Oscars 2016: An analysis of the best picture race

  • By Steven Zeitchik Los Angeles Times
  • Tuesday, February 9, 2016 12:51pm
  • Life

Like the presidential primary season, this year’s Hollywood guild awards do not come as a perfect or predictable whole.

Even in an ordinary year, each guild has its own quirks, favorites, pet peeves and demographics that help determine the winners. A triumph among actors, for instance, doesn’t assure a win among directors, just as a victory in New Hampshire hardly locks down success in South Carolina.

Still, taken as a composite, certain patterns emerge. Awards bodies, as a rule of physics, do not tend to jut off completely in their own direction. Movies that win one of the major prizes have a higher probability of winning another. And at some point, as with primary season, all that momentum tends to snowball and create an air of invincibility, which is how “Slumdog Millionaire,” “Argo” and “The King’s Speech” each swept the three major guild awards and then went on to win the best picture Oscar in their respective years.

This is why Alejandro G. Inarritu’s win Saturday night at the Directors Guild Awards for the revenge-survival epic “The Revenant” came as such a surprise. “The Revenant” had not won top honors from the other two major bodies, the Screen Actors Guild or Producers Guild of America – those went to Tom McCarthy’s journalism-centric scandal pic “Spotlight” and Adam McKay’s financial-crisis black comedy “The Big Short,” respectively. (The Writers Guild doesn’t carry the same weight for Oscar predictions because its restrictive eligibility rules typically exclude a number of top contenders.)

Inarritu was already a DGA long shot because he had won the group’s prize last year for “Birdman.” Instead, he became the first director to win the DGA prize in consecutive years in the 65-year-plus history of the award.

Saturday night’s developments caused another awards-season anomaly. Inarritu’s victory means that for the first time in 11 years no movie that triumphed with one of the three major film guilds topped the list of another. Over the last 10 years, a single film has won the top prize from at least two of the three guilds (including that wacky 2013, when there was a PGA tie between “Gravity” and “12 Years a Slave”).

And in five of the eight years before this awards season, the eventual winner of the best picture Oscar swept all three guild prizes, including “Birdman” last year.

This year’s split decision connotes what those in the punditry business, very officially, call “a wide-open race,” or less officially, “We don’t really know what’s going on, so we’ll just keep forecasting.”

Each guild had strong reasons for the winners picked. “Spotlight” is the sort of robust ensemble piece that every actor dreams of being a part of, so the SAG top prize made sense. “The Big Short” is the kind of tonally tricky effort that keeps a lot of plates spinning, so it attracted the affections of producers. And “The Revenant” features the kind of bold filmmaking – and, maybe even more important, the directorial self-sacrifice – that the filmmakers of the DGA tend to prize.

But that doesn’t seem to entirely explain the split, given that the last decade has been a period of guild consensus.

You have to go back to the early 2000s to find the same divergence. In the 2000 season, “Gladiator,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “Traffic” split the PGA, DGA and SAG awards; in 2001, “Moulin Rouge!” “A Beautiful Mind” and “Gosford Park” divided the guilds; and in 2004 it was “The Aviator,” “Million Dollar Baby” and “Sideways” on which the groups couldn’t agree.

Basically, in the first 10 years of contemporary guild-award history (which began in 1995 with the creation of the SAG Awards), the split happened three times. In the following 10 years it didn’t happen at all. (If you’re curious and/or Inarritu’s publicist, you’ll be interested to know that it was the DGA winner that went on to win best picture in two of the three previous split years.) And that’s where there may be room for another theory. The last 10 years have been a time of increasing coverage of awards season – first with the blogs and print special sections that began taking off in the 2000s and, later, with the social-media platforms that helped amplify their megaphone.

It all turned awards prognosticating into a noisy, real-time (if still very much pseudo-scientific) enterprise. And more noise, as my colleague Charles McNulty has eloquently written, tends to drown out the voices arguing for outliers and passion choices.

Awards-season bodies are too small, and guild choices too entropic, for any of this to be empirical, let alone airtight. But certainly it’s a coincidence worth noting. Before awards coverage reached its modern fever pitch, awards groups would, at least somewhat regularly, go their own way. Since the decibel level was cranked up, it has hardly happened at all.

So what’s going on this year? The blog and social-media noise hasn’t gone away – in fact, it’s louder than ever. Is this just an exception to the trend? Or is it a sign of bristling, a sort of hive-mind reaction against all the predictions and recommendations from so many people who don’t vote for awards?

Is it a restless response, as in our politics, to a handed-down status quo? Are Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders – and, indeed, the larger unpredictable group of candidates of which they are a part – simply a function of a strange and anxious moment? Or are they a harbinger of a new reality in which conventional wisdom and consensus become a nonfactor, even a hindrance?

Consider this year’s nomination for “Room,” an outside-the-system upstart that defeated three better-funded and more traditional contenders in three different categories, including the most establishment of establishment candidates, Ridley Scott.

Now, I’m not suggesting some kind of grass-roots uprising in Hollywood. Awards-season voters are still very much subject to what movies the studios send out and campaign for – and, yes, what ink-stained wretches like myself say. Movies aren’t politics, and all three of these guild winners are well-oiled, conventionally backed contenders (even if the more modestly budgeted “Spotlight,” coming from the smaller distributor Open Road, is a far more independent choice than its Big Studio rivals).

But at a cultural moment emphasizing the upstart and the outsider, one that seems to be reveling in a kind of electoral chaos, it’s fair to wonder if voters are also feeling that itch, wanting to hark back to a time when Oscar season wasn’t a foregone conclusion.

One motion picture academy member I spoke to recently said they were tired of being told by “all these pundits” what they should do and think. A curmudgeonly sentiment, to be sure, but not, I suspect, an uncommon one. (This is a feeling that in some cases might also apply to how voters feel about the widespread coverage of the diversity debate, but that’s another matter.) “The Big Short” actually has a more direct connection to the political-revolution moment: It’s become a favorite of Sanders, who said “Damn right I have” when asked if he’d seen it, and who called it an “excellent film.”

Sadly for both our sanity and the collective good, neither the current awards season nor the presidential election cycle is near the finish line. The way voters have been wriggling around, before all is said and done this year we may yet see a few more surprises. And they may not end this year.

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