Showbiz swamis: Do the Oscar pundits know too much?
If you read even half as many stories, blog posts, Facebook entries and tweets about the Oscar nominations last week as I did, you already know that there was hardly any shocking news involving the nine films that earned a best picture nomination. As Kristopher Tapley, the resident pundit at the In Contention blog put it the morning of the nominations: “The nominees are in and the surprises are few and far between.”
Why were the army of breathless Oscar prognosticators so underwhelmed by the news on nomination day? Because they’d long ago made a dead-on forecast of the best picture lineup. Amazing, but true.
Go back and look at the Gurus of Gold, a collection of Oscar experts from various media platforms who make weekly predictions on the Movie City News website. When the Gurus offered up their picks on Dec. 13, a full five weeks before the nominations were announced, their top nine films were the exact nine films that made the cut last week.
They were not alone. Over at Tom O’Neil’s Gold Derby website, his group of Oscarologists (who include Elena Howe, my glamorous, globe-trotting editor here at The Envelope) published a group of picks on Dec. 19 that were also perfectly aligned — nine for nine — with the academy’s picks. Even if you went back to mid-November, nine full weeks before the nominations, each of the two groups had accurately picked eight of the nine best picture nominees.
If you’re an Oscar pundit, this is a good thing, because it makes you look like a true swami. But if you are the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, this should be cause for concern, especially in an era when the majority of people who tune in to watch live television events are looking for, ahem, a bit of suspense and surprise.
How unusual is this easy predictability? Let me use a sports analogy: If you assembled a group of equally brainy baseball experts and asked them, in the middle of June, to predict the eight teams that would make the MLB playoffs in October, you would end up with a lot — and I mean a lot — of wrong answers.
When it comes to unpredictability, you could say almost the same thing about the NFL or the NBA, or, for that matter, Newt Gingrich’s chances a month ago of winning the South Carolina presidential primary. It’s why TV networks pay untold zillions to tie up sports broadcasting rights while ABC is quietly tearing its hair out about the flat Oscar ratings, which seem to get a bump only in years when the best picture category is crowded with box-office successes.
Unfortunately, with only one of this year’s best picture nominees having topped the $100-million mark (“The Help”), the academy is more in need of some big picture curveballs than ever. It raises the question: Why is it so ridiculously easy to predict the nominees?
In short, a movie has to satisfy a series of pretty narrow aesthetic requirements to qualify for Oscar glory. Most important, it has to have a seriousness that symbolizes its high artistic ambitions. Comedies, family pictures and action films are rarely best picture nominees because today’s academy views those genres as sullied by commercial goals. Steven Spielberg is one of the premier filmmakers of our age, but of all the films he’s made, the only one that has ever won best picture is “Schindler’s List,” a Holocaust drama that pretty much fit all of the academy’s requirements for artistic ambition.
With rare exceptions, best picture nominees must be set in the past, be it the recent past like “Moneyball” or a more distant time, like “The Artist,” “Hugo,” “Midnight in Paris,” “The Help” and “War Horse.” History is like gauze over the lens of the camera, allowing filmmakers to deal with prickly or unsettling subjects that were controversial in their time but are now largely culturally settled issues, making them safe for academy consumption.
And, oh yes, the films need a relatively high bar of critical acclaim to make the grade: Since “Forrest Gump” in 1994, no film has won best picture with less than a 75 Rotten Tomatoes score.
Because the academy has such predictable tastes, the Oscar pundits have a pretty easy time figuring out which films meet the minimal requirements of best picture awards heft. And until academy voters widen their artistic horizons, I suspect the pundits will continue to nail their predictions. If you’re making best picture picks, stick to a safe formula: Expect the expected.
Photo: From left, "The Artist" director Michel Hazanavicius with the film's costars Berenice Bejo and Jean Dujardin in Los Angeles last fall. Credit: Ricardo DeAratanha/Los Angeles Times