They Shoot Oscar Prognosticators, Don't They?
Handicapping Another Impossible Best Picture Race
By J. Don Birnam
February 21, 2019

I hope not.

Last but certainly not least we take an in-depth look into this year’s fascinating, and potentially history making Best Picture race. A crop of solid contenders is mixed in with a few more controversial selections. Netflix is making its strongest push yet to make history and get a seat at the Oscars table. The race evolved, as it tends to, from the festivals to the critic awards to the guild circuits. And, as usual, there has been a lot of controversy including some nasty campaigning on many sides.

For all of my complaints about predictability in the Oscar races in the last years, Best Picture has been much more turbulent. Indeed, if you look at my predictions in the last three years, my ultimate gut has been wrong about what was going to win.

The reality is that the Best Picture race has been shifting rapidly with the presence of so many newer, minority, international, etc., Academy members. This is not excuse-making - many were able to correctly predict the wins despite this. It is simply to point out that the race has in fact been more turbulent and, frankly, exciting, than in the past. Four years ago, Birdman swept through the circuit, winning PGA, DGA, and SAG. The Best Picture win was obvious. No movie has achieved that feat since and none did so this year, which makes it harder to handicap and harder to predict.

The nominees this year are: Blackkklansman, Black Panther, Bohemian Rhapsody, The Favourite, Green Book, Roma, A Star is Born, and Vice.

Quick Precursor Recap

To recap, Roma started strong out of the gate with wins in Venice and a third place finish at the TIFF People’s Choice vote. However, it was Green Book that took the TIFF prize, much like La La Land and Three Billboards before it (both Oscar losers). However, unlike Three Billboards (but like La La Land), Green Book then also won the PGA.

Meanwhile, it was Roma that pretty much swept the critics' precursors, even though some did fall for The Favourite and a few for A Star Is Born. This last movie was considered the frontrunner for a long time, sort of by default, until it started losing all over the place.

One of the first such notable losses was at the Globes, which went for Bohemian Rhapsody and Green Book instead, another win for the Peter Farrelly buddy road-trip comedy. At SAG, which nominated Crazy Rich Asians along with Black Panther, BlacKkKlansman, and Bohemian Rhapsody and A Star is Born, did its own thing and went for Black Panther. Finally, Roma officially got on the guild precursor win column with wins from DGA and from BAFTA. The tech guilds were sort of all over the place, with Vice, Bohemian, and others notching up wins in those races.

It seems that all except A Star Is Born, BlacKkKlansman and Vice have major/high profile wins. This is definitely a letdown for the Bradley Cooper film, and sort of a shock for the Spike Lee movie. That movie is the only one that checks all the key boxes that we usually used to think of as necessary to winning Best Picture: the Best Director, Best Editing, Best Screenplay nods plus a SAG nod. Green Book missed both directing and the SAG, Roma missed editing and SAG ensemble and, indeed, was completely shut out by SAG. The Favourite did not get a SAG ensemble nom.

Indeed, for the first time in the history of these guilds, all of the major ones went in different directions, given that the ACE Editors went for The Favourite and Bohemian. In the past, we have prepared charts to show the showdown between two to three films to see what stacks up most compared to history. This is pointless this year - there has never been a year with a clean five way split among the top guilds. The year of 12 Years a Slave, Gravity tied it for the PGA so Gravity technically had two. Also remember that year, 12 Years A Slave won the BAFTA. Unfortunately, this year those two split, so that is of no help.

Given this spread the love result so far, five of the eight nominees have a shot if you look at the guilds. But, of course, it would be fitting for one of the three without a major guild to win the Oscar.

Strange year.

Remember the Preferential Ballot

To really guess this correctly, you have to try to think like they do, and remember the math. There are about 8,000 Academy members now, including almost 2,000 newer, younger, more diverse, international members. If they coalesce around a movie, they can have a major impact in how a race turns out. You can look at the guilds for some clues, but their overlap is no longer as clear and their influence no longer as present. As always, They vote for what they like.

