They Shoot Oscar Prognosticators, Don't They?
A Final Look at the 2015 Academy Awards
By J. Don Birnam
February 26, 2015

Eddie Redmayne has not let his success go to his head.

Another year of Oscars has come and gone. What did the 2014 Oscars tell us about the Academy and Hollywood? Let’s take a final look at the sometimes unpredictable 2014 Oscar race and finally put the season to rest.

My Annual Defense of the Academy

Several headlines populate the news following the Academy Awards. Two of them seem to repeat like clockwork each year: that the Academy has abandoned the audience and movie-going public with its rejection of superhero movies, and that the Academy has ignored critically acclaimed darlings. Both statements, I believe, are true, but neither is exactly novel.

The Academy has clearly been tearing itself between two fundamentally incompatible masters for quite some time now. On the one hand, it wants to be respected and have its choice respected by those who control in part the industry’s narrative of what constitutes a great movie - critics. On the other, it wants to be popular and attract as many viewers as possible to stay relevant. But in this age of comic book and superhero movies standing alongside small indie productions, this task is probably impossible to achieve.

The result is that the Academy kind of goes somewhere in between, recognizing big budget movies if they are prestigious enough for whatever reason (say, they have a big name director like Steven Spielberg or James Cameron), but gravitating towards mostly safe smaller choices.

Is this such a bad thing? Imagine the alternatives. You could have an Academy that went all out for the critics and instead of the already mostly obscure movies (to the public) that you saw nominated, you’d get Goodbye to Language, Under the Skin, and The Badabook in the last year. Or you could have a capitulation to the ticket-buyer and your Best Picture lineup would read something like American Sniper, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1, The Amazing Spiderman 2 and Guardians of the Galaxy. But the critics have their awards, and the public rewards movies with their dollars. Why do we demand that the Academy go for either extreme?

The problem of course, is that in constantly trying to do appease both sides, they end up making silly choices. The Best Picture expansion is a clear example of that, and it hasn’t worked - for the most part, the same type of movies get in. The Board of Governors may change a rule, but the composition of voters stays the same.

A better solution may be to create a “Best Effects-Driven Film” category that would consist mostly of summer blockbusters, and that would recognize these films outside of the Best Visual Effects or Best Sound Mixing ghetto. It’s unclear if that would bring audiences back to the show, but at least it would debunk the idea that they don’t respect those movies.

But make no mistake about it: The Academy’s coronation of Birdman is a clear sign of its exasperation at this impossible situation it finds itself in. The movie brilliantly skewers the cynical, bitter and selfish critic, while expressing the anxiety of the performer who wants to make serious stuff that he realizes does not sell because art has been commercialized. Birdman’s triumph is both the Academy’s saying “Screw you” to both sides, as well as a subconscious betrayal of its deepest anxieties at the moment.

The constant fight over the two approaches is silly and pointless. The Academy’s choices are, for the most part, decent, at least with respect to the Best Picture nominees. Yeah, the easier movie tends to win over more challenging pieces, but since the Best Picture expansion the majority of the most-lauded movies of the year have gotten into the lineup. And they have found room for popular fare such as Gravity, Avatar, Inception, and American Sniper.

It really doesn’t need to be more complicated than that, and the point of any awards is not to appease everybody. These are the Academy’s awards - Hollywood’s reflection on itself. All criticism that departs from the notion that they should reward what you want (or what the critic or fanboy wants) fundamentally misunderstands that it’s not meant to be about that. It is their club. It’s no different than the MVP votes in MLB, or the Pulitzer or Nobel Prizes. What’s so wrong with that?

What Happened to Boyhood?

The other major story that will mark the 2014 awards will be the collapse of Boyhood. After starting the season strong, winning the overwhelming majority of critics’ awards across the country, the Critics’ Choice, and the Golden Globe for Best Picture, Boyhood walked away with a single Oscar - for Best Supporting Actress - on Sunday. What happened?

There are many possible theories. One is that Boyhood peaked too early - it had the dreaded front-runner status thrust upon it in the summer, and this made Academy members look elsewhere. Perhaps, but The Hurt Locker and The Artist were the frontrunners since the summer too, and they went all the way in almost clean sweeps.

