What follows isn't the gospel. And it's not quite statistics, either. It's a presentation of what it means when the industry begins to speak during the Oscar season, and with the Screen Actors Guild Awards, the Producers Guild Awards, the Directors Guild Awards and the BAFTA Awards, the industry has most decidedly begun to speak in the run-up to the 87th annual Academy Awards.
There are some voices out there who get a little bent out of shape at the idea of awards writers, in their view, looking at these particular races as having an impact on the race. But it's not about causality, though. It's about revelation. The guilds and the British Academy merely reveal what's always been there. These are the first substantial clues to how the industry views the race.
A few caveats are worth mentioning, of course. The guild membership does not mirror Academy membership. The 15,000-strong DGA, for instance, is full of directors and first assistant directors and unit production managers and stage managers, even production assistants. That's a wide swath of disciplines (though, come to think of it, so is the Academy, albeit concentrated down quite a bit). So it's always possible for things to be seen in a different light at the Academy stage. At the same time, while all guild members aren't necessarily Academy members, pretty much all Academy members are guild members, so frame all of that as you will.
The fact remains, however, that the only film to win the PGA, DGA and SAG ensemble prizes but lose Best Picture was “Apollo 13” in 1995. It was a special case as it pertains to the modern circuit for two reasons. First, that was a time when the season extended into March, so the balloting timelines allowed for a deeper breath in phase two as well as reconsiderations and/or momentum shifts. Some would argue that that was crucial to a more complete season, one not as dependent on looking to precursors for guidance. Second, Ron Howard – inexplicably – failed to receive a Best Director Oscar nomination. But as “Argo” taught us a couple of years ago, that's not an immediate detriment. It did shed some weird light on his movie, though. Moreover, “Braveheart” is the only film to win Best Picture without winning at least one of those guild prizes (but it did win WGA).
Now for the BAFTA Awards. The last six films to win the Best Film prize across the pond went on to win the Oscar. Prior to that, it was way more touch and go. This year's big winner? “Boyhood.” So, in as many words, we have ourselves an interesting race. We've HAD ourselves an interesting race, really, but it's about as hot as ever now, and I say that as someone who felt like the game was over Saturday night. But I'll come back to this.
It used to be that looking throughout the various BAFTA categories for guidance did not make for a good test sample, because the BAFTA method of voting was formerly each branch choosing the winners for their discipline. As of 2012, they mimic the Oscar method: everyone votes for everything. And boy did they have a few swerves against the conventional wisdom Sunday. “Whiplash” for Best Film Editing and Best Sound. “The Grand Budapest Hotel” for Best Original Score. “The Theory of Everything” for Best Adapted Screenplay. And, of course, mirroring the critics' consensus of “Boyhood”/Richard Linklater when the guilds opted for “Birdman.”
In the Best Film category, BAFTA does not use the preferential ballot (as the Academy does). On these shores, we've seen that ballot work to the benefit of “Birdman,” and we've also seen a standard weighted ballot in a massive organization (DGA) lean that direction. So, in my view, this is still “Birdman's” to lose. But with ballots just going out on Friday, and the bulk of voting going on this week, well…it's all happening.
This is a pretty unique year. I don't know how else to put it. And I don't quite know why it's unique. I feel like the Oscar Industrial Complex, if you will, is really starting to impact things a bit. Just all the chatter, I mean. But there is also a lot of passion split a couple of ways, too, rather than just two or three films tops with major champions. Just look at that BAFTA vote. Lots of awards for “Whiplash,” “The Theory of Everything” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” yet one prize for “Birdman.” Things are really spread out, and that, I think, is when the preferential ballot system becomes a crucial part of the puzzle.
There is no “knowledge” to be had, and be super wary of anyone (including me – I have my moments) who claims to have the answer. There's only the empirical data and how you choose to contextualize it. I think we have a clear opportunity for the Academy to recognize Alejandro González Iñárritu (“Birdman” for Best Picture), Richard Linklater (“Boyhood” for Best Director) and Wes Anderson (“The Grand Budapest Hotel” for Best Original Screenplay) here, but just because there's a great opportunity doesn't mean, favorites being what they are, that it'll play out that way.
We'll really just have to see how the campaigns tackle this next week or so and how, ultimately, things play out in two weeks' time. And there aren't anymore clues to really be gleaned in the meantime. So you're on your own.
The Contenders section is about as updated as it's gonna get…for now.