They Shoot Oscar Prognosticators, Don't They?
The Best Picture Front-Runners: Why They Can’t Win. And Why They Will.
By J Don Birnam
February 25, 2014

Set me free, why don't you, babe? You just keep me hanging on.

With only a few days left before the Academy Awards, it is time to finish the season where we began it: handicapping the Best Picture race. This weekend, the final guilds spoke. The Costume Designers awarded their top prize to 12 Years a Slave, a somewhat surprising choice over American Hustle and The Great Gatsby, and I would not count that movie out of that category for the Oscar. Meanwhile, the Cinema Audio Society gave its top prize to Gravity. So, folks, it really is that close, with Gravity and 12 Years a Slave dominating guild and critical awards, respectively, and with American Hustle lurking as a real spoiler threat.

So the race remains murky, with each contender having seemingly fatal flaws alongside seemingly undeniable “it’s going to win” points. Today, I will state different theories that people spin as to why each particular movie will or will not win, and analyze why each particular theory is worth taking seriously or not.

American Hustle

Why it will win

1. “David O. Russell is overdue after three consecutive Best Picture vehicles.” A plausible theory, but that did not stop them from snubbing Martin Scorsese for Gangs of New York and then for The Aviator. The Academy has time and time again proven that, especially when it comes to Best Picture, they are far more likely to vote for what they like than what others think they should like or is overdue.

2. “The Actors branch of the Academy loves the movie.” Another good theory, but, on the other hand, the actors are only one sixth of the Academy. Movies with several acting nominations (e.g., Network and A Streetcar Named Desire) have failed to win Best Picture many times over the years. Indeed, Silver Linings Playbook lost despite receiving an acting Oscar and having four nominations in those categories.

3. “The movie is the easiest to watch, the most crowd-pleasing and satisfying.” This is the strongest reason why I think American Hustle has a real shot. Just look at the last five Best Picture winners. In the starring role, we have a flawed character (always a man) who faces some adversities and challenges, and ultimately overcomes his own flaws and triumphs. It is the story of the curmudgeon CIA agent in Argo who has family problems, of the silent and fading actor in The Artist, and of the stuttering, has-been ruler of The King’s Speech. Christian Bale’s character, a flawed con-artist, ultimately finds redemption by doing the right thing and turning the table on the crooked FBI agent and rescuing the woman he loves. The movie makes you laugh and you leave the theater with hope and optimism. Thus, in a preferential ballot, Hustle will obtain many votes near the top. Although in my previous column I myself expressed dislike for the movie, this does not mean the Academy voters do not like it. Will it be enough to propel it to victory?

Why it can’t win

1. “The movie does not have that sense of ‘importance’ than the previous winners at least claim to have.” I like this theory because it sets Hustle apart from the last few winners despite the superficial similarity in the “they are fun, easy movies” department. Argo is about Hollywood saving the day, The Artist is about Hollywood saving itself, and the King’s Speech is about saving the world. American Hustle seems so much dimmer in scope. That said, it is hard to know what went on in voters’ heads when they marked off Argo or The Artist. Was it the fun aspect of the movie, or was it their aggrandized sense of importance? One can easily argue that American Hustle also has that sense of importance - the urgency of current political corruption, if you will - enough to give voters cover enough to vote for it in either case.

2. “It did not win the PGA, DGA, or BAFTA awards.” This theory has some superficial appeal. It is true that American Hustle won the New York Film Critics Circle award and SAG and then essentially faded from contention. And it is also true that it has been since Crash that a movie wins Best Picture without at least one of the PGA/DGA. On the other hand, it did win SAG, and maybe we are due for another winner that did not resonate with PGA/DGA.

3. “Because, quite simply, it is not as good as Gravity or 12 Years a Slave.” To be fair, I cannot find many statistical or obvious reasons why American Hustle can’t win other than “it doesn’t deserve to.” This is a somewhat scary result of this exercise.


Why it will win

1. “Of the nominees, it leads the box office, and indeed, is a blockbuster.” You can throw this theory out into outer space immediately. It has been since 2006 that the nominee going into the Oscars winning the box office took Best Picture, and it is clear that the Academy long ago stopped selecting Best Picture based on box office.

2. “Because it is strong in the technical races.” Like the “the actors like it” theory for American Hustle, this theory has some superficial appeal, but again does not mean much to me. Many movies like Lincoln, Hugo and Life of Pi had a staggering number of technical nominations and that was ultimately their fate, technical Oscars while something else took Best Picture.

3. “Because it is, in a sense, the most crowd-pleasing of the bunch, while having a sufficient aura of ‘stylish story’ to be palatable to the more serious-minded voters.” Like American Hustle, Gravity is undoubtedly a crowd-pleaser. To be sure, it challenges the viewer to make sense of many allegories and symbolisms beautifully landscaping the movie. But it does not make you watch harrowing scenes like 12 Years a Slave or ask you to make sense of complex characters like Wolf of Wall Street. Indeed, Gravity can be enjoyed as simple popcorn thriller sci-fi without any meaning whatsoever, and that crowd-pleasing aspect will undoubtedly score it a lot of second and third place votes. The theory makes some sense, but I would argue that this popcorn-movie aspect of Gravity hurts it with more high-browed voters, enough to counteract any benefit it may derive from its ability to be both a simple and a complex movie at the same time.

