Friday, February 20, 2015

Race Ratings for the 87th Academy Awards

If somebody tells you they know what's going to happen at Sunday's Academy Awards, they're lying. At the most competitive Oscar ceremony in recent memory, there is legitimate suspense about up to half of categories—unheard of for an election so closely watched.

That means it's fruitless to give binary predictions that X will win or that Y won't (although that will never stop me from making my own personal predictions). Instead, a probabilistic forecast is the way to go. That's why, every year, I issue Cook Political Report–style "race ratings" for the Oscars—to help guide the picks of those of you who haven't been following the film awards as closely. Here is this year's snapshot of the race.

Best Picture: Tossup
It's Birdman vs. Boyhood. Birdman is the late-charging challenger and won all the major guild awards but failed to nab an important Best Editing nomination; meanwhile, Boyhood still has a strong base of support and won the BAFTA. Odds are practically even.

Best Director: Tossup
Usually the Best Picture winner also wins Best Director, but this year I've seen some Alejandro Iñárritu/Boyhood picks and some Richard Linklater/Birdman picks. Iñárritu's Birdman was more directorially stylistic, but Linklater's Boyhood is a 12-year labor of love.

Best Actor: Leans Eddie Redmayne
Birdman's Michael Keaton started the awards season as the favorite, and many (including me) still believe he could prevail. However, frontrunner status has clearly shifted toward Eddie Redmayne's flashier portrayal of Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything.

Best Actress: Solid Julianne Moore
Still Alice may not have been widely seen, but Moore has this locked up on buzz alone.

Best Supporting Actor: Solid JK Simmons
Simmons has won every conceivable precursor award for his role in Whiplash; he's had this coming since last year's Sundance Film Festival.

Best Supporting Actress: Solid Patricia Arquette
Boyhood's one certain win on the night.

Best Adapted Screenplay: Leans The Imitation Game
Whiplash is a dark horse in this category, but The Imitation Game is in pole position as the most serious Best Picture contender nominated here.

Best Original Screenplay: Leans The Grand Budapest Hotel
Unlike Best Picture, this category is first-past-the-post, which means Birdman and Boyhood could split the vote here. Many think that will clear the path for Wes Anderson to win his first Oscar, but watch out if either Birdman or Boyhood has a particularly strong night.

Best Animated Feature: Likely How to Train Your Dragon 2

Best Foreign Language Film: Likely Ida

Best Documentary Feature: Solid CitizenFour

Best Cinematography: Solid Birdman

Best Costume Design: Likely The Grand Budapest Hotel

Best Film Editing: Likely Boyhood

Best Makeup and Hairstyling: Leans The Grand Budapest Hotel

Best Production Design: Solid The Grand Budapest Hotel

Best Original Score: Leans The Theory of Everything

Best Original Song: Solid "Glory"

Best Sound Editing: Leans American Sniper

Best Sound Mixing: Tossup

Best Visual Effects: Leans Interstellar

Best Documentary Short: Likely Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1

Best Live-Action Short: Likely The Phone Call

Best Animated Short: Likely Feast

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

How the "10 Days of Teddy" Unwittingly Exposed the Nats' Fan Problem

As I'm sure you're aware, the "10 Days of Teddy" ended last Friday. The contest was meant to commemorate the Nationals' 10th anniversary in Washington, DC, by unveiling 10 special promotional items the team will give away this year (never mind that 2015 is actually their 11th season). The conceit was that the team's famous racing president, Teddy, would show up at 10 random locations around metro Washington, tweet a clue about his location, and then give away free tickets to the first person to find him using the clue.

The result was a fun little scavenger hunt, not dissimilar from many other teams' marketing campaigns around this time of year to get people excited for the coming season. To most people, that's probably all it was—but since when has this blog passed up an opportunity to overanalyze something? More than a mere contest, the 10 Days of Teddy gave us a peek into how the business half of the Nationals front office thinks—and it wasn't pretty. The team's choices and approach for the promotion subconsciously revealed how flawed its view of the DC sports fan base is and how distastefully weighted its priorities are toward corporate sponsors and elites.

This is all based on the geographic pattern of where Teddy landed each of the 10 days. It's very hard to find a pattern that is truly random, and you can be sure that a lot of thought went into this one. Teddy would have to appear at strategic points: major gathering places, easily accessible transportation nexuses, densely populated office clusters, and/or landmarks well-known enough to provide a solvable clue. There are countless places around Washington that meet these criteria, so it's a shame that the Nats chose the 10 that they did.

