Free Film School #87: How to Predict the Oscars

Professor Witney Seibold gives you perhaps-dubious advice on how to pick the winners yourselves. 

Witney Seiboldby Witney Seibold

Oscar Sunday is nearly upon us, and in my world that means the parties and the betting are about to begin. The Academy Awards are kind of like a really ritzy high school prom crossed with the Super Bowl. I know of no film critics who do not follow the Academy Awards very, very closely every year, and I know no critics who take the Academy Awards very seriously as any sort of definitive arbiter of a film's quality. All of us critics have our very own top-ten lists that we agonizingly author at the beginning of every year, and it's rare, you might find, that the film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture is the same one that topped the critical lists. The front-runner for Best Picture this year is Argo. That film, however, was not as universally loved as some more obscure films from 2012; going by the famed critical aggregate Rotten Tomatoes, some of the best-reviewed films of the year (i.e. received a 100% “Fresh” rating) were documentaries like How to Survive a Plague and Michael Apted's celebrated 56 Up. If it wasn't the best film of the year in the eyes of the critics, and wasn't the highest earner of the year, then why is it the front-runner for Best Picture? Well, that's a surprisingly complex question, and will be the topic of this week's lecture in CraveOnline's Free Film School.

As I explained in a previous Free Film School lecture on the history of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts ans Sciences, or “The Academy” for short, The Academy is the closely knit group of card-carrying film professionals – actors, directors, producers, production guys, etc. – who see to the best interests of anyone working in the industry, and who also maintain a really ritzy film library. They're also the ones who construct – and vote on – the Academy Awards every year. And, as is so often iterated in the press, The Academy tends to look for different qualities when it comes to awarding films and actors than audiences or critics do. I look back over the last few Academy Award winners for Best Picture, and I know few critics or audience members who tended to agree with the Academy's assessment. Do you know anyone whose favorite film was The Artist? The King's Speech? How about a pedantic finger-wagger like Crash? A forgettable one like Shakespeare in Love or Slumdog Millionaire? Or a legitimately bad film like Gladiator? Only two winning films in the last decade – No Country for Old Men and The Hurt Locker – cracked my own top tens for their respective years. So why do these films win and not others? And why didn't The Dark Knight get nominated in 2008, huh? I'm here, my gentle students, to explain, as best as I can figure, what the Academy is looking for, and, by extension, how you may be able to more accurately predict future winners for your inevitable Oscar pools.

I will walk you through several notable categories, and try to explain – with reasonable accuracy – what kind of film wins Oscars, and what kinds of films don't.

Best Picture

The Academy, you will note, typically likes to nominate “message” pictures in this category. That is to say: The film in question should be of a somewhat high profile, a critical darling, and relates to some immediate political topic of the day… but not too political a topic. This year, Beasts of the Southern Wild, an amazing film, is nominated not only for its quality and emotional punch, but because it relates tangentially to the environmental disasters surrounding Hurricane Katrina. Argo is the favored winner, and it comments on the Iran hostage crisis, of course, and also is careful to point out how the crisis impacted the presidency of the never-seen-in-the-film Jimmy Carter. If you think of certain previous Best Picture winners, you look to stuff like The King's Speech which, if you'll recall, was written by a screenwriter who overcame his own stammer just like the titular king. So it's personal, and it's about a politician. Politics! But the film can't necessarily be a political screed. True, Paul Haggis' Crash was forthrightly political, but its ultimate message seemed to be that racism was bad, and that's not a political point anyone is going to argue. It's a bold statement that is, in actuality, very safe. Argo is a political film too, but it's about the Carter administration, which has been over long enough not to be an important Capital "I" issue any longer. Just political enough.

