Thursday, February 25, 2016

Race Ratings for the 88th Academy Awards

To win your Oscar pool, it's often not that helpful just to know who's favored. You have to really understand the race in each category—which can be hard to do, given the large number of categories and the marathon awards season that provides context for each one. In politics, we turn to election handicappers to do this for us. For the Oscars, you can turn to me.

Every year, I give each Oscar category a Cook Political Report–style "race rating" to give those who don't obsessively follow the film awards an idea of the state of the race. These are a snapshot of the conventional wisdom in each category; they're not my personal picks, which can be found here. Here are this year's ratings:

Best Picture: Leans The Revenant
Having won two of the four main precursor awards, The Revenant is probably in pole position here, but no one should be surprised if The Big Short or Spotlight walks off with the top prize.

Best Director: Likely Alejandro Iñárritu
The Directors Guild of America Award moves in lockstep with this category, and Iñárritu won it this year for directing The Revenant. Iñárritu would be only the third director to win Best Director in back-to-back years, but that's only been possible eight times—so compared to the baseline 20% chance of winning in a five-nominee category, being a recent winner has actually helped your chances historically.

Best Actor: Solid Leonardo DiCaprio
Although it's largely a myth that you're more likely to win an Oscar if you're "due," DiCaprio has so much good will and so few Oscars (zero in five past nominations) that everyone agrees it's time to just give him a damn statue already.

Best Actress: Solid Brie Larson
The 26-year-old star of Room has blown away the competition at every awards show to date.

Best Supporting Actor: Likely Sylvester Stallone
There's not a lot of data here, which makes absolute certainty difficult, but there is a general consensus that sentimentality in Hollywood will give this award to Stallone for his Rocky cameo in Creed. But other major award shows failed to nominate him at all, with the Screen Actors Guild award going to Idris Elba (not nominated for Oscar) and the BAFTA going to British stage legend Mark Rylance. Stallone is kinda like America's Rylance, I guess?

Best Supporting Actress: Likely Alicia Vikander
Vikander received raves for her turns in both The Danish Girl, for which she is nominated here, and Ex Machina. The dual roles have likewise led to confusion on the precursor circuit, allowing Kate Winslet to win a BAFTA and a Golden Globe for Steve Jobs. But with only one place to honor Vikander at the Oscars, she is likely to consolidate support in this category. Still, keep an eye on Winslet...

Best Adapted Screenplay: Solid The Big Short
Of the Best Picture frontrunners, The Big Short is an adapted screenplay, Spotlight is an original screenplay, and The Revenant didn't get a screenplay nomination at all. That makes the screenplay categories really easy this year.

Best Original Screenplay: Solid Spotlight

Best Animated Feature: Solid Inside Out

Best Foreign Language Film: Solid Son of Saul

Best Documentary Feature: Solid Amy

Best Cinematography: Solid The Revenant

Best Costume Design: Tossup

Best Film Editing: Likely Mad Max

Best Makeup and Hairstyling: Solid Mad Max

Best Production Design: Solid Mad Max

Best Original Score: Solid The Hateful Eight

Best Original Song: Solid "Til It Happens To You"

Best Sound Editing: Leans Mad Max

Best Sound Mixing: Tossup

Best Visual Effects: Leans Star Wars

Best Documentary Short: Tossup

Best Live-Action Short: Tossup

Best Animated Short: Tossup

Friday, February 19, 2016

The Statistical Case for Mad Max

It’s a wide-open race for the Best Picture Oscar this year. Awards-watchers entered the season assuming Spotlight was a nominal frontrunner, but its support always seemed tepid. Now that The Big Short and The Revenant have racked up major precursor awards, the buzz has shifted accordingly.

But the uncertainty could pave the way for a winner no one saw coming: Mad Max: Fury Road. At first glance, the high-octane action flick doesn’t fit the artsy mold of the Academy, but Oscar voters aren’t a monolith. The math behind how the Academy votes for its signature awards reveals that Mad Max actually has a real shot.

The Academy’s 6,261 members are divided into 17 “branches,” each for a different profession of filmmaker: Directors, Costume Designers, Music, etc. Each branch votes for the nominees in its respective category; for example, the Documentary Branch selects the Best Documentary nominees. However, members of all branches vote on the ultimate winners of every award, including Best Picture.

