They Shoot Oscar Prognosticators, Don't They?

The New Shape of the Academy

By J. Don Birnam

March 7, 2018

She didn't win, but things are changing. Very. Slowly.

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The 90th Academy Awards are quickly receding into the rearview mirror and the rest of the 2018 movie slate is upon us. We take one last look at a year that was, the lessons we learned, and what it means about the industry and ourselves, before putting a final bow on it.

Fool Me Once…The New Best Picture Normal?

Aside from the statistically improbably nature of last year’s Best Picture win by Moonlight, we rightly termed it “historic” given the unprecedented nature of a win by a movie about black lives (indeed, featuring an all-black cast) and by a movie about LGBT characters. The natural question then was whether the expansion of Academy membership that resulted from two years of #OscarsSoWhite had led the new, younger, more international Academy to go elsewhere, or whether it was a fluke caused by the nature of the nominees.

With the win for The Shape of Water, we are starting to get closer to an answer.

Consider the following thought exercises. Imagine a movie about a man loyal to his country, caught in an endless war, doing his duty, to the point of near insanity, such that he starts to confuse what is good and what is bad, to his ultimate demise. If you are a movie history connoisseur, you may recognize this as the plot of the 1957 winner The Bridge Over the River Kwai. Someone who knows more modern movies may also describe it as the first post-expansion Best Picture winner, The Hurt Locker.

What about a movie about a troubled monarch with a difficult family history and personal ghosts to conquer, needing to lead a nation in a time of crisis? You’d be forgiven for thinking about The King’s Speech when I really meant the 1967 Best Picture winner, The Lion in Winter. Or a black and white movie about a cute little couple, a little bit of slapstick romance? Yeah, Ok, it sounds like The Artist but I am really talking about the 1935 winner It Happened One Night. A movie about a guy on a mission to achieve social justice in the face of incredible odds? Take your pick: Spotlight (2015) or A Gentleman’s Agreement (1945).
I realize the analogies are not perfect, and please do not take the foregoing to diminish in any way (or increase) the achievements of any of the listed movies, some of which I revere. My point is simply this: the whole point of the Academy expanding the Best Picture field after the 2008 miss for The Dark Knight was to diversify the type of stories that were being rewarded, but that did not really work. All you got was two times as many of the same films, and most if not all of the first eight movies that won Best Picture during the Best Picture expansion can be analogized to movies of the past. The fact is that stories of men and their problems have dominated for 80 or so years of the Academy’s history.

Whatever your views of the merits of Moonlight and The Shape of Water, you really cannot say that about those two movies. Just this year’s winner was the first that starred a woman since 2004 (Million Dollar Baby). The point can be made starkly thus: it was the first Best Picture winner to have a Best Actress nominee in it 14 years. That is crazy. It is also the first original fantasy winner ever (The Lord of Rings was adapted from a beloved known quantity).
Two years is not a big sample size. It could just be that I successfully jinxed the potential Best Picture winner two years in a row with an editorial criticizing the purported winner. More seriously, it appears that the Academy (which has ALWAYS been worried about what “message” its top prize sends) is worried about a different type of message. Last year, it arguably did not want to give a message that it only cared about itself (La La Land). This year, it potentially wanted to stay away from Three Billboards, a movie some of us found problematic in terms of its dealings with race and abuse issues (despite its obvious well intentions).

So, this could be the new Academy folks. It will be exciting to see how long it lasts.


But Predictability Remains an Issue

For all the uncertainty surrounding Best Picture, however, it is fair to say that the complaint I have had since I have written for this site, that the Oscars are too predictable, is even more true now than ever. If you look at my final predictions for this year, which are here, you will notice that I did a respectable 20/24 (much better than last year, but actually not that impressive). One site had a 24/24 ballot, the first time I’ve ever seen that in 20 years, and there were dozens of 23s.

This is not me trying to defend my four errors, I am actually quite proud of calling two shorts against the grain, and I predicted against Dear Basketball out of principal. The other misses were silly in retrospect, as they went against the grain. But if you look at the consensus picks, they were right 19/24. And the ones that they missed, I got right. Or viceversa. I was right 20/24, but the ones I missed, the consensus was right on (except Best Picture, which most people missed).

What is behind this? It is not entirely clear to me if prognosticators have gotten that good, or if the Film Twitter influence has gotten so big that what we say will happen DOES happen in a self-fulfilling kind of way. I know of at least a dozen or so known-Academy members who follow the main Oscar prognosticators, who in turn repeated the echo chamber of Film Twitter and its predictions. They could have, for example, finally gotten Roger Deakins his Oscar.

Maybe it’s the large number of precursors, which tend to “me too” each other in a bid to predict the Oscars. Or it’s a combination of the above.

This is not a big problem for the Academy (certainly not as much as its ratings problems for example), but it does make for a more boring exercise for prognosticators.

The Third Lesson: #MeToo, #TimesUp, and Others, Are the Norm for Now

I found the inclusivity montage of the Oscars one of the best parts of the show, honestly. As you know, I never offer much commentary with respect to a show that I barely ever pay attention except for when they say “And the Oscar goes to…” I leave other experts at this to it, and we have people here who will do it for you.

But I did find this to be one of the shows where the politics resonated the loudest, even more so than last year’s show that was coming fresh off the heels of the dawn of the Trump era. This feels unlike anything that we have ever seen before, and that is a good thing.
Indeed, it was stark to notice that of the Oscars handed out yesterday, 34 went to men and 4 to women. Only this year did Best Cinematography category nominate a woman, the first time ever in 90 years, and the last category with that dubious distinction. There is a long way to go in Hollywood in terms of making sure everyone has the same opportunities. It is not a knock on the Academy, on the contrary, I was pleasantly surprised with how much they gave a platform to these issues, something they have been loathe to do in the past. (Remember when Michael Moore got booed for slamming George W. Bush?)

I always feel more uncomfortable when it comes to rewarding individuals on the basis of anything other than merit, though I am well aware of the good reasons to do so. But it does make the blood slightly boil (and it makes one sad, really) to go through a Best Picture winners list and notice that for 80+ years, basically one perspective was told and rewarded. We are better than that and, for the first time, it seems that we are committed to doing better.

That is it folks. We hope you enjoyed our coverage this year. Our five to six month hiatus or so begins, but our Telluride tickets are purchased.

We will be back before you can say The Shape of Water.



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