What follows is the fruit of a writer procrastinating. You’re welcome. Now, onto the show…
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.
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:
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.
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 really, really remembers the Holocaust. Between Best Feature Documentary (Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport, The Long Way Home, Anne 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 Wonderland, The 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.