Another somewhat related theory is that the Academy does not like to be “told” what to vote for, and thus rejected the critical embrace of Boyhood. Again, perhaps, but last year they certainly were “told” to vote for 12 Years A Slave with the “It’s Time” campaign, and they went for it.

Yet a third theory is that the race was close - both movies could have won easily. As I said before Oscar Sunday, I’m dubious as to how close the race was.

Recall that last year, people were nervous about the 12 Years of Slave vs. Gravity Best Picture race. How could Gravity win so many technical awards and the DGA and PGA and not Best Picture, people asked? But, by Oscar night, most of us were pretty confident that there was no way Gravity - a sci-fi flick - could triumph over the important feeling movie. This year, I admit I was less certain - but I was still fairly sure that Birdman would triumph. The statistics behind it were overwhelming. Birdman won a total of 10 prizes from the 11 guilds it was eligible for. Boyhood won a SAG award for Patricia Arquette and the Editing guild. And that it could not convert that into a second Oscar win tells me the race wasn’t really that close.

The better theory is that they simply didn’t like it, as the guild votes indicate, as much as they liked the self-reflecting and even narcissistic Birdman. The disappointed fans of Boyhood (and I agree that it’s a shame it couldn’t find more love from the Oscars) will simply have to accept that fact and move on.

Thus, to the extent the race seemed close, I theorize it was simply the critics’ and pundits unable or unwilling to accept the truth of what was happening in the Oscar race. For the same reason, some people went off the Michael Keaton cliff: they couldn’t believe that their favorite performance wasn’t going to win. But Redmayne defeated Keaton at SAG and BAFTA. Where was the evidence that Keaton came that close? It seems almost as if the doubt in these races was inserted by the prognosticators’ own inability to see what was clear, and in that sense we therefore failed.

And yet, the prognosticators play a key role in forming consensus in several categories, and the consensus prevailed overwhelmingly on Oscar night. Which brings me to the last topic that jumps out from this year’s Oscars…

The Predictability of the Oscars

This year many, myself included, were nervous about predictions, including Best Picture. But, in the end, the consensus favorites triumphed in all but one or two categories.

Big Hero 6 defeated the overwhelming consensus pick How to Train Your Dragon 2 in a race that became wildly unpredictable after The LEGO Movie snub. And The Grand Budapest Hotel’s screenplay lost somewhat unexpectedly to Birdman - but prognosticators failed to see that Birdman was likely way ahead. That’s it. In all other categories, the consensus pick won, even if some predictors went against the consensus pick for whatever reason.

What explains this? As I note above, I think the nervousness over some categories is just human error - humans unsure and insecure about their picks. On the flip side, the predictability of other categories can also be traced to uniquely human traits.

People like to support a winner. People, Academy voters, know what’s popular with guilds and the industry, and they gravitate towards those choices. At my own Oscar party, I ask my guests to rank the Best Picture nominees as if they were Academy members. Of 15 votes, 14 this year had Boyhood or Birdman in either of the first two slots on the ballot. Essentially, then, all but one person thought that at least one of those two was one of the two Best Pictures of the year. Would they have thus filled out their ballots if they had not all known what the Best Picture race was down to?

Academy voters take cues from critics and predictors and guild groups - they don’t want a repeat of Crash. If other groups are picking it, then the movie is “electable,” it’s a “safe” choice. The parallel to politics is clear: once it became clear that Obama could win after his triumph in Iowa, then it was “safe” and even “popular” to vote for him. Similarly, I argue, Academy members wait for these cues and then rally behind popular winners. This explains the high degree of predictability of the main races, which get the most coverage.

And then, of course, prognosticators are good at it - we know the Academy’s tastes for the most part. But let’s not discount the power of herd mentality as an explanation for this phenomenon. And, with the increase of social media and Oscars coverage, you can expect the predictability to continue as the saturation of information available to Academy voters increases.

The lesson for the future in predicting is: go for the consensus pick and you will be right north of 20 categories.

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Thanks for following us this year, folks. We have heard some rumblings of the Oscar race from Sundance already - and maybe next year’s Whiplash or Boyhood will be there. In May, we will hear from Cannes - where maybe the next Foxcatcher lies. But look to Telluride, six months from now, for the restart of the race. Enjoy the time off.