Spotlight, having won the Screen Actors Guild Award for Best Film and received two acting nods at the Oscars, is likely popular with the Actors Branch. The actors are the largest slice of the Academy, but they still only account for 1,138, or 18%, of total membership. The Big Short's win at the Producers Guild Awards, meanwhile, signals support among the Producers Branch. At 483 members, the producers are only 8% of Academy members. And, given it won the Directors Guild of America Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Feature Film, let's assume the Directors Branch is behind The Revenant. That’s 394 supporters for this raw Leonardo DiCaprio survival story, or 6% of the total electorate.

Where Mad Max could triumph is on the electoral strength of the craft guild voting blocs. The blockbuster is nominated for all eight craft awards—Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing, Best Makeup and Hairstyling, Best Production Design, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, and Best Visual Effects. That’s an extremely rare feat, pulled off by only three other movies in Oscar history (including Titanic and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World). This suggests Mad Max has supporters across all of those branches—which are ordinarily considered minor but are quite formidable as a group. Together, the technical branches combine for 1,811 members—a full 29% of the Academy.

There’s just one problem: amazingly, The Revenant is one of the other three movies that went eight for eight in technical nominations. But there is reason to believe that Mad Max’s support with technicians is stronger. The Revenant is seen as the favorite for only one craft award, Best Cinematography; it’s a long shot for the other seven. That means The Revenant is more like Master and Commander, which took home only two Oscars, than it is Best Picture–winner Titanic.

By contrast, Mad Max is favored by experts and betting markets to win six of those categories (all but Cinematography and Costume Design). If correct, that would mean Mad Max doesn’t just have support among the large technical voting bloc; it has real passion. It would put Mad Max in the company of not only Titanic, but also Ben-Hur and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, the only other movies to win six Oscars for their crafts. Those three epics are the best comps for Mad Max with respect to support from the technical branches. All three won Best Picture. No film has ever won six or more technical Oscars, as Mad Max is expected to do, and lost the big prize.

At more recent Academy Awards, we’ve also seen examples of the archetype that Mad Max represents: technically strong films that ride their broad support into the thick of the Best Picture race. At the 2013 ceremony, space stunner Gravity won five of the six craft Oscars it was nominated for, while Martin Scorsese’s Hugo won five of seven in 2011. Neither won Best Picture, but neither had the depth or breadth of support that Mad Max (expected to win six of eight) has either. Both also had the misfortune to go up against a strong frontrunner those years: 12 Years a Slave and The Artist. There is no such juggernaut this year.

Despite the relative lack of buzz surrounding the film, precedent puts Mad Max right in the thick of the Best Picture race. And conditions could finally be right for a film of its ilk to prevail. To be sure, it’s still an unpredictable Oscar season—but it’s time to seriously consider that Mad Max might crash the party.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

What Really Happened with the Texas Rangers and Eminent Domain

One sign that the 2016 presidential race is nuts: the Republican frontrunner says he loves eminent domain. Donald Trump defended his seizure of land for the "common good" in Saturday's debate against Jeb Bush, who argued that eminent domain should only be used for important infrastructure projects and public needs—and that Trump's use of it didn't qualify. (Trump tried to use eminent domain to evict an elderly woman in Atlantic City when she refused his offer of $250,000 so he could tear down her house to build a casino parking lot. Trump lost the case.)

But in interviews since the debate, Trump has called Bush a hypocrite: it turns out that none other than George W. Bush, the former president and Jeb's brother, used eminent domain to get Globe Life Park built when he was co-owner of the Texas Rangers. People are now pushing back against Trump by drawing a distinction between the use of eminent domain for the public good or for private gain. Allegedly, Trump tried to use it for private gain, but its use to build a baseball stadium was in the public good—which would be OK under Jeb's parameters.

The question is whether a baseball stadium is really in the public good. This, of course, goes back to the thorny issue of publicly funded stadiums. Globe Life Park (formerly known as Rangers Ballpark in Arlington) was a publicly funded stadium and, to this day, is owned by the City of Arlington, so technically, yes, its use of eminent domain was for a public project. But, obviously, the Texas Rangers baseball corporation has profited tremendously from its construction, and many people question whether stadiums really deliver the economic booster shot to their communities that teams claim. Listen to the story of the Rangers' ballpark and decide for yourself whether it was a public project or primarily for private gain.

In 1990, unhappy with the ugly and deteriorating Arlington Stadium, the Rangers threatened to leave Arlington—threats that eventually convinced the city government to cover 71% of the costs ($135 million out of $191 million) of building a new ballpark. The deal they struck called for the city to raise the sales tax by half a cent to go toward construction. On January 19, 1991, almost two-thirds of city voters approved a referendum to do just that, giving the project the stamp of public approval it needed. The results of that referendum allowed the former Rangers president to tell the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, in defense of Bush and in offense of Trump, that "we never had eminent domain—the city of Arlington did."

