They Shoot Oscar Prognosticators, Don't They?

Round Two Around The Corner

By J. Don Birnam

November 25, 2015

Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper should fight crime together.

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After a fun season of film festivals, sneak peeks, stabs in the dark, and rumors, the Oscar race is and will finally start taking a more discernible shape. The Independent Spirit Awards nominations were just announced and, early next week, the New York Film Critics’ Circle (NYFCC) and the National Board of Review (NBR) will announce their favorites of the year. As usual, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA) will follow that lead in subsequent days. Follow me on Twitter for up-to-the-minute updates on those results.

The Independent Spirit Awards Speak First

On the one hand, the Independent Spirit Awards are not a good Oscar predictor, because the voters are mostly fans as opposed to industry insiders. On the other hand, Oscar has basically gone for all "indie" movies for years now, with productions that started in a big box not able to break through to the top prize since arguably The Lord of the Rings. Thus, it has often been the case that the ultimate Best Picture winner aligns nicely with the Indie Spirit winner. And while right now the Indie Spirit Awards are leaders in announcing what is resonating with the public, by the time they hand out their actual awards on the night before the Oscars, the writing is on the wall and the Indie Spirits have normally followed suit.

This year, two of the arguable Best Picture front-runners, Spotlight and Carol, landed Best Film nods along with a slew of other nominations from the Indie Spirit Awards. Those two are now basically etched in stone as final Oscar contenders, and their nomination was no surprise. The more pleasant surprise was that both Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett got in as Lead Actresses. With Mara going for lead at the Golden Globes as well, this has the potential to skirt the category fraud that is going on this year in the female acting racings, and the potential to throw all of our current predictions out the window.

The other pleasant surprise is the Best Film nods for Beasts of No Nation, Anomalisa, and Tangerine. All three are strong movies, but they will need serious pushes to get noticed by the Academy in this incredibly crowded year. But with acting nods across the board for those three, at the very least the male acting races also finally have some intrigue.


The Critics Will Speak Next.

On to the top critics awards. Predicting what these initial groups of voting bodies will do is no easy task. For one, the number of people voting is infinitely smaller than, say, the 6,000 member Academy, or the gigantic membership of SAG. With only a few dozen voters for each award, even one or two people can seriously throw off the results.

Moreover, critics like to think of themselves as free and creative thinkers, and always like to show that they are branching out - or brave. And, unlike when one is predicting the results of the Oscars themselves, here we are really writing on a blank slate. By the time the Academy Award envelopes are opened, over 50 critics groups have released their favorite pics, at least one dozen Hollywood guilds have done the same, and several other bodies from the Golden Globes to the People’s Choice have spoken. As we know from years past, the predictability at that point is at its highest and surprises are few, if any. By contrast, trying to predict what the critics, with their quirks and oddities, will do at a time when no real consensus has been formed is of a much higher degree of difficulty.

This should separate the contenders from the pretenders, at least when it comes to the subtle and thankless task of Oscar prognosticating.

How did I do last year? Well, interestingly enough, I anticipated, without realizing, the ultimate rise of Birdman as the top movie of the year. As you can see, I expected that movie to do well with all three of the main critics' groups. Birdman, of course, won none of the three prizes, but it did take home the ultimate prize on Oscar night. So, I'll chalk it up as a partial victory. Instead, both New York and L.A. went to Boyhood, but the Academy once more showed that, while critics influence, they do not dictate the ultimate outcome.

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