Our culture loves winners. Whether it’s the Super Bowl, the World Series, or the Academy Awards, people rarely remember the runners-up. It’s this obsession with rewarding excellence that has propelled the Oscars to a level of prominence in pop culture that has almost no equal. The Academy Awards are almost always the second most-watched TV show each year (trailing only the Super Bowl), and their influence is increasingly global in scope. For better or worse (and there’s a pretty good case to be made for ‘worse’), the shadow the Oscars cast across the media landscape renders virtually every other award or achievement almost meaningless in comparison.
This article isn’t about the relative merits of the Oscars, however. Like most unfortunate truths in our society, it’s all about cold, hard cash: the cash that the studios spend to get their movies to the winners circle, and the cash you’re going to earn by sweeping your Oscar pool. Just for today, forget about critical analysis and thoughtful examination. If you want to be able to show off to your friends (and really, who doesn’t?), keep reading.
From the perspective of a film critic/scholar, the Oscars are defined by an interesting contradiction: a pretty big chunk of the viewing public think that they are hopelessly elitist, rewarding critical darlings that no one has actually seen, while film critics themselves feel that the Academy goes too far out of its way to pander to big-money blockbusters, ignoring many fine independent and foreign films as a result. If you’re hoping to figure out who’s going to win on awards night, though, the first thing you have to understand is the one thing that critics and the paying public can both agree on: that the Oscars tend to reward a pretty narrow class of films. If you’re a foreign language film, you’re probably out of luck, at least when it comes to anything beyond the Best Foreign Language Film category. Ditto if you’re in one of the genres that Academy voters traditionally hate, like science-fiction, fantasy, horror, or (inexplicably) comedy. Films from some of these genres have won Best Picture, but we’re talking maybe once. Ever. In the nearly century-long history of the Oscars.
These general rules will help you out if you’re trying to figure out which kinds of films might get nominated, but how can you really tell who’s going to win? You follow the guilds.
For those who don’t spend all of their time following the inner-workings of Hollywood, the guilds are the unions that people working in Hollywood generally belong to according to their job. For instance, directors belong to the Directors Guild of America (DGA), movie and TV writers belong to the Writers Guild of America (WGA), producers belong to the Producers Guild of America (PGA), actors belong to the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) – you get the idea. This also holds true for what are condescendingly called ‘below-the-line’ employees – the sound guys, costume people, camera operators, art directors, etc. Each of these groups has their own guild, and most of the guilds have their own awards show to recognize excellence within their field.
But what does this have to do with the Oscars? The biggest key to understanding the Academy is to understand its members, and its members are almost all members of their respective guilds as well. There’s huge overlap between the voters in the individual guild awards and the voters in the Academy. So not to put too fine a point on things, but if you want to know who’s going to win the Oscar in a particular category, look at who won the appropriate guild’s award – which, by the way, are all announced in the weeks leading up to the big show.
