Star Trek and the Gettysburg Address of Nerd Culture

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As Star Trek marks the 50th anniversary of its premiere just a few hours from now, it’s being lauded for more than I can recount here. So I’ve come here to talk about the thing I love most in Trek.

For me, Star Trek is the most beautiful story machine ever built.

Since springing to life in NBC’s Thursday night lineup at 8:30 on September 8, 1966 as a heady, thoughtful space adventure (as wonderfully recounted in Edward Gross’s and Mark A. Altman’s fantastic the Fifty Year Mission) , Star Trek has risen to a level in our cultural relevance very few fictions come near.

To find anything that’s lasted as long or driven as deep into our collective hearts you can find some equals, but after coming across names like Huck Finn, Dorothy Gale, Dr. Watson, Robin of Sherwood Forest, Clark Kent, Juliet of Verona and Prince Hamlet Denmark, the list is soon exhausted.

Why a show so silly and earnest at once has plucked a cord in so many of us I can’t say for sure. There are a lot of rote answers in think pieces across the net today… it’s an optimistic vision of the future in a pessimistic age… it’s a funhouse mirror for looking at current issues at the safe remove of science fiction… because every generation loves watching groups of friends go on exciting adventures… and they all hold a bit of the truth. But I think under all of that is the core truth that binds it all together.

Nowhere in western culture, from the first novels in the 1700s to Netflix’s latest, algorithm inspired 10-episode hyper-targeted mini-season, is there a better storytelling engine than Star Trek.

Everything is laid out in show’s deceptively simple 37 word mission statement, the Gettysburg Address of the nerd culture I love:

Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its ongoing mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.

And just like that, a writer can tell any story they want.

Want to tell a tense adventure story of friends battling murderous enemies? That’s the oldest type of story, after all. There’s The Original Series’ Balance of Terror , with Captain Kirk and his crew facing off against the relentless attacks of another skilled alien crew trying to kill them.

Is storytelling meant to teach and enlighten us? There’s TOS’ intense and endearingly clumsy Let That Be Your Last Battlefield. Two aliens nearly destroy the Enterprise while fighting out their racial difference, one so minor and meaningless not even Mr. Spock noticed it at first.

How about examining the painful episodes of our nation’s past. There we have the US’ Dred Scott decision refashioned with an android to find Captain Picard arguing in court for  the essential rights of his android crewman, Lt. Data. That one is The Next Generation’s Measure of a Man.

What about an intimate story of a  man at war with his own values, trying to uphold his highest ideals as they are threatened in the face of war? Deep Space Nine examines those terrible compromises with In the Pale Moonlight, where Captain Sisko works to draw the Romulans into siding with the Federation in a war against the Dominion, and compromises himself fatally… and maybe he’s ok with that.

How to tell the story of what it means for a whole culture to die? The Next Generation’s Inner Light achieves it in 45 minutes (without commercials). In it, a space probe forces Captain Picard live out the entire life of another man, an alien culture’s last act to let the universe to know they once lived.

Then there’s the love letter to that unique bond between parents and children with Deep Space Nine’s The Visitor. In that episode a problem with the Defiant’s warp drive (they tend to break down if you haven’t noticed) seems to kill Captain Sisko, taking him away from his son Jake just when the teenager boy needs him most. But as Jake lives on, he realizes his father is not dead, but lost in subspace (don’t sweat the details). The choices Jake makes for the chance to see his father again might just inspire you to call a parent, or visit a grave if you can’t.

And sometimes, you just want a head-trippy, kick ass science fiction adventure. Voyager’s Year of Hell two-parter is just that, with Captain Janeway and her crew fighting against genocidal alien captain whose ship wields a time machine like a weapon.

With Star Trek, there are these stories and about 720 others spread across the 30 seasons of Star Trek and it’s subsequent shows. There are more very good stories than can be listed here, and quite a few bad ones.

But for me, that’s the magic. With a canvas as flexible as Star Trek, any writer can conjure up something.

With most other fictions, from Star Wars to Law & Order, House of Cards to The Wizard of Oz, there are only a few kinds of stories you can tell in the straightjackets of those worlds.

In Star Trek, you could potentially tell a meaningful version of all the stories, and have room to tell hundreds more. Every genre fits comfortably in Star Trek.

What follows is an admittedly ridiculous list, but what other fiction can hold all these types of stories: Tragedy, Fantasy, Absurdist, Surreal, Political, Philosophical, Paranoid, Thriller, Slice of life, Family drama, Epic, Adventure, Detective, Romance, Time Travel, Horror, Comedy, War stories, Westerns, Crime, Speculative…

In our Star Trek episode of the Dorking Out Show, the podcast I do with my friend Sonia, we tried to think up a kind of story which could not be told in Star Trek.

