As President Obama busily prepares his State Of The Union address to be delivered on Tuesday night — the same day that the Academy Award nominations are announced — I think it’s only fitting that I deliver The State Of The Oscar Race as it stands now. Needless to say, all of Hollywood is primed for the big reveal at 5:38 AM Tuesday morning. At this point we’ve had all of the critics groups weighing in, all of the Guild nominations, all of the BAFTA nominations, and all of the Golden Globes results. Collectively these precursors have set the scene for what we can expect. But, first, a word of caution: there are always surprises with Oscar. But here’s where I see the race for Best Picture heading now.
Best indicator for this Best 10 horse race has been the consistency of what the various Guilds, above and below the line, have been offering up in their nominations. Since there is a heavy overlap of Academy members who also vote in these Guild contests they are key indicators. Or, as Harvey Weinstein told me Sunday night after the Golden Globes, “the real voters that matter”. The same 5 or 6 films seem to keep coming up over and over, making them the most solid bets. The Social Network, scoring with key noms everywhere except Visual Effects, is now the undisputed frontrunner in this race, particularly when its overwhelming lead in critics groups Best Pic winners is added in to the mix along with last weekend’s back-to-back wins of the same four awards (Picture, Director, Screenplay, Score) at the Golden Globes and Critics Choice Movie Awards. Its only hiccup was the rather meager showing at the BAFTA noms this week with just six nods, though all were in major categories.
Still it was eclipsed by other BAFTA Best Picture nominees in terms of numbers: The King’s Speech had 14, Black Swan 12, Inception 9, and True Grit 8, making the race for Best Pic overall a lot more fluid than it might seem on the surface. In fact, in terms of Guild showings, both Black Swan and Inception are the only two with perfect records, indicating strong across-the board support by showing up on every list including DGA, PGA, WGA, SAG, American Cinema Editors, Art Directors Guild, American Society of Cinematographers, Costume Designers Guild, Cinema Audio Society, and Visual Effects Society. Swan is also a Best Film nominee at the Independent Spirit Awards making it the only movie to completely run the board. It’s done so well that director Darren Aronofsky told me he was pissed it also didn’t make the Academy’s shortlist of Best Make-Up contenders. “This movie has started major fashion trends in make up,” he said. Oh well, can’t win ‘em all — but Swan seems to be doing just fine anyway in addition to becoming a major box office success, something that could keep it in the thick of the race.
Along with all of the above-mentioned films, The Fighter would seem to be the other sure thing heading into Oscar. It’s inclusion on SAG, DGA, PGA and WGA lists along with Editors, Costume and Art Direction guilds are good omens even if it was shut out of BAFTA’s Best Picture contenders, a slight blow but not a knockout. Those top six contenders will likely be joined in Oscar’s golden circle by Toy Story 3 (which has cleaned up in the animated categories to date), The Kids Are All Right (with strong showings in PGA, WGA and SAG and Best Picture (comedy), and Best Actress wins at the Globes), The Town, and 127 Hours (which has hung in there all season despite anecdotal reports that some Academy voters were too squeamish to watch it). Winter’s Bone is the most likely movie to grab a spot in the Top 10 if any stumble.
Going forward, I see a scenario where The Social Network could continue its sweep by winning at this Saturday’s PGA awards, and at the following Saturday’s DGA ceremony where David Fincher is an early favorite. It could get tripped up at SAG, though, the next night, losing to either The King’s Speech or even more likely, The Fighter in the Ensemble Cast category, SAG’s equivalent of Best Pic. The Fighter upset everyone in the ensemble category at the CCMAs while, three nights later, The Museum of the Moving Image celebrated King’s Speech as “The Ensemble Film of the Year”. Both distributors are using kudos like this to move their films into position for a SAG upset, the one major place they think they can stop The Social Network’s snowballing momentum.
Flashback: In 2005, then Lionsgate president Tom Ortenberg told me his game plan was to stop Brokeback Mountain at just one Guild contest. He did it when Crash took the top SAG honor and got some Big Mo out of it. That moment turned the race, justifying the $250,000 cost of sending Crash DVDs to every one of SAG’s 100,000 + members, then a bold move and now a necessary one. All of this year’s Best Cast contenders have either sent DVDs or put their films for download on iTunes or both for the entire SAG membership.
A SAG win is especially important for The King’s Speech because it is ineliglible at WGA where it would probably have won Best Original Screenplay. Although it seems a shoo-in to win as the hometown favorite at the BAFTAs, losses in the four key Guild contests would make pulling off a Best Picture win all that more daunting – at least in terms of the traditional way we predict Oscar winners. No film has done it since since all four major Guilds have been handing out year end prizes of their own. It would be a Chariots of Fire-style upset over Reds managing a surprise Best Picture win in 1981 without any major precursors or U.S. critics wins.
Though Chariots Of Fire did manage a tie with Reds for the National Board of Review’s Best Film award. This year though, the NBR started things off by going big time for The Social Network. Could a precedent-shattering upset happen this year? Sure. Rules are made to be broken in this game despite what some pundits will tell you. The big question is what impact all the precursor wins for The Social Network will have on the Academy. Recent history has shown Oscar voters stepping right in line with critics and guilds at least in terms of the last three years when No Country For Old Men, Slumdog Millionaire, and The Hurt Locker all built up big steam through the awards season that could not be overcome by Oscar day.
Even though Sony seems to be outspending The Weinstein Co and others by a large margin, my conversations with Academy voters indicate a much closer contest than it might seem right now between these two presumed frontrunners. If votes are split this year, as I have a hunch they might be, the scenario could be ripe for a third film — a spoiler — to sneak in and take it all. It’s certainly happened before. In 1951 everyone thought the Best Picture Oscar would come down to one of the two big dramas: A Place In The Sun and A Streetcar Named Desire. The upset winner was a musical from earlier in the year, An American In Paris. Victorious MGM took out a trade ad the next day that showed their famous logo, Leo The Lion, coyly saying, “Honestly, I was just standing in the sun waiting for a streetcar”.