Indeed, the Texas legislature presently approved the creation of the Arlington Sports Facilities Development Authority (ASFDA), a public city agency with the power of eminent domain—but also an entity whose actions were directed by the Rangers. The ASFDA—or, to be more specific, the realtor it contracted, who happened to be a part owner of the Rangers—went about setting prices of the parcels the Rangers wanted to use for the stadium and attendant facilities like parking lots. If the homeowners didn't agree to the ASFDA's offer, the ASFDA seized the land using eminent domain. One property owner, the Mathes family, sued and won a $7.2 million payout, which, after a legal dispute between the ballclub and city, was eventually paid by the Rangers.

Today, while the city of Arlington did get to keep its baseball team, the Rangers receive almost all the revenue generated by the stadium. While the project was approved by voters and managed by the government, the Rangers were ultimately behind every move it made, and it is clear that eminent domain was used to achieve a corporation's private financial ends. It's an open question whether W.'s profits from eminent domain should be held against Jeb, but the Rangers certainly did benefit from its application.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

A Layman's Oscar Briefing

Even if, like me, you enjoy politics, sometimes we all just need a freaking break to go to the movies or something. And with the 88th Academy Awards coming up, there are lots of good ones out there. Here are some random thoughts on this year's Oscar season so far (yes, another election!).


When the nominees were announced last month, it was the second straight year that the Oscars were seen as unfriendly to diversity. All 20 nominated actors and actresses were white, and strong diverse contenders, like Straight Outta Compton for Best Picture and Idris Elba for Best Supporting Actor, were snubbed. Last year when this happened, I compared the Oscars' stodgy voters to the BBWAA's in the Baseball Hall of Fame election—an analogy that carried forward into this year. Like the Hall of Fame did, the Oscars eventually relented to the criticism this year and announced a series of voting reforms. The Academy (whose president, it should be noted, is a black woman) went farther than the Hall of Fame, though—much farther. It set a goal of doubling its number of women and minority members by 2020—just four short years.

Most interestingly, though, the Academy made the exact same change as the Hall of Fame did. Whereas both organizations used to allow members, once they earned the right to vote for the Oscars/Hall of Fame, to remain eligible for life, both have now changed to let only active members vote. Furthermore, "active" is defined the same way: after 10 years of inactivity, you are purged from the electorate. I really wonder if someone at AMPAS is a baseball fan.

This Year's Bridesmaids

One thing that fascinates me about the Oscars is how someone can be universally respected enough to rack up nomination after nomination but not universally beloved enough ever to win. I maintain a list of all individuals with five or more career Oscar nominations, and it reveals that some people have been nominated over a dozen times without a win. The "bridesmaids" who could walk away with their first statuette this year include:

Person Occupation Nominations
Roger Deakins Cinematographer 13
Thomas Newman Composer 13
Diane Warren Songwriter 8
Frank A. Montaño Sound Mixer 8
Paul Massey Sound Mixer 7
Ennio Morricone Composer 6
Leonardo DiCaprio Actor/Producer 6

DiCaprio may be the only name on that list you've heard of, but his suffering is mild in comparison—only five failed nominations so far, and strong odds to win this year for The Revenant. Deakins has been a criminal omission by the Academy since his first loss for The Shawshank Redemption. Two bridesmaids face off in this year's race for Best Original Score: the prolific Newsman and the legendary Morricone (although Morricone has won an honorary Oscar). However, they go up against John Williams, who now has a career 50 Oscar nominations—second-most all time. I love Williams, but he's won five times; hopefully this year's trophy goes to one of the veterans without an award.

Also facing off will be Montaño, for mixing The Revenant, and Massey, for mixing The Martian. They'll probably both lose again, though, as Mad Max's sound mixing is heavily favored. This is sad but probably makes sense; the idea that the Academy will vote for you if you're "due" for an award is largely a myth. One bridesmaid who does stand a good chance this year, though, is Warren, who has the good fortune to be nominated alongside Lady Gaga for the song "Til It Happens To You."

My Early Predictions

This is another close, unpredictable Oscar year. Spotlight is seen as the nominal frontrunner, but I think it's weak. It lost at the Golden Globes and Producers Guild of America Awards; it wasn't even nominated by the American Cinema Editors, an important below-the-line constituency. I'd watch out for a The Big Short or even Mad Max: Fury Road upset. More on that later...