After what seemed like months of waiting, they came like a flash. The triad of major industry precursor awards all came and went within a span of eight days, leaving an impression on the race that is significant, though not surprising. It’s that time during the season where our initial impressions are either confirmed or upended, and the two reactions seem to volley back and forth from year to year. This year is a confirmation year…maybe next year we’ll return to delicious, infuriating uncertainty.
Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, the Oscar frontrunner from the moment it debuted in Venice, has emerged from the “Big Three” with that frontrunner status firmly intact. The film took home the top prize from the Producers Guild, and Chazelle himself was the recipient of this year’s Directors Guild Award. The film didn’t fare as well with the Screen Actors Guild, winning only the Lead Actress prize for Emma Stone, but the folks at SAG were destined to go their own way from the moment their nominations were announced and La La wasn’t among the Best Cast noms. We’ve already parsed the various reasons why such a scenario came to be, but the bottom line is this: you can’t lose if you aren’t in contention for the win.
Why the concentration on a “Big Three”? After all, there is still information to unveil. The industry isn’t done handing out prizes just because PGA, SAG, and DGA have come and gone. But focus remains heavy on the Big Three results for a few reasons. Obviously, they collectively represent the highest profile above-the-line categories, each with significant AMPAS crossover. And individually, the PGA uses a similar preferential balloting that is used to determine the Best Picture Oscar winner, SAG represents a sampling from the Academy’s largest branch, and the DGA has the most sterling track record in terms of predicting the eventual winner of Best Director.
We’re in an interesting space in the immediate wake of those Big Three awards ceremonies. Guilds representing each individual discipline continue handing out their annual awards through the week of the Oscars, each of them providing its own snapshot of industry preference. The Visual Effects Society announced winners earlier this week. Two more ceremonies are held this weekend: the Art Directors Guild and the British Academy. All this, and final Academy voting has yet to even begin. That eight-day period opens Monday, after the ADG and BAFTA prizes are handed out.
The space we now occupy is one in which so much information is already known – the temperature of the industry has been taken, so to speak – and yet Oscar voting wasn’t occurring simultaneously. Not as though AMPAS voters were making judgments without the “benefit” of knowing many of the precursor results. Oscar voters aren’t flying blind, essentially. So, one could float a sort-of cynical argument that Oscar voters are or could be influenced by the results of the various guilds. If AMPAS voters see La La Land’s dominance, could they opt to “vote against” it – i.e., place it low on their preferential ballot? Does Oscar voting become more of a strategic enterprise rather than a passionate one?
The “strategic vote” logic is only slightly more valid in my mind than the “groupthink” gambit that people have tried to thrust into legitimacy for years. The Academy consists of nearly 7,000 individuals – it’s incredibly difficult for them to all coordinate and collude. It is possible for some voters to vote strategically, but hard to imagine enough individuals would follow the same strategy in order to significantly impact the final tally.
However, one intangible that can certainly impact the minds of many disparate voters is the notion of “momentum.” Whether said momentum is real or only perceived, that’s where a race can turn. So if La La Land gets upended at the BAFTAs this Sunday, expect some stories questioning its strength heading into the home stretch. Those stories would have a certain degree of validity, since you’d pair a BAFTA loss with the film’s lack of significant SAG presence, providing enough substance to ponder the film’s unlikely soft spots. Similar logic could be applied to the acting races. With Denzel Washington left off the BAFTA nominations, it creates a scenario by which he won’t be up on stage accepting an award at all between now and Oscar Night. Should someone like Casey Affleck or Ryan Gosling win the BAFTA, it would strengthen their position on the eve of Oscar voting. And yet, Washington’s omission makes it difficult to put too much weight on such a development.
So we enter the last weekend of relative uncertainty before the Oscars, still in the shadow of the Big Three but on the precipice of the final turn down the stretch. And based on Sunday’s results, we may or may not have some intriguing scenarios to ponder just in time for Oscar voting to begin.