Oscar Buzz: In Year of Uncertainty, Pundits Have Gained Clout, for Better or Worse

House of Gucci Adam Driver Lady Gaga
Courtesy of Fabio Lovino/MGM

We are in the midst of Hollywood’s two big film events. One is the Oscar race, in which film artists salute great work.

The other is the surrounding mini-industry that involves campaigners, contenders, agents, journalists and Oscar pundits.

There is always confusion because the latter event is also called the Oscar race — but in fact, the two are very different species.

Oscar Race #1 features major names (this year including Nicole Kidman, Will Smith, Steven Spielberg), newcomer/vets (Troy Kotsur, Ciaran Hinds) plus top-of-the-line artisans. Peer recognition by Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences voters is the whole point of Race #1.

Many look upon Race #2 with confusion or contempt, because it involves money, marketing and the elusive factor of buzz.

Oscar’s parallel races generally follow a decades-old system. But this year, the balance has been thrown off.

It’s been a year of uncertainty. The top factor of course is COVID, but we’ve also seen the absence of the Golden Globes (more significant than some people think), frequent schedule shifts for other awards, and changes in voting procedures for bellwethers including BAFTA. All contribute to unease.

The COVID-related downturn in in-person events, such as screenings, receptions and other awards shows, has had an effect. In the past, voters mingled and exchanged notes on what films are admired or loved (an important distinction).

Voters have gotten less info from other voters, and are relying more on journalists. Pandemic punditry has replaced conversations.

The Academy declared 276 films from 2021 as Oscar-eligible, and much of the responsibility for spotlighting films falls on bloggers and columnists.

It’s fine when they get behind a film (e.g., Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s “Drive My Car”), but it’s hard for campaigners when they don’t (“Old Henry,” “The Guilty,” “Mass” and “Swan Song,” to name a few).

Pundits also feel the loss of in-person feedback. Many journos actually were surprised on Feb. 8, due to input from fewer voters.

Many pundits seem to be writing to impress each other.

In Race #2, the mainstream media often study Film Twitter as if it represents general thinking. Trust me, it doesn’t.

Photos of Adam Driver and Lady Gaga in “House of Gucci” were released in March, eight months before the film premiered. This led to a flurry of online pronouncements that they would win Oscars as lead actor and actress. When “Nightmare Alley” photos appeared online in September, several pundits proclaimed it was the best-picture front-runner.

To emphasize: All this is based on photos, not even a trailer.

Film Twitter is also full of people making lofty statements about Academy voters, how they think and what they should do — without ever having met an AMPAS member.

When Sony’s “Spider-Man: No Way Home” opened to spectacular business, many pundits basically said: If Academy members want to see TV ratings increase, they should nominate this as best picture. I don’t know all 10,000 voters, but I’ve never met anyone who makes decisions based on TV ratings. The film deserved Oscar attention, but for the filmmakers’ skill, not because of Nielsen considerations.

In Phase 2, competition gets stiffer, tension gets higher. One awards consultant told me “Pundits are out of control this year.” A pundit said “The publicists are losing their minds.”

For nominees, here’s free advice: Don’t obsess over Race #2. Just concentrate on the good work. For everyone else, please show common sense and compassion. When you write about Oscar contenders, don’t forget that they’re humans. Nastiness and snark always get more online traffic than kindness, but it’s a bad road to go down.

To quote an adage used in “Spider-Man”: “With great power comes great responsibility.”

For more on this topic, read Owen Eagan’s book “Oscar Buzz and the Influence of Word of Mouth on Movie Success.” I’m honored to be quoted in the book, which delves into the world of awards campaigning, and the role of buzz.