ZAMM.COM: Oscar Outlook

By Martin Grove,

Oscar outlook: It's all over but the shouting for this year's Oscar race--and in Hollywood, that's really good news.

It's been a long, slow, unexciting awards season, and with the 86th annual Oscars pushed ahead to Mar. 2 from the traditional last Sunday in February so as to avoid competing with the Sochi Olympics' Closing Ceremonies, it's felt as though the campaigning would never end.

Academy members began filling out nominations ballots Dec. 27 and the polls closed Jan. 8. It's a very short period that allows little time for voters to catch up with a year's worth of Oscar hopefuls. There's no way of knowing how many films actually get seen by Academy members, many of whom are away on winter vacations for most of the voting period. Speculation over the years has suggested that Oscar voters pressed for time may be influenced by other awards groups and, especially, by the Golden Globe nominations, which were announced Dec. 12.

Oscar noms were announced Jan. 16 and final voting began Feb. 14. With the close of balloting Feb. 25, the struggle for Oscar gold that began with last May's Cannes Film Festival and continued non-stop at other festivals like Telluride, Toronto, New York, Palm Springs, The Hamptons and Santa Barbara, is finally over and almost done with.

Now Hollywood insiders just need to sit through the always tedious ceremonies, which typically exceed their excessive three hour schedule, putting endurance and human bladders to the test. Unlike the Globes, where guests guzzle champagne at tables for three hours and giggle at hosts Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, or the British Academy's BAFTA Awards, a very civilized two-hours at London's Royal Opera House presided over by the droll Stephen Fry, the Oscars are no fun in the theatre--I've been on hand for about a dozen shows over the years--or at home.

All told, home's better despite all the TV commercials since no one's insisting that you stay seated and your beverage of choice is likely to be close at hand. Those attending the Oscars wind up in theater seats that don't allow for easy mobility. Globes guests can and do table hop throughout the show. Oscar ticket holders are expected to sit still all night. In fact, temporarily empty seats down front are quickly occupied by formally dressed Academy seat-fillers so the cameras don't show anything but a full house.

Years ago, when the Oscars took place at the Music Center in downtown L.A., my wife and I noticed people around us started leaving just as a long stretch of non-prime awards began to be handed out. Curious, we followed the crowd and discovered they were heading to the mezzanine bar, which they knew was open throughout the show. There we sipped cocktails and watched the Oscars on television just as we could have done at home.

In any event, no matter where you watch the ceremonies, you'll see the same winners. For many people, it doesn't matter who wins as long as they picked them in their office betting pools.

So for those about to plunge into Oscar predicting, here are some thoughts that may be helpful in projecting the key races. Of course, surprises are always possible and many past Oscar nights have brought at least one victory that left insiders shaking their heads in disbelief.

The best picture race with its nine contenders is widely seen as a three-way frontrunner competition between: Gravity (Warner Bros.) with 10 nominations, American Hustle (Columbia) with 10 noms and 12 Years a Slave (Fox Searchlight Pictures) with 9 nods.

These are the only three Best Picture nominees that also are in the Best Directing and Film Editing races, a combination of nods that Academy watchers believe a film must have if it's going to win Best Picture.

Each frontrunner has a major guild victory under its belt. Gravity's Alfonso Curaron won the Directors Guild of America (DGA) Award. Hustle won the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) ensemble cast award. Slave tied with Gravity for best picture from the Producers Guild of America (PGA). All three guilds are good bellwethers for the Oscars, but with three pretty evenly matched contenders it's harder than usual to project a winner.

Slave picked up new bragging rights last week by winning BAFTA's best picture race, a victory that could influence Oscar voters to make a similarly important best picture choice. On the other hand, although Slave was the evening's big winner, it didn't win much else. Its only other BAFTA was for best actor (Chiwetel Ejiofor).

Considering that it went into the race with 10 noms, winning only two--albeit very big ones--sends a message that it lacked broad support within the British Academy.

Slave's status as the most important frontrunner is definitely helpful since Oscar voters tend to like the idea of showing their huge global audience that they've honored a socially significant film.

On the other hand, winning an Oscar boils down to mathematics. Apparently you can win with about 12 percent of the vote. There are about 6,000 voting members of the Academy and it's believed that not all of them actually cast ballots.

No one seems able to explain the Academy's preferential voting system in a concise understandable way that can be understood by people who weren't college math majors. But a key element of preferential voting appears to be that it's great to be the second choice film on most ballots. When the first choice titles are whittled down to eliminate those without enough passionate support, a strong number two title can rise to the top.

If that's the case this year, insiders see Gravity benefiting. The sci-fi thriller's regarded as a technical achievement with broad support from many behind-the-cameras Academy branches. Besides its DGA and PGA honors, Gravity also won votes by the American Society of Cinematographers, Art Directors Guild and Visual Effects Society. It also was nominated by the American Cinema Editors, Cinema Audio Society, Motion Picture Sound Editors and Society of Camera Operators. That broad tech support could help Gravity pull into first place.

