The 88th Academy Awards will take place on Feb. 28, 9 days from today.


Awards season is not over, exactly. In the next week and a half, there are a few straggling guilds left to announce their winners, like the Makeup & Hairstyling Guild and the Costume Designers Guild. The Satellite Awards will be taking place this weekend and the Independent Spirit Awards will be held on Feb. 27 in an effort to get as close to the Oscars as possible. (The Razzies are also held on the 27th, but those are less essential to Academy Awards prediction.) But in the past two weeks, the DGA, WGA and BAFTA awards has helped the Oscars race become clearer — or at least put the confusion in slightly more perspective.

On Feb. 6, the Directors Guild of America (DGA) gave its Outstanding Directorial Achievement award to Alejandro G. Iñárritu (The Revenant), who became the first director to win the DGA in back-to-back years. (He won last year for Birdman.) The DGA is an enormously important predictor; according to Scott Feinberg, “its winner went on to win the best director Oscar on all but seven occasions (or 90 percent of the time), and his or her film went on to win the best picture Oscar on all but 13 occasions (or 81 percent of the time).” Since 2006, the DGA winner has seen his or her movie win Best Picture all but once, when Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity lost to 12 Years a Slave.

For those of you keeping track, The Revenant’s big win means that the three most important guilds — producers (PGA), directors (DGA) and screen actors (SAG) — gave their highest honors to three separate films. (PGA went to The Big Short and SAG to Spotlight.) In the past 20 years, this has happened three times: 15 years ago, when the PGA went for Gladiator, SAG went for Traffic and the DGA went for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; 14 years ago, when the PGA went for Moulin Rouge!, SAG went for Gosford Park and the DGA went for A Beautiful Mind; 11 years ago, when the PGA went for The Aviator, SAG went for Sideways and the DGA went for Million Dollar Baby; and two years ago, when the PGA went for 12 Years a Slave and Gravity (they allegedly tied), SAG went for American Hustle and the DGA went for Gravity. The first and fourth time, the Academy ended up siding with the PGA; the second and third time, they went with the DGA.

A week later, the Writers Guild of America (WGA) gave Spotlight Best Original Screenplay and The Big Short Best Adapted Screenplay. The overlap with the Oscars is not identical — Spotlight, which beat Sicario and Trainwreck, now faces Ex Machina and Inside Out, and The Big Short, which beat Steve Jobs and Trumbo, now faces Brooklyn and Room — but the working assumption seems to be that they are shoo-ins for their respective categories at the Oscars. The Revenant was nowhere to be found.

Finally, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts hosted the British Oscars on Feb. 14. Best Picture, Director and Actor went to The Revenant and Brie Larson won Best Actress. Kate Winslet won Best Supporting Actress, but she’s British and presumed frontrunner Alicia Vikander was nominated for lead for The Danish Girl; Mark Rylance won Best Supporting Actor, but he’s British and was the first artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe in London — and presumed frontrunner Sylvester Stallone wasn’t nominated.

Are the BAFTAs relevant? For a long time, the answer was no, at least in terms of Oscars prediction. From 1994-2000, they took place after the Academy Awards already happened. Starting in 2001, BAFTA moved up its ceremony and, starting in 2012, it began to closer mimic the Oscar voting process, though the winner of Best Picture is determined by a popular vote rather than a preferential ballot. There are 6,500 BAFTA members, about 500 of whom can vote in the Academy. Best Picture has matched in the two organizations in six of the last seven years, though looking back further, it’s less impressive: Since 2001, only half of the BAFTA winners took Best Picture at the Oscars (bad news for The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Pianist, The Aviator, Brokeback Mountain, The Queen, Atonement and Boyhood, but good news for A Beautiful Mind, Chicago, Million Dollar Baby, Crash, The Departed, No Country for Old Men and Birdman).

