Oscar Beat: So…What’s Going to Win Best Picture?

     February 8, 2016

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If you were paying attention to the news over the weekend, you know that Alejandro G. Iñárritu took home his second straight Directors Guild of America Award for helming The Revenant, an historic feat. And if you’re one of those who pays close attention to the guild awards in the run up to the Oscars, you may also be aware that the DGA Award has gone to the eventual Best Picture winner eight of the last 10 times. So does this mean The Revenant is our new Best Picture frontrunner? Well, not exactly.

This year’s awards race can best be summed up by “it’s complicated.” Usually, seeing which film the major guilds—the DGA, the Producers Guild of America and the Screen Actors Guild—coalesce around provides some idea of how the Academy voters might lean, given that the guild awards reflect a large voting body of industry insiders weighing in on what they think is the best film of the year. However, this year the DGA, the PGA, and the SAG went to three different films. The Revenant took the director prize, the producers singled out The Big Short, and the actors went for Spotlight.


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Image via 20th Century Fox

This isn’t the first time these awards have split, but it does make the Oscar race incredibly unpredictable. In the past 20 years, this kind of split has happened four times. Here’s how those seasons shook out:

  • 2000 – PGA (Gladiator), SAG (Traffic), DGA (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) – Oscar: Gladiator
  • 2001 – PGA (Moulin Rouge!), SAG (Gosford Park), DGA (A Beautiful Mind) – Oscar: A Beautiful Mind
  • 2004 – PGA (The Aviator), SAG (Sideways), DGA (Million Dollar Baby) – Oscar: Million Dollar Baby
  • 2013 – PGA (Gravity and 12 Years a Slave tie), SAG (American Hustle), DGA (Gravity) – Best Picture: 12 Years a Slave

So in the past two decades, twice the Oscar went to the PGA winner, and twice it went to the DGA winner. This would suggest that these are the two groups we should be looking at re: this year’s Oscars, but alas, that doesn’t tell the whole story. Relying too much on statistics can be a fool’s errand, as it removes context from the equation. For example, The Revenant may seem like it has momentum at the moment, but the film failed to land a SAG ensemble nod or a Screenplay nomination from the Academy, the latter of which is most often a “requirement” to win Best Picture, as the lack of a Screenplay nomination suggests lack of overall support in that branch. Though perhaps serendipitously, the last film to win Best Picture without a screenplay nomination was Titanic.

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Image via Open Road Films

But since the SAG ensemble award is the least indicative of Oscar glory, that means Spotlight’s a longshot right? Not exactly. The movie has wide support in the Academy as evidenced by its nominations in key categories like Best Editing, Screenplay, and Director, with the film scraping by in the “necessary acting nomination” column with Supporting nods for Rachel McAdams and Mark Ruffalo. Spotlight is the closest thing we’ve had to a frontrunner all year as it swept most critics awards, but perception-wise, the film lost a bit of momentum in January with lack of support at the Golden Globes (which are meaningless re: Oscar aside from raising/lowering the profile of a film in the eyes of the Academy votership) and the simultaneous upswing of The Revenant, which has a very strong narrative that keeps it part of the conversation (ie. “This movie was so hard to make” and “It’s Leo’s time!”, neither of which have anything to do with quality, mind you).


So then is The Big Short our frontrunner? If Adam McKay’s searing, darkly funny housing crisis picture had taken the DGA Award, the Oscars would be pretty sewn up, but Iñárritu’s somewhat surprising win threw a wrench into the Big Short train. Like Spotlight, the film has widespread support in terms of nominations and it’s timely. Moreover, the voting process of the PGA most closely mirrors that of the Oscars, so there’s reason to believe this could be our most accurate indicator of how the Academy might swing. But can The Big Short really go all the way?

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Image via Paramount Pictures

If all of this reads muddled and uncertain, then you’ve successfully entered where my headspace is at with this awards season. It’s a nutty year, and I’m at the point where it’s almost a toss-up between these three in terms of who will win Best Picture—I change my answer every other day. Some may argue that these three will “split” the vote and allow for something like Mad Max: Fury Road to sneak in the win, but the “split the vote” narrative never really pans out, and the rest of this year’s Best Picture nominees seemingly lack the consensus nature that would allow them to go all the way.

The main thing to keep in mind is that the Academy uses a preferential ballot, meaning the film that is the most liked usually wins over the film that is most loved. Passion sometimes breeds divisiveness—there are folks that can’t get enough of The Revenant, and there are those who’ve had enough of it—so when it comes to predicting Best Picture in a tough year, I usually look to the film that will land at #2 or #3 on most ballots in addition to a solid amount of #1 votes. Which movie will that be? At this point in time, I’m torn between Spotlight and The Big Short, with the latter seemingly having the momentum at the moment. But hey, I’ll probably change my answer tomorrow anyway.

All of this to say that, even though the guilds have wrapped up, the Oscar race is far from over. Voting doesn’t even begin until February 12th, and it’ll be open until February 23rd, which means a lot can change between now and when the polls close. There’s plenty of time left to strike a new narrative and take over the limelight. Which film will come out on top? I’m not prepared to make any final guesses just yet, but I’m confident it’ll be Spotlight, The Big Short, or The Revenant when that envelope is read on February 28th.

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Image via 20th Century Fox


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