Her answer was musical, and for a moment I agreed. Then a story like this sprung to mind:

Captain Picard and his crew could arrive at an uncharted planet, ready to make first contact with is inhabitants. In an awkward first exchange, Picard discovers these new aliens sing every word in their language. Desperate to procure a special medicine to combat a virus ravaging a nearby human colony, he’s got to talk to them, but they despise non-singers, and are contemplating destroying the Enterprise. It’s not too hard to imagine Data searching the crew manifest and finding an ensign in engineering who can sing soprano, but doesn’t perform because of deathly stage fright… you can see where this is going.

Then we realized the probe in Star Trek 4: The Voyage Home came to Earth looking for the song of humpback whales. It came to Earth searching for life forms who sing their language. So Star Trek already did it, without even leaving Earth.

I’d bet at this point, some of you are laughing not with me, but at me. Comparing Captain Kirk and Hamlet? How can a pop show with cheap sets and a made-up spaceship really compare to Shakespeare?

For me, this has always been a choice so false it almost seems foolish. In the hands of Francis Ford Coppola, a gangster story becomes an examination of trying to keep your soul pure in a corrupt landscape. In the hands of Christopher Nolan, a 75-year-old costumed superhero and his clownish adversary became the most nuanced and urgent examination of terrorism of the last 20 years.

A good storyteller can weave together our lowest hunger for excitement and our highest need for insight in one compelling narrative.

For me, Star Trek does that best. It splits the difference between our desire to watch gaudy spectacle and our aspiration to make ourselves better by contemplating our best potential and the weaker faults we harbor which, unchecked, could undo everything we’ve built on this little planet.

You might be right in your laughter. But I don’t care. I’m willing to stake my claim and risk the scorn. After all, risk is our business.

Storytelling and the greatest Star Trek book ever written

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A fantastic piece of Star Trek fan art by Alex26101 over at Deviant Art. It can be found here: http://alex26101.deviantart.com/art/Enterprise-NCC-1701-569775047

My Favorite Curse

All of my life I have felt alternately cursed and blessed with the drive to answer one question.

How did the stories that I love get made?

This first occurred to me walking out of the Sun Valley Mall Theater in the summer of 1981 and realizing some people, somewhere had gotten together and made my new favorite movie, Raiders of the lost Ark.

Maybe it was being 10 years old watching a fantastic summer movie, or maybe it was the thrill of watching Indiana Jones race around the globe to stop Nazi evil, but that was the first time it ever struck me that a human could spend time making stories other people might like, the way exactly the way a carpenter might grab some wood and tools and build beautiful table.

While it was the first time I realized storytelling could be a profession, Raiders was not the first story that I ever loved. Not by a long shot.

A few years prior to, I remember sulking after one of those boring, awful days kids have at school. When my dad found me he tried to buck up my spirits by telling me the family was going to see a movie that Friday. His selling point was “It’s kind of like Star Trek.”

The movie was the first Star Wars. The reason he invoked Star Trek was because that was the first set of stories he and I shared and the first I ever loved.

Since then I’ve had some measure of success getting my stories out into the world. Sometimes that’s been in journalism, sometimes in video. For the past few years, I’ve been writing the novel that I hope will be the product of all I loved and I’ve learned. More on that in the near future.

Through all those years Star Trek has been a constant presence, like the kind of friend who grows distant and close again every few years when you remember just what you liked about them. It’s both entertained and inspired anew with the pleasure and potential of imaginative stories told well.

While it may never have hit the cultural heights of a Moby Dick, a Great Gatsby or a Godfather, there’s always the chance it could.

Oral History of the Future

That’s why I was overjoyed earlier this summer to find the best book I have ever read on the creation of stories in Hollywood has been published, and it’s about Star Trek.

It’s called The Fifty Year Mission: The First 25 Years, The Complete Uncensored, Unauthorized Oral History of Star Trek, and is the first of a two volume set by authors Edward Gross and Mark A. Altman. The second volume, The Fifty-Year Mission: The Next 25 Years: From The Next Generation to J. J. Abrams, comes out Tuesday, and I’m counting the minutes.

Gross and Altman have achieved something special. Beyond being a good book about something interesting, they have done something I’ve only witnessed a few times in nonfiction storytelling. Trying to place my love for this book, I’ve come up with this:

Often in my experience, nonfiction storytelling attempts often fall into two categories. In the first an author executes their craft on a smaller subject and almost because of their more modest ambitions they are able to masterfully bring the subject alive in every aspect from beginning to end. Jonathan Krakauer’s Mount Everest book Into Thin Air is my favorite example of this type.

The second happens when a storyteller harbors larger ambitions. While they often produce something worth noticing in the vastness of their attempt, in the chaos of wrestling a sprawling subject into the coherence a book’s few hundred pages or a documentaries few hours, something essential is missed. Moments of brilliance are there, but it’s somehow less than the sum of its parts. Ken Burns’ Baseball series comes to mind.