This year, a small amount of history was made when The Revenant won Best Picture, as it was the first winner ever that did not also receive a BAFTA screenplay nomination. (Notice a theme?)  Kate Winslet now has a BAFTA and Golden Globe, and if she loses on Oscar night, will be one of four people ever to do so with this combination. (According to Scott Feinberg, Globe and BAFTA prizes went to Bill Murray for Lost in Translation (2003), Clive Owen for Closer (2004) and Mickey Rourke for The Wrestler (2008), but the Academy sided with Sean Penn for Mystic River, Morgan Freeman for Million Dollar Baby and Penn again for Milk, respectively). Most importantly, this may have been the first time that
Leonardo DiCaprio kissed Maggie Smith on a Valentine’s Day-themed kiss cam.
Down to three

Where does that leave us? There are three films (The Big Short, Spotlight and The Revenant) with a serious shot at a win a week from Sunday. (Mad Max has its proponents, but its DGA loss to The Revenant hurt; Room has its proponents but would be a huge shock, statistically speaking, as it missed out on the key guilds.) I’m going to lay out some of the strengths and weaknesses of each of the three frontrunners.

The Big Short has statistics and zeitgeist. According to Sasha Stone, it’s “still the only frontrunner that has hit with every group in the industry – SAG Ensemble nomination, ACE Eddie (won), PGA (won), DGA nomination, WGA (won), BAFTA Picture and Director nominations.” To put this in perspective, The Revenant is missing SAG and WGA nominations and Spotlight is missing ACE Eddie and BAFTA directing nominations. The PGA win is an especially important endorsement in recent history; since PGA and the Oscars became some of the only awards groups to use a preferential ballot seven years ago in an effort to honor “consensus choices,” they have chosen the same winner every time. PGA was also the best simulation of the Oscars as the voting size was roughly similar and as all Best Picture nominees but Room were in contention. Furthermore, it’s a box office success ($66 million domestically, $119 million overall, off of a $28 million budget), has great reviews and, with a subject matter of Wall Street corruption, it’s something that feels very “now.” Stone compares it (statistically at least) to 12 Years a Slave, The King’s Speech and Gladiator. However, director Adam McKay is not receiving much attention, which is never a good sign for a movie, and Academy voters may be confused by the somewhat dense financial terminology used (and cheerfully explained) in the film.

Spotlight has virtually no bad reviews and widespread support. (“It’s probably more loved and liked than any movie in the race,” writes Stone). This is crucial in a preferential ballot, where second- and third-place finishes can boost your film for the win. It won SAG (which has 160,000 voters) and snuck Rachel McAdams in for a surprise Best Supporting Actress nomination, proving that the film has a lot of support from actors. It hasn’t missed many of the guilds and also has been a mild box office success ($38 million domestically, $54 million overall, but a probably pretty small budget). Precedents, according to Stone, are Driving Miss Daisy or, if you take out the missing ACE Eddie nomination, Crash and Shakespeare in Love. But, when compared to the PGA and DGA, the SAG award is far less predictive.

The Revenant is the most interesting case. It seems like the type of film the Academy would go for: a visually stunning and technically proficient epic with a central male lead (like Braveheart). It has 12 Oscar nominations, giant box office take ($161 million domestically, $365 million internationally, off of a $135 million budget) and momentum (coming off of DGA and BAFTA). Anne Thompson, among others, makes a strong case for the film. But it would be largely unprecedented historically. According to Sasha Stone, it has no SAG Ensemble award nomination (since the SAG Awards began, only Braveheart has won without this), no screenplay nomination (Titanic is the most recent BP winner to win without this; when you throw in the missing WGA nomination, there has never been a Best Picture winner since the WGA awards began in 1949 missing both WGA and Oscar screenplay nominations), no PGA win (so far, no film has lost PGA and then won the Oscar after both started using the preferential ballot in 2009) and is a late breaker (no film that have been released after October has won Best Pic since Million Dollar Baby). And then throw in the facts that no filmmaker has directed Best Picture winners in consecutive years and that it’s unusually divisive. To put this in perspective, the film has 50 negative reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, compared to 29 for The Big Short and 9 for Spotlight. Best Picture winners usually have shockingly low negatives, especially when you remember the preferential ballot:

2014 – Birdman – 21 negatives
2013 – 12 Years a Slave – 11 negatives
2012 – Argo – 13 negatives
2011 – The Artist – 7 negatives
2010 – The King’s Speech – 14 negatives
2009 – The Hurt Locker – 6 negatives
2008 – Slumdog Millionaire – 20 negatives
2007 – No Country for Old Men – 18 negatives
2006 – The Departed – 24 negatives
2005 – Crash – 57 negatives
2004 – Million Dollar Baby – 23 negatives
2003 – Return of the King – 14 negatives
2002 – Chicago – 34 negatives
2001 – A Beautiful Mind – 50 negatives
2000 – Gladiator – 44 negatives
1999 – American Beauty – 21 negatives
1998 – Shakespeare in Love 10 negatives
1997 – Titanic – 21 negatives
1996 – The English Patient – 12 negatives

Voting continues through Feb. 23, so there is still time for any of these three to surge ahead, but time is running out. In other news, this has been the most exciting year for the Best Picture race in a very long time.

