When Oscar voting came to a close Jan. 4 , 9 days earlier than last year, the dynamic of phase one of the awards race was thrown into uncharted territory. Because of the new timing crunch, previous harbingers of Oscar gold like the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s Golden Globe Awards, the Broadcast Critics Association’s Critics Choice Movie Awards, the American Film Institute’s annual list of 10 Movies of the Year, and the Screen Actors Guild’s Awards could have more influence than ever—or perhaps less, depending how you look at it.
In conversations with many potential Academy voters, one thing is clear: The late-breaking contenders of November and December turn out to be the most likely recipients of Oscar attention and therefore the “must sees” for any serious member that planned to cast their ballot over the already über-busy holiday period. November’s Flight, Lincoln, Life Of Pi, Hitchcock, Silver Linings Playbook, and Skyfall together with December’s late-breaking Zero Dark Thirty, Les Misérables, Django Unchained, The Impossible, The Hobbit, and Amour all struggled to get Academy eyeballs before the nomination deadline. With so many year-enders, it positively makes an October contender like Warner Bros.’ Argo seem like a film for which voters will need a long memory. Nearly everything that is being talked about or anticipated is being packed into a two-month corridor. And it doesn’t help matters that many of those titles have running times well over two and a half hours.
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With so much to see and so little time, Academy members probably could use more help than ever before, or at least a few helpful hints about what movies should be priorities in their DVD screener pile. The nominations that come in mid-December from the aforementioned traditionally reliable “influencers” are more important this year only because the typical Oscar voter just doesn’t have time to see everything, and these nominations and lists hit just before Oscar ballots are sent. Such top titles as Les Misérables and Django Unchained didn’t even open until Christmas Day. Although they were heavily screened for some Academy and guild members well before then, the films’ reviews and news coverage surrounding their release didn’t hit voters hard, with Oscar polls having been open at that point for over a week with just one more to go.
Globes, CCMAs, SAG, and AFI, along with the floodgate of regional critics groups—beginning with the important New York Film Critics Circle and the unimportant ranging from Florida to San Diego—all announce their own choices and nominations throughout the month of December, now the new primetime for Oscar nominating. It’s my guess these groups, which have a spotty history of accuracy in predicting which way the Oscar winds will blow, could well see their clout increase this year. After all, with strong local, national, and trade coverage for many of these groups, particularly the Globes, CCMAs, and SAG, not to mention AFI’s list, the value for films that score big is immeasurable when it comes to reaching Oscar voters who might not yet have seen many of these films. And with some DVDs like Les Mis, Silver Linings Playbook, Django, Hobbit, Lincoln, and Zero Dark Thirty not even hitting Academy mailboxes until the last minute, these precursor award nomination events tend to put things in focus, at least in theory. Now, your average Academy member will never admit to be influenced by these groups, but subconsciously they are, and certainly if a film runs the board with the precursors, the Academy is going to stand up and take notice.
As for the actual winners, that’s another story. With the Academy moving the big reveal of their own nominees to Jan. 10, two weeks earlier than last year and three days before the Golden Globes ceremony, in a brazen attempt to steal their thunder, it’s not too likely the big victors will still be front-of-mind by the time the Academy actually starts their final balloting for winners on Feb. 8, nearly a full month after the Globes and the CCMAs, whose winners could be distant memories by then. Even the all-important SAG Awards, the only guild list of nominees to be announced before the Academy finished selecting their noms (the PGA actually moved their announcement up by a day to Jan 2 when the Academy extended to January 4 so there was also a little overlap there), take place nearly two weeks before those final ballots are sent to AMPAS members. But in the previous 18 years, SAG has been a very good precursor, indeed. The SAG Awards, like the other above-the-line guilds—PGA, DGA, and usually WGA (despite a different list of rules governing which films are eligible for that guild’s top honors)—are still the biggest influencers because all these organizations have memberships that overlap with the Academy.
