The Oscar Horse Race

Oscar Horse Race

With the most interesting and unpredictable awards season in years drawing to a close, it seems like a good time to reflect and speculate on what might win on Sunday at the 85th Academy Awards.

How are Oscars won and why exactly do some films become frontrunners early on only to triumph (or not) on the big night?

The simple answer is that the 6,000 members of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences are balloted and then vote for what they think is ‘the best achievement’ in a particular category.

By this point, contenders will have emerged and then nominees are announced.

It all culminates in a globally televised ceremony in which the winners are announced and the famous gold statuettes are handed out and the arguments begin over who deserved what.

But how are they really won?

The months leading up to the ceremony are often more interesting than who wins and also provide a useful snapshot of a particular year – the book ‘Scenes from a Revolution’ by Mark Harris examining the 1967 Oscar race is fascinating and one of the best film books in recent years.

A lot of words get written about famous snubs, such as when Ordinary People beat Raging Bull for Best Picture in 1980, why the Academy took so long to honour Martin Scorsese and the lack of Best Director trophies awarded to cinematic giants like Welles, Kubrick and Hitchcock.

But there can be interesting years like 1974 (when The Godfather II was up against Chinatown and The Conversation) and 2007 (when No Country For Old Men was competing with There Will Be Blood and Michael Clayton) when an unfortunate surfeit of quality leads to classics losing out.

Amidst all the glamour and hoopla, it isn’t just the perceived quality of the films that determines winners.

Perhaps the biggest change since around the early 90s has been the aggressive behind-the-scenes campaigning, which is filled with the kind of stuff you’d expect to see on-screen: suspicion, intrigue, heroes and villains.

Of course the latter depends on who is campaigning for you and whether or not you win.

Generally speaking, the ‘awards season’ really heats up with the Telluride, Toronto and Venice film festivals at the end of August and beginning of September, although other major festivals can be important – Beasts broke out at Sundance 2012 and  Amour won the the Palme d’Or at Cannes in May.

Plenty of factors have distinguished winners since the late 1920s: box office, how an actor or director was (or is) perceived by the Hollywood community, PRs, awards consultants, and (lest we forget!) excellence in a particular category.

It doesn’t always work out, and there have been some infamous snubs, but generally when the nominations come around each year there is a lot to chew on in terms of quality, unless it is a really bad year.

How is the buzz then channelled into Oscar victory?

It often starts when a movie is green lit by a studio or financier as they assemble the package, although at this stage and during production, it would be foolish to assume anything.

Other features of a potential Oscar winner might include: a period setting, heavyweight acting talent, a name director trying to make a serious or issue film, often featuring a major character with some kind of disability.

As the films go through the cogs of the awards cycle, the various critics groups and guild awards give their verdicts, and this is where the punditry and guessing games kick in.

Traditionally, this was a more restrained affair, with the studios taking out ‘For Your Consideration’ ads in the two major trade journals: Variety and The Hollywood Reporter.

But as both publications have lost their influence in the rapidly advancing online world, the vacuum has subsequently been lost to websites such as Deadline, Awards Daily, Hollywood Elsewhere, IndieWIRE, The Wrap, Gold Derby, Movie City News and In Contention which offer more in-depth and often better coverage via social media, podcasts and long-form video interviews.

Some of these sites measure the Oscar odds through statistics, getting out in the real world and talking anonymously to voters, and just generally gauging what they think is the pulse of the Academy mind.

There are also a raft of people with years of experience at schmoozing voters such as Harvey Weinstein (arguably the king of Oscar campaigning, first at Miramax and now at The Weinstein Company) and Cynthia Swartz (the awards strategist behind The Hurt Locker and The Social Network).

What makes this year’s race interesting is the spread of nominees in the major categories and the way in which the introduction of online voting may have affected the process – even though BAFTA have been doing it since 2003 – and members still had the option to mail them instead.

Voting opened on December 17th and the fifteen branches that make up the Academy (actors, directors, costume designers etc.) are then asked to vote for members of their particular branch, from which the final nominees are then selected.

