They Shoot Oscar Prognosticators, Don't They?
A Final Look at the 88th Academy Awards
By J. Don Birnam
March 3, 2016

$15 million budget FTW!

What lessons did the 2015 Oscars teach us about Hollywood, the Academy, the predicting game, and the future of movies? We put a bow to this rather fun Oscar season after Spotlight’s ultimate victory, and consider what it may mean for the future of this crazy game called awards season.

My Annual Defense of the Academy

Every year I find myself having to defend the Academy from critiques from all over the place. Normally the critiques have to do with the length or boringness of the show. Last year, it had to do with the nature of the movies selected — they were not picking artsy enough movies, but at the same time they were not picking popular enough movies. I will get to how that criticism played out over the last season, but, first, let’s consider the big Oscars’ controversy of the year.

As you know, that was the return of the #OscarsSoWhite critique. I have already laid out in full my view that it is somewhat myopic to blame the Academy for a problem that is clearly broader than it, and that is endemic to all of Hollywood and, arguably, vast portions of the entertainment industry. Suffice it to say, in this space, that I found the message by Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the President of the Academy, at the Oscars, to be right on point. The purpose of inclusiveness in this context is so that the culture standard-bearers and deciders accurately reflect the society they serve. There are ways to ensure that that is the case.

At the same time, the Academy, which, by a stroke of pure luck, had tapped Chris Rock to host the event before the controversy boiled up, was well-served by Rock’s presence at the show. And I don’t mean because he was the token minority host, but rather because he presented a nuanced and exact view of the problem. He took the easy jabs at the lack of diversity at the Oscars, but he also pointed out the lack of diversity in movies. At the same time, he pointed out, correctly, that not every controversy is about race - it wasn’t fair, for example, that Will Smith got paid $20 million for Wild Wild West. And, he added, some black audiences could not care less about who gets nominated for an Academy Award. In essence, then, the issue is infinitely more nuanced than 140-twitter characters could permit, and the Academy pointed this out subtly but assuredly during the broadcast.

As for the nature of the movies nominated well, the Academy did nominate two immensely crowd-pleasing movies - The Martian and Mad Max - as well as another movie that audiences responded to quite well in The Revenant. Sure, they did not go all out and nominate Star Wars (it may have broken/screened too late), but the inclusion of Ridley Scott fare once more indicates that the big studios are slowly but surely getting back into the Awards game. Again, as I said last year, I do not think that is necessarily a good thing, but, there you have it, for better or for worse. In my view, the Academy is never going to be able to please both the genre-picture constituency and the art-house crowd. It should stop trying.

What Happened with Spotlight?

Some stories are meant to repeat themselves. Last year, after our annual defense of the Academy, we spoke of the story arc of the frontrunner that had been taken down by a movie by a gutsy foreign director named Alejandro González Iñárritu. History almost repeated itself, but not quite. This time, Spotlight managed to do to The Revenant what Boyhood could not do to Birdman last year: hold off its impending assault and win Best Picture. How did that happen?

The answer, if you ask me, is quite simple: Oscarologist buzz. Boyhood broke earlier than Spotlight last year - in mid-July, where Spotlight screened in the fall festivals in August/September but was not released until November. By the time the Academy members got around to seeing Boyhood when their screeners came in (think December), they had been hearing about the great masterpiece, the obvious Best Picture frontrunner that it was, for nearly six months.

Not so Spotlight. That movie was well-respected from the beginning, but it never garnered the critical support or pundit support that Boyhood had. It was anointed the Best Picture front-runner more by default than by passion. Still, this label undoubtedly hurt Spotlight along the way, as its PGA loss to The Big Short shows. But the rise and fall cycle was not so extreme that it was unable to recover, like Boyhood was. Perhaps some buyers’ remorse kicked in for Birdman after three guild ones, as shown by its BAFTA lose to Boyhood, but by then it was too late to turn the tide. In the Spotlight vs. The Revenant showdown, by contrast, The Revenant broke late, and Spotlight had enough time to recover between its PGA loss and Oscar voting.

So, it boils down to buzz, perception, and expectations. Few movies can ever live up to that dreaded label: “Best Picture frontrunner.” It nearly took down Spotlight. Do not discount, of course, the fact that The Revenant was a divisive movie, that its director had just won, and that Spotlight, unlike The Revenant, feels like an “important” movie, and those always tend to win over even epic, technical masterpieces (The Hurt Locker vs. Avatar; 12 Years vs. Gravity).

The Predictability of the Oscars: Predicting Lessons for the Future

Finally, last year we complained about the predictability of the Oscars. Despite my incorrect guess of The Revenant as the Best Picture winner, allow me to do the same this year. If you look at my final predictions and the expected winners, basically 23 of 24 lined up to one of two or three top choices.

Like last year, I’d argue that this race featured only one stunner at the end of the day. Last year, nobody saw Big Hero 6’s triumph over How to Train Your Dragon 2 in the animated race. This year, the only race that comes even close is the defeat by Ex Machina over three Best Picture nominees and over Star Wars for Best Visual Effects. Nothing else comes close.

Sure, many pundits were predicting Gaga’s song to win, but if you read this space you did not buy it - there was not an iota of evidence for that, and enough people correctly picked the Sam Smith song as to call that not really an upset. The same goes for Mark Rylance’s triumph over Sylvester Stallone - again, there was no evidence of Stallone winning (certainly no SAG or BAFTA nods), other than pundits’ say so and desire to make it so. I overestimated the strength of The Revenant in predicting Hardy, but I’m giving myself half credit for correctly pointing out from day one that Stallone could not win.

Finally, I was simply wrong about the Academy sticking to traditional costumes and going for The Danish Girl. They loved Mad Max that much and good for them for branching out to different types of dresses for the first time ever. Still, that was a predictable result as well, as most pundits had picked the George Miller saga to triumph there.

What it all means then, is simple: the Oscars are very predictable if you listen to the cacophony about them on the Internet, and they are even more predictable if you listen closely. The lack of surprises in categories where there was little precedent to choose from (think, e.g., Hateful Eight for score), shows that people willing a win into place can actually happen. But if you pay close attention and see the signs, you can see almost every time where that consensus is obviously wrong (save the random Big Hero 6 or Ex Machina—but that is now only ONE category a year). We have not had an actual, major upset in an Oscar acting race in nearly 15 years.

And so, Leonardo DiCaprio finally won his Oscar - spurring celebration and joy around the world - two relative newcomers with uncertain outlooks also took home theirs, and a Mexican director, of all people, made history by becoming only the third person in Oscars’ history to win back-to-back awards. Mad Max was the night’s biggest winner, netting six Oscars. Only Cabaret and Gravity have more Oscars without a Best Picture win, like Mad Max.

But in the end, the movie about journalism, the movie with steady if quiet support, the movie that gives us hope for the future, that we as a society can do better, that we as a people can save each other from ourselves, triumphed in its own, self-fulfilling minimalist way. In a year that featured one of the strongest Best Picture lineups in over a decade, can anyone really fault the Academy for that?

Thanks again for sticking with us this Oscars year! I will resume some A-List-ing (requests for lists are taken on Twitter and Instagram) for the time being, and return to this crazy, obscene business of prognosticating soon enough.