Who has the best track record? SAG definitely is always one to watch because its own categories so closely mirror the way the Oscars are structured. Five nominees each in lead actor and actress and supporting actor and actress and then a cast award, which is SAG’s equivalent of best picture and often is filled with Oscar-nominated films in their corresponding category. In the last two years, SAG and Oscar have agreed on 17 of 20 nominees in the individual acting contests, and three years ago, only differed on one nominee out of 20, a pretty reliable indicator. This year, the races are particularly tight with lead actor frontrunner Daniel Day-Lewis of Lincoln seeing Les Mis’ Hugh Jackman as his toughest competition, and Silver Lining’s Bradley Cooper coming up on the outside. Last year, SAG was the first major group to crown The Artist star Jean Dujardin, and, of course, the Oscars soon followed.
In lead actress, it probably comes down to a battle of the relative newcomers, Jennifer Lawrence of Silver Linings and Jessica Chastain of Zero Dark Thirty, with the former having the advantage because of the film’s showing in other SAG categories, which indicates strength in that group. Last year, for instance, The Help took all three SAG categories in which it was nominated. Supporting actress is seen by many as a cakewalk for Les Mis’ Anne Hathaway, despite stellar veteran Oscar-winning competition, while supporting actor is an impossible call with five former Oscar winners fighting to the death. That one is anybody’s game with Robert De Niro, Tommy Lee Jones, and Alan Arkin having the best shots. The cast award could be a strong Oscar indicator, but I am betting on Les Misérables and its strong lineup of actor-singers, who had to do it all live, giving them an edge. The film and its cast have been rapturously received at every SAG screening.
The CCMAs are about the same age as SAG’s show, but in that time they have proven to be an uncanny predictor of Oscars. The group doesn’t have a perfect record, but they are right more often than they are wrong. Best picture and director went to The Artist last year, and it was seconded at the Oscars, as were both supporting winners Octavia Spencer (The Help) and Christopher Plummer (Beginners) winning their first major trophies of the season at the CCMAs. The broadcasters’ choice for lead actor and actress, however, did not match Oscar this time (an increasingly rare occurrence), as CCMA winners George Clooney and Viola Davis were bested by Dujardin and Meryl Streep at Oscar time. This year, the group has all the expected contenders without missing a beat. In fact, the CCMA list of 10 best picture nominees matched AFI’s Top 10 announced one day earlier, with the sole exception of The Dark Knight Rises. The CCMAs relegated that one to their action-movie subcategory and chose The Master instead.
In the last two years, where they both had up to 10 films named, the prestigious AFI list (which leaves it at that and doesn’t pick a winner) matched the Academy’s in seven out of nine last year and eight out of 10 in 2010 (The King’s Speech was given a special award because it was ineligible, so it was a near-perfect record in actuality). In 2009, the first year the Academy had 10 nominees, the AFI batted only 50% in matching the Oscars, so it is obviously improving in the head-to-head and beginning to burnish strong precursor credentials.
As for the granddaddy of all the precursors, and perhaps the goofiest because it is all over the place, the Golden Globes turn 70 this year. There are just as many years where the Globes match Oscars as there are when they don’t. Of course, their track record is helped enormously by splitting best picture and lead actor and actress categories into drama and comedy/musical. Last year, they triumphed by handing Globes to all four actors who would eventually win Oscars and handing The Artist one of their best picture awards. The previous two years, though, they weren’t in sync with Oscar by choosing The Social Network over The King’s Speech and Avatar over The Hurt Locker when all competed in drama. The Globes tend to be glitzier and roll toward the big star quotient, which often means less than 100% agreement with Oscar’s sometimes more austere acting choices. This year’s Globes race can be sized up based on taking the pulse of several voters: Best picture drama probably comes down to Argo vs Lincoln, and comedy/musical will be a battle royale between Les Mis and Silver Linings. Best actor drama will be Day-Lewis, while best actress drama is closely bunched and could produce a surprise if it’s anyone but frontrunner Chastain. The corresponding comedy actress is Lawrence’s to lose while actor is either Jackman or Cooper. It’s close. Director is very interesting, but I have a hunch it will be Argo’s Ben Affleck over Steven Spielberg.
Oscar, are you listening?