Spotlight on Oscars nominee lunch

On Feb. 8, everyone nominated for an Oscar attended the annual nominee lunch where they got to eat (chilled beet salad with wild arugula, cedar-planked arctic char, assorted truffles and something called chocolate royaltine crunch, which included berries, chantilly cream and mango coulis), listen to a speech by Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs (“This year, we all know there is an elephant in the room. I have asked the elephant to leave. Today is all about your incredible work on the screen and behind the camera that has touched millions globally and earned you a place in Hollywood history”) and pose for their class picture (Vulture looks at eight points of interest in the photo).

The most important ceremony news, however, came in the form of an announcement by producers David Hill and Reginald Hudlin. To address the issue of overlong and boring acceptance speeches, they plan on adding a scroll at the bottom of the screen in which winners can list those they want to thank as “a permanent record of your gratitude.” (Nominees would be asked to submit these thank-yous in advance.) “Acceptance speeches have become a list of names and more often than not, time ran out before something could be spoken from the heart about the art, about the vision, about the experience, about the meaning of the moment,” Hill said. “We needed to rethink how this could be a better experience for everyone.” In making their case, Hill and Hudlin “presented a clip from last year’s ceremony in which Dana Perry, a producer of the best documentary short Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1, was played off just as she began to talk about the suicide of her own son,” which is just embarrassing for the Academy. This approach seems tentatively great (Hill is the former chief of Fox Sports who apparently pioneered the continuous onscreen clock, so it’s not that much of a shock), though there are still open questions, such as whether emoticons are allowed.

Spotlight on category fraud
There’s been a lot of talk this year about category fraud, or when a clearly leading actor or actress campaigns as supporting (or, less frequently, vice versa) due to weaker competition. This often leads to a greater chance for a given actor or actress to be nominated and eventually win. The conversation began this year when Rooney Mara, Alicia Vikander and Jacob Tremblay decided (or, as Jacob is nine years old and adorable, potentially got decided for them) to campaign in supporting roles. It led to some interesting results: Vikander was forced into lead at the Golden Globes and was nominated as lead at the BAFTAs but eventually earned a Best Supporting Actress nomination. Mara was also a lead at the Golden Globes but supporting at the BAFTAs and Oscars. And Tremblay nabbed a SAG nomination for Best Supporting Actor but was left empty-handed when Oscar nominations came out.
When you look at the proportion of screen time the various supporting actors and actresses got, the differences are striking. Rachel McAdams had the least amount of time on screen (33 minutes, or 26 percent of the movie) compared to actresses with more screen time (Jennifer Jason Leigh was on screen for 86 minutes) or a greater proportion of the movie (Rooney Mara was on screen for 68 percent of Carol). On the supporting actor side, Christian Bale had 26 minutes of screen time (20%), compared to Sylvester Stallone, who took up 65 minutes (49%) of Creed. (Bizarrely, Bale was forced to compete as lead actor at the Golden Globes this year.)

This is obviously not the first time something like this has happened historically. This video does an excellent job at explaining the history of category fraud, which it says began as early as 1952 when Richard Burton tried to scam a supporting prize for My Cousin Rachel. Most interesting is its analysis of the 2002 Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress candidates. Highly recommended viewing.