This Google map of Teddy's 10 hangouts reveals three in Maryland, three in Virginia, and three in Northwest DC; that left just one for the three more neglected quadrants of the District: Northeast, Southwest, and Southeast. Likewise, only one rendezvous point was located anywhere east of 11th St. NW. (The exception in both cases was the final day of Teddy, when he finally showed up in Northeast—albeit at Union Station, just one block into the quadrant at 1st and F St. NE and a hub for suburban commuters.)

For those who don't know DC, this is a problem because the city gets more disadvantaged the farther east you go. Indeed, if you were looking to draw a line between the haves and the have-nots, you could do a lot worse than 11th St. NW. The Nats clearly followed the money with their 10 Days of Teddy, but in so doing they ignored the bulk of the nation's capital—the non-federal city, where residents have suffered dilapidated schools and unsafe streets since before the current crop of yuppies moved to town, and will for years after they've left. Instead, the 10 Days of Teddy focused on paying fealty to DC's elites: the District Building (Washington's city hall), the Pentagon, and Union Station, just a few blocks north of the Capitol. Many of the stops also appeared to be cross-promotions with the Nationals' main sponsors, such as the random visits to the Hard Times Cafe in Clarendon and the Harris Teeter in Potomac. Although corporate interests will never disappear from baseball, a team is also a social institution, and it should serve underprivileged areas and people with equal opportunity.

There's a racial element, too; the Nats' tour did not visit any predominantly minority neighborhoods, which unfortunately tend to be the parts of Northeast and Southeast that have been left behind economically. Although the entire nation has ignored it for decades, Washington is an African American city first and foremost. When I worked for the Boston Red Sox, minority outreach was a corporate priority, reflecting both an awareness of the Red Sox' checkered racial record and the reality that Boston has become a majority-minority city. If they have similar priorities, the Nationals did a good job hiding it with their choice of 10 Days of Teddy locations.

You can argue this analysis isn't entirely fair. Given that the promotion took place Monday through Friday from 11am to 1pm, it makes sense that the Nats would target the downtown area and other concentrations of office buildings, rather than residential areas. This would be a valid defense of the Nats—if the map showed that was really what they were doing. But, in fact, only three locations (the District Building, Union Station, and the Pentagon) were truly business districts anywhere close to the city center. Another four, all in the suburbs (Clarendon, Alexandria, Bethesda, and Silver Spring) were more mixed-use. This leaves three (Mt. Pleasant, the National Zoo, and Potomac) in predominantly residential areas. Surely the Nats could have spared one of those residential slots for Brookland or Anacostia instead.

You can argue that the Nats are just going where the fans are—that's probably what the Nats thought when they were designing the promotion. But it is incredibly short-sighted to think that Nats fans can only be found in "good" neighborhoods or the suburbs. Of course there are baseball fans in the inner city—and, more importantly, there are potential fans. Although the case for baseball's death by demographics has been overstated, the game is losing ground to sports like basketball in America's poor urban areas thanks to the high costs of playing youth baseball.

The Nationals should be especially sensitive to this issue, as they have one of the most acute cases of urban-fan-apathy in the major leagues. FanGraphs recently published an excellent analysis by Mike Lortz comparing MLB attendance figures to Census data—specifically, the number of people living within a 30-minute radius of each ballpark. The Nats are one of only two teams with more than two million people within 30 minutes as well as average weekend attendance over 20% higher than average weekday attendance. (The other is the Chicago White Sox, who, it's worth noting, have a borderline attendance crisis on their hands.) What this means in layman's terms is that the Nationals are over-reliant on suburban fans. Suburbanites are more likely to make the trip to the ballpark on weekends, when games are during the day and they don't have work on one end and a fast-approaching bedtime on the other cutting into their travel time to and from the game. Conversely, the depressed weekday attendance shows that the Nats are underperforming with city-dwelling fans, despite easy public-transit access to the ballpark and the 2.25 million Washingtonians who can get home within 30 minutes of the final out.

