They Shoot Oscar Prognosticators, Don’t They?

The PGA and SAG Awards: Birdman Now Leads the Oscar Race

By J. Don Birnam

January 26, 2015

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Birdman upended this season’s Oscar race by stealing the Producers’ Guild Award from under Boyhood’s watch. Since the Best Picture expansion in 2009, and the beginning of the preferential ballot for Best Picture that year, the winner of the PGA has each time won Best Picture at the Academy Awards. So, is it, against all expectations, Birdman’s year?

There have been many rumblings that Boyhood could not win Best Picture. The reasons were several, some more logical than others. The most persuasive one I’ve heard is that in a preferential ballot, a movie with very little technical support can’t win because of its lack of votes from the below-the-lines branches.

That makes some sense to me. Yeah, Crash, The Departed, and Million Dollar Baby won without a lot of tech support, but back then a simple majority of number one votes was enough to win. If, for example, most of the 1,100 actors voted for one movie, that would be enough if the rest of the Academy split its vote. Today, however, you need a lot of #1 votes, but you also need to be high on the ballots that didn’t place you #1. So yes, Boyhood has a lot of passionate support, and therefore a lot of #1 votes, but if technical votes don’t come through, it may fall to something that does have a lot of below-the-line love. And there are two movies with clear broad support: Birdman, indeed, has nine nominations, including surprising sound nods, as does the Grand Budapest Hotel - nine nominations with no acting nods.

But there are some problems with that theory, too. Do you really think that someone won’t vote for Boyhood if they love that movie, simply because they do sound editing for a living? I don’t buy that. Here’s another problem: Birdman is arguably divisive. In a preferential ballot, you can simply forget about American Sniper and Selma for the win: some people will give them #1 votes, but it will be way down ballot on the rest of them to win. Birdman, to me, also seems that type of movie: a lot of people love and admire it, but it’s too out there for some people. So, in that sense, Birdman’s win at PGA - which also uses the preferential ballot - is truly surprising. And no movie like Birdman has ever won - it’s one of those quirky movies and there is simply no precedent for that.


I don’t buy theories like “something without a Best Director nod can’t win,” or “something with the fewest nods can’t win.” Those stats are too-number dependent and voters don’t look at correlation numbers before they vote. But voters do vote for what “they” “like” and in 87 years they have never ever liked a “quirky,” artsy movie. To me, that would be the most extraordinary thing behind a Birdman win.

In a preferential ballot, as we learned last year, Best Picture goes to the movie that everyone can like. The Artist. Argo. The King’s Speech. It has to be fun, unobjectionable. Yeah, Birdman is beloved and admired, and yes it’s about show business, but anecdotally some people seemed to really put off by it. If any movie was going to steal that thunder it was clearly going to be The Imitation Game - the usual saving of the world, love the flawed hero story. You saw me list Birdman is one of my favorite movies of the year - I like it and it would be a good win. Is the Academy really that quirky now? After Argo and The Artist?

All of this is a very long way of saying: I don’t buy it. My money is still on Boyhood or The Imitation Game. A DGA win for Birdman may convince me otherwise. We shall see.

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