MCN Columnists
David Poland

By David Poland

20 Weeks To Oscar: What We Talk About When We Talk About Best Picture


In the last decade, the winners of Best Picture have had varied results amongst the 4 primary guilds.

Three films won all four and were all considered locks by this time in their seasons: No Country For Old Men, Slumdog Millionaire, and Argo. Only Argo was in the era of more than 5 nominees.

Of the other eight Best Picture-winning films in the last decade, two won 3 of the 4 guild awards:
The Hurt Locker lost SAG, won DGA, won PGA, won WGA
The King’s Speech won SAG, won DGA, won PGA, disqualified for WGA

Three won 2 of the 4 guild awards:
The Departed lost SAG, won DGA, lost PGA, won WGA
Crash won SAG, lost DGA, lost PGA, won WGA
The Artist lost SAG, won DGA, won PGA, disqualified for WGA

And two won just 1 of the 4 guild awards:
Million Dollar Baby lost SAG, won DGA, lost PGA, lost WGA
12 Years A Slave lost SAG, lost DGA, won PGA, disqualified for WGA

What hasn’t happened is a film winning Best Picture without winning any of the guild awards.

But stranger things have happened. And this is, as I keep writing, a very strange season.

Birdman has now won 3 of the 4 guilds and cannot win the 4th, WGA, because it was disqualified.

Five of the other 7 Best Picture nominees could win at WGA (in 2 categories: Boyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Whiplash, American Sniper, The Imitation Game). And in theory (though Theory is not one of them), the one that ones is the one that has the best chance to take Best Picture instead of Birdman.

Or… we could just see something we haven’t seen since the guilds set themselves up as precursors… no guild wins, but a Best Picture Oscar.

I would argue… I have argued… that the wide range of support this Oscar season offers all kinds of unexpected possibilities in the Best Picture race because of the preferential voting method at The Academy which counts rounds of votes until one film appears on 50% of the ballots plus one.

One bright awards thinker has started the clock on Academy voters abandoning their real first choices for one of the perceived frontrunners. And while I do think this happens, I think it happens when certain titles truly feel like lost causes. The particular thinker I am referring to, Mark Harris, has been rooting aggressively against The Imitation Game and American Sniper from the start. Others might suggest that The Theory of Everything or Boyhood be taken off the list… based on the same argument.

But wait! Boyhood won one of the two Golden Globes picture categories and BAFTA and BFCA!

Butt wait some more: The Grand Budapest beat Birdman head-to-head at the Golden Globes.

So pick your poison. Do The Globes matter… or do they not?

And BFCA… 7 of the last 8 winners of Best Picture there won the Oscar too. So does it matter that Boyhood won there… or not?

And BAFTA has gotten 6 in a row right… and picked Boyhood… so what does that mean?

And let me note The Gurus o’ Gold, which has had Boyhood in the #1 slot, unmolested, from before Toronto until last week.

This is what it means to me.

Birdman and Boyhood have gotten the most “precursor” awards. But they don’t face off directly in Best Actor and Best Actress. They do face off directly in Director, Original Screenplay, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress and Picture, but everything suggests that they are both out of the Supporting Actor race and that Supporting Actress is locked, so it doesn’t quite feel like a big showdown. (By the way, only twice in the last 10 years had the Best Picture also had the Best Actor.)

I don’t believe at this late date (4 days into electronic voting, 2 weeks into paper voting), many members are going to abandon passion picks of American Sniper, The Imitation Game, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Selma or The Theory of Everything. Whiplash is the only one I can really see people throwing up their hands about… but you know, there is still a lot of talk out there about how much people enjoyed that film. So maybe no one gives up anything. Maybe, rarity of rarities, people just vote their minds, unaffected by the machinery.

And I keep going back, in the Best Picture category, to the voting process. First film to 50% of all votes plus-1. Whatever your #1, if it isn’t Boyhood, isn’t there a good chance that it’s your #2 or #3? If Birdman isn’t your #1, isn’t there a good chance that it won’t be in your Top 3? Are there a lot of people who don’t think they should vote for Imitation or Theory as their #1, but really like the films… are those films built to win in Round 3 or Round 4?

We have been asking these questions since the beginning of the season. And nothing has really changed to make those questions go away. In the old days of “most votes win,” momentum was important. And in most cases, as noted before, we know what is coming by now. People line up behind a winner. But like it or not, “obvious” this season has been for the info crunchers and it has changed virtually every week in the last 6 weeks.

There are those out there suggesting a split between frontrunners and a third film emerging as the winner. But which three films are these? Ask an array of pundits and you are likely to get an array of answers.