Something you should remember is that the category “Best Picture” is kind of a misnomer. It should, perhaps, be retitled “Best Production,” as that's what's really be rewarded, and the producer is the one who receives the Oscar statue. So ambition also typically goes a long way. This is why Les Misérables is nominated. It's a big and lavish and long-running musical where actors sing their own songs. This is an old-world production full of gorgeous old-showbiz tropes. The Academy is very fond of this fashion of old-world Hollywood glamor. Indeed, you only need look to the Oscar telecast to validate this. Each telecast tends to feature a montage or tribute reel devoted to, oh, costumes in film or something. These little montages run about three minutes, and feature a barrage of scattered moments from notable Hollywood productions, all set to a sentimental orchestral score. This feeling of vague, teary, sentimental nostalgia is what The Academy likes most of its Best Picture winners to invoke. When they pick a Best Picture, they're really thinking of a canon of films. A pantheon.

Of course, that doesn't always work; film history is littered with great films that never won Best Picture (most notable of which was probably Citizen Kane). But it's the thinking behind a lot of winners.

Another thing to consider: Hollywood loves itself. Movies that are about movies, or are at least about some element of film production (if they're about an actor or a director), tend to catch The Academy's eye. A film related biopic has higher chances of winning by default than a truly original film. Argo is a movie that is largely about movies. Watch it win on Sunday.

Best Director

You may notice that Hollywood tends to eschew “weird.” Sometimes someone like Werner Herzog or Michael Haneke or David Lynch will sneak into the nomination lists, but the so-called “daring” filmmakers – who make strange and revolutionary films with content and techniques that truly push aesthetic boundaries – are rarely nominated. David Cronenberg, Rainier Fassbinder, Guy Maddin… these men aren't your typical Oscar winners, even though they consistently produce fascinating material. Directors that are successful tend to do better. Steven Spielberg. Martin Scorsese. Clint Eastwood. Ron Howard. Again, we're thinking of a canon. Only a few experimental and boldly artistic auteurs have been nominated in the last few years. Ang Lee. Terrence Malick. Paul Thomas Anderson. Gus Van Sant. These guys are exceptions rather than the rule. The actual award usually goes hand-in-hand with the Best Picture winner, but if Argo is the frontrunner, that's not going to be possible this year (since Ben Affleck isn't nominated).

Best Actor and Actress (Supporting or Lead)

These categories are typically pretty easy to call, but there are several elements in play that one needs to consider when predicting winners. Most importantly, Hollywood typically gives its acting awards to either Legends or Newcomers. Just like in the Best Picture category, The Academy is interested in building up a cinematic pantheon of important performers they can refer to as the best of the best. As such, they like to give awards to old-school and well-established movie stars, who have spent decades toiling away in the public eye, and who kind of “deserve” recognition.

Keep in mind, this doesn't apply to just an old actor that you're fond of (sorry Christopher Walken fans), and who has starred in many films. They have to have to be considered aged and well-respected “A-Listers” as well as talented actors. Think of when someone like Christopher Plummer or Meryl Streep or Robert De Niro or Richard Farnsworth is nominated. All of their nominations are, of course, well-received, but their nominations are considered more of a “legacy vote” than a straightforward vote for that particular performance. Last year, Meryl Streep – the Academy's single most-nominated actor – won for The Iron Lady. A legacy. Indeed, the “legacy” vote can sometimes outstrip a given actor's current level of fame. Remember when Jim Broadbent won an Oscar for Iris? Did you see Iris?

On the other hand, The Academy loves them an ingénue, and it's frequent that they will award a hot young actress (it's usually women in these cases) in the hopes that they will become a legend within time. Halle Berry, Natalie Portman, Reese Witherspoon, Renée Zellweger, and Gwyneth Paltrow all have Academy Awards, and all won before or at about the age of 30. And while each of their performances can be debated as having varying levels of quality, I'm not sure if any of these hot young things have the experience or the acting chops of, say, Helen Mirren, Meryl Streep, or Susan Sarandon. In a way, it is also a “legacy” vote for these ingénues, only it's for a legacy predicted rather than a legacy lived. As such, a lot of smart money for 2013 is on Jennifer Lawrence. I'm going to go for the Dark Horse in my prediction, and declare that Emmanuelle Riva will win this year's Oscar for her heartbreaking performance in Amour. Next week, we can all marvel at how wrong I was, and Ms. Lawrence can bludgeon me with her statuette herself.

