Thursday, February 12, 2015

Your Oscar Precedents Are Worthless—or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

I said this last year, but it's even more true now: This is the most unpredictable Oscar season in memory. After Richard Linklater's 12-year epic Boyhood swept critics' awards at the beginning of the season, it looked safely on its way to Oscar gold. But Alejandro González Iñárritu's Birdman suddenly scored back-to-back-to-back wins with three critical guilds—the same industry professionals who cast ballots for the Oscars. As a result, Best Picture is now a two-horse race without a favorite.

The fascinating thing about the race is that, no matter which film wins, it will break Oscar precedent in a big way. If Birdman wins, it will become the first Best Picture since Ordinary People at the 1981 ceremony not to receive a nomination for Best Film Editing; the correlation between these two categories has been one of the most ironclad pieces of Oscar wisdom in the 30 years since. If Boyhood holds on, though, it will be the first time a Best Picture winner lost all three of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) Award, the Producers Guild of America (PGA) Award, and the Directors Guild of America (DGA) Award since Braveheart at the 1996 ceremony—and that was back when the award season was much longer and put over a month of distance between the guild awards and the Oscars.

My predictions/wild guesses for this year's awards will be coming soon, but for now I just want to warn anyone who thinks that their knowledge of Oscar precedent or precursors can save them in this volatile year. Comparing the 2015 Oscar season to the 1995, 2005, or even 2013 Oscar season is like comparing apples to oranges. This is because the Academy is continually reassessing how it votes. Voting for categories like Best Foreign Language Film and Best Documentary Feature have been opened up to the entire Academy where they had previously been restricted to the few who attended select screenings. The number of Best Picture nominees has changed, from five to 10 to a flexible number (this year there are eight). Most importantly, the Academy changed the method of Best Picture balloting in 2009 to instant-runoff voting, rather than the first-past-the-post system that allowed films to win without majority support.

If the underlying rules have changed, can we even consider it the same election as pre-2009? We can't expect precedent to hold up if the Academy doesn't even count votes the same way it has in the past. It explains why, so quickly, the old rules of Oscarology have broken down—Argo winning Best Picture of 2012 without a Best Director nomination, for instance. And when you introduce precursor awards into the equation, the opportunity for error doubles: the Oscars have changed their rules, and the precursors have too. Before 2012, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) only allowed practitioners of a specific craft to vote on that craft's award. The PGA switched to a preferential ballot for its version of Best Picture when the Oscars did, but they have stuck with 10 nominees rather than the Academy's flexible total. The SAG merged with another union, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, in 2012, adding thousands of non-film voters to its electorate. The DGA's five nominees and standard vote-counting procedure once matched the Oscars exactly but now feel obsolete. Clearly, a guild or other group that may once have been a great barometer for the Academy may now reflect totally different realities, and it's all because of the rules of the election.

Rather than relying on historical accuracy, then, it may be most helpful to simply look at each precursor award side by side with the Oscars and see how much they have in common, here and now in 2015. The two main questions to ask are (1) how similar are the voting processes and (2) how much do the electorates overlap? In theory, if two elections poll the same electorates in the same way, the results will line up exactly. Our luck will never be anywhere near that good, but here's how the major precursors stack up:


% of Academy in the SAG: 20.0% (~1,200 out of ~6,000)
% of SAG in the Academy: 1.1% (~1,200 out of ~110,000)
Voting Process: Traditional, first-past-the-post winner chosen from five nominees. The award is not for best film, but rather Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture—often referred to as "best ensemble."
Commentary: The SAG's top award has historically disagreed with Best Picture more often than they've agreed, and that's not surprising looking at the election specs. Although a lot of Academy members are actors, Oscar voters make up only a tiny share of the SAG, limiting the body's predictive power. The non-preferential ballot and, especially, non–Best Picture nature of the award make the election a totally different animal anyway. I wouldn't recommend even considering the SAG Award when trying to read the Oscar tea leaves; even a broken clock is right twice a day.


