They Shoot Oscar Prognosticators, Don’t They?

The Directors Speak—Predicting a Best Picture/Best Director Split

By J Don Birnam

January 27, 2014

Can you believe Alfonso Cuarón is getting all the credit?

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The Directors Guild, the last major guild of the season, has spoken. To no one’s surprise, they bestowed their highest honor on Alfonso Cuaron, for Gravity. As we know, this award is of high significance - in the last 20 years, only twice has the winner of the DGA failed to win Best Director at the Oscars (assuming the DGA winner was nominated for an Oscar). Not only that, but since the Producers Guild began giving out their awards in 1989, only three movies have won both the DGA and the PGA (as Gravity now has albeit with a tie in the PGA) and not won Best Picture - they are Apollo 13, losing to Braveheart; Saving Private Ryan, losing to Shakespeare in Love; and Brokeback Mountain, losing to Crash. So not only are we entering territory in which Alfonso Cuaron seems like a lock for Best Director, my bold statement earlier this month that Gravity cannot win Best Picture has been thrown out the window. Gravity is now, arguably, the presumptive frontrunner for Best Picture.

But I still don’t buy it. Call me stubborn, but I still believe that Gravity is not the type of movie the Academy deems worthy of their prize, and that 12 Years a Slave will take the top honor. In other words, Gravity will win Best Director but there will be a Best Picture split.

A lot has been discussed in the awards universe this season about whether one can truly predict a split between Best Picture and Best Director. The argument for the split is that Gravity is a “director’s movie,” i.e., a spectacularly difficult movie to make and an incredible achievement helmed mostly by one man (indeed, Cuaron co-wrote, edited, directed, and produced the movie). Like Life of Pi before it, the argument continues, the Academy is likely to give Best Director to a movie they admire, but that they cannot quite bring themselves to anoint as their “Best,” perhaps because they don’t think it is as “serious” (whatever that means) as other movies.


Some, however, are skeptical that one can predict Best Director/Picture splits in advance. This group points out that these splits normally take people by surprise. Indeed, few saw Crash upending Brokeback Mountain for Best Picture after Ang Lee won Best Director. Roman Polanski truly surprised everyone and won directing for the Pianist when Chicago won Best Picture. And, of course, Shakespeare in Love’s triumph was one of the biggest shocks in Academy history. Moreover, this group believes, it is unlikely that Gravity is going to win something like six Oscars, including directing, and then lose Best Picture.

So who’s right?

Well, for one, the skeptics have a lot of strong points, not to mention years and years of Academy history, to back them up. For one, the Life of Pi analogy has its limits because Argo, the unarguable favorite last year, was not nominated for Best Director. A split there was preordained, so to speak—it was predictable from the get-go. No one doubts that if Ben Affleck had been nominated, he would have won. Moreover, statistics against a split are forceful - Best Director and Picture normally add up. In the history of the Oscars, over 70% of the movies that win Best Director go on to win Best Picture. If you look to more modern times, say from 1960 on, the number jumps up to north of 85%.

But where some see an 85% chance of a match, I see a not-insignificant chance of a split. In other words, splits are rare but they happen. Those who are skeptical about predicting splits point out that most people are unlikely to vote for one movie for Best Picture and another for Director, but the 15% shows that people do exactly that, at least sometimes.

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