Awards contenders and strategists are like primitive natives, looking for omens of whether the gods are angry or happy. So every awards result is studied, lamented, debated and celebrated.
The study of these bellwethers is both 100% accurate and 100% off-base.
Starting with the Dec. 3 announcement by the New York Film Critics, through the March 1 Indie Spirit Awards, there are a slew of handouts that are considered important clues to the March 2 Academy Awards. The voting groups include critics (L.A., National Society of Film Critics, etc.), guilds, and other organizations (the AFI Awards, Golden Globes, etc.)
In a year with 250 film releases, these results offer clues about what films are being seen and talked about.
Each award is an honor, and should be appreciated. Based on these early awards, “12 Years a Slave,” “American Hustle,” “Gravity,” “Inside Llewyn Davis” and “Nebraska” have reason to celebrate. But these early honors are seen as forecasts. That’s the part that’s wrong.
So here are four misconceptions about Oscar bellwethers.
EARLY AWARDS ARE OMENS
They’re unreliable omens because the voting groups are entirely different. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences consists of 6,000 industry workers. The Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. has about 80 voters, all journalists. Critics groups consist of a dozen to 60 members. None are Academy members.
In 2005 and 2010, “Brokeback Mountain” and “The Social Network” took all the early awards, only to see “Crash” and “The King’s Speech” end up with the Oscars. In 2004, “The Aviator,” “Finding Neverland” and “Sideways” split the early kudos, but “Million Dollar Baby” was the winner at the Academy Awards. Some pundits were stunned, because they saw these early awards as a build-up to Oscar.
Here’s the thing: In the U.S. presidential race, the winner of a state primary will gain delegates, which will help him/her achieve the party’s nomination. However, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences doesn’t work that way. A film could sweep every one of the 250-plus critics voting groups, but all those wins would mean bupkis when it comes to Oscar tallies. (And yes, there really are more than 250 critics groups voting every year. It’s another sign of the apocalypse, but that’s a separate conversation.)
However, these early awards are helpful: These “primary elections” encourage Oscar voters to see a film. So the Dec. 11 SAG Award noms, for example, revived interest in “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” and “Rush,” among other films. The multiple Globes noms for “Nebraska” and “Philomena” increased their must-see factor. That doesn’t mean Academy members will necessarily vote for them, but at least they’re more likely to see the films.
WINNERS/LOSERS IN EARLY VOTING
Whenever an org announces its results, pundits declares it a victory for the film with the wins. But it’s not always that simple. On Dec. 3 and 4, the N.Y. Critics saluted “American Hustle,” then National Board of Review honored “Her.” And arguably the biggest beneficiaries were “12 Years a Slave” and “Gravity.” Those films had been front-runners for three months, and you don’t want to be a front-runner that early. You only want to be a front-runner about two weeks before the final balloting closes. So those two films became underdogs, and everybody loves an underdog.
Pundits often discount a film’s Oscar potential by saying, “I know a lot of people who hated that film.” You can always find a group of people who hate contenders, but that fact doesn’t KO a film’s Oscar chances. “Crash” was not universally loved, but then again, no film is universally loved (except maybe “The Wizard of Oz” and “Casablanca”).
There are five to 10 slots for an Oscar best pic nomination. A film only needs passionate supporters. Last year, the nine best-picture nominees included “Amour,” “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” “Django Unchained,” “Les Miserables” and “Lincoln.” Not everyone saw all of these films. Not everyone loved them, or made them their No. 1 choice. But each film had enough passionate supporters to land it a nomination. In contrast, “Skyfall” was generally well liked but it didn’t get a best-pic nom. Moral of the story: If every single Academy voter puts your film in the No. 3 or 4 slot, you won’t get nominated. You only need a few hundred who consider it No. 1.
‘TYPICAL’ OSCAR FILMS
Oscar seers often predict nominees or winners based on the notion that there is a certain type of film that is surefire Oscar bait. It’s true that the micro-budgeted indie “Crystal Fairy” (which scored Indie Spirit noms) and “Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa” are not likely to dominate this year’s Academy Awards. But there’s very little connecting link between past Oscar winners “No Country for Old Men” and “The Artist.” When recent years have seen such best-pic nominees as “Django Unchained,” “Up” and “District 9,” it’s clear things are changing and the definition of “typical” gets squishier every year.