% of Academy in the DGA: 6.7% (~400 out of ~6,000)
% of DGA in the Academy: 2.7% (~400 out of ~15,000)
Voting Process: The DGA uses traditional, first-past-the-post vote-counting to choose among five nominees. The DGA's top award is technically for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Feature Film, not best film overall.
Commentary: The DGA's election laws used to fit the Academy's exactly, before the last decade's reforms, but now they're pretty well out of sync. So even though the DGAs have the best 25-year predict rate of Best Picture (76%), its modern relevance may be limited. What it does have going for it is that the Oscar for Best Director still plays by the DGA rules, and a healthy 6.7% of the Academy are directors.


% of Academy in the PGA: 8.3% (~500 out of ~6,000)
% of PGA in the Academy: 7.7% (~500 out of ~6,500)
Voting Process: Instant-runoff voting determines the winner from 10 nominees. The award is technically the Darryl F. Zanuck Award for Outstanding Producer of Theatrical Motion Pictures but is understood to be the equivalent of best film.
Commentary: The PGA is best aligned with the Academy Awards; it's the only guild to use the preferential ballot, and each electorate constitutes a healthy sample size of the other. The PGA hasn't missed a Best Picture winner since the 2009 switch in both elections to instant-runoff voting.


% of Academy in the BAFTA: 8.3% (~500 out of ~6,000)
% of BAFTA in the Academy: 7.7% (~500 out of ~6,500)
Voting Process: The BAFTAs use traditional, first-past-the-post vote-counting to choose among five nominees for Best Film.
Commentary: The BAFTAs have the same solid overlap with the Academy as the PGA, and it's the only industry precursor to be explicitly for the best movie of the year, so it's automatically a better bet than some of the other award shows listed here. But those election rules (so 1990s!) make them a worse precursor overall than the PGA.

Writers Guild of America (WGA)

% of Academy in the WGA: 6.7% (~400 out of ~6,000)
% of WGA in the Academy: 5.0% (~400 out of ~8,000)
Voting Process: Traditional, first-past-the-post voting system. Five nominees for Original Screenplay, five nominees for Adapted Screenplay—there is no "best film" award.
Commentary: The WGA has decent overlap with the Academy's electorate, but not as strong as the PGA or BAFTA. More importantly, though, its Best Original Screenplay and Best Adapted Screenplay awards are rubbish for predicting Best Picture. They're not even great at predicting their counterpart categories at the Oscars, as the WGA's strict eligibility rules often disqualify major Oscar contenders, such as 12 Years a Slave last year. Like the SAG, it's best not to let these awards influence your Oscar picks.

American Cinema Editors (ACE)

% of Academy in the ACE: 4.0% (~240 out of ~6,000)
% of ACE in the Academy: 34.3% (~240 out of ~700)
Voting Process: Traditional, first-past-the-post voting system. Five nominees for Best Edited Feature Film (Dramatic) and five nominees for Best Edited Feature Film (Comedy or Musical).
Commentary: The ACE seems like an odd guild out in this list, but just like the Best Film Editing and Best Picture Oscars, the "Eddie" for Best Edited Film is seen as a Best Picture portent. It probably shouldn't be, though, given the SAG-esque misalignment between the contests. The Eddie winner is probably a good indicator of how Academy editors think, given the large share of ACE members who are also Oscar voters. But editors are a relatively small slice of the Academy, and even if they weren't, it would serve more to influence the Best Film Editing Oscar. "Best Picture" is not what the ACE votes on, and that category at the Oscars does not use the same vote-counting process the ACE does.

Of all the industry awards, the PGA is easily the best predictor. BAFTA and the DGA aren't great but can be acceptably used with a grain of salt. The WGA, SAG, and ACE shouldn't enter your calculus. This may not square with each guild's previous correlation with Oscar, but it's what makes sense among new voting realities. This is because it's not that the Academy ever looked to these groups—and, say, the DGA more than the PGA—for cues on how to vote. As In Contention's Kris Tapley quite astutely put it, the guild awards don't affect Oscar voting; they merely reveal sentiments and opinions that are already there. These guilds are the closest thing we get to polls of the Oscars, which unfortunately—and inexplicably—don't exist. A poll's past record of accuracy is worthless without the correct methodology, and so it is with Hollywood's awards.

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