not deities. And so it is with Oscar predictions: There’s an awful lot of gas involved.

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Guessing games are fun, but one shouldn’t apply scientific principles to a distinctly unscientific process: Taste and mood cannot be predicted or measured.

So how accurate are these bellwethers in predicting the eventual best-pic Oscar winner?

The chart on the left covers six Oscar indicators for the past 15 years. In terms of reliable foreshadowing, the leaders are the DGA and the Oscar nominations themselves (i.e., the pic that receives the most noms).

The chart on the right (below) shows the correlation since Oscar moved a month earlier, beginning with the Feb. 29, 2004, telecast. In those seven years, four of the six bellwethers became more reliable. However, the connection has dropped sharply in both Golden Globe winners and the film that earned the most Oscar noms.

And what accounts for all this? I have no idea!

That’s because no Hollywood voting org will reveal its tallies.

In presidential elections, strategists can look at the results of the primaries and at past elections. This data will help them discover trends of various ethnic and age groups, of geographical preferences and of the public’s mood changes over time.

But the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences inaugurated a policy of secrecy, which has been followed by other awards orgs. So strategists must guess: At last year’s Oscars, what pic was runner-up to “The Hurt Locker”? And how many votes made the difference? How did the cinematography branch tend to vote, and what films did the music branch like best?

Without this info, strategists must guess on how to target their campaigns, and they often do a pretty good job. Pundits also must guess, which is why they come up with volcanic explanations.

I’m not advocating that kudos orgs reveal tallies. I understand why they’re secret. No contender would like to discover that they got only five votes out of a possible 6,000. It would be better not to be nominated.

But the secrecy leads to conspiracy theories (“They hate comedies!” “They resent his success!”) when in fact the person in question may have scored quite strongly.

This has turned out to be a fun year, with Sony’s “The Social Network” nabbing all the major early prizes, until the Weinstein Co.’s “The King’s Speech” suddenly won a trio of guild awards and garnered the most Oscar noms. The two films switched the roles of underdog and frontrunner. In the words of Variety executive editor Steven Gaydos, it seems to be a faceoff between friending and friendship.

Before the “King’s” wins, many Oscar pundits declared “Social Network” the sure winner, that the race was over. Dave Karger at Entertainment Weekly, the L.A. Times’ Nicole Sperling and I were among the few who said it’s not a fait accompli since AMPAS voters and critics groups are not the same. You cannot look at Iowa primaries and know how Hawaiian voters will cast their ballots.

So I’m not convinced it’s just a two-horse race.

Look at the two charts again. Even the most reliable gauges, the DGA and Oscar noms, were wrong four out of 15 years. Even the Critics Choice Awards were wrong two out of seven years. No omen is fool-proof. Will this year be the exception or the rule? We don’t know!

Adding to the uncertainty: PricewaterhouseCoopers will again use the preferential system to tally votes with the 10 best-pic contenders, meaning a different way of counting. Chart B points out that outside forces can create significant changes — but we don’t know how or why!

It’s human nature to try to make sense of something inexplicable. And nothing is more mysterious than the race for that li’l gold guy. But the movie business is founded on guessing: Guessing what the public’s taste will be in a few years, guessing what marketing will work, guessing how box office will turn out. Humans like certainty, but that’s impossible because films are not like assembly-line products.

So enjoy the guessing and enjoy the tribal rituals, but be aware that in the next few weeks, the natives are restless.

Want to comment or suggest a column topic?Email timothy.gray@variety.com

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