They Shoot Oscar Prognosticators, Don’t They?
Handicapping the “Below the Line” Races – Part One
By J. Don Birnam
February 3, 2014
Over the weekend, Her won the Writers Guild Award for Best Original Screenplay, and Captain Phillips won for adapted (12 Years a Slave was not eligible). Also, Frozen won the top prize from the animators’ guild (the “Annies”), as well as several other prizes. We will analyze the writing and the other film races later this month, but today we will take a look at some of the technical races.
In fact, you may think you know who is winning Best Picture, but you don’t stand a chance to win your Oscar pool unless you do some serious diving into the bulk of the so-called “below the line” categories.
A caveat about analyzing the technical categories at this stage: most crafts-oriented guilds have not given out their individual awards yet. Like the producers, directors, and actors, the cinematographers, editors, costume designers, sound editors, etc., are people too, and have their own guilds and awards to give out. Although it may seem a bit premature to prognosticate the temperature of these races before the guilds speak, it is not necessarily so. While only experts in each fields vote for the guild awards, the entire Academy votes for the technical Oscar races, which leads to mismatches. Sometimes the more overall beloved (but not necessarily better lit/designed/sounded) movie wins at the Oscars, while the more meritorious work takes the guild prize. Thus, the predictive value of the guilds races can be limited. In any event, we will update these predictions before Oscar night once all the guilds have spoken.
In trying to predict the winners of technical Oscars, it helps to take the temperature of the overall Best Picture race. A year in which one single movie is beloved can lead to a “sweep” in which the front-runner takes most of the prizes regardless of merit - most recently Slumdog Millionaire and The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King before that. This year, despite Gravity’s strength in the technical races, I do not see it running away with every prize necessarily, given the stiff Best Picture race. I expect the three-way race will result in close contests where a few votes can swing races either way, and that most voters will take harder looks at some categories - to spread the wealth if you will. Indeed, in recent years, the Academy has not hesitated to go for one-off awards to movies like Alice in Wonderland, Marie Antoinette, or The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, to name a few, despite the presence of Best Picture nominees in their respective categories, where the eventual winner was not universally beloved.
Therein lies what I (and probably no one else) think of as a fascinating tension between the overall Best Picture race and the other Oscar categories. Each branch of the Academy is responsible for nominating the movies in their branch, so, for example, only movie editors nominate for Best Film Editing, etc. But people are people and, as we have discussed, Oscar voters like to vote for what they like.
The result of this is that you see eyebrow raising choices sometimes insofar as branches want to nominate a movie simply because they like it. Also, people like to vote for what’s popular, and they want to place their stamp of approval on the Best Picture frontrunners. A “meme” of sort develops, and you see questionable choices like Dallas Buyers Club receiving a Best Editing nomination, or American Hustle a costumes nod over the much more showy and intricate Catching Fire.