Oscars 2016: Recent Trends
The Oscar race was over by 8:55 a.m. on January 14th, even for many of the nominees, because clear favorites to win in many of the categories had emerged weeks earlier. Yes, the 88th Academy Awards will probably feature at least one or two surprise winners; it happens almost every year. In 2015, Big Hero 6 won Best Animated Feature instead of front-runner How to Train Your Dragon 2. In 2013, it was Skyfall and Zero Dark Thirty tying for a win in the Best Sound Editing category. Throughout the Oscars’ history, there are some key trends that point to who is most likely to take home the gold statuettes this year. A handful of trends have emerged within the last five years that are making the business of predicting winners more difficult. While the winners will not be announced, or at least made official, until February 28th, it is already clear that this will be an Oscar season like all the others. Many deserving films will win and many will not. Bickering, perhaps the most important part of awards season, will ensue.
Why use the term “made official?” Because by Oscar night, it is usually pretty clear who is going to win in the acting/writing/directing and producing categories. In the weeks leading up to the Oscars, there are many awards handed out by film societies, critics and guilds. Generally, these precursor prizes, as they are often referred to, point to who will win an Oscar. This is why surprise wins in the acting categories are becoming rare. And even in cases where the actor or actress considered to be the front runner loses, it is possible to look back on the precursor prize season and see that there was a battle between two performers in the category. This was the case in 2012 when Meryl Streep won her third Oscar, for The Iron Lady, instead of the award going to front-runner Viola Davis for her role in The Help. Those two actresses each walked away with precursor prizes: Streep took the Golden Globe for Best Actress-Drama, while Davis was given the Screen Actor’s Guild award.
It is rare to go into the Oscar ceremony and have someone other than the front-runner and the predicted runner-up win in any category. The last time this occurred, arguably, was 2013, when Best Supporting Actor was considered a three way race. The front-runners, Tommy Lee Jones from Lincoln and Christoph Waltz of Django Unchained faced a late groundswell of support for Robert DeNiro in Silver Linings Playbook. In the weeks leading up to that Oscar ceremony, predictions from sites such as Indiewire declared the race open for either of those three actors, even though most of the precursor prizes went either to Waltz or Jones. In the end, Waltz prevailed.
Tight acting races, however, are rare. Between the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild awards, it is usually easy to tell by Oscar night if there is a clear front-runner, like Daniel-Day Lewis was in 2013 for Lincoln, or if there is actually a race. Though the example from 2013 is very recent, several years leading up to that ceremony and the two years since have seen winners, such as Julianne Moore for Still Alice in 2015, being predicted far in advance of the telecast. That seems to be what is shaping up for Leonardo DiCaprio and Brie Larson, the lead actor and actress front-runners for their respective performances in The Revenant and Room.
Categories Prone to Surprises
Of the major categories, the screenplay awards are the most difficult to predict because the Writer’s Guild has strict guidelines, based on membership, as to who is and is not eligible to be nominated. Sometimes the best way to predict the screenplay winners at the Oscars is to ignore the Writer’s Guild awards completely and consider other factors, such as which of the nominated scripts also received nominations for acting and best picture. At this point, it would be pretty shocking if the screenplay winners at the Oscars are not Spotlight (Original Screenplay) and The Big Short (Adapted Screenplay).
In terms of predicting the winner of Best Director and Best Picture, the easiest way to do that is to watch for the Director’s Guild Awards. The winner of that prize usually takes Best Picture at the Oscars, and very often takes Best Director too. It is too early to call Alejandro Gonzalez Inaritu the front-runner for Best Director, or The Revenant as front-runner for Best Picture. Remember, last year it was Boyhood and Richard Linklater who won the Best Picture-Drama and Best Director awards at the Golden Globes. At the Oscars, it was Birdman and Inaritu who won Best Picture and Best Director.
There are signs that some trends used to predict winners are fading. It used to be a pretty safe bet that a film could not win Best Picture if it was not also nominated for Best Director, but then Argo did just that in 2013. It is also generally considered a safe bet that an actor will not win an Oscar if they do not also receive at least a Screen Actors Guild award nomination, but it’s possible Sylvester Stallone will overcome that hurdle this year.
Too Funny for an Oscar?
There is the conventional wisdom that comedies do not win Oscars. As recently as 2014, an article appeared in The Atlantic which referred to serious movies, or dramas, being nine times more likely to get nominations. But closer examination reveals that it isn’t quite that simple.Two of the Best Picture nominees this year were counted as comedies by the Golden Globes. Those films, The Big Short and The Martian, have a strong chance of taking home awards in at least one of the categories in which they are nominated. Another film, the animated Inside Out, managed to score a screenplay nomination in addition to the Best Animated Feature nomination. Inside Out, though it deals with deep emotional subject matter, is also a lighter fare with a lot of humor. While more traditional comedies and raunchy fare like Trainwreck and Spy were snubbed, comedies are faring better at the Oscars in the last couple years than they have in the earlier eras.
Two of the Best Picture winners since 2010 have been comedies: The Artist and Birdman. In the same time span, Best Actress wins for the films Silver Linings Playbook and Blue Jasmine also signify support for comedies. These may not be considered knee slappers, but they are certainly more humorous than recent nominees like Gravity, The Theory of Everything, Foxcatcher and Spotlight. The task of labeling a film serious, or deciding whether it qualifies as a comedy or drama, is difficult when many of the films that attract awards buzz are dramedies. When you consider the number of laughs in The Big Short and The Martian, it is not much of a stretch to argue that past nominees like Moneyball, Argo or Philomena would be viewed as comedies or dramedies in the current climate. All of them addressed serious subject matter, but also featured some light or humorous interactions between characters. Though it is not necessarily a bad thing, some of the films nominated for Oscars are so dark and devoid of humor, that any film which goes for an occasional chuckle may seem more like a dramedy.