But there are a very few nonfiction projects where their storytellers have taken on vast subjects and executed every facet of their ambitions on a masterpiece level. For me, Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary and Ezra Edelman’s OJ: Made in America are this kind of achievement. When a talented creator is able to communicate the vast and tiny, the intimate and epic all with the same level of fluid care, the experience is the most special to be found.

For me, what Gross and Altman have achieved with The Fifty-Year Mission rests comfortably alongside what Burns and Edelman have done before them.

When something like Star Trek happens, the ambitions of a few people and the flow of the larger culture meet in unexpected ways to produce something just as much owned by the creators as by the audience. Telling the story of that alchemy is something so difficult I’m still not sure how Gross and Altman were able to pull it off so well.

Of course, they tell the story of Gene Roddenberry, William Shatner, Leonard Nimor and DeForrest Kelly coming together to make the original three seasons of Star Trek in the late 1960s. But almost unique among entertainment journalists, they eschew the set gossip and dramatic-but-low-impact moments most making-of books spend their time focusing on how these hours of TV were created, from the first story ideas on up.

There are juicy anecdotes about producer and cast run-ins, backstage fighting and more, but all in the service of showing how humans working together under great pressure manage to succeed (and fail) at producing something millions have come to love.

It’s in the passages recounting Star Trek’s time in the wilderness, 1969 to the mid-1970s, Gross and Altman’s work fully sings. First, they focus on the unprecedented fan love which first saved the show from cancellation, then resurrected the franchise in the era of Star Wars. Then, in my favorite passages, they reveal how well meaning creators… Roddenberry, the cast, the producers and eventually Day The Earth Stood Still and Sound of Music director Robert Wise among them… produced something so boring, so dramatically inert, so un-Star Trek-like as 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

It’s in those pages all the hidden dynamics of Hollywood are revealed, answering the question film-lovers have asked for a century: How did this awful movie get made?

The clarity Gross and Altman have in these pages, the fluent editing of interview after interview to reveal the whole awful picture, is among the best edited story passages I’ve seen. It’s a beauty.

Here’s where I leave you and simply advise you to pick up The Fifty Year Mission. Better yet, listen to it on Audible. Listening to a story like this being so well told is an experience everyone should have.

To finish up my little celebration of Star Trek’s 50th anniversary, I’ll be back soon with a few thoughts on why Star Trek is the greatest storytelling engine ever.

The FPJ Scale of Actor Charisma. That’s Freddie Prinze Jr. to you and me.

Sometimes an idea strikes you and you’re compelled to take it too far.

On the July 27 edition of Dorking Out, my friend and co-host Sonia Mansfield and I were trying to figure out what it was about Charlie Hunnam we just couldn’t care about. He didn’t do anything for us as an actor.

What was that about? We all have those actors, but it’s hard to talk about them because they’re just… there.

So after talking it over with our friend of the show Peter Brown, Associate Editor of Assignment X, we created the Freddie Prinze Jr. Scale for Actor Charisma.

The rest has been explained in this overly thought through scientific diagram.

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Movies are dead (no, not really), and I feel fine (actually, I do).

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Movies as an art form, for me, are second to none.

With their peerless ability to combine all other human arts, movies remain for me the best lens through which to watch the human parade.

In a good movie, there’s the storytelling sweep of the novel right beside the crackling dialogue and witnessed human emotion performed in great theater. There’s the wordless gusts and fireworks from music’s every genre together with the visual artistry of every kind of photography, painting, sculpture and now computers can create. There are the delighting illusions of even the magician’s arts to create images that don’t even really exist. There is the possibility of going anywhere, seeing anything, meeting every kind of human and witnessing all of it almost as though we were there ourselves.

Laughing, crying, hoping, fearing, excitement and triumph are all there in the best movies. All in about two hours, usually.

The very long, not very good summer

So it surprises me, as more than a few writers I respect (here, here, here, here and here)  wring their hands over the year in movies thus far and proclaim something important is dying in movies. The sentiments don’t surprise me, but the realization I agree with them and I am perfectly content.

This weekend seems to be the culmination of the fever with the arrival of SUICIDE SQUAD. For a certain kind of genre lover, this movie was seen as a bright spot on a blotted summer calendar, with the strange political storm of GHOSTBUSTERS and the limp arrivals of JASON BOURNE, INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE and X-MEN APOCALYPSE and ten more already behind us.

But SQUAD was met by a cold bath of reviews from a critical press which in May lavished praise on Marvel Studios 13th comic book movie, CAPTAIN AMERICA CIVIL WAR and DEADPOOL in February. So much for comic book fatigue. The comic book trend is like every other one before it: good movies get love, bad movies get ignored. But I digress.

The rough ‘movies in crisis’ argument goes something like this: Over the last decade, culminating in the 2016 movie season, there’s been a terrible evolution in the way studios are giving audiences bigger and brasher movies, more sequels, more remakes, more spectacle, with less thought, less human meaning, and less adult thought.

