They Shoot Oscar Prognosticators, Don’t They?

The 2014 Oscars Race: The Final Stage Begins

By J. Don Birnam

January 21, 2015

C'mon, the Def Leppard guy could do this with one arm!

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The dust from the 2014 Academy Awards Nominations has settled. The Critics’ Choice Awards crowned the expected winners, but American Sniper stormed the box office over the weekend and made its presence known once and for all. For the next five and a half weeks, precursors, rumors, guilds, and box office will fuel speculation. In the end, only one (normally) will emerge victorious in each of the 24 categories. What does this recent slew of contenders tell us about the Academy (and ourselves), and where are the winds of fortune blowing?

The Nominations: What They Reveal About the Academy

Every year, it’s worth looking at the nominations to see what we can learn about the Academy. Most of the lessons repeat each year and yet somehow do not seem to enable us to 100% predict what they will do. Humans are funny that way.

Guilds work but have their limits.

The Guilds loved Gone Girl, but the movie was essentially snubbed by the Academy. By contrast, the Guilds were not impressed with Mr. Turner, but it landed a decent slew of technical nominations. The overlap between the guilds and the Academy branches is sufficient to give us clues but never an exact correspondence.

The Critics hold a lot of power.

In the 1990s, people would complain that the Academy was out of touch, picking too many commercial movies and not enough “quality” films, with Titanic vs. L.A. Confidential being the crowning moment of this narrative. Today, the Academy has made a complete 180. Despite complaints about the quality of their picks, look at most critics’ top ten lists. Boyhood, Grand Budapest Hotel and Birdman appear in nearly every critic list. It’s true that there is, like with the guilds, not 100% correspondence. The critics will always include left-field, little known movies completely out of the mainstream (some loved, for example, Jean Luc Goddard’s Goodbye To Language), while the Academy will also always go its own way in one or two entries (American Sniper is this year’s lowest rated Best Picture nominee, of which there is usually one or two each year). But, beyond that, it is clear that critical pics get the Academy’s attention and for the most part make the nominations.


This is definitely a “spread the wealth” year.

It is counterintuitive to think that the Academy loved a lot of movies this year given that it only nominated eight for Best Picture - the lowest since the expansion. But the signs point to a truly spread the wealth year. The first sign is that no movie received double-digits in nominations - with only The Grand Budapest Hotel and Birdman reaching nine. This happened last in 2009 when Avatar and Hurt Locker reached nine, and it was not that rare an occurrence in the 2000s.

One obvious explanation for this is that in a year when the “showy”, or craft-rich movies have little known acting performances, and the acting movies are not very crafty (such as, indeed, this year) you’re not going to see a movie crack the double digits. This does explain why the 1990s saw essentially every year with a 10+ nominee. The acting movies were also epics - Braveheart, Forrest Gump, Schlinder’s List, Titanic, The English Patient, and so on. Thus, 1990s movies got at least 10 nods in all years but two, when Unforgiven got nine and American Beauty eight. The 2000s, by contrast, were actors’ movies - A Beautiful Mind, Crash, Million Dollar Baby, The Departed, and so on. Thus, 2000s movies failed to get 10 nominations four times (twice as many as the previous decade), with some years yielding as low as seven nods.

If you need more convincing, consider that this may be the first year in a long time (in fact, I could not find a year in which the following had occurred in a search of the last 25 years) in which all Best Picture nominees walks away with at least one Oscar. For all the spread the wealth narrative that the papers tell you about the last couple of years, when you take out the acting categories, a different story emerges. Gravity and 12 Years a Slave dominated their year. Hugo and The Artist split most awards. Life of Pi and Argo did the same. Each of those years, when all was said and done, was the narrative of two movie - the ultimate winner and the beloved favorite.

Not so this year. As my predictions become clearer, there is a real chance that each of the eight movies will win one statuette, which would be extraordinary.

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