The 88th Academy Awards will take place on Feb. 28, 30 days from today.

The Big Short is the favorite, maybe

After Oscar nominations were announced, many people vaguely assumed that Spotlight was the frontrunner because it had earned all the major prerequisite awards (especially the SAG ensemble nomination) and was difficult to dislike. On January 17, this perception was strengthened, somewhat, by Spotlight’s big wins at the Critics’ Choice Awards (picture and ensemble). While the Broadcast Film Critics Association, which votes on the Critics’ Choice Awards, is made up of journalists who are not actually in the Academy, its choice of Spotlight was essential “if only for the sake of perception” — a group of journalists is going to be the easiest audience for a movie about heroic journalists to win over. Other winners that night were director George Miller, actor Leonardo DiCaprio, actress Brie Larson, supporting actress Alicia Vikander and supporting actor Sylvester Stallone (all of whom may be considered favorites for their respective categories at the Oscars) as well as Jacob Tremblay, the nine-year-old Room star who gave the most adorable acceptance speech ever.

So when the Producers Guild of America (PGA) awards rolled around, many people expected Spotlight to continue on its path to the Dolby Theatre. Expect it didn’t and the best picture award went to The Big Short instead. It is difficult to underplay the importance of the PGA award; for each of the last eight years (and for 19 of the last 26), the winner of the PGA won the Oscar for Best Picture. The PGA is considered to be a reliable predictor because its voting body is about the same size as that of the Academy (around 7,000 members) and it uses the same preferential ballot system as the Oscars. Additionally, a win here can have a direct impact on the movie’s chances: as Scott Feinberg writes, “seeing or reading about a film in the winner’s circle at a major awards show like the PGA Awards leads some people in other groups that have not yet voted, including the Academy, to stop saying of it ‘Why?’ and start saying ‘Why not?’ (In other words, winning breeds confidence and confidence breeds winning.)” The Big Short has a lot of hidden strengths, including a large and starry cast (Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt, Marisa Tomei, Melissa Leo and more), a ton of relevance (it’s about the Great Recession, which we are still feeling the effects of today) and the important ACE Eddie nomination (it has been 26 years since the Best Picture winner didn’t get a nomination, and Spotlight doesn’t have one). Not too shabby for a film not originally competing in this awards season.

This is not to say that the race is over. There are still plenty of other films with a reasonable path to victory, especially Spotlight, The Revenant, Mad Max and, to some extent, The Martian. Sasha Stone lays out interesting arguments for the first three, splitting the field into the Epics vs. the Character Dramas. Scott Feinberg gives suggestions for how the films should campaign and play to their strengths. (For The Big Short, for example, his suggestion is to “bring out the economic giants. Get Nobel Prize winners and other authorities to remind voters how serious the 2008 fiscal crisis was and how well this story explains it.”) The Academy is made up of a ton of people from different backgrounds (see this infographic for more specifics, though diversity is still super lacking), and you need to convince all of them that your movie is best to be a serious contender.

(I was going to include this article in the above paragraph, which lists pros and cons of the nominated movies until I read the “con” of Carol: “That love scene could have been a lot hotter, but then director Todd Haynes always maintains his control.” Yeah, you got it, that was the problem with Carol, the lesbian sex was not super steamy. Thanks Gregg.)

Next up is the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) awards, taking place this Saturday night. While the lead acting awards are starting to feel sewn up, the lack of consensus over best supporting actress and the lack of Stallone in the best supporting actor race will make the awards pretty interesting. More important still is the Best Ensemble award, the SAG’s Best Picture equivalent, which is expected to either continue The Big Short’s growing dominance or prop up Spotlight. (The other nominees, Straight Outta Compton, Beasts of No Nation and Trumbo were not even nominated for Best Picture.) SAG doesn’t always correspond to Oscar (American Hustle in 2013, The Help in 2011 and Inglourious Basterds in 2009 were not very lucky at the Academy Awards), but the results will be good for establishing a narrative and slowly helping us figure out who is actually winning this race.