It is possible that the bar will move to a degree that we can all feel… but it is unlikely and if it happens, it will have to be before next weekend. Literally. Even though voting doesn’t close until the 17th (9 days), the history of the Academy has long suggested that only a small percentage of voters wait until the last few days to vote. They may well make the difference for the Best Picture winner this year. It could be that close. But a shift to a single, clear frontrunner really needs to click in immediately, if it is going to happen.

But it probably isn’t.

The die is likely already cast, even if all the votes are not. My experience of talking to voters is that those who are waiting are trying to see the short film selections and perhaps a doc or foreign language film, not hedging on Best Picture.

But what that answer is… I can make a list… I make a list every week… but do I know? I must admit, I have never felt this far from knowing this far into the season in 17 years of doing this.

11 Responses to “20 Weeks To Oscar: What We Talk About When We Talk About Best Picture”

  1. Bob Burns says:

    I believe the guilds.

    Inarritu is the best choice politically… worthy, of course.

    It’s vulgar to award another film about the movie business, given that there are other worthwhile choices. But, we have not seen in the guilds any indication that industry types think about such things, or particularly care, maybe.

  2. movielocke says:

    like I said, ask the gurus, which of this year’s eight films do you think will be eliminated in round one of the voting?

    I think you get a pretty diverse roundup. It’s really hard to say what film is last because 6 films are tied for second and boyhood and bird man are tied for first. and the gap between first and second feels very small this year.

    I do think that both Boyhood and bird man are at risk of appearing at the bottom half of more populist ballots, along with other esoteric/niche films like Grand Budapest.

    The four crowd pleasers, Sniper, whiplash, Everything and Imitation have a clear top three in preferential balloting, with Sniper alone amongst the four likely to be seriously lacking in support in the second third and fourth rounds.

    Selma, as the year’s political vote will be like sniper and appear mostly at the top and bottom of the lists.

    So whiplash, everything and imitation all probably pick up a lot of second third and fourth round votes, if you vote Imitation game your top film, Whiplash or Everything is likely your second or third choice and vice versa.

    Birdman and Budapest and Boyhood all also probably pick up a lot of second third and fourth round votes, if you vote Birdman your top film, Budapest and Boyhood are probably your second or third choice and vice versa.

    But, because Selma and American Sniper have such disproportionate ballot splitting (lots of 1s and lots of 8s, and little in between), neither one is likely to be eliminated first, so one of the other six has to go first.

    But, almost all of Sniper’s second choice votes probably go to Imitation Game, and a huge chunk of selma’s second choice votes probably also go to Imitation Game (likely a plurality, imo)

    Which ever one of those six is eliminated first will probably determine which film winds up winning. If Budapest is eliminated first, Boyhood, Birdman both get huge boosts (and whiplash probably gets the next biggest bump of votes).

    Then if Sniper is eliminated second, Imitation Game probably jumps into the lead.

    Then if Selmas is eliminated Third, Imitation Game probably passes 30%

    Then if Whiplash is eliminated Fourth, Birdman and Boyhood probably move within striking distance.

    The big question comes, is there a surprise elimination of Boyhood or Birdman Fifth or is Theory of Everything eliminated fifth?

    Because that’s the point that would put Boyhood, Birdman or Imitation over 50%. If theory of everything is eliminated fifth, Imitation game wins, if Birdman is eliminated fifth, Boyhood wins

    So the most likely scenario is that Imitation game wins whenever Theory of Everything, Sniper and Selma have already been eliminated

    The most likely scenario for Boyhood is that Budapest, Whiplash and Birdman have already been eliminated

    the most likely scenario for Birdman is that budapest, Whiplash and Boyhood have already been eliminated.

    But the race feels like it is down to those three. I think it will be Boyhood, but you never know, preferential balloting can yield shocking results.

    there’s also a fairly decent chance that when there are only 3 left, Imitation game is sitting at 40% and Boyhood and Birdman are both roughly at 30%. If it’s the case that Imitation game fails to cross fifty percent after the fifth elimination, then it is a virtual certainty that Boyhood or Birdman wins.

    There’s also a possibility that it’s Birdman at 40%, Imitation Game and Theory of Everything at 30% after the fifth elimination, if that’s the case, then one of the latter films wins. (you can replace Birdman with Boyhood and get the same scenario).

    It’s a very difficult race to call.

  3. Kevin says:

    Does it ever reach 5 rounds?

  4. Jerry says:

    An instant run off system like this encourages people to vote for their favorite longshot since their other ranked films will still count in the other rounds. Mark Harris is crazy to say the opposite.