Gone are the middle range dramas, the DEAD POETS SOCIETY type films, the RAIN MANs, the BOOGIE NIGHTS and the AMERICAN BEAUTIES. Gone are unexpected delights and surprising comedies, like SAY ANYTHING, FORREST GUMP, GOOD MORNING VIETNAM, HEATHERS and a hundred others from the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s.

I’ve heard the arguments, and I find them quiet compelling. They’re probably right. But I come here to say, so what.

Movies are dead, Long live movies.

So what because we haven’t lost great adult stories, complex dramas and quirky, small-audience comedies. We’re enjoying more of them than ever on TV, where they should live.

Almost as if to anticipate my thoughts (they must be in the zeitgeist) in my podcast feed today I hear maybe the most succinct lament on 2016 movies from Chris Ryan, co-host of THE WATCH.  What’s more, he seems to see the same silver lining I do.

Something new under the sun

Yes, yes, I remember. I came up in a time where 10 or 20 SPOTLIGHT-style movies would come out every fall.

Now they don’t. Things change, and in this way entertainment and popular storytelling has changed for the better. Modern TV can do what a lot of older ‘grown up’ movies once hand to accomplish, and better. What’s more, today’s big screen movies are better targeted for what movies do uniquely well.

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TV has always been a more personal, intimate medium. Spectacle has always been best spread across the biggest screen a building can handle. The age of theaters spooling out MY DINNER WITH ANDRE (look it up, lol) has past, and that’s GOOD.

We are living in the golden age of grown-up entertainment at the same time CAPTAIN AMERICA and DEADPOOL are setting up shop in the same theaters where RAGING BULL and GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS once played.

Now, we have the 8 to 10 episode HBO or Netflix season. This is the ideal size and length for surprising, challenging adult fare, and with that many episodes to economize a big investment, the HBOs and Netflixes of the world can spend $100 million on 10 hours where once adults had to suffice with a two hour, $10 million art-house flick. Now we get deeper dives into complex subject matters, and we get higher production values than adult feature films of 10 years ago.

Let’s run through a few though experiments.

Where once clouds of Oscar chatter swirled around courtroom dramas like THE VERDICT, JAGGED EDGE and PRIMAL FEAR, we now have FX to thank for THE PEOPLE VS. OJ SIMPSON and HBO to thank for THE NIGHT OF. We once had SERPICO as an examination of police brutality and corruption. Now we have seven seasons of THE SHIELD and every delicate shade of nuance in THE WIRE.

Let’s look at historical dramas. There was a time, when GHANDI walked the earth beside BRAVEHEART, when history based entertainments could meld prestige presentations with human storytelling glory.

But let me ask you this: Wouldn’t you rather have Steven Spielberg’s LINCOLN as a 10-hour HBO series, one you could binge watch after tearing through Paul Giamatti’s excellently prickly performance as JOHN ADAMS?

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Or let me cast light on our glorious bounty in another way, my nerd friends.

Would you prefer the 1990s route for a project like GAME OF THRONES? Back then, any ambitious producer would be doing their best to make it into a big screen movie, a two-hour sword and sorcery epic, directed by Renny Harlin or John McTiernan.

And what would have happened? Ninety-percent of the best parts would be cut out due to studio notes and the ending would be changed because sad endings don’t test well. It probably would have flamed out, and would now be sitting in some dark corner of NETFLIX beside Val Kilmer in THE SAINT and Emilio Estevez and Mick Jagger in FREEJACK.

I think, like me, you would prefer HBO’s current achievement where each book in George R. R. Martin’s epic is turned into its own season, and we can enjoy his world spread out over seven kingdoms and eight seasons?

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The Coen Brothers offer up my favorite example of how things have changed. Their crime drama, FARGO, was one of the best movies of the 1990s. But on TV, in the right hands, their delightful tone and arched eye for the absurdity of violence and ambition has grown into two seasons of FARGO, based in their unique world, that stand as some of the best drama made in the last 20 years.

Would you rather have a movie like THE USUAL SUSPECTS, or five seasons of BREAKING BAD? The MILLER’S CROSSINGs have given way to the BOARDWALK EMPIREs.

For me, on balance, that’s a much more satisfying world.

And let’s take a look at these big screen comic book movies of now compared to the ‘better’ times of years gone by. What’s better, on any level (acting, story, presentation, tone, anything)… Tim Burton’s BATMAN or CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR? What movie examines the nature of fighting and violence? What movie is more fun to watch?

For every also-ran like X-MEN: APOCALYPSE or blimp-wreck like THE FANTASTIC FOUR we usually get three good Marvel movies, and a few DEADPOOL like surprises in the mix.

Put succinctly, movies are doing better what they do, fill a big screen with something big, and TV is doing what does better, bringing people close together over a long stretch of time so we can know them, and see them, in ways even the best movies can match, but rarely beat.