#OscarsSoWhite and new Academy rules
“We recognize that we can no longer beg for the love, acknowledgement or respect of any group … The Academy has the right to acknowledge whomever they choose, to invite whomever they choose. And now I think that it’s our responsibility to make the change … Hey Chris, I will not be at the Academy Awards and I will not be watching, but I can’t think of a better man to do the job this year than you, my friend. Good luck,” said Smith.
Some people called for host Chris Rock to boycott the ceremony as well. He decided against it. According to Academy Awards producer Reginald Hudlin, Rock will instead be using his monologue to address #OscarsSoWhite outrage. Some other actors flirted with a boycott and then remembered they were nominated (like Mark Ruffalo) and some decided to boycott a bit later in order to join their wives (like Will Smith).

The controversy of diversity in Hollywood and at the Academy Awards also allowed multiple actors and filmmakers to weigh in. Most were incredibly supportive and shared their own stories, though some (especially Charlotte Rampling) said some more unfortunate things:

  • Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (“The nominations express to African-Americans that their life stories and their art are mostly invisible”)
  • Paris Barclay, the DGA president, (“It is time to be clear — structural changes are needed.”)
  • Michael Caine (“Be patient. Of course, it will come. Of course, it will come. It took me years to get an Oscar.”)
  • George Clooney (“We’re moving in the wrong direction”)
  • Matt Damon (Hollywood has “a long, long, long way to go.”)
  • Viola Davis (“It’s a symptom of a much greater disease.”)
  • Ava DuVernay (“There’s a belonging problem in Hollywood”)
  • Idris Elba (“There’s a disconnect between the real world & TV world.”)
  • Whoopi Goldberg (“Why is this a conversation we only have once a year?”)
  • Ken Howard , SAG president, (“We do not have enough people of color in the pipeline of decision-making.”)
  • Alejandro Inarritu (“The Academy really is at the end of the chain. Hopefully, active change, positive change, they can start at the beginning of the chain.”)
  • Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the current Academy president (“I am both heartbroken and frustrated about the lack of inclusion” in this year’s nominees )
  • Hawk Koch, the former Academy president, (“I don’t believe this is just an academy problem; rather, it’s an industry-wide problem and up until now we have not done a very good job”)
  • John Krasinski (this situation is “a nice call to arms”)
  • Steve McQueen (“I’m hoping in 12 months or so we can look back and say this was a watershed moment.”)
  • Lupita Nyong’o (it “has me thinking about unconscious prejudice and what merits prestige in our culture”)
  • David Oyelowo (“This institution doesn’t reflect its president and it doesn’t reflect this room. I am an Academy member and it doesn’t reflect me, and it doesn’t reflect this nation.”)
  • Charlotte Rampling (“One can never really know, but perhaps the black actors did not deserve to make the final list” … the boycott is “racist to white people” … “I regret that my comments could have been misinterpreted this week in my interview with Europe 1 Radio.”)
  • Robert Redford (“I’m not focused on that part. To me, it’s about the work, and whatever reward comes from that, that’s great. But I don’t think about it.”)
  • An old white guy (“There is no racism except for those who create an issue. That is the worst kind. Using such an ugly way of complaining.”)
(Poor Charlotte Rampling. People were saying that she was a dark horse Best Actress candidate and now she’s that lady that said stupid things about black people. One way of avoiding controversy, Charlotte, is not saying stupid things about black people.)

The Academy needed to respond. The CEO of the Academy called the awards “almost at a point of crisis,” and there were reports that a board meeting was taking place to address the diversity issues raised this year. A New York Times article (“Film Academy, Under Fire, Is Expected to Take Steps to Improve Oscar Diversity”) brainstormed possible solutions. Quick fixes could include increasing the number of Best Picture and/or acting nominees to 10 and ensuring that only consistent, frequent voters keep their voting privileges.