An emerging trend in the last couple of years has been the surprise nominees that continue to pop up in the supporting actor and actress categories. Example include Jackie Weaver for Silver Linings Playbook, Sally Hawkins for Blue Jasmine, Jonah Hill for The Wolf of Wall Street and, this year, Tom Hardy for The Revenant. These are the most guaranteed of losers on Oscar night, though they are also winners because they probably weren’t expecting nominations in the first place. These are quite often very deserving nominees, but the nods seem to come out of nowhere. Most of these performances were absent from the awards conversation for much of the season, and often come at the expense of excellent performances that received attention from the precursor awards. For example, Jonah Hill’s nomination is likely what cost Daniel Bruhl a slot for his work in Rush; a role which earned him nods from the Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild, BAFTA and the Critics Choice awards.
There is an ugly side to this trend as well, since these surprise nominations often cost very deserving performances by minorities from receiving a share of the spotlight. This year, most critics and film experts predicted Idris Elba would be nominated for his work in Beasts of No Nation. There were very good reasons to expect that nomination, since Elba had already received nods from the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild. But he was left out the same way Oprah Winfrey was ignored in 2014 for Lee Daniels’ The Butler. Of course the snubbing of minorities from Oscar nominations is a problem in all the categories. If the Oscars really wanted to surprise us this year, why not nominate Michael B. Jordan as Best Actor and/or Ryan Coogler as Best Director for Creed. If we’re being honest, both of them should have been nominated two years ago for Fruitvale Station anyway. Some might argue that Elba was snubbed this year not because of race, but because the Academy still needs an attitude adjustment in terms of how it views feature films produced by Netflix. Fair point. But of all the predictions that could be made about the Oscars in the near future, the safest one is that when Academy voters finally warm up to Netflix, it will be for a performance by a white actor or actress.
Low Budget vs. Big Budget
Yet, while listening to the radio, reading blogs, and consuming all manner of reaction to last week’s big announcement, you’ll likely find that unfortunately, the absence of minorities in these nominations is only the second most complained about issue. Front and center is the absence of Star Wars: The Force Awakens from the Best Picture and Best Director races. This is a subjective view, but the film is deserving of those nods. But, it was not going to happen. Here’s why: It is the seventh installment in a franchise. Regardless of the love from critics and the box office performance, the film was not going to be nominated for Best Picture. There’s a reason why only two sequels, The Godfather, Part II and The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King have won Best Picture. The Academy likes to think it awards originality. A lot of times they do, though it is possible to have an endless debate showing that nothing is truly original.
Despite this anti-sequel history, they nominated a sequel for Best Picture this year: Mad Max: Fury Road. They also nominated a science fiction film too, a little film called The Martian. Maybe if it had come out sooner, and had been in the conversation longer, The Force Awakens would have made the cut, though it still seems like a longshot. But by the time it was released, there was no catching its big budget cohorts. And consider this: The Empire Strikes Back was not nominated for Best Picture. Yes, there were only five nominees in that category back in 1980, but so what? Considering the impact it has had on pop culture and how it is still regarded by many critics as one of the best films ever made, if it didn’t meet the Academy’s standards for a Best Picture nomination, The Force Awakens wasn’t going to either.
What Does “Best Picture” Mean?
The interesting thing here is that when discussing Best Picture, the award is really Best Producer. It is the award for whose skill at selecting and funding a film resulted in one of the best films of the year. But what is meant by “best?” Is it critical acclaim? Box office performance? Originality? Socio-political relevance? If you look at those elements, the answer you would come up with is all of the above, depending on the year, with box office being the least important. But isn’t a producer’s job ultimately to make money for the studio? Maybe there shouldn’t be a category titled Best Picture. It seems to be where the most dissatisfaction from the Oscars results anyway. Whether or not it is right, ten years from now people probably won’t be complaining much about Idris Elba specifically being snubbed, though I am sure that unless the voters shape up there will still be a need to point out the lack of recognition for minorities. But another safe prediction is that no matter what film wins Best Picture on February 28th, there will be an immediate outcry, from a population of yet to be determined size, that the wrong film won. It happens every year, and some backlashes are larger than others. But it will happen.
Maybe that wouldn’t be the case if Best Picture were changed to Best Producer. Maybe in addition to that, look at the list of criteria above, and make eligibility for Best Picture “critical acclaim, plus any one of the following.” Under such a system, Star Wars: The Force Awakens would have a pretty solid case in favor of a nomination and even a win. How can you argue against producers responsible for a critically acclaimed film that made more than $800 million in the U.S. alone. Isn’t that excellence in producing? But then you will have the counter arguments in favor of originality or an an attempt to change minds on an important issue, and it is really hard to ague for The Force Awakens in those respects.
Maybe too much emphasis is being placed on the ceremony and the gold statuettes themselves. The most important thing about the Oscars is the debate that occurs over the winners. It is through those debates that some of a film’s importance and relevance is assessed. Even those films who are snubbed, sometimes, are lucky, because not being nominated may bring them more attention, through the rage of critics and bloggers, than if they received one or two nods and quietly lost. It is impossible to judge an entire year of film based on those nominated for Oscars. But if the conversation expands to who was left out and why, well, that’s a very good starting point.
Knegt, Peter. “2013 Oscar Predictions: Best Supporting Actor.” Indiewire. Indiewire, 13
February 2013. Web. 17 January 2016. <http://www.indiewire.com/article/2013-oscar-predictions-best-supporting-actor>
Thompson, Derek. “The Secrets to Winning an Academy Award.” The Atlantic, 2
March 2014. Web. 17 January 2016. <http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2014/03/the-secrets-to-winning-an-academy-award/284158/>
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