If given the SOPHIE’S CHOICE between THE GODFATHER and BREAKING BAD… well, don’t make me choose.

And with the way things have sorted out with movies and TV developing as they have, I don’t have to.

Math Tells Us the Best Movie Franchise

What’s the best movie series? Impossible to know, you say? Movies are works of art which can only be known in the human heart? True. But also, the correct answer is Peter Jackson’s MiddleEarth movies.

Somedays you just want to start a fight, you know?

Sometimes, when I’m mired in the bogs of middle-chapters, I like to take a look at what I like, and why.

Today’s diversion is reveals a truth that’s been staring us all in the face. As a culture, these are the movie series we love most, laid out with cold, hard numbers.

While I was surprised the series made up of Jackson’s LORD OF THE RINGS and THE HOBBIT trilogies came out on top, I was not shocked to see Michael Bay’s THE TRANSFORMERS series coming in below EVERYONE ELSE.

While lists and ranked lists especially are rightly scoffed at, sometimes they can reveal some interesting trends. But enough yapping. I’ve put it all together in this table for us to look at and distract ourselves from what we should be doing right now.

Best Movie Franchises Ranked-FINAL

Batman v Superman v The Pop Show

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You’ve saved the best for last. This week the maestro of sharks, the tamer of tornados, the director of Oscar Nominee Gary Busy (it happened people!) Anthony C. Ferrante makes his triumphant return to  Assignment X’s THE POP SHOW!

Just in time too, because we chewed over the biggest story in geek news so far in 2016, the polarizing comic book movie BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE.

So join Anthony, me, Sonia Mansfield, Assignment X’s Associate Editor Peter Brown and editor extraordinaire Ryan Mitchelle as we chew over Warner Bros.’ big bet on a DC Connected Universe.

You can listen HERE, or get it in your favorite podcast app HERE.

Busting makes us feel good – A new Pop Show podcast!

Another week, another episode of the best podcast I sometimes guest on… Assignment X’s THE POP SHOW! Listen along as I pontificate, Sonia Mansfield carps on,  Peter Brown blabs and Ryan Mitchelle yammers about the geek news of the week

Today’s episode includes the new Ghostbusters trailer, Sony’s desperate plan to make a kind of CATWOMAN 2 by making a VENOM movie without SPIDER-MAN, and the strange attraction of a MEN IN BLACK with 21 JUMP STREET cross-over movie.

You can listen HERE, or get it in your favorite podcast app HERE.

Playing Oscar Aftermath with Friends

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Here comes my entree of crow!

Why live in ignominy alone when I can eat crow with friends? This week on Assignment X’s THE POP SHOW is our Oscars post mortem, and boy is it mortem! Wonderfully mortem. We also hit on the last episode (one can hope) of THE X-FILES!

So listen along with friends Sonia Mansfield, Peter Brown and Ryan Mitchelle!

You can listen HERE, or get it in your favorite podcast app HERE.

My Oscar picks 2016

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Update: 15 for 24. I think I speak for myself and Mr. Sylvester Stallone when I say DAMN YOU RYLANCE!

ORIGINAL POST:

So here are my picks for Sunday’s Academy Awards. I’m expecting a bumpy ride this year. A lot of the leading indicators have been more mixed than usual.

This entry will be short because I said most of what I know and think about how to pick the winners here.

I’m listing all the nominees and who I think will win, so you can play along with me. You can get a printable list of nominees here. I’ll be live tweeting and updating this entry during the show Sunday.

But enough bet-hedging! Onto the picks:

Best Picture

The Big Short

Bridge of Spies

Brooklyn

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Martian

The Revenant – PREDICTED WINNER

Room

Spotlight – ACTUAL WINNER

Best Actor in a Leading Role

Bryan Cranston, Trumbo

Matt Damon, The Martian

Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant – PREDICTED WINNER and ACTUAL WINNER

Michael Fassbender, Steve Jobs

Eddie Redmayne, The Danish Girl

Best Actress in a Leading Role

Cate Blanchett, Carol

Brie Larson, Room – PREDICTED WINNER and ACTUAL WINNER

Jennifer Lawrence, Joy

Charlotte Rampling, 45 Years

Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn

Best Actor in a Supporting Role

Christian Bale, The Big Short

Tom Hardy, The Revenant

Mark Ruffalo, Spotlight

Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies – ACTUAL WINNER

Sylvester Stallone, Creed – PREDICTED WINNER

Best Actress in a Supporting Role

Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hateful Eight

Rooney Mara, Carol

Rachel McAdams, Spotlight

Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl – PREDICTED WINNER and ACTUAL WINNER

Kate Winslet, Steve Jobs

Best Director

The Big Short

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Revenant – PREDICTED WINNER and ACTUAL WINNER

Room

Spotlight

Best Animated Feature Film

Anomalisa

Boy and the World

Inside Out – PREDICTED WINNER  and ACTUAL WINNER

Shaun the Sheep Movie

When Marnie Was There

Best Cinematography

Carol

The Hateful Eight

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Revenant – PREDICTED WINNER and ACTUAL WINNER

Sicario

Best Costume Design

Carol

Cinderella

The Danish Girl

Mad Max: Fury Road – PREDICTED WINNER and ACTUAL WINNER

The Revenant

Best Documentary, Feature

Amy – PREDICTED WINNER and ACTUAL WINNER

Cartel Land

The Look of Silence What Happened, Miss Simone?

Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom

Best Documentary, Short Subject

Body Team 12  – PREDICTED WINNER

Chau, beyond the Lines

Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah

A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness – ACTUAL WINNER

Last Day of Freedom

Best Film Editing

The Big Short

Mad Max: Fury Road – PREDICTED WINNER and ACTUAL WINNER

The Revenant

Spotlight

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Best Foreign Language Film

Embrace of the Serpent

Mustang

Son of Saul – PREDICTED WINNER and ACTUAL WINNER

Theeb

A War

Best Make-Up and Hairstyling

Mad Max: Fury Road – PREDICTED WINNER and ACTUAL WINNER

The 100-Year-Old Man

Who Climbed out the Window and Disappeared

The Revenant

Best Music, Original Score

Bridge of Spies

Carol

The Hateful Eight – PREDICTED WINNER and ACTUAL WINNER

Sicario

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Best Music, Original Song

“Earned It,” Fifty Shades of Grey

“Manta Ray,” Racing Extinction

“Simple Song #3,” Youth

“Til It Happens To You,” The Hunting Ground – PREDICTED WINNER

“Writing’s On The Wall,” Spectre – ACTUAL WINNER

Best Production Design

Bridge of Spies

The Danish Girl

Mad Max: Fury Road – PREDICTED WINNER and ACTUAL WINNER

The Martian

The Revenant

Best Short Film, Animated

Bear Story – ACTUAL WINNER

Prologue

Sanjay’s Super Team

We Can’t Live without Cosmos

World of Tomorrow – PREDICTED WINNER

Best Short Film, Live Action

Ave Maria  – PREDICTED WINNER

Day One

Everything Will Be Okay (Alles Wird Gut)

Shok

Stutterer – ACTUAL WINNER

Best Sound Editing

Mad Max: Fury Road – ACTUAL WINNER

The Martian

The Revenant – PREDICTED WINNER

Sicario

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Best Sound Mixing

Bridge of Spies

Mad Max: Fury Road – ACTUAL WINNER

The Martian

The Revenant – PREDICTED WINNER

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Best Visual Effects

Ex Machina – ACTUAL WINNER

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Martian

The Revenant

Star Wars: The Force Awakens – PREDICTED WINNER

Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay

The Big Short – PREDICTED WINNER and ACTUAL WINNER

Brooklyn

Carol

The Martian

Room

Best Writing, Original Screenplay

Bridge of Spies

Ex Machina

Inside Out

Spotlight  – PREDICTED WINNER and ACTUAL WINNER

Straight Outta Compton

How to win your Oscar pool

What follows is the fruit of a writer procrastinating. You’re welcome. Now, onto the show…

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Some jerk standing in front of some of Walt Disney’s Academy Awards.

So you and your friends are going to bet on the Academy Awards this Sunday and of course you want to crush them.

Entering an Oscar pool is, after all, the best kind of party pastime: High bragging rites, gossipy thrills and while winning the hard earned money of your friends is satisfying, the real-world stakes couldn’t be lower.

You get money, no one gets killed. Win, win.

So what I’ve tried to do here is create a one-stop cheat sheet to help you lock in a win. As someone who’s had more than a passing interest in chasing golden statues given out by industry peers (cough insert bragging here cough) and as someone who’s loved movies and watched the Oscars all my life, over the years I’ve gathered the relevant tea leaves to be read, tracked the early indicators, and thrown out the things which can cloud your efforts.

I’m looking at you, Golden Globes.

I’m hoping now you can benefit from my pursuit of trivia. Here goes.

Step 0: Go big

I’ll give you the credit to assume you want to play with the big kids. Amateurs choose the Big Six (Picture, Actor, Actress, Director, Supporting Actor and Supporting Actress). But let’s not be amateurs. For the real movie lovers, the way to go is to predict all 24 categories, from Best Picture, running through Best Song, all the way down to Best Sound Mixing. These guidelines will help playing with amateurs, but they’re meant to win big in the pros.

Over the last few years, I’ve honed and improved these to the point where this was my batting average last time I entered a pool, so I’m hoping now you can benefit from my pursuit of trivia.

In the interest of showing my data, here are my results four years running.