Argo is currently the favourite for Best Picture, but Lincoln and Life of Pi are very strong contenders, and there could be a three-way split amongst the vote, mainly due to Ben Affleck’s weird absence from Best Director, which has only happened a handful of times in Oscar history.

Affleck’s omission is not the only anomaly.

It is very rare for the director of a foreign language film to get nominated, let alone his leading actress, but Michael Haneke and Emmanuelle Riva have managed to achieve recognition for their outstanding work in Amour.

The presence of 85-year old Riva and 9-year old Quvenzhané Wallis (for Beasts of the Southern Wild) in the Best Actress race is mind-blowing and testament to both their work and the unusual nature of this year, which could be the result of the change in the balloting date or just chance.

Ah, yes. Chance.

That factor we like to forget because we can’t quantify the unknown and it can make us look ignorant of things we might have missed, underlying trends and the basic fact that each year is a different collection of films voted on by 6,000 human beings with their own unique tastes and quirks.

Given the new online voting system introduced this year and the insanely eclectic list of nominees, this year’s lineup is harder to call than ever.

With that in mind here’s my take on the three frontrunners and the rest of the pack:

  • Lincoln: Daniel Day Lewis gives a remarkable performance as the iconic US president and the film marks a big return to form for Steven Spielberg, with a lucid script by Tony Kushner. For whatever reasons, The Academy has had mixed feelings about Spielberg down the years, but this is his best work since Minority Report (2002) and Munich (2005).
  • Life of Pi: Yann Martel’s novel about an Indian teenager stranded in the Ocean with a tiger was considered unfilmable until visual effects reached a certain level. That day has now come and the resulting adaptation an extraordinary technical achievement for Ang Lee and his crew. Featuring no big stars, it has been a big hit at the global box office. A definite dark horse.
  • Argo: An extremely well-constructed thriller about an unlikely true life tale, Ben Affleck’s third film as director was set against a tricky subject (the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis). Produced by George Clooney and Grant Heslov, Affleck also stars and despite some uneasy comedy in places, the pacing, tension and Affleck’s awards campaigning make it a well liked film.

And for the rest:

  • Amour: Michael Haneke’s outstanding drama about an elderly Parisien couple is a surprising but welcome addition to the Best Picture category. It is rare for a foreign language film to get recognition in a major category but since winning the Palme d’Or in May, has ridden a wave of richly deserved acclaim. Look out for Emmanuelle Riva to cause an upset in Best Actress on her 86th birthday even though Jennifer Lawrence is favourite for Silver Linings Playbook.
  • Beasts of the Southern Wild: Another remarkable achievement with young director Benh Zeitlin becoming the toast of Sundance with his debut film. It won’t win anything but its four nominations (including director, actress, screenplay and adapted screenplay) are a stunning achievement for both the film and Fox Searchlight, who acquired it back in January 2012.
  • Django Unchained: Tarantino’s ‘slavery spaghetti western’ may get a screenplay nod and Christoph Waltz is definitely a possibility in Best Supporting Actor, but a combination of the violence (extreme even by the director’s standards) and unnecessary last 25 minutes is likely to have put voters off.
  • Les Misérables: Working Title teamed up with Cameron Mackintosh to finally bring his blockbuster musical to cinemas with mixed results. Director Tom Hooper assembled an impressive cast (Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway) but musicals are a divisive genre (generally speaking, I can’t stand them) and early on this lost momentum. However, Hathaway is red hot favourite for Best Supporting Actress.
  • Silver Linings Playbook: A romantic comedy about bipolar disorder might seem an unlikely contender but David O’Russell’s film shouldn’t be counted out. Not only does it contain two contemporary stars (Cooper and Lawrence) and a former legend (De Niro), but it features in all the major categories and has had the formidable machinery of The Weinstein Company behind it.
  • Zero Dark Thirty: Just three years after winning Best Picture, screenwriter Mark Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow teamed up for their second ‘war on terror’ movie. Arguably superior to The Hurt Locker, this focused on the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, but it’s awards season chances were damaged by the ‘torture controversy’ that blew up before its wide release. It could get a screenwriting award for Boal as a counter blast to all its critics.

