The Importance of Momentum in the Oscar Race
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"E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial" (1982) and "Social Network" (2010) had it, then lost it, respectively, to "Gandhi" and "King's Speech." "Platoon" -- a film rejected by every major studio -- overwhelmed the Academy because of it, and consequently snagged best picture in 1987. Award shows like Golden Globes help build it. Oscar himself has been accused of losing it, time and time again.
"It" is momentum, an elusive formula that can depend on the interplay of a movie's release date, a studio's budget, award show wins, and even a star's campaign. (According to a Variety editor on NPR, Julia Roberts's superPAC determination to build buzz for friend Javier Bardem by hosting a private screening of "Biutiful" led to the Academy's new no-endorsement rule.) Even Canada has a say in this complicated algorithm determining the best in American film. And momentum can work for and against not only potential nominees, but also the Academy itself.
The rubber-stamp awards?: the influence of Golden Globes and others "Momentum is now more of an issue than it has ever been," insists GoldDerby editor Tom O'Neil, who held down the Los Angeles Times' The Envelope awards beat for years. "You might think Hollywood insiders are curmudgeonly contrarians who, you know, insist on their own ideas of what's the best performance or the best film, that they might just defy the popular trends and go their own way."
But with nominations replicating the slate from awards shows like the Golden Globes -- down to the winners -- "they're rubber-stamping each other," O'Neil says. The rare occasion of sweeping awards show has now become commonplace, especially in the supporting actor and actress category. The Oscar offered the promise of the upset -- like the year Halle Berry beat out the likes of Sissy Spacek and Judi Dench. Now "The Artist" seems a foregone conclusion, with the biggest suspense on whether Billy Crystal can resuscitate the Oscar telecast itself from last year's debacle.
Time-shifting Oscar: earlier and earlier broadcast? The last time critics complained of Oscar's irrelevance, the Academy did something revolutionary: In 2004, the telecast shifted from spring to its current late winter slot. That foreshortened voting season, which may have shafted "Cold Mountain" that year, was supposed to make for a more even playing field for those indie art-house flicks, and in general hand out accolades when those movies were still fresh in people's minds.
Critics like O'Neil, though, attribute TV sweeps as the real reason for the shift. But maybe the time change did up the suspense, at least in the best picture category. Variety editor Timothy Gray wrote, "For the eight years of 1995-2002, the film with the most Oscar nominations went on to win the top prize 88% of the time. In the eight years since the shift, that drops to 50% of the time. Similarly, a Golden Globe best pic winner went on to Oscar victory 75% between 1995-2002. Since the shift, it's been 25% ... [C]learly there has been some effect. Better or worse? We'll never know."
Now that the Academy will end its storied 70-year tradition of hand-counting ballots in favor of electronic voting in 2013, allowing the possibility of an even earlier ceremony, the issue of momentum will become even more frenzied, if not rushed.