2011 Oscar Predictions: 75-percent correct (66-precent on Big Six).

2012 Oscar Predictions: 75-percent correct (83-precent on Big Six).

2013 Oscar Predictions: 73-percent correct (66-precent on Big Six).

2014 Oscar Predictions: 92-percent correct (100-precent on Big Six).

But enough of my self-congratulatory back-slapping clap trap. How do you win your Oscar pool?

Like this (for the impatient crowd, you can follow along with the steps):

Step 1: Think like a heartless movie industry insider

First things first: Destroy your heart. You favorite movie of the year, the actors you like best, most touching score, cleverest director… ditch’em. Essentially, forget all the beautiful things which make movies so damn special.

The Academy Awards are a popularity contest nearly identical to a high school election, with all the in-cliques, emotional voting, band-wagoning and all the other warped outlooks which made high school such a fun time. Your task is not to think like a movie lover, but think like an Academy voter. Who’s that?

Step 2: Think like an Oscar voter

The Oscars are given out by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences.

It’s a pretty fantastic organization that does a lot to preserve our movie history. But like all industry groups, the AMPAS has its own quirks, acquired over its 80-odd year history, and some specific oddities rising from being the most privileged part of the the most privileged industry on the planet. You may have heard something about this at some point.

 

At this point, it’s helpful to know how the Oscar nominations happen.

As of this writing, 2016, the AMPAS is made up of about 6,000 voting members. These members are respected people in the movie industry and are part of different branches of the AMPAS… actors, directors, costume people, special effects specialists, sound people, set designers, etc… who have been sponsored for membership and approved. This means they’re usually older and more… pale, let’s say… than the overall industry itself, and much more pale than the general population. (This will be important in Step 6).

While the AMPAS has made some recent changes, these guidelines are still ironclad for the 2016 Oscars.

How the Oscar winners are decided happens in two rounds, one secret, one public.

First, the producers of all the movies in a calendar year can submit their films to the AMPAS for consideration. Once films have been judged eligible for the Oscars, a master list is sent to Academy members in December so each branch can vote and decide on the nominees. It’s a little more complicated than that, but the upshot is this means sound technicians vote to decide who’s nominated in the sound categories, writers vote to decide on who’s nominated in the script categories, costume people on costumes, etc. (This will be important in Step 4).

The AMPAS then tallies all those votes and counts up the top contenders in each category. Those top choices become the Oscar Nominees, which are announced about a month and a half before the Oscars are given. You’ve probably seen this part.

The nominees are then sent back to the Academy members who they are allowed to vote on everything. So sound technicians can vote on actors, actors can vote on writers. It’s a free for all. (Again, this will be important in Step 4).

This voting must be finished about 5 days before the big show. Those votes are counted, and the top vote getters become Oscar winners when the envelopes are opened live on TV at the Academy Awards.

So, how does this help you win your pool? Like this:

Step 3: Wait until the day before the Oscars because…

With all this in mind, wait until the day before the Academy Awards to decide on who you think will win. Why?

While the Academy is famous for protecting the identities of the winners until that envelope is opened on stage, an awful lot of info leaks out from academy voters in the final weeks before the awards. While it’s against AMPAS rules for members to reveal who they voted for, it happens anyway like this:

The various branches of the Academy are made up of members who are also in other organizations which give out awards. The writers in the AMPAS are also in the Writers Guild of America. The actors are in the Screen Actors Guild. The directors are in the Directors Guild of America.

How does this help? All of these organizations, and more listed below, give out their own awards leading up to the Oscars. So the winner of the DGA award for best director is a great indicator who’ll end up with the best director Oscar. Winner of the WGA award for best original screenplay? Probably going to win the Oscar.

That connects to…

Step 4: … you need to visit these sites

How much info has leaked from the Academy members by the time the Oscars are about to be handed out? Quite a bit.

Below is a helpful list of the major awards given out leading up to the Oscars. Unlike the Golden Globes (which are a spotty indicator of who’ll win) these awards are voted on by many of the same people who also vote on the Oscars. So if an actor, movie or director has won across a few of them? They’re who you should choose.

Pay particular attention to the SAG awards. Why? Because there are more actors in the AMPAS than any other guild. If actors on the whole a script, or a director, or another actor… chances are their voting power will say the Oscar winner. Everyone says Tom Hanks is the nicest guy in Hollywood, and he’s won Oscars back to back. David Fincher is one of the best directors working, but has a bit of a reputation. How many Oscars has he won? Zero.

So grab an Oscar nomination ballot  and simply go to these organizations and start noting who has won their awards.