Spotlight on last-minute Oscar pushes
On Feb. 11, The Big Short screened for Congress, according to the Los Angeles Times. It was hosted by four U.S. senators: Republicans Roger Wicker and Johnny Isakson and Democrats Sherrod Brown and Jack Reed and attended by 450 people. According to director Adam McKay, “There were actually more Republicans than Democrats at the screening, which was doubly exciting for me.” Apparently, the movie played very well. McKay said, “When Steve Carell says the line, ‘Who gets away with treating their clients like [garbage] and still does well?’ Beat. ‘Oh, besides Goldman Sachs?’ And the whole room roared bigger than I’ve heard any crowd laugh with this movie.” Still on the political side, Bernie Sanders has publicly mentioned The Big Short. (Asked at a campaign event if he had seen the movie, Sanders replied: “Damn right I have. Excellent film.”)
A new Big Short TV spot highlights the importance of the movie in the context of the Great Recession. It quotes a USA today article from February 10, 2016 that says, “Global banks are headed for a meltdown, the likes of which has not been seen since 2008. Only this time there will be no one there to rescue them.” The spot’s message is about how “big” this film is: “Big fraud. Big outrage. Big consequences. Big story … If we don’t learn from history, we are doomed to repeat it. Make a difference. This is the year. To go big.” This is a very different spot as the “Because it’s awesome” ads that were around LA for The Wolf of Wall Street.

Not to be outdone, Spotlight screened for the Vatican. According to the Hollywood Reporter, the private screening kicked off a new commission at the Vatican aimed at combating sex abuse within the Catholic Church (started in 2014 by Pope Francis). “The film is extremely worrying about the cover-up of abuse in the Catholic Church, and I think it would be a good moment for the pope to see it,” Peter Saunders, an anti-abuse campaigner and member of the commission told the L.A. Times.

Other News

  • Cool Oscars stat 1: According to the Hollywood Reporter, Mad Max: Fury Road and The Revenant are only the fourth and fifth films ever to be simultaneously acknowledged in the seven technical categories (cinematography, costume design, film editing, production design/art direction, sound editing, sound mixing and visual effects), following Hugo, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World and Titanic. Titanic swept them all. 
  • Cool Oscars stat 2:  If you count Alicia Vikander, who lives in London, as British, fully half of the acting nominees come from Commonwealth countries. If you consider every Oscar category, Britain has the most nominees of any country outside the United States — 36 this year. The New York Times reports on the British invasion.
  • Cool Oscars stat 3: If The Big Short wins Best Picture, producer Dede Gardner would be first female producer in Academy Awards history to win twice. According to AwardsDaily, there have only been eight woman who have won a Best Picture statue at all.
  • Oscar swag and funny quotes: While they have not made goodie bags for a while, the Academy has released several themed products you can purchase, such as Oscar notebooks and beanies. The notebooks feature 28 responses to the question “What do you wish someone had told you before you started working in movies?” including, “I wish somebody would have told me that I shouldn’t worry so much about making it in the film business” (Steven Spielberg), “I wish someone had told me … that Gwyneth Paltrow speaks Spanish because when she handed me the Oscar and congratulated me in perfect Castilian accent, I thought I was losing my mind and needed psychiatric help.” (Pan’s Labyrinth cinematographer Guillermo Navarro) and “I wish that somebody would have told me that the size of my ass was something I should have spent waaaay less time worrying about!” (Kate Winslet).
  • All the parts of Joy that were dumb were David O. Russell’s fault: Buzzfeed reports that the annoying childhood scenes, bizarre back-from-the-dead voice overs and hugely irritating characters of Trudy and Peggy were not in the original script.
  • Jacob Tremblay wants to play baby Chewbacca: Tremblay talked to Conan O’Brian about what a big Star Wars fan he is. Unfortunately, he did not make the Chewbacca noise.
  • “Who should win” video essays: A guy with well articulated opinions and a lot of time on his hand lays out who he thinks should win picture, director, cinematography and the four acting categories.
  • Oscar statue redesign: Exciting news, guys: The Oscar statuettes will now be hand-cast in bronze rather than a pewter alloy. But don’t worry: The overall size of the statuette remains the same, with a height of 13.5 inches and weight of 8.5 pounds.
  • Kate Winslet won’t boycott the Oscars: Partly because she’s nominated but mostly because of Leonardo DiCaprio: “I feel very strongly that it may possibly be Leo’s year. And he is my closest friend in the world and I just couldn’t imagine not being there to support him.”
  • The little studio that could: This Slate article focuses on A24, the studio behind Room, asking “Can the scrappy company behind Room, Spring Breakers, and The End of the Tour save the film industry?”
  • SparkNotes Oscars: See what the Hollywood Reporter considers the “scenes that nailed the nomination” for the 20 lead and supporting actors and actresses nominated for Academy Awards.

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