    I wish the Academy would tell us how many rounds the runoff takes since this is likely to be a six round match but telling us would clearly violate the rules.

  5. Daniella Isaacs says:

    I really doubt the average voter–older, accomplished, confident in his or her position in life–is going to play games with their ballots. They have lives, you know. They’ll put their favorite first, their second favorite second, their third favorite third. The preferential ballot actually makes it more likely they’ll do this, since the voters know their second and third choices will likely count in some way. There might be a few people who say, “you know, my first choice, “Whiplash,” doesn’t have a chance, but my second choice, “Boyhood,” does,” so they’ll put “Boyhood” at the tops of their list. I really think we non-voters think much more about this strategy stuff than most of the voters do.

  6. Freddy Ardanza says:

    I can’t imagen one people watching Boyhood and thinking this is the best picture of the day, let alone the year.

  7. Daniella Isaacs says:

    Well Freddy, you have a pretty poor imagination, then; I have to say.

  8. Pj says:

    People are still trying to make the imitation game happen. That’s cute.

  9. Freddy Ardanza says:

    Daniella, if you remove the gimmick part from Boyhood what left is a boring, empty and mediocre product. I may have a poor imagination but if you think that Boyhood is anything other than a stunt movie you live in wonderland.

  10. Walter says:

    Boyhood is not a gimmick. Outside of the whole 12 years in the making part, it’s also a funny, touching, and heartbreaking movie about all of us. It absolutely deserves Best Picture and Director, at the very least.

  11. Daniella Isaacs says:

    But Freddy, the fact that it has won so many awards and been #1 on individual critics’ top ten lists pretty much proves that a significant number of people–voters for awards bodies, critics, etc.–thought it was the best picture of the year. You may find that unimaginable, or unimagenable, as you put it, but guess what? It can be proven conclusively with a twenty second google search. And for the record, I never said I liked the film at all. But I can read what other people say, and respect their right to their opinions.

Quote Unquotesee all »

“The important thing is: what makes the audience interested in it? Of course, I don’t take on any roles that don’t interest me, or where I can’t find anything for myself in it. But I don’t like talking about that. If you go into a restaurant and you have been served an exquisite meal, you don’t need to know how the chef felt, or when he chose the vegetables on the market. I always feel a little like I would pull the rug out from under myself if I were to I speak about the background of my work. My explanations would come into conflict with the reason a movie is made in the first place — for the experience of the audience — and that, I would not want.
~  Christoph Waltz

This is probably going to sound petty, but Martin Scorsese insisting that critics see his film in theaters even though it’s going straight to Netflix and then not screening it in most American cities was a watershed moment for me in this theatrical versus streaming debate.

I completely respect when a filmmaker insists that their movie is meant to be seen in the theater, but the thing is, you got to actually make it possible to see it in the theater. Some movies may be too small for that, and that’s totally OK.

When your movie is largely financed by a streaming service and is going to appear on that streaming service instantly, I don’t really see the point of pretending that it’s a theatrical film. It just seems like we are needlessly indulging some kind of personal fantasy.

I don’t think that making a feature film length production that is going to go straight to a video platform is some sort of “step down.“ I really don’t. Theatrical exhibition as we know it is dying off anyway, for a variety of reasons.

I should clarify myself because this thread is already being misconstrued — I’m talking about how the movie is screened in advance. If it’s going straight to Netflix, why the ritual of demanding people see it in the theater?

There used to be a category that everyone recognized called “TV movie” or “made for television movie” and even though a lot of filmmakers considered that déclassé, it seems to me that probably 90% of feature films fit that description now.

Atlantis has mostly sunk into the ocean, only a few tower spires remain above the waterline, and I’m increasingly at peace with that, because it seems to be what the industry and much of the audience wants. We live in an age of convenience and information control.

Only a very elite group of filmmakers is still allowed to make movies “for theaters“ and actually have them seen and judged that way on a wide scale. Even platform releasing seems to be somewhat endangered. It can’t be fought. It has to be accepted.

9. Addendum: I’ve been informed that it wasn’t Scorsese who requested that the Bob Dylan documentary only be screened for critics in theaters, but a Netflix representative indicated the opposite to me, so I just don’t know what to believe.

It’s actually OK if your film is not eligible for an Oscar — we have a thing called the Emmys. A lot of this anxiety is just a holdover from the days when television was considered culturally inferior to theatrical feature films. Everybody needs to just get over it.

In another 10 to 20 years they’re probably going to merge the Emmys in the Oscars into one program anyway, maybe they’ll call it the Contentys.