Full disclosure: this piece was first theorized and planned two days ahead of the SAG nominations, when it felt like we were in the bizarro world. After digging into the early critics group announcements in my December 7th piece (for real, this idea has been gestating that long), I wanted to expand on that analysis by discussing the influence critics can have on the awards race. The bottom line was going to be this: we can’t take the critics group results as direct harbingers for the eventual lineup of Oscar nominees, but we can rely on critics to make everyone – including industry folks and Oscar voters – aware of certain smaller films and performance, thus breathing life into their Oscar chances. To truly get a bead on the industry mindset, however, we have to rely on what each industry group tells us.
Then the Screen Actors Guild nominations happened, and the whole trajectory of the piece was derailed. The SAG nominating committee delivered the oddest, most unexpected slate of nominees in recent memory, thus making the swell of early critics’ awards look clear-eyed and influential by comparison, while the industry-fronting SAG looks as though its nominating members only screened a handful of the year’s movies.
I wrote in detail about the SAG nominations on December 9th. I needn’t replicate myself. But those nominations marked the first shift in how I chose to approach this piece, now over a month in the making. It’s not just about the critical influence anymore, nor is it just about the Screen Actors Guild going bonkers (for the record, I don’t think they’ve gone bonkers, even if their current nominee list is). It’s about us – the people who ponder, predict, obsess over, grouse about, and consume the Oscars. Doesn’t matter whether you are a casual observer who happens to be reading this piece now, or if you’re a crack Oscar pundit, or if you’re a critic…or if you’re like me, an uneasy blending of critic and pundit. If you are interested enough to read this far into this essay, you are a consumer of the Oscars. And today is your lucky day, for this essay is about YOU. It’s about US.
How we approach the Oscars is not dissimilar from the way obsessive Reality TV viewers approach the Kardashians: in both cases, the consumers act cynical and aloof to this fictitious game they are, nevertheless, fully buying into. We act so above it all, like we can see through this transparent ruse of campaigns, dinner parties, interviews, and accolades. It’s so silly, we say….and yet we Lap. It. Up.
But part of our surface cynicism is based in the notion that we already know the score…when more often than not, we don’t. There are a ton of misconceptions about how the Oscar race unfolds. The most common, propagated by even some people who follow the race religiously, is that the Academy functions via groupthink (as if the 6,000+ members gather together in a yearly summit to reach a supermajority on the Best Picture winner…get real). Another is that the critics’ group awards are monumental seasonal influencers. If that were true, movies like Sideways, The Social Network, and Boyhood would have steamrolled at the Oscars…but we know what actually happened. However, it’s also a misnomer to presume critics have zero influence; the value of critics in an awards season is providing informed awareness, making the awards-watching populace cognizant of small gems and early-year releases that might otherwise go overlooked. More Academy members popped in that Clouds of Sils Maria screener as a result of the enormous critical praise of Kristen Stewart’s performance, regardless of whether it will lead to her being nominated (prolly won’t). And of course, even when it comes to the truly impactful awards bodies – the industry guilds – we can confuse “indicative” with “predictive.” It’s not as though Oscar voters are suddenly prodded into voting for a particular film or performance simply because PGA or SAG does. It’s just that, because those groups have a variable amount of crossover with AMPAS, there is a likelihood that one group’s results may match up with another’s. Is one group more predictive than another? Some people swear by PGA because they use a preferential ballot, and of late they have a stellar track record in terms of awarding the eventual Best Picture winner at the Oscars (the last time they missed was 2006, when Little Miss Sunshine was the PGA winner). But they often choose from a slightly larger group of nominees (the PGA nominates a fixed group of 10, whereas AMPAS’ relative system can result in five to 10 nominees) and, again, it’s not as if the Academy is made up of only producers. Every cinematic discipline is represented in AMPAS, which is what separates it…and elevates it. Each discipline has its own guild…but the Academy joins them all together. The Oscars represent each year’s filmic synthesis. That’s why tracing dominance across all the guilds is what truly ends up being most “predictive,” as opposed to any on individual award or group.
But there’s something else afoot…something more sinister. Dare I say it’s a disturbance in The Force? Although in actuality, it may be the New Normal. As I stress nearly every week, the prevailing theme that I’ve been pondering all season long is how pundits and media folks possess uncommon influence over the trajectory of the season. From my perspective – as a member of the media, to be sure, but one who works on the sidelines, not on the rough-and-tumble playing field that is Los Angeles – this influence has been brewing slowly but surely over the past several years, as Oscar bloggers have risen to prominence and awards predictions became less a fun game than a legit profession. That is not, in and of itself, a bad thing. Countless invaluable voices have emerged from this scrum, and of course the elevation of punditry has permitted a space for me to rant on each week, for which I am very grateful.
However, what I see being formulated – and what I ultimately fear – is that punditry seems to be shifting from the practice of observing and predicting the season to the practice of telling the season what’s supposed to happen. There’s been a subtle but unmistakable shift from “trying to be right” to “presuming what’s right and expecting the season to fall in line.” Those aforementioned seemingly wacky SAG nominations are the perfect recent example. Referring to pundit reactions as “uproarious” would be an understatement. Now, to be fair, some managed to stay level-headed amid the seeming chaos, pointing to several valid reasons that may have led to a somewhat skewed SAG nomination list – early voting timeline, late screenings for certain films, a non-film-centric voting committee, etc. But there were some post-mortem reactions that essentially stated “SAG didn’t get the memo” regarding which films are actually in the Oscar race. Which is another way of saying, “the industry didn’t follow our lead.” Which itself is another way of saying, “we’re here to tell the industry how this thing is gonna play out.”
I mean, I can speak firsthand to the arrogance and hubris of both critics and pundits, but statements like that push it into overdrive. And not only that – they also threaten to shift the validity of the season as it currently stands. There is, indeed, a delicate balance to the Oscar season. Pundits are an increasingly significant part of it, to be sure, for a variety of reasons. Having a deep knowledge of Oscar history, industry peccadillos, and each voting body’s tendencies is helpful in formulating educated opinions. Seeing all the movies allows us to gauge each film’s overall quality and weight that against the so-called “middlebrow” taste of the Academy (don’t mistake that with notions of “groupthink”; to the contrary, it’s understanding what films will appeal broadly to a wide swath of individual voters, which are typically rewarded on a preferential ballot). From there it’s a combination of talking to voters, spotting trends, and reading tea leaves. That’s the ever-ubiquitous role of the pundit, and it has, in many ways, elevated how we approach the awards season. There is no shortage of expert opinions out there, which creates an increasing amount of interest in the Oscars (which is helpful to the industry) and educates readers in its own way. In spite of the pejorative context with which many people use the term, “punditry” does serve a very real purpose, and in the specific context of Oscar punditry, it can (let’s be honest, should) function an excited form of advocacy for this enterprise we all act cynical about, but wouldn’t take part in if we didn’t love it so much.
But the notion of “love” should remind us all that even pundits are part of the mass of Oscar consumers. We follow the race, we track the race, we learn the race inside and out, and we offer opinion about the race from that educated perspective. But we shouldn’t be dictating the race. And therein lies the danger. The moment the Oscars are decided by an increasingly large group of loudly vocal “consumers” is the moment the Academy Awards become precisely the kind of inconsequential folly we all sometimes pretend they are now.
But just as soon as I start banging the drum against over-certainty, along comes a seemingly-inconsequential group that suddenly flips the script and turns pundits’ over-certainty into over-reactive self-doubt.
Yes, I’m talking about the Golden Globe Awards.
But that’s an issue for Part 2, coming tomorrow…