Hustle, on the other hand, has strong support from actors, who make up the Academy's largest voting branch. Its SAG ensemble cast victory is important because it's the guild's equivalent of a best picture vote. Moreover, Academy voters nominated Hustle stars in all four acting races -- Christian Bale (actor), Amy Adams (actress), Bradley Cooper (supporting actor) and Jennifer Lawrence (supporting actress). Clearly, actors have a lot of love for Hustle.

There's a good case to be made for all three films, but as we're heading down the homestretch Academy watchers are buzzing about a Gravity win based on support in the tech trenches. Also, Gravity's survival-alone-in-space story can be seen as important in that it reflects our primal urge to survive while showing our tiny place in a vast universe.

While Slave is the more conventionally important film, there may be voters who don't want important to be their chief criteria for picking a best picture.

Hustle's con man story may be the least important of the frontrunners, but it could benefit from being the frontrunner that's the broadest appeal entertainment. With Slave, it's about surviving slavery and injustice. With Gravity, it's about surviving disaster in outer space and getting home. With Hustle, it's about surviving an FBI investigation.

For many years, Academy voters celebrated wide appeal entertainment when they chose Best Pictures. That hasn't been fashionable lately, but if this turns out to be a year when entertainment is back in style, Hustle could benefit.

There also are six other Best Picture nominees and any one of them could emerge as a surprise winner, however unlikely that seems. The group includes:

1.Captain Phillips (Columbia) has six Oscar noms. What it's missing are a directing nod for Paul Greengrass and a best actor nom for Tom Hanks. It did get a film editing nom, but without being in the other key races it lacks broad support.

2. Dallas Buyers Club (Focus Features) has six Oscar noms. It got a shot in the arm from winning the SAG vote for actor (Matthew McConaughey) and supporting actor (Jared Leto). McConaughey and Leto also won Golden Globes and Oscar voters have seen them making passionate acceptance speeches. But without a directing nom for Jean-Marc Vallee (The Young Victoria,) it's an orphan in the best picture race.

3. Her (Warner Bros.) has five Oscar nods, but it's not in the all-important races for directing (Spike Jonze), acting or film editing.

4. Nebraska (Paramount) has six Oscar noms, including directing (Alexander Payne), but it's not in the film editing race. Nebraska's best shot is the best actor race where Bruce Dern's had a very high profile since winning at Cannes. The film's story about a senior citizen who thinks (contrary to what everyone else tells him) that he's won $1 million when he gets a direct mail sweepstakes marketing letter could resonate with the Academy's own aging membership.

5. Philomena (The Weinstein Company) has four Oscar noms. It doesn't have a directing nod for Stephen Frears or a film editing nom. However, it's Harvey Weinstein's lead horse in the race and that's worth remembering given Harvey's back-to-back wins with The Kings Speech in 2011 and The Artist in 2012.

6. The Wolf of Wall Street (Paramount) has five Oscar noms, including directing (Martin Scorsese), but it's not in the film editing race. Wolf's hard R rating for explicit nudity and its sex and drugs storyline could pose problems for some of the Academy's elderly and socially conservative members.

The nominees are: Steve McQueen (Slave), David O. Russell (Hustle), Alfonso Curaron (Gravity), Alexander Payne (Nebraska) and Martin Scorsese (Wolf). Curaron's DGA win (plus his BAFTA victory last week) makes him a safe bet to take home an Oscar.

The nominees are: Christian Bale (Hustle), Bruce Dern (Nebraska), Leonardo DiCaprio (Wolf), Chiwetel Ejiofor (Slave) and Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club).

Although Ejiofor won the BAFTA vote, he wasn't competing against McConaughey in that race. Dern's also strong competition, but McConaughey's SAG victory makes him the most likely winner.

The nominees are: Amy Adams (Hustle), Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine), Sandra Bullock (Gravity), Judy Dench (Philomena) and Meryl Streep (August: Osage County).

Blanchett's had a lock on this race ever since Jasmine opened last August. Her BAFTA win last week keeps her solidly in the frontrunner position.

The nominees are: Barkhad Abdi (Phillips), Bradley Cooper (Hustle) and Michael Fassbender (Slave), Jonah Hill (Wolf) and Jared Leto (Dallas).

Leto's the most likely Oscar winner given his SAG victory, but Abdi's BAFTA win makes him the strongest alternative.

The nominees are: Jennifer Lawrence (Hustle), Julia Roberts (Osage), Lupita Nyong'o (Slave) and Sally Hawkins (Jasmine) and June Squibb (Nebraska).

Nyong'o won the SAG award and is the most likely Oscar winner. But Lawrence's BAFTA win Feb. 16 boosted her Oscar prospects, coming just two days after the start of final voting by Academy members. Lawrence, who won the best actress Oscar last year for Silver Linings Playbook, is Nyongo's strongest competition.

Bottom line: The 87th annual Oscars are set for next Feb. 22, 2015, so we can at least look forward to an awards season that's one week shorter than it was this year.

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