The Nats need these 2.25 million extra fans in order to be a sustainable franchise. Their current suburban base simply isn't enough; various analyses have determined that the Nats probably have the fewest fans, in raw numbers, of any team in baseball. Yet the 10 Days of Teddy betrayed how the team doesn't appear to be reaching out to urban demographics. Imagine Teddy showing up in one of the neighborhoods that has grown accustomed to being ignored; imagine the disproportionate amount of excitement for baseball it would gin up among those who have never seen Teddy up close before. It wouldn't be a cure-all, but giving free Opening Day tickets to a poor family who never would have dreamed they could be there—instead of someone who was already paying to go anyway—would be a good, even necessary, first step. The Nationals are going to have to win these fans over one by one, and the 10 Days of Teddy missed their chance to start.

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.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Derek Jeter, Political Spin Doctor

During his playing career, Derek Jeter was a favorite of the sports media. He was easy to build a narrative around; he was always good for a quote. In return, they did nothing but shower him with praise, especially last season as he made his farewell tour around the league. So it's not very sporting of Jeter to make his first move post-playing-career to try to destroy them.

These days, Jeter runs The Players' Tribune, which is really hard to see as anything but an attempt to replace sports media. The Tribune is "a new media platform that will present the unfiltered voices of professional athletes"—no pesky middleman required! In the Tribune, athletes (or, more likely, their representatives) will be able to write their own stories, eliminating the possibility of their words getting twisted or any negative publicity getting presented whatsoever. Well, now, maybe that's not fair. Surely there's a place for first-person diaries from players that doesn't replace traditional sports reporting, right? Well, in Jeter's own words: "My goal is for the site to ultimately transform how athletes and newsmakers share information, bringing fans closer than ever to the games they love." This is an attempt to control the message, pure and simple.

This is a fairly revolutionary idea in the sports world... So why does it seem so familiar? Actually, attempting to harness the media to control one's one message is an age-old trick by those who are a little more crafty, a little more devious: politicians. The first campaign ad appeared in 1952—it's only taken athletes 62 years to see their brilliance. Paid media allows politicians to communicate directly to the public with virtually no filter. They can say what they want to say and only what they want to say. For millions of Americans every election year, TV ads are the main way of learning about the candidates.

So far, political paid media hasn't destroyed the independent political press corps. However, there was a disturbing development on this point last week, when Indiana Governor Mike Pence unveiled plans for a state-run news outlet, Just IN. Exactly like The Players' Tribune, Pence's office sought to write their own stories, about themselves, for direct placement in front of Hoosier eyes. Just IN would also compete directly with the rest of the state house press corps, occasionally breaking its own stories—and presumably not giving scoops to traditional media members. Practically plagiarizing the mission statement of The Players' Tribune, Just IN said its content would "range from straightforward news to lighter features, including personality profiles."

There is obviously something more insidious about a politician controlling his own coverage than an athlete doing so. Under its wire-service-esque business model, Just IN news articles would be disguised as regular independent journalism in many smaller Indiana papers looking to fill pages cheaply; a world where this self-reporting pushed out real political journalism would be a chilling one indeed. Ultimately, that's what made Just IN dead on arrival. After just a few days of backlash and comparisons to totalitarian regimes, Pence pulled the plug on the program that many had taken to calling "Pravda on the Plains."

But Jeter's venture is as much a sign as Pence's of an evolving media landscape. The internet and social media have democratized communication, creating ways for nontraditional content producers (this blog not excepted) to reach an interested audience. But it also provides a direct pathway for people to get information from a primary source, rather than through a middleman (i.e., professional reporter) that has usually been necessary. That this trend is evident across fields is strong evidence that it could be the way all media are headed. In sports, you have Jeter's site, but you also have teams announcing signings and pitching assignments themselves via Twitter or In politics, you have Pence's agency, but you also have Voice of America and a White House that prefers to interact with the public through Reddit AMAs or hashtag #asktheWH on Twitter, cutting out the press corps more and more.

The motivations are certainly understandable; newsmakers rely on publicity to earn a vote or a buck, and there can be benign reasons for them wanting to keep a direct line open to the public. But as soon as the independent press is threatened, we are losing something valuable in the case of sports and essential in the case of politics. I cling to the perhaps naïve belief that there can be room for both a strong independent press and the option for important voices to reach people directly. But with how rapidly media is changing, hopefully we don't lose the former even as the latter seems inevitably on the rise.