And the “math” (process) is important. Voters are asked to rank the Best Picture nominees in order of their “preference.” So, a theoretical ballot could say something like “1. A Star Is Born, 2. Black Panther, 3. Vice…..7. Bohemian Rhapsody 8. Green Book.” When all ballots are put together, the accounts make eight piles, one for each of the movie, stacking the number one votes. If one movie has 50% + 1 of the cast ballots, the counting is over and we have a winner.

But, in a race with this much divided attention it is impossible to imagine such a scenario playing out. So, the next step is to take the movie with the fewest #1 ballots and redistribute those ballots to the second choice listed in each. In the above example, the ballot would go to Black Panther’s pile assuming A Star Is Born had the fewest #1 votes. The accountants count again and if one movie has reached the 50% threshold + 1, then it’s over.

A voter does not have to rank all eight pictures, so if he does not have any movie left, the ballot is tossed and the number needed to cross the 50% threshold goes down. If the next movie on the ballot has been eliminated, you go to the next one, and so on until you have a winner.

Since the preferential Best Picture ballot came back over ten years ago, people have been running simulations and doing some analysis that, if applicable to how the Academy votes (as it seems it should) have yielded some clues. One of the first things we know is that the votes from the eliminated piles tend to have pretty even distributions, such that it is unlikely that a large group of voters have the same #1 and #2 movies in the same order.

This means that being ahead when the first round is counted is very important. If the votes from other ballots are roughly evenly distributed, you will not be caught by an opponent. But, since the first round itself tends to be pretty evenly distributed, there is always room for something to leapfrog something else.

Before we get to the other obvious point from this system — that having a lot of #2 and #3 votes is important — let’s discuss the other obvious but perhaps overlooked point: having a lot of #1 votes is very important to, to survive an early elimination.

Imagine that Green Book, say, showed up as #2 on a lot of ballots, but only #1 in, say, 2% of them. Under that scenario, Green Book would be most likely eliminated first. The 2% of ballots that have it at #1 would go to other movies, and when you get to the ballots with Green Book as the #2 choice’s second choice, that movie will be eliminated, meaning you go down to the third choice. In other words, if a movie has a lot of respect (i.e., nobody dislikes it much) but not a lot of passionate support, it can be in a lot of trouble. You can make convincing arguments that this has happened to Blackkklansman this year, and you can certainly make arguments in this regard about movies from Roma to Black Panther to A Star Is Born

By contrast, movies that clearly have passionate support include Green Book and The Favourite to even Bohemian Rhapsody. The question becomes: which of these movies has enough of a combination of the two?

Each Nominees’ Chances

Vice Goes First

Despite this movie having the key Directing, Writing, and Editing nominations, it has done very little in the precursor circuit this year. I cannot quite figure what is up other than it has passionate support enough to get the nominations in there, but not enough beyond that. In a year where anything really is possible, this remains the likely scenario.

A Star is Born Fades Next

Shockingly, given where this season began, I have trouble seeing this movie survive past the first or second rounds of eliminations. Like Vice, it has nothing to show for itself not just with guilds but with the industry as a whole, it lacks a crucial Directing nomination, and it is a fourth remake by two relative newcomers into the serious acting field. To me, it is a shame that Bradley Cooper is set to stunningly lose his fourth Lead Actor Oscar already, but alas, I do not cast the ballots. This would really surprise me as well.

None of these six would surprise me, but eliminate Bohemian Rhapsody next

The Internet really hates this movie for a multitude of reasons, including the acts of Bryan Singer, the way it portrays gay lifestyle, and the supposed way it changes key facts in Freddie Mercury’s life. But I doubt that the industry cares much what the people think. Bohemian Rhapsody won the Globe, the important ACE Eddie guild award, and consistent citations for Rami Malek.

My issue with predicting it is that it is a very old-school music biopic movie, one which I doubt many members have much interest in returning to the victory circle. And, certainly, the Singer allegations do not help it. I think Bohemian Rhapsody will be towards the middle in a lot of ballots (again, there is little evidence that the Internet hatred of it has spilled into the real world), but I wonder whether it will have enough #1 support to allow it to survive deep into the middle rounds.

End of the road for The Favourite

Given that it leads in nods, that it has all the key nominations, and that it won the most BAFTAs of anyone by far, you would be foolish to discount Yorgos Lanthimos’s movie chances. It surely can go all the way.

