The Oscar Warrior: No Real Shockers or Surprises on Oscar Night

It’s the day after Oscar night, the biggest night of the year for the film industry. While most of the overworked Oscar bloggers are already disregarding any sort of celebration for the winners and moving onto heralding the 2014 movies that might receive nominations or accolades in a year–they’re a fickle bunch, for sure–the Oscar Warrior prefers to look back at last night’s winners and make note of how, while there were very few real surprises, a few of the winners will surely mess with how we predict the Oscars in the future.

See, that’s the thing about the Oscar prediction “business”–because it is a business now or else why would every single website and television news channel offer up their own predictions?

In the past there was always historical data that can be used to back up the predictions. It wasn’t just about seeing a movie and saying “that’s the best performance” and a lot of time predictions are made based on other factors – early buzz, promotional marketing, etc. As I mentioned before, a lot of full-time Oscar bloggers are already looking at movies coming out later this year to see if they can be the first to predict a breakout. (Put it this way, few people in this business knew about The King’s Speech or Argo or The Artist or even 12 Years a Slave a year before they won Best Picture.)

Anyway, this year, Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave (Fox Searchlight) won Best Picture, as many people were expecting and predicting, even though it was certainly looking like Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity (Warner Bros.) was going to give it a run for the Academy’s top award. (I’ll admit that I was pushing for Gravity and hoping it would win over a film that I considered highly overrated.)

But why was there so much dissension among Oscar bloggers and even some confusion about the possible winners, especially in the past few weeks?

First of all, the Academy splitting their vote for Best Director and Best Picture has been a rarity that’s often screwed up Oscar predictors in the past. It happened in 2002 when Roman Polanski won for directing The Pianist (in absentia) despite Chicago winning Best Picture, then it happened again when Ang Lee won for his direction of Brokeback Mountain in 2005, but Crash won Best Picture. In both those cases, one can point to those two Best Picture winners being larger ensemble pieces that won over the Academy’s acting branchÂ… but more on that later. Last year was a special exception because Best Picture winner Argo director Ben Affleck was not nominated for his direction, which was odd having won the Golden Globe, Critics Choice and DGA awards.

In the past, the Directors Guild of America was one of the best precursors for what movie might win Best Picture and this year was the first time since 2005 that the winner of the DGA award didn’t direct the Academy’s Best Picture. Oddly, the time before that was 2000 and in both cases, Ang Lee took the DGA award while the movie he directed lost Best Picture on Oscar night to something else. Not only that, but Lee also won Best Director last year for Life of Pi which didn’t win Best Picture, so it’s obvious the Academy likes Lee more as a director than they like his movies?

Meanwhile, Gravity swept the technical awards last night as expected, winning seven of the ten Oscars it was nominated for including Cuaron for director. It also ended up taking home more Oscars than most recent Best Picture winners going back to Slumdog Millionaire. In the past, it’s been common that when a movie is winning an overwhelming amount of Oscars for which it’s nominated, it’s a shoe-in for Best Picture, but that’s showing another major sea change at the Academy where the awards they give out are distributed more evenly among movies rather than giving everything to one movie. It may be a long time before we see another “Lord of the Rings” type Oscar sweep because of this.

Ang Lee’s Life of Pi won four Oscars last year including Best Director before losing Best Picture to Argo, which ended up with three Oscars for the night. The Artist won five Oscars including Best Picture, while The King’s Speech and Martin Scorsese’s The Departed each won four and Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker and Chicago each won six. It’s hard to determine what that says about the Academy except that when you have the entire body voting in every category, there’s probably a lot more disagreements about what constitutes Best Picture than it does when determining other categories. The Academy never releases the numbers or percentages for how members voted for each Best Picture nominee, but I’m thinking this was a closer year in that category than many others.

Now let’s talk about the Academy’s acting branch and how it makes up the largest percentage of voters and how that has an effect on many of the winners on Oscar night. It’s certainly a worthwhile argument, because if a movie has the full support of the acting branch, one would think that it has a better chance of winning Best Picture. This certainly would give “12 Years” a big advantage over Gravity because it’s really a performance piece with a large and talented cast, compared to Cuaron’s movie basically being a two-hander (with one performance being questionable). What’s interesting about this argument is that the Screen Actors Guild went with David O. Russell’s American Hustle (Sony) over “12 Years” and the acting branch nominating all four primary actors from “Hustle” compared to three for “12 Years” which certainly shows support for Russell’s film. But at the end of last night, American Hustle was left without a single Oscar even when compared to Russell’s last movie Silver Linings Playbook, which won Jennifer Lawrence her first Oscar. But again, having great acting performances certainly helped “12 Years” win over Gravity.

What was interesting (and somewhat amusing) is that the four acting categories were pretty much set in cement from the earlier precursors as Cate Blanchett, Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto and Lupita Nyong’O were winning almost all of them. (Jennifer Lawrence won the Golden Globe from the notoriously celebrity-ass-kissing Hollywood Foreign Press.) And yet, many of my colleagues and some of the Oscar bloggers were already trying to paint scenarios of other winners including Leonardo DiCaprio and Lawrence winning over N’Yongo. When problems from Woody Allen’s past started to rear their ugly head, a few people even questioned Blanchett’s chances at winning her second Oscar. Nope, all four won as expected.

The lack of a single win for Russell’s American Hustle and Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street (Paramount) despite critical and commercial success was somewhat vexing, but not surprising. Both movies were somewhat divisive and rumors that Hollywood industry types don’t like Russell were pretty much confirmed by him being snubbed for a third time in a row. Plus Scorsese has received many accolades over the years including his first director win for The Departed (not his best movie) a few years back, so The Wolf of Wall Street receiving as many nominations as it did, especially after a late start out of the gate, was already a coup for the film. In both cases, it did prove once again that the highest grossing movie at the box office doesn’t stand a better chance at winning Best Picture – 12 Years a Slave has barely grossed half as much of many of the other nominees domestically and roughly a fifth what Gravity has made, so money and box office is no longer a factor.

Possibly the only real surprise on Oscar night may have been the animated short “Mr. Hublot” beating the Disney powerhouse that was “Get a Horse!” (which played in front of the Oscar-winning global blockbuster Frozen) and oddly enough, I was the ONLY Gold Derby expert to pick that winner.

Lastly, one thing that the Oscars confirmed was the importance of festival season as all three of the big winners–12 Years a Slave, Gravity and Dallas Buyers Club–all got their premieres at the Telluride/Toronto/Venice trifecta back in September. Anyone who saw those three movies at those festivals (as I did) already knew they were destined for Oscar greatness, and that should make the growing feud between those three festivals to score world premieres even more interesting this year.

And that should be all you hear from the Oscar Warrior for at least six months as he goes back to talking about the box office and other movies.

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