Pete Hammond’s OscarWatch Column On The Danger Of Ranking Films

Ellar Coltrane in Boyhood

’Tis the season. For prognostication, that is.

The other day someone interviewed me and asked if I would like to be identified in the article as an “Oscarologist.” Say what?

Certainly the term has been used for some time on websites such as Gold Derby, but I wonder what the dictionary definition would be. “Oscarologist: A person whose whole life revolves around the study and prediction of all things relating to the Oscars.”

No, being the serious journalist that I am, I try to resist that label at all costs. In fact, this time of year I find myself being cajoled, forced, coerced and all sorts of similar things to make predictions on what will win best picture, who’s on top—or not—for acting, what do I think will win cinematography, et cetera.

It’s only December, but so-called Oscarologists, or pundits, as we are more commonly called, are asked to give the state of the race by ranking contenders in the order they think they will finish. I haven’t yet jumped into the pool at Gold Derby (but probably will), where so-called Oscar experts are pitted against amateurs to see who will be king of the hop. And that is in every one of the 24 categories. And it has been going on for months already. I did answer the call for Gurus of Gold at another site because it wasn’t as demanding, but I have a real problem doing this kind of thing without having seen all the movies, not an uncommon practice.

But now the “pros” who do this prognosticating have deemed, with the unveiling of Unbroken, that we have seen all the movies that matter. It’s no use waiting for Annie or The Interview or Night at the Museum 3 or whatever is left because Oscarologists say those movies don’t matter in the scheme of things. And I guess realistically they don’t. But what I have found is that the people who really pay attention to all this stuff, the only people, are the publicists and awards consultants whose lives also revolve around this annual ritual we lovingly call awards season.

The other day I arbitrarily had placed Boyhood fourth in the Gurus poll while nearly every single one of the other pundits put it first. I got an email from someone connected with campaigning the film who worriedly asked, “What are we doing wrong?” I wondered what this person meant. “Well, you have us at fourth.” Ah, trouble. I explained that a wonderful, small film like Boyhood should be happy I am not making it the front-runner. From there, the only way to go is down. In fact, some pundits do weekly columns where all they do is rate Oscar contenders with arrows for Up or Down based on whims and the week’s events. There are “buzz meters,” “Oscar watches” and other oh-so-scientific measures of a movie’s gold standard. I confess that reluctantly I am part of this machine. Some Oscarologists keep year-round calculations of where a contender stands. One movie or actor who was Up last week easily could be Down this week. How do Oscar contenders stand all this tension? There’s a lot of pressure having your film released this time of year. What happened to just seeing a movie for what it is—a movie?

The bottom line is that I really don’t believe this instant analysis of where a film stands in the race means all that much. In fact, the religious fervor with which awards media treats every new pronouncement from a critics group or other similar organization weighing in on “the year’s best” also seems just of the moment and not really all that significant.

I recall when, in 2010, The Social Network was sweeping every one of these groups and was at the top of every prognosticator’s list right through the Golden Globes, where it also won. But in a corner of The Weinstein Company’s post–Globes party that night, Harvey Weinstein told me the race was just beginning for his The King’s Speech, and he said this confidently despite all the contrary predictions that had the race over and done. He was right. The very next week, when the really important awards started, everything had changed.

King’s Speech beat Social Network at the Producers Guild Awards, the first indication of where the industry itself stood. It was eye-opening because all those predictions and heat meters that had come before started to crumble. And as we all know, King’s Speech eventually took home the best picture Oscar.

So, if you are a bona fide contender and your movie is struggling on these various “measures of success,” take heart. In the scheme of things it’s all just a lot of white noise at this point.

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