Producers Guild of America

Directors Guild of America

Screen Actors Guild

Writers Guild of America

American Cinema Editors Awards

Animation Awards

Visual Effects Awards

Costume Designer Awards

Sound Awards

Once you’ve done that, consult the industry insiders who track the real buzz inside Hollywood (not the TMZ or Entertainment Tonight BS) on who they think will win. They can be found here:

Variety Oscar Prediction Center

Hollywood Reporter Oscar Predictions

Deadline Hollywood

FiveThirtyEight.com’s Oscar Predictions

GoldDerby.com’s Oscar Predictions 

Total up the winners here, and see who’s leading in each category. You’re choices are starting to reveal themselves. If someone has won across all these choices (as Leo DiCaprio or Brie Larson are this year) you should probably choose them.

Step 5: She who wins best short film wins the night

Now we’re getting somewhere. With the easy choices made, now it’s time to separate yourself from the pack.

Because so many people are interested in the Big Six awards, and because even those with passing interest probably hear the buzz around these categories, where you’re going to shine is the smaller categories. Many people will probably pick Leonardo DiCaprio to win if he’s the front runner.

But who’s going to win best short film? Most people throw a dart and guess. If you can win there where most people biff it, you’re nearly there.

Go back through the links above, and make sure you’re grabbing the front-runners in the sound categories, best short films, best short animation. If you can get ahead there, you’re almost guaranteed to win.

Step 6: Don’t go full retard

So you’ve made all the smart choices, but maybe the signals are mixed. What happens when the DGA and SAG pick different winners for best picture? Who knows what about costumes or production design?

Here’s where the weird quirks of the Academy show themselves. Here are some helpful guidelines:

The Academy loves to award people with disabilities.

Who am I to argue with Mr. Robert Downy Jr.? No one, that’s who. Is this offensive? Probably, but sometimes the world offends us. It might seem icky to think the Academy members condescend to people they see as disabled. But the trends don’t lie.

Examples include wins from: Geoffry Rush, Jamie Fox, Tom Hanks, Dustin Hoffman and Daniel Day Lewis.

Remind yourself who these voters are: They’re mostly rich, insecure actors who realize by dint of quixotic talent and some hard work, they have been rewarded far beyond the dreams of most people. They feel kind of guilty, and also are actors… who are naturally insecure attention seekers (love you actors, but search your feelings. You know it to be true). They want to see themselves as good people, show others they’re good and kind-hearted, which leads us to…

Remember, Academy members love to congratulate themselves on how great they are. This is an awards show after all. They are literally giving awards to themselves, and there’s a bit of self-satisfaction and puffing up their image which comes along with that. If giving an award makes them seem to the outside world as caring, concerned or somehow ennobling, that’s where you should place your bets.

Keep this front and center, the Academy loves a good story. So rewarding the performance of the sweet simple-minded guy just hits their sweet spot. Which leads us to…

Who is due? While the Academy sometimes loves to award fresh new faces, especially in the actress categories, most of the time they want people to pay their dues before getting the industry’s highest award.

This is why you see things like Al Pacino winning for Scent of a Woman rather than The Godfather or Godfather II, for which he wasn’t even nominated. (That’s right. Al Pacino wasn’t even NOMINATED for The Godfather. Remember: Destroy your heart.) By 1992, Pacino was a living legend, so when he was nominated for what might not even be the best performance of that year, he won.

The Academy loves British people problems. All things being equal, if a movie is about British people with problems (or British actors playing non-Brits with problems) they’ve got the inside edge. Examples: The Kings Speech, Theory of Everything, Shakespeare in Love, English Patient, Braveheart, Chariots of Fire and… need I go on?

The Academy loves history. If a movie or performance is of a real person or event, that helps. Examples: Titanic, Gandhi, Gladiator

The Academy really, really remembers the Holocaust. Between Best Feature Documentary (Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the KindertransportThe Long Way HomeAnne Frank Remembered) Best Picture and Best Foreign Film (Schindler’s List, Life is Beautiful) and various winners across all categories (Meryl Streep, Kate Winslet, Adrian Brody,Roberto Benigni,  Roman Polanski) if the subject of the Holocaust is involved, chances are Academy members will want to pat themselves on the back for their remembering by giving gold.

The Academy loves old clothes, castles and fantasy. This will help you in choosing who will win Best Costume Design and Best Set Direction. If the costumes are more than 50-years old, if they’re from Europe in the 1700s or 1800s, and especially Britain in the 1800s, chances are they’ll win. Of the last 20 awards given in this category, the most modern era awarded was for The Grand Budapest Hotel, which takes place largely in 1968.

The vast majority of costume and production design winners were for period pieces, or fantasy movies with old-leaning aesthetics (Alice in WonderlandThe Lord of the Rings, Avatar, Great Gatsby, Lincoln… )

Oscar likes to surprise. Like all elections, you have to expect upsets. Every once in awhile you get a Marisa Tomei beating out a Vanessa Redgrave.

It happens. The point is, you don’t need to be perfect. You just need to beat your friends.

Play along with me

So that’s it. Have fun. I’ll be posting my choices on February 27, so let’s all play along together.

And be back here February 29 to see me rationalize how I got stuff wrong.