There is a strange duality to the Oscars that mirrors Hollywood’s wider mix of commerce and art: red carpet glamour is mixed with backstage whispers; careers can be boosted (or even strangely derailed) by wins, people are snubbed for years and sometimes the planets align for no particular reason.

Some years a large portion of the global TV audience is wondering why they haven’t even heard of the nominees, let alone seen the films.

Whilst all the media attention will be on who does win, remember not to take any awards ceremony too seriously.

The Academy Awards can be a useful snapshot of a particular year, but the ultimate judge of any film’s importance is time.

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84th Academy Awards: Winners

The Artist won five awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, (Michael Hazanavicius) and Best Actor (Jean Dujardin).

Meryl Streep (The Iron Lady) was awarded Best Actress, whilst in the supporting categories Christopher Plummer (Beginners) and Octavia Spencer (The Help) won for their respective roles.

Hugo was the big winner in the technical categories, winning Cinematography, Sound Editing and Mixing, Art Direction and Visual Effects.

The Artist also became the the first silent film to win Best Picture since Wings (1927), which won the same prize at the very first Academy Awards.

So in a year that has seen great changes as cinema shifts from celluloid to digital, there was something appropriate in the big winners being tributes to the silent era and one of its true pioneers, Georges Méliès.

FULL LIST OF WINNERS

Official Oscar site
> Explore the 84th Academy Awards in depth at Wikipedia

84th Academy Awards: Final Predictions

  • Best Picture: THE ARTIST
  • Best Director: MICHEL HAZANAVICIUS – The Artist
  • Best Actor: JEAN DUJARDIN – The Artist
  • Best Actress: VIOLA DAVIS – The Help
  • Best Supporting Actor: CHRISTOPHER PLUMMER – Beginners
  • Best Supporting Actress: OCTAVIA SPENCER – The Help
  • Best Original Screenplay: MIDNIGHT IN PARIS – Woody Allen
  • Best Adapted Screenplay: THE DESCENDANTS – Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, and Jim Rash from The Descendants by Kaui Hart Hemmings
  • Best Animated Feature: RANGO
  • Best Art Direction: HUGO – Dante Ferretti
  • Best Cinematography: THE TREE OF LIFE – Emmanuel Lubezki
  • Best Costume Design: THE ARTIST – Mark Bridges
  • Best Documentary Feature: PARADISE LOST 3: PURGATORY
  • Best Documentary Short Subject: SAVING FACE
  • Best Film Editing: THE ARTIST – Annie-Sophie Bion and Michel Hazanavicius
  • Best Foreign Language Film: A SEPARATION
  • Best Makeup: THE IRON LADY
  • Best Original Score: THE ARTIST – Ludovic Bource
  • Best Original Song: THE MUPPETS – Man or Muppet
  • Best Animated Short Film: THE FANTASTIC FLYING BOOKS OF MR MORRIS LESSMORE
  • Best Live Action Short Film: TUBA ATLANTIC
  • Best Sound Editing: HUGO – Philip Stockton and Eugene Gearty
  • Best Sound Mixing: HUGO – Tom Fleischman and John Midgley
  • Best Visual Effects: RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES – Joe Letteri, Dan Lemmon, R. Christopher White, and Daniel Barrett

84th Academy Awards: Best Picture

NOMINEES

This category is the only one in which every member of the Academy is eligible to nominate and vote on the final ballot.

It is the final award given out during the ceremony and since 1951, is collected by the film’s producers.

At the 1st Academy Awards there was no ‘Best Picture’ award, but instead it was split between ‘Outstanding Production’ (won by Wings) and Artistic Quality (won by Sunrise).

It was the following year that the Academy instituted Best Production and decided to honour Wings, which is the reason it is  is often listed as the winner of the first Best Picture award.

From 1944 until 2008, the Academy the Academy nominated five films for Best Picture until they expanded it to ten films from 2009-10.

This year saw more changes to the category when it was announced that the number of nominees would vary between five and ten films, provided that the film earned 5% of first-place votes during the nomination process.

Part of the reason for these changes was anxiety about declining ratings of the ceremony, which is actually a big deal because that’s where the Academy make most of their money but whether these changes have made any difference is an open question.