4. “Because the Academy is ready to embrace the future of movies.” I will believe it when I see it, but a win for Gravity would mean that the Academy has finally come to grips with the fact that audiences enjoy effects-driven movies. I would not bet on it.

5. “It won the PGA and the DGA, what more do you want?” At least statistically, this is probably Gravity’s best argument. Indeed, while 12 Years a Slave has dominated the critical circle, so did The Social Network. That year shows that critics matter less and less and that guilds matter more. When The King’s Speech dominated that circuit, it was clear who would emerge the winner. Thus, Gravity’s domination of the guild awards, despite losing most critics’ awards to Slave, is a strong reason to bet on its victory on Oscar Sunday.

Why it can’t win

1. “Because the Academy is not ready to embrace the future of movies and does not like sci-fi crowd pleasers.” This argument is almost impossible to escape. Sci-fi movies have never won. Period. They have rarely even been nominated, with the most glaring exception being 2001: A Space Odyssey. The Academy simply does not take science fiction movies seriously. For many voters, Gravity is just a popcorn, effects-driven movie. Actors, in particular, are said to resist this type of production. I guess we will find out if this theory still holds any weight today.

2. “The lack of a screenplay nomination." Statistically, this is a good reason why Gravity may not win. That said, there is precedent for a huge effects driven blockbuster to win without a screenplay nomination--Titanic. Of course the problem for Gravity is that it didn't make a billion bucks yet, and that unlike Titanic is up against a historically "important" film."

12 Years a Slave

Why it will win

1. “Because it is the most critically-acclaimed of the bunch.” As should be clear from the above, I do not buy this one. Critical consensus did not help The Social Network.

2. “Because it is the most ‘Oscar movie’ of the bunch.” This is the main reason I still believe this movie will win on Oscar night. It has the most important feeling of the bunch, the most serious character. On the other hand, there are undoubtedly some people who resist (rightly or wrongly) the notion that any given movie “has” to win, that it “should” win because it is important. The question is this: Is the number of people who care about the Academy looking smart and serious, larger than the number of people who do not care about that and do not want to be told what to vote for? I think the answer is “yes,” and that is why I think Slave will win.

3. “Because it is made by a black director, and Hollywood thinks it is time to finally reward a movie made by a black artist.” It is possible that this theory carries some weight. To be sure, it helped Kathryn Bigelow to have the “first woman” narrative. In a sense, it is too bad that these narratives take hold, because it can later be used by some to impinge the quality of the work or the deservedness of the win. “Oh, she only won because she was a woman, right?” On the other hand, it is good that these narratives take hold, because, arguably, a little more diversity is needed when it comes to recognizing achievement in film. So, it is entirely possible that some voters will think that, in the words of the Oscar ads that the movie itself is using, “it is time” for a movie directed by a black person to win Best Picture.

Why it can’t win

1. “Because it is made by a black director, and Hollywood is not ready to reward a movie made by a black artist.” Of course, one can easily flip the previous argument and say that 86 years of white directors winning Best Picture shows that there is some deep-seated segregation or division or even racism in the Academy. I, personally, doubt any appreciable portion of Academy members is racist, but it must be said that 86 years do show that there is a tendency for Hollywood to reward white artists. In the end, it will be impossible to know what voters were thinking in the privacy of their voting booth, so to speak. Undoubtedly, the racism accusation (rightly or wrongly) will be thrown around if Slave loses.

2. “Because it does not have the box office draw - having grossed only around $50M.” Again, I do not think box office drives Best Picture anymore. The old box office adage died when The Hurt Locker, a movie that made $17 million in the summer, won Best Picture over Jim Cameron’s multi-billion dollar Avatar juggernaut.

3. “Because people resist seeing it, and it is not a crowd-pleaser.” You cannot imagine how many people I have heard tell me they do not want to see a movie about slavery, because they know what kind of grueling scenes to expect. This, to me, is the single strongest reason to argue against a win by this movie. The strongest reason American Hustle may win - it is enjoyable and facile - is the main reason Slave may lose.

So what to make all of this? It is hard to say. For one, many arguments and statistics can be used both for and against a movie winning. So be wary of those. It is so simple and yet so difficult to figure out: they vote for what they like.

Here is some consolation to the fans of the movies that do not emerge victorious. For better or for worse, consider that winning a Best Picture Oscar can seriously damage a movie’s reputation in years to come, depending on several parameters. Many times people go from respecting a movie to being skeptical about it when they hear that it won eight or nine Oscars. I love Slumdog Millionaire, but did it really deserve eight Oscars, as many as Schindler’s List? Or did a Beautiful Mind, an otherwise unobjectionable movie, really deserve Best Picture over The Fellowship of the Ring or Gosford Park or Moulin Rouge!? Winning the Oscar can be good for a movie’s filmmakers and for its immediate reputation, but over time perception can be (unfairly) tainted against it if it is seen as unseating a more deserving or better-aging winner. Thus, perhaps the best a Gravity fan can hope for on Oscar night is that the movie they love receives a good number of golden statuettes, but does not have to walk the plank of history’s judgment by being anointed as “their” best of the year. Food for thought.

Final predictions are next.