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Hey, how can pundits possibly handicap the Oscar race before movies even open?

November 23, 2010 |  3:51 pm

"You Oscar 'experts' are a bunch of fakers!" a Hollywood insider roared at me the other day. "How can you possibly say that 'The King's Speech' is a front-runner for best picture or 'Black Swan' for best actress when those movies haven't even opened yet? You're just making everything up!"

I can see why people suspect that, yes, but, believe it or not, Oscarology is a science. Below, let's reveal its mysteries and how we pundits know what we claim to know.

Oscars crystal ball 2

First, in order for a film to be in the derby, it must have an official campaign. A studio must invest in a blitzkrieg of topnotch campaigners/consultants who we bloggers all know personally. Last year, Summit spent $3 million on "The Hurt Locker" kudos campaign, employing Cynthia Swartz of 42West to head the drive. Cynthia was part of the teams (which also included studio execs and other Oscar consultants) behind such recent best picture victories for "No Country for Old Men," "Chicago" and the upset "Crash." For years, she was an Oscar warrior for Harvey Weinstein's old Miramax. Now she's hired as a freelance agent, working currently on "The Social Network" for producer Scott Rudin again, as she did with "No Country," "Doubt" and other pix.

It's absolutely essential that a movie have a formal campaign. The last film to be nominated for best picture without one was "American Graffiti" 37 years ago!

The campaign must involve shipment of DVDs to the 6,000 members of the motion picture academy plus voters for the film critics' groups, Golden Globes and some members of key guilds such as the nominating committee of the Screen Actors Guild.

It must also involve Q&A screenings for guilds, award groups such as BAFTA and National Board of Review, involving the participation of stars, directors, etc.

The movie must be widely shown in screening rooms in Los Angeles and New York (plus other cities including San Francisco and London, if possible) for members of guilds and film-award groups to see it privately in a comfortable professional space.

Once a movie has that basic campaign structure in place, award bloggers can gauge the reactions of audiences and report on the buzz we hear in the lobbies outside screening rooms and across the Web. Applying what we know of the history of awards such as the Oscars, voting patterns and biases, we get a fairly good sense of what's ahead in the derby early every year. General audience reaction and box-office returns rarely come into play.

Yes, of course, it must seem ridiculous for us pundits to insist that we know that the race for best actress, at this early point in November, is between Annette Bening ("The Kids Are All Right") and Natalie Portman ("Black Swan"). But we have a lot of evidence upon which to base that opinion.

However, that said, it should be pointed out that at this time last year, none of us "experts" considered "The Blind Side" star Sandra Bullock to be the front-runner for the actress race. So you are smart to be a bit skeptical of what we say and how huffily we state it.

-- Tom O'Neil

Image: Tom O'Neil