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Oscar History Provides Clues to Highs and Lows of Awards Season

In the April 17, 1968, Variety, A.D. Murphy wrote, “Oscar is the object of a peculiar love-hate relationship, especially from people who have little or nothing to do with the film business.”

It’s still true, 51 years later. So here are five points to remember.

First, there are four distinct groups: pundits, the general public, other awards-givers (e.g., critics groups, the Golden Globes’ HFPA) — and the actual AMPAS voters. If you equate these groups, you will misdirect a lot of energy. A standing ovation at a film festival does not guarantee Oscar attention. The New York Film Critics’ top award foreshadowed Oscar’s best pic winner only twice in the past decade; for the L.A. Critics, it was three out of 10. When a film wins the top prize from a critics group, newbies often proclaim that the movie is now Oscar’s newest frontrunner. Um, no.

Second rule: Nobody knows anything. AMPAS doesn’t divulge results: Did “The Shape of Water” and “Green Book” win by a single vote or a landslide? Taste cannot be mathematically calculated; a voter’s favorite in October may fade by February. Adding to this year’s confusion: In 1958, Variety reported AMPAS had 2,028 voters; in 2014, it was 6,124; this year it’s 8,733, a five-year jump of 42%. Plus, the calendar has radically changed, with nomination voting Jan. 2-7.

Online pundits are debating the Oscar potential of lots of movies, such as “Hustlers” and “Joker,” and are predicting big things for films that are still unseen, including “1917” and “Richard Jewell.” Bottom line: At this point, nobody knows what will happen. Exhibit A: The 2010 “True Grit” stirred up little optimism from pundits before Oscar noms were announced, and it ended up with 10 nominations.

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Three, it’s not just about being nominated. Awards buzz is an industry currency, used to sell a film or individual. The backstories this year include big comebacks (Shia LaBeouf, Eddie Murphy, Joe Pesci, Renee Zellweger), the establishment of an artist’s street cred (Adam Sandler, Jennifer Lopez, Kristin Stewart, et al.) and a reminder that some artists have been doing great work without a single Oscar nom yet (Jonathan Pryce, Antonio Banderas, Bong Joon-ho, Sterling K. Brown). Don’t forget, Clint Eastwood had directed 15 films over 20 years before the Academy “discovered” him with 1992’s “Unforgiven.” Many of the people just mentioned WILL be nominated. But even if they’re not, the Oscar buzz can be a career boost and a validation.

Four, follow the money. During awards time, many onlookers will criticize a studio’s strategy with some films: “A December opening is too late for voters to see!” But in fact, a studio’s top priority is to make money; wooing voters is less crucial than wooing ticket buyers. Similarly, bloggers will analyze (usually while clutching their pearls) each Oscarcast decision — presenters, songs, innovations. Yes, the Academy Awards are about saluting excellence in movies. But the Oscar show is about ratings and advertising dollars. In 1977, Variety reported an all-time ratings low of 31.1. The peaks years were 1958 and 1960, at 45.2 each. The “Titanic” year, 1998, was 35.3. This year, rating was 29.6. Every shift translates into money.

Five, here’s the good news: mudslinging doesn’t work. In 2012, “Zero Dark Thirty” was hurt by the appalling smear campaign. Since then, awards voters have wised up. No films from 2018 were denigrated more than “Green Book” and “Bohemian Rhapsody.” But those films were the most honored on Oscar night, with a collective seven awards. Either Oscar voters were ignoring the negativity or they were saying to the haters, “I’m gonna make a statement.” Either way, it’s good. Most journalists these days are eager to write anything negative or click-bait-y. But remember: they’re not Oscar voters.

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