On January 22, the Academy announced its two main changes: a push for greater diversity in its membership and new requirements to maintain voting status. For the former, the Academy vowed to double the number of “women and diverse members” by 2020 (though, as Vulture writes, they have not specified to whom, exactly, “diverse” refers). They are also planning on creating three new governor seats to be filled by women and people of color to add diversity to the Board of Governors.

The latter, though, is more controversial. Every 10 years, an Academy member’s voting status is reviewed. Members can keep their voting rights if they have done at least one of the following three things: (1) won or been nominated for an Academy Award, (2) been “active” in the film industry over the past 10 years or (3) been “active” in the film industry for at least three decades. A member’s branch determines what constitutes being “active,” but according to an Academy statement, it “would not be dependent on earning screen credits as long as that member was employed in the movie industry in some fashion.” The three decades requirement does not need to be consecutive, meaning that if you made a movie in 1989, 1995 and 2001 you could hypothetically vote for the Oscars for the rest of your life. Academy voters who lost their voting privileges will be moved to “emeritus status” and still, potentially, continue to receive movie screeners and get into movie screenings. The reason behind this change is to ensure that the Oscars are voted on “by people who are currently working in motion pictures, or who have been active for a long time.” It is not officially targeted at older members, but many people see the move as a chance to narrow down the old-white-male population of the Oscars voting body.
“The Academy is going to lead and not wait for the industry to catch up,” said Isaacs about the announcement.
This is not the first time this has happened. According to Scott Feinberg, when Gregory Peck served as the Academy’s president from 1967 through 1970 he “pored over the membership rolls and reclassified people who had not worked for many years as ‘associate members.'” These associate members were largely older and “not especially in-tune with the cutting-edge of cinematic or social ideas,” but they retained all Academy privileges save for voting rights. (The group that determines inductions into the Baseball Hall of Fame “implemented a similar rule in 2015, restricting voting to journalists who had been active in the last 10 years, and they wound up with results that are much more aligned with the way today’s baseball lovers feel than the results they had gotten before.”)

Unsurprisingly, Oscar voters being affected by the rule were not pleased. Their main complaints were that the move was sudden, that it was counter to the perks they were promised when they joined and that it was in response to a current controversy and a small pool of whiners. They also claimed (not unfairly) that the new rule was ageist and targeted at those who could not continue to find employment in the harsh world of Hollywood and that the entire Academy was penalized because of the actions of one branch. (The only branch in the Academy eligible to vote for the acting categories nominations is the actors’ branch; penalizing the entire industry because of the whitewashed picks of one branch is like not allowing all U.S. citizens who have lived out of the country for 30 years to vote because Rick Perry was elected governor of Texas.) Some also claimed (less effectively) that the move was wrong because they themselves were not racist. And some have came out in support of the new rule, saying it is at the very least a good step in the right direction. The Hollywood Reporter especially had gone out to collect responses to the new rule from Oscar voters; I have included the ones I can find below:

My thoughts are that the new rule is largely a good move. The Academy should reflect those currently involved in the movie industry. I would have been more forgiving of those in non-strictly Hollywood jobs (like those especially involved in the Academy itself or those who teach film for a living), but I don’t see an issue with requiring Academy members to prove that they are still involved years after they first joined.

I can’t imagine that this rule is going to be that effective. Based on what I’ve read, it’s going to cut a very small proportion of Academy members who aren’t necessarily racist to begin with. Remember, some of the oldest members of the Academy are the ones that grew up during Civil Rights, who gave In the Heat of the Night Best Picture in 1967 and Sidney Poitier Best Actor for Lilies of the Field in 1963. It’s not like the Academy has released statistics that these members are less likely to vote for Straight Outta Compton (though they probably are). Any real change will take time and an increased proportion of new voices in the Academy, which is why the move to add more female and non-white members into the mix is an especially good one.