With that in mind, here are this year’s Best Picture nominees and their listed producers.

THE ARTIST – Thomas Langmann

Back in May the idea of a silent, black and white French film winning Best Picture seemed highly unlikely. But Harvey Weinstein returned to the Oscar game last year with a vengeance and returned to the kind of feelgood ‘underdog’ period film of his Miramax days.

It also happens to be brilliantly made and utterly delightful. Against all odds, since early September it has been the unlikely frontrunner.

THE DESCENDANTS – Jim Burke, Jim Taylor and Alexander Payne

For a long time it seemed the closest rival to The Artist, Alexander Payne’s bittersweet comedy-drama. Despite only one Best Picture winner (Slumdog Millionaire) Fox Searchlight have a formiddable awards machine.

With an acclaimed premiere at Telluride, it seemed they had a strong contender for Best Picture, but the momentum of The Artist has proved irresistible for voters.

EXTREMELY LOUD & INCREDIBLY CLOSE – Scott Rudin

Uber-producer Scott Rudin was screened two films late in the awards season game and this adaptation  of Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel got a critical hammering. Why then was it nominated for Best Picture?

I’m guessing that it moved some Academy voters before the negative reviews came out and Max Von Sydow’s character has become a kind of avatar for older viewers as they try to process the genuine horrors of 9/11.

THE HELP – Brunson Green, Chris Columbus and Michael Baranathan

The sleeper hit of the summer obviously appealed to the tastes of certain Academy members. Despite the lingering controversy over its depiction of race, it could still see two actresses (Viola Davis and Octavia) pick up awards.

This is the kind of film which benefitted enormously from being released over the summer when it stood out against more commercial fare. With the log jam of Autumn and Winter, will awards contenders be tempted to follow its example?

HUGO – Graham King and Martin Scorsese

It has the most nominations (11), but Hugo’s best shot is in the technical categories. Scorsese’s 3D love letter to cinema has many intriguing parallels with The Artist, but it was caught up in the Thanksgiving weekend crush and faltered at the box office.

However, it may come to be seen as an important film in years to come as the high priest of celluloid (Scorsese) uses the latest digital tools (ARRI Alexa camera on a Cameron-Pace 3D rig) to craft a tribute to the medium we love.

MIDNIGHT IN PARIS – Letty Aronson and Stephen Tenenbaum

When Woody Allen’s latest film was heralded at Cannes it seemed like it was a case of Fracophile love for the director. But this really was a delightful return to form, if not quite the career heights of the late 1970s and 80s.

Given his prodiguous and patchy output over the last decade (when some of his films have failed to secure UK theatrical distribution) it was a welcome return to the kind of smart fantasy/comedy of Zelig (1983) and The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985).

MONEYBALL – Michael De Luca, Rachael Horovitz, and Brad Pitt

When Sony gradually realised how this movie was playing  given this a big push all season and it is a remarkable film pulled out of the ashes of a previously cancelled production. In any other year Brad Pitt and Bennett Miller would be strong contenders.

But whilst the filmmaking is impeccable, the subtle themes and execution probably meant it didn’t satisfy Academy voters looking for a more triumphalist sports movie. In the same way Billy Beane’s theories had a major influence on baseball, hopefully it can inspire other major studios to take more chances.

THE TREE OF LIFE – Dede Gardner, Sarah Green, Grant Hill, and Bill Pohlad

Possibly the greatest film of the bunch, it divided audiences (but not critics) who were freaked out by the ambition and the little matter of a creation sequence, which actually makes perfect sense in the context of the film. The old guard of the Academy really came through for Malick here just by nominating this film, showing the respect and awe he inspires in voters. It won’t win but the fact that this film even got made in 2011 is a miracle.

WAR HORSE – Steven Spielberg and Kathleen Kennedy

As soon as this went into production in 2010 it was an immediate contender for this year. The pedigree of Spielberg, the high calibre of his regular collaborators, period setting and the emotional vibes all seemed tailor made for the Academy.

But it doesn’t always work out and despite the strong box office this didn’t garner many heavyweight nominations and the lack of a Best Director nod was noticeable.

Official Oscar site
Explore previous winners of Best Picture at Wikipedia