The problem is that its guild win, from the ACE Eddie guild, is relatively minor compared to others. And, if it could not pull off Best Film from the home-crowd Brits at BAFTA, it surely will not have a plurality of #1 votes after the first round. Thus, it will need serious down-ballot support and this is where I could see it getting in trouble…or maybe not?

If I looked at how I would rank The Favourite, it would be second after Roma. So maybe there is some down ballot love for it, just more passion for other movies? As I said above, that plus the passion it obviously engenders is the right combination. Nevertheless, I fear that the quirky dramedy turns off enough viewers that when it gets to those later rounds, it is going to find itself deep down in ballots and thus in big trouble.

Blackkklansman is unlikely to convert

As mentioned, the Spike Lee film is the only one this year with all the key nominations in the key races and guilds. But it is also one of the few without any wins from any of these. Remember, it has been since Out of Africa since that happened. This suggests, of course, that the film is widely respected and admired but not beloved or with enough passionate support. Indeed, under some scenarios, this movie could be eliminated first if it comes in, as I think it will, with very few #1 votes.

Still, if it has just enough of those, it is very likely to have enough respect down ballot to keep it around for a while and maybe even pull off a miracle upset, but it is going to need a very series of fortunate events to coalesce around it.

Enter the wild card: Black Panther

The Disney/Marvel film broke all sorts of records, made history, and inspired many. Indeed, there is a greater than zero chance that Marvel fans could tune in just to see how Black Panther does at the Oscars. Moreover, its SAG win is impressive. There is precedent for SAG being the one to foretell the outcome in the year of a divided race— they correctly picked Spotlight over the PGA’s incorrect The Big Short selection. That said, last year SAG went for Three Billboards, but the Oscar ultimately went for the PGA’s correct selection of The Shape of Water.

The real question here is whether the industry is going to reward a comic book movie, and a Disney one at that, given the studio’s increased overwhelming of the box office against all rivals. One can assume that newer members are less resistant to superhero films, and that given how many people they employ, tech branches support it. Indeed, Black Panther would in theory have to ride strong tech branch support to win - nearly all of its nominations are in that group.

Remember that the last movie to win without a directing, writing, or acting nod was Grand Hotel 86 years ago, in the first five years of the Oscars. That seems pretty tough to counter and ultimately makes me hesitant to select it. Nevertheless, it is clear that no one can hate this movie - people may push it down if they do not respect its genre, but it could miraculously garner enough support…

Green Book and Roma are likely to fight to the last ballot

Ultimately, though, I think it does boil down to those two. Green Book would be clearly in the lead if it had a Best Director nod to go with a SAG ensemble nod that it also missed. Missing those two makes one nervous, since a movie has never won without at least one of the two. Of course The Shape of Water won just last year without the SAG citation and Argo not too long ago without director, but those stats are pretty steep. Nevertheless, the PGA win is meaningful, since it is the only one decided on a preferential ballot. Clearly, there is a world out there of voters where Green Book has either overwhelming #1 support or a lot of respect despite Film Twitter controversy. This is the best argument for it.

On the other hand, Roma would have to shatter perhaps dozens of Oscars records and stats. No movie produced out of the USA and Britain other than The Artist (France) has won. No movie in a foreign language ever. No fully black and white movie since 1960 (Schindler’s List and The Artist both used color in one or two scenes). No Netflix movie - perhaps the biggest obstacle of all. And no movie has ever won with only the DGA as its precursor guild win. That plus the lack of SAG can be argued to hurt Roma, though its support among the acting branches is clear from the surprise Marina de Tavira nomination.

But, between the Netflix factor and the lack of identification for most voters with the story of a Mexican indigenous maid, one does wonder if Roma could lose because it has a lot of respect but not passionate support.

To be honest, this is the first time in years that my absolutely favorite movie of the year has a realistic chance at Best Picture. I hesitate to predict it to win given my absolutely horrible streak of bad luck in this race. But the below is not an attempt at a reverse jinx, I want to get this finally right more than anything and my gut tells me that this is how it’s going to go down for the reasons plenty outlined herein.

Will Win: Green Book
Could Win: Roma (Anything)

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