Fundamentally, this is an industry problem as well as an Oscars problem. What makes an Oscar voter watch a movie? I think the first reason is because they recognize the director or the writer or the actors in it. People were drooling over themselves when they found out that Academy Award winner Alejandro Inarritu was pairing with Academy Award nominee Leonardo DiCaprio on a bloody western epic. Now, if Aaron Sorkin wrote a screenplay starring a non-white actor, or if Jennifer Lawrence made a movie with a non-white director, it’s likely that Oscar voters would go in droves to see that as well. Even when the result isn’t particularly great (like Joy), this advanced recognition is what will drive voters to see a movie to begin with. (Conversely, Will Smith’s star power is what made people want to see Concussion — it’s not like the film was getting any very good reviews.) The sad fact is that most of the directors, writers and stars that people know about already and that have been awarded in the past are white and male. So when people go for what they recognize, they will inevitably turn to more of the same.

I think the second reason that propels an Oscar voter to watch a movie is critical acclaim. If something is getting amazing reviews, they will go out and see it. That’s why Fruitvale Station, for example, was part of the Oscars conversation in 2013. This was its director, Ryan Coogler’s, first feature film and one of its star, Michael B. Jordan’s, first lead film roles. The only potential “star” members would have recognized was Octavia Spencer. The only reason that Academy members went out and watched it at all (if they did it didn’t get any nominations) would have been because of great reviews (94% Rotten Tomatoes, 85% Metacritic). But even this is a roadblock. Who writes the reviews? Mostly white men.

For this year in particular, the main movies I’ve heard being mentioned as potential diversity snubs are Creed, Beasts of No Nation, Straight Outta Compton and, maybe, Dope. I saw Beasts and Compton, and both were great films, but were they the best of the year? I looked at the Metacritic score (which aggregates review ratings) and the Rotten Tomatoes score (which sums up proportion of reviews which are positive) and found that most of the nominated films (in blue) were more popularly reviewed than the perceived snubs.Inline image 1

There are also some nuances to this year that make the lack of African American actors less shocking. According to Scott Feinberg, “The distributor of Jordan’s film didn’t realize it was an awards contender until it was already very late in the game (perhaps too late to mobilize a fully-effective campaign); the distributor of Elba’s film released it through a model never before tested with the Academy (in just a few theaters simultaneous to its debut on Netflix, which a lot of fogies still don’t have); and the Academy wasn’t crazy about anything to do with Jackson’s or Smith’s films, including the contributions of the white people who wrote and directed them.” The lack of diverse nominees was upsetting, he concluded, though not altogether surprising.

Other News

  • Razzies: Rooney Mara and Eddie Redmayne were nominated for both an Oscar and a Razzie this year. Mara earned a nom for worst supporting actress in Pan; Redmayne earned one for worst supporting actor in Jupiter Ascending. In one of the best crossovers, Sandra Bullock actually attended the Razzies in 2010, where she “proudly accepted the worst actress award for her role in All About Steve, delivering a hilarious speech and bringing DVDs of the film for the audience. Hours later, she won the best actress Oscar for her work in The Blind Side.”
  • Star Wars got a nomination for it’s screenplay? Yes it did, at the Final Draft Screenwriters Choice Awards. Confusingly, Oscars Best Original Screenplay favorite Spotlight was left out entirely.
  • Room is setting records: Room earned a Best Picture nom despite making historically little money. Vulture looks into it and finds that the closest equivalent is probably My Left Foot as far back as 1989.
  • Birth of a Nation: The Sundance hit Birth of a Nation set new records as it was picked up for $17.5 by Fox Serachlight, the largest sum ever spent at Sundance on a film. Will it be a hit at Oscars 2016? 
  • SNL on #OscarsSoWhite: A recent skit pokes fun at the whitewashed acting nominees.
  • Honest movie posters: High Snobiety released a list of “honest” movie posters, which edits the posters for some Oscar-nominated films to make them more accurate. Potentially my favorite was for Steve Jobs: “From screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and director Danny Boyle, but mostly from screenwriter Aaron Sorkin.”

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