Here’s an exercise to prove my point. On the left are the winners of various Oscar categories from last year, and on the right are the winners of the equivalent guild awards:
|Director||Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech)||Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) [DGA]|
|Actor||Colin Firth (The King’s Speech)||Colin Firth (The King’s Speech) [SAG]|
|Actress||Natalie Portman (Black Swan)||Natalie Portman (Black Swan) [SAG]|
|Supporting Actor||Christian Bale (The Fighter)||Christian Bale (The Fighter) [SAG]|
|Supporting Actress||Melissa Leo (The Fighter)||Melissa Leo (The Fighter) [SAG]|
|Original Screenplay||David Seidler (The King’s Speech)||Christopher Nolan (Inception) [WGA]|
|Adapted Screenplay||Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network)||Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network) [WGA]|
|Picture Editing||Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall (The Social Network)||Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall (The Social Network) [American Cinema Editors]|
|Cinematography||Wally Pfister (Inception)||Wally Pfister (Inception) [American Society of Cinematographers]|
|Visual Effects||Inception||Inception [Visual Effects Society]|
So as you can see, there’s a pretty strong correlation. This isn’t to say that exceptions don’t crop up – David Seidler, for instance, wasn’t eligible to win the WGA award because The King’s Speech was produced by a company that isn’t a WGA signatory (meaning that they aren’t bound to abide by WGA rules). Some of the more obscure Oscar categories are often more likely to depart from the guilds’ decisions because there aren’t as many people from those branches within the Academy. (To explain: there are a ton of writers, directors, and actors in the Academy, and as a result it’s pretty hard to change the group’s mind in those categories, but representation from many of the other guilds is much smaller, therefore making it easier for the votes to swing to another nominee.) This fact isn’t widely known, but the break-down of the Academy’s membership is actually publicly available. Here it is for trivia’s sake (credit to Awards Daily, the best awards site out there):
Actors Branch: 1,170
Producers Branch: 444
Executives Branch: 441
Sound Branch: 402
Writers Branch: 375
Directors Branch: 366
Public Relations Branch: 363
Art Directors Branch: 359
Short Films and Feature Animation Branch: 343
Visual Effects Branch: 286
Music Branch: 233
Film Editors Branch: 220
Cinematographers Branch: 201
Documentary Branch: 157
Makeup Artists & Hairstylists Branch: 117
So yeah… tons of actors, lots of directors and producers, a whole bunch of people who probably shouldn’t be voting in awards like this (Executives? P.R. people?!?), and not so many hair and make-up people.
If you’re paying close attention, you’ll notice one award I left off the chart: Best Picture. That’s a whole other kettle of fish. The good news is that there’s still one big trick that’ll help you out.
(Drum roll please…)
The Academy almost never anoints a film Best Picture unless they’re also willing to give its director the Best Director award. (The Academy: the secret bastion of auteurism they never tell you about. Pauline Kael would be furious.) Okay, you probably could have figured that out for yourself, but here are some meaningful stats to prove it. Dating back to 1990, there have been only four instances of the winner of Best Director not being the person that directed the Best Picture. They are:
1998: Steven Spielberg for Saving Private Ryan (Best Picture that year: Shakespeare in Love)
2000: Steven Soderbergh for Traffic (Best Picture that year: Gladiator)
2002: Roman Polanski for The Pianist (Best Picture that year: Chicago)
2005: Ang Lee for Brokeback Mountain (Best Picture that year: Crash)
Four exceptions out of the last twenty-one years. Clearly, predicting Best Picture is a bit dicier than many of the other awards, but here’s the good news: if you know the DGA winner, you can probably predict the Best Director winner, and if you know the Best Director winner, you can correctly predict the Best Picture winner about 80% of the time. Not bad.
Once in a while, a situation will come up that no one expects. Sometimes a movie will sweep the precursor awards and then inexplicably lose on Oscar night. (This might as well be called the Brokeback Mountain Addendum.) Well, shit happens. You can’t win them all. And the good news is that, for various reasons, the Oscars have been moved up in the calendar by several weeks, so there’s now less time for the voters to collectively change their minds. It makes the awards a little more predictable, which is a great thing if you’re in an Oscar pool and a terrible thing if you’re looking for a night of surprises.
Well, that’s about it. Seems pretty simple, huh?
And if you’re wondering about the Documentary and Foreign Language categories… yeah, good luck with that. Those awards are chosen by sub-committees that only represent one portion of the Academy, and the voters in those categories are notoriously insane. Throwing darts or picking a name out of a hat seems wise. (After all, that’s what it appears the voters do most of the time anyway.)
Oh, and you’ll notice I never once mentioned the Golden Globes in this article. It’s for good reason: they’re handed out by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (a group of international journalists who cover Hollywood), so if you’re interested in the tendencies of actual Academy voters, they have no predictive value whatsoever.
But hey, if you want to see A-list actors get sloshed and stumble their way through their acceptance speeches, the Globes are definitely the way to go.
Credit to the awesome Film Studies Ryan Gosling tumblr for the auteur theory pic.