They Shoot Oscar Prognosticators, Don’t They?
Will Oscar Ignore Box Office Again?
By J. Don Birnam
November 3, 2015

The next person who asks about Mad Men is getting punched in the face.

The Best Picture race is probably the most wide-open it has been at this stage of the race in several years. What will win right now is really anybody’s guess, so at least there is excitement and intrigue for a little while longer. Several trends seem to be playing and pulling against each other, I’ll take a look at some of them today. Check-out our updated Best Picture power rankings at our awards research page, and follow me on Twitter, and on Instagram for up to the minute updates on the Oscar race.

The Wide Open Race

At this point last year, most people assumed that Boyhood was going to win Best Picture. Although Birdman triumphed in the end, we had a clear consensus front-runner one month away from the beginning of the critics’ awards, even if some dissidents saw room for a shift.

Similarly, two years ago, everyone assumed 12 Years A Slave was headed for the win. Again, there were some questions and doubts as to whether Gravity could upset it, but the race had pretty much boiled down to those two contenders.

And so on…for most of the last few years, a consensus pick has emerged around this time, and even if that consensus pick does not end up triumphing, the conversation has at least narrowed considerably by November 1st.

Not so this year. With a long list of movies that have a real chance at a Best Picture nomination, a long list of passion projects (Freeheld, Suffragette), issues movies (Spotlight, Truth, The Danish Girl), and movies with big names (Steve Jobs, Carol, Joy), there seems to be very little agreement as to what is ahead, other than perhaps…

Is It Spotlight or is it…The Martian?

Most prognosticators have Spotlight in their number one slot, but it seems almost an afterthought or default choice. Many also complain that Spotlight doesn’t have the dramatic climax - the quintessential Oscar moment - that is needed for a Best Picture win.

I actually have Spotlight still at number one and have more conviction in my prediction right now than the apologetic ranking that others have for it. Spotlight is a deliberate, methodical movie; it is thoughtfully made, without a false note, and with a sense of importance - voters can feel good voting for the good guys by supporting Spotlight. The movie does not have one climatic denouement but it has a climactic sequence and several key emotional scenes. One particular scene between Mark Ruffalo and Stanley Tucci towards the end of the movie stands out.

I have no idea if it will actually win, but can it win? Absolutely. Nothing else that has been widely seen seems remotely close. Unless, that is, you buy the theory that The Martian is actually ahead.

The comparison to Gravity is obvious and easy, so some people are making it. But The Martian does not have the intellectual gravitas of Gravity, nor does it have the technological breakthrough that propelled Gravity to a stunning seven Academy Awards. These could be good things, on the other hand, with The Martian being more accessible to viewers and voters, a more familiar, Argo-like story of American ingenuity and saving the day, and an overall feel-good thriller that delivers a euphoric finale that Gravity did not.

But the Academy has proven for at least 10 years that it does not like popcorn movies, even if they are higher brow like The Dark Knight, begrudgingly nominating flicks like Avatar, which at least had that element of respectability behind it. It just seems hard to imagine complete fluff like The Martian (a movie that I enjoyed, mind you) breaking through when Gravity, Avatar, and The Dark Knight did not.

It is possible, I suppose, that Ridley Scott (who lost out on Best Director the year his Gladiator won Best Picture) could be overdue a career Oscar, but I still doubt it. Argo and Gravity had a purported tone of "serious" that The Martian lacks, fun as it may be for audiences.

The real question with The Martian is whether the Academy is going to yet again thumb its nose at the box office and at what audiences want.

The Box Office Elephant in the Room

There is no denying that, so far, the movies that are expected to contend seriously for Best Picture are not doing well at the box office. Steve Jobs had a disappointing opening and suffered what a fellow BOP columnist called a "devastating blow" its second weekend. Passion projects that could have done well at least in acting races - Freeheld, Suffragette, Truth - have not found audiences beyond very small niches.

The Toronto crowd-pleaser Room, based on an internationally beloved novel, has had very small business in limited release. And even reliable box office draw Spielberg, who drew in hundreds of millions for his last serious contender, Lincoln, in 2012, has had relatively modest returns so far for the Best Picture contender Bridge of Spies.