Another thing to consider: Since The Academy loves films that are safely political (politics of the past presented without comment is good), they also tend to give acting awards (or at least a notable and palpable betting edge) to actors who have played real people. Capturing the romance of a former era, you see. If the performance is biographical, they should be considered the odds-on favorite. Margaret Thatcher, Bela Lugosi, Ray Charles, Virginia Woolf, Edith Piaf, June Carter Cash, Katherine Hepburn, Queen Elizabeth I, Queen Elizabeth II, Idi Amin, King George VI. All of these people have Oscar-winners playing them. Playing a real-life person is not a guarantee (Joaquin Phoenix did not win for playing Johnny Cash), but it's a good, good bet. Something tells me (and you) that Abraham Lincoln will be added to this list in a week's time.

Something else to consider: The apology vote. Remember when Russell Crowe won Best Actor for Gladiator in 2001? What was The Academy thinking? Gladiator? Well, that film was a favorite that year because of, again, the scope of its PRODUCTION. It was old-school Hollywood flexing its aesthetic muscles. Russell Crowe snuck in under that aegis, and because he'd turned in an exceptional peformance the year before for Michael Mann's The Insider, for which he was nominated alongside a likewise exceptional Denzel Washington for The Hurricane. Both actors lost to Kevin Spacey in American Beauty. The year after Gladiator, Crowe was nominated again, again alongside Washington. Crowe for the excellent and touching (if somewhat sentimental) A Beautiful Mind, and Washington for the average cop drama Training Day. This year, Crowe gave the superior performance. However, to make it up to him, the Oscar that year went to Washington for a spirited performance in a bland movie. The Academy often likes to make up for past mistakes, and will sometimes award an actor for what they should have received long ago.

By the way, Daniel Day-Lewis will win this year. For sure. No question. None.

Animated Feature

This is a relatively new category, so it's hard to say if there are any patterns that have yet developed, but I can say this, having observed so many Animated Short winners: The Academy likes to award animated films that use a new animation technique or aesthetic to tell their story. Again, this is not so much about the “best” film as it is about revolutionary new ways of animating. Brave was a lovely film, but it didn't do much by way of new technique. It also featured a pretty limp script, which couldn't have helped. Wreck-It Ralph is a clever and funny film based on a nifty idea, but other films did more interesting things with their actual animation. I'm convinced that ParaNorman will win this year's Oscar, as it used a 3-D printer to sculpt its stop-motion characters, combining stop-motion with computer design, all based on a striking and new aesthetic. Was it the best film? Well, it may have been. But its technique will be what nets it a statue.


The fun one hardly ever wins. Go for the boring one. Except for this year. Skyfall will win. That was the fun one.


It's embarrassing how little the actual screenplay for a film factors into its win, when looked at from a predictive standpoint. Often, the films that are nominated for Best Picture will also be mixed in with the two screenplay categories. Predicting a winner in the screenplay category will always be weighed against how many other Oscars the film is supposedly going to win. Often, a film that is rumored to be in second place in voting will be given a screenplay Oscar “just so they can get something.” The screenplay award is one of the “Big Five” Oscars (alongside picture, actor, actress, and director), and the screenplay category is often used as a equalizer.

A pattern I have noticed: The award will often be given to the film with the “complicated” screenplay, i.e., the one with the twisty, hard-to-follow plot. Think of The Departed, Traffic, The Usual Suspects, L.A. Confidential, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Crash...

If you haven't voted yet, take my rules under advisement. Maybe you'll do better with my advice. If you do, I would like a cut of your winnings. If you don't, then I take no responsibility.

Homework for the Week:

Predict the Oscars this year. Go to Little Golden Guy for a list of all the nominees. Next week, let me know how well you did. Do you think my advice has any credence? Looking at past winners, do you think there are any patterns in the way The Academy votes? What have you noticed? Write your patterns below.  

Witney Seibold is a featured contributor on the CraveOnline Film Channel, co-host of The B-Movies Podcast and co-star of The Trailer Hitch. You can read his weekly articles B-Movies ExtendedFree Film School and The Series Project, and follow him on “The Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.