And given the release patterns and subject matters of upcoming releases from Brooklyn to Carol to The Danish Girl (and even Spotlight!) it is hard to see any of them breaking significant box office records.

To be sure, the 1990s adage that box office poison meant Oscar doomsday has long been debunked (remember when The Hurt Locker could not possibly win Best Picture?). And, year after year, prognosticators are left to wonder whether the Oscars are really going to ignore the big box office draws and, for the most part, the Oscars do.

But it is worth asking the same question again this year because the gap between the big box movies and the Oscar contenders has grown even wider. Even last year, the Academy nominated American Sniper, the highest grossing movie of the year, and a couple of the nominees crossed the $100 million threshold. This year, if the current predictions hold, we could end up with no contender above that mark (unless The Martian sneaks in) which would be a historical first. Indeed, none of my top ten likely Best Picture nominees right now, other than The Martian, are anywhere near that box office goal.

What explains this widening disparity? There are many theories, but the answer could be as simple as math. The average American sees between four and five movies in theaters every year. This year, there are a particularly high number of must-see events, including Jurassic World, the final Hunger Games installment and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. With three of those four or five slots occupied, it is possible that there is simply little room left for people to delve into these other movies. It could be as simple as that.

Regardless, it would be truly remarkable for the Academy to turn its back completely on this phenomenon. We know Jurassic World, so far the highest-grosser of the year, stands no chance at a nomination. But will the Academy completely turn its back on The Martian, Star Wars, Mad Max, and Inside Out, thus widening the chasm between its tastes and those of mainstream audiences, which still drive their ratings and returns?

It seems likely, but also perilous.

The Beasts of No Nation Puzzle

Speaking of turning their backs to what audiences want, the puzzle is even more complicated by the gravitational pull of Netflix’s Beasts of No Nation. Although the Africa-war movie did not do well in its small awards-qualifying theater run, it wasn’t expected to. Instead, Netflix has announced that over 3 million people have seen the movie, which makes it comparable to a pretty solid theater release.

Will the Academy reward the critically acclaimed piece? Leave aside for a moment the violent and graphic elements of the movie (admittedly, big hurdles to it doing well, regardless of release), will the snottier members of the Academy view a Netflix release as worthy of awards consideration?

Like it or not, it seems like the future of movie releases is upon us, and whether it’s with Beasts or another movie, Netflix is bound to stumble into a movie that is too popular and too good to ignore by any serious awards body. As of this moment, I do not expect this one to do particularly well, but the barrier will begin to erode when people are forced to consider this movie for awards this year.

Joy May Bring Happiness to David O. Russell’s Heart

So, the lack of consensus brings us right back to where we were one month ago after the New York Film Festival - looking ahead to the three remaining question marks from the season: The Revenant, The Hateful Eight, and Joy. Except now we know a little more.

We now know from sneak peeks that The Hateful Eight features even more over-the-top use of the N word and gratuitously racy sexual and racist scenes. And Tarantino has been unusually unapologetic about it, probably enough to hurt his chances at a win even if his devoted fan base nets him another nomination.

We know from Toby Maguire’s retelling of best pal’s Leo’s experience that The Revenant is “the best movie” Leo has ever been in. And we now know from a test screening of Joy that the movie is serious, a bit weird, but overall effective. Some prognosticators, indeed, have switched Joy to the number one spot, sight unseen, because of the positive reactions the test audiences had to it.

I will not move Joy to the number one spot until I’ve seen it, but I do suppose that the fourth time could be the charm for David O. Russell, who’s had near misses from The Fighter to Silver Linings Playbook to American Hustle. Jennifer Lawrence is beloved, and she is apparently superb, so it could be that, in fact, Joy will sweep in and fill the void that is currently the Best Picture race.

And maybe Joy will solidify its front-runner status with a strong box office showing upon its Christmas release. But for now, Spotlight will remain in the top spot, and the thing to watch this November at the box office will be how it and the other nominees perform with audiences.

With such a wide open year, a stunning ticket sale performance could make or break a movie’s chances at the ultimate prize…