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David Poland

By David Poland

20 Weeks To Oscar: The Race & Race – Part 1: Expectations

This is the first of a series examining the issue of Race and The Academy Of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. It follows a Gurus o’ Gold special edition that charted the history of the Gurus voting for Best Picture over the course of the season.


Before the festivals started, 13 members of Gurus o’ Gold projected possible Oscar Best Picture nominees. We broke it into three categories: Movies Already Seen, Movies Due At The Festivals, and Movies Due After The Festivals. Ten weighted votes in each category. So, 30 titles named by each Guru. This led to a list of 53 titles.

One of the eventual Best Picture nominees was not mentioned, as The Big Short had not yet been moved from 2016 into the late fall.

Two of the eventual Best Picture nominees (of 19 titles on the chart) came from films released before the Aug/Sept festival run, Mad Max: Fury Road (#3 in the category) and Brooklyn (#5). Scoring higher than Mad Max were Carol and Inside Out. Between Max and Brooklyn was Youth. There were five more non-nominees in the Top 10 vote getters (in order): Sicario, Love and Mercy, Ex Machina, Everest, and Straight Outta Compton.

The next category, Festival Runners, would end up delivering three more of the eventual 8 Best Picture nominees. Spotlight at #3, The Martian at #7, and Room at #13, making the Brie Larson-starrer the biggest (and one might say, only) longshot of the season to make it into the Best Picture nominees list.

The top two films in this category were The Danish Girl (#1) and Steve Jobs (#2). Other non-nominees landing from #4 – #12 were Black Mass, Trumbo, Suffragette, The Walk, Our Brand Is Crisis, I Saw The Light, Where To Invade Next, and The Program.

Going into the festivals, only two Gurus had listed Beasts of No Nation amongst their Top 10 festival movies, one at #7 and one at #10. Was this racial bias or was it the combination of Netflix distributing the film and the subject matter?

Even after the festivals had shown Beasts and the voting shifted to Gurus picking their Top 12 or Top 10 weekly, the film never was ranked higher than #16 until the SAG Ensemble nomination… and even then, it never got higher than #12.

The third category, Fall Releases, was home to the two other “black” films that seemed like legitimate possibilities for Best Picture. Both Concussion and Creed made the Top 10 in this category, but in the #9 and #10 spots. The two eventual Best Picture nominees to come out of this group were #1 (The Revenant) and #3 (Bridge of Spies). None of the films from #4 down would get in, starting with Joy (#2) and then after Bridge (in order), The Hateful Eight, In the Heart of the Sea, Snowden, By The Sea, Silence (moved to 2016), Concussion, Creed, Star Wars: Episode 7, Burnt, SPECTRE, and The 33.

However much the media embraces the #OscarSoWhite angle, these 13 hardcore professional awards-watchers knew that all four “black” movies were outliers in the award season from the start. Only 2 outliers as far out as these four titles (Room and the late entry, The Big Short) would end up making the Best Picture cut. The first, Room, immediately shot to #3 on the first chart after the film was seen at the festivals.

As late as December 9, The Big Short was getting just a single Guru giving it any Best Picture vote. But it accelerated quickly, starting with a SAG Ensemble nomination (like Straight Outta Compton and Beasts of No Nation), hopscotching to #9 and a month later to #3. Of course, as it stands, 3 of the 5 movies so honored by SAG did not get a Best Picture nomination, including Trumbo, which also failed to secure a matching Supporting Actress nomination for Helen Mirren, just like Idris Elba. (Both also had Golden Globes nods that didn’t convert.)

So.. on the Best Picture front, Straight Outta Compton had the strongest sense of expectation of all four “black” films… but still never was ranked higher than #9. Creed never ranked higher than #10. Beasts Of No Nation never had a ranking better than #12. And Concussion never got a single Best Picture ranking vote after the pre-season poll of 30.

Now… the more complicated realities of the Acting Categories.

It’s more complicated to chart The Gurus here because there were only five votes in these categories. But let’s take a look…

Will Smith was ranked at #11, #10, #8, #6, and unnamed. But it is worth noting that he never got more than 5 votes from the 13 Gurus in any week… never as many as half the Gurus seeing him as a likely nominee. So expectations that he would get nominated (thought it was a great performance), were low from the start of the season and though he rose a bit, the lack of a SAG nomination ended the hopes of even those who thought he had a real shot.

Michael B. Jordan didn’t start tracking at all until Creed was seen. But there were never more than 2 voters in any given week voting for him as a likely nominee.

Sylvester Stallone, who was nominated, had just one vote in the first Gurus chart. But the next time we did Supporting Actor, he had 7 votes and 6th place. Then 11 of 13 votes and the place. Then 2md place, which he maintained until the end, though he had fewer votes pointing towards a potential win. But that is the kind of growth trajectory that you want to have as you break into the nomination expectations.

In Supporting, Samuel L. Jackson, Benicio del Toro, and Edgar Ramirez were on the charts at times, though never highly ranked. Sam got 3 total votes in the 5 voting weeks (two of them were mine… still pissed that he got passed over for Django). Benicio started in 6th place with 8 votes, then a couple weeks later he was at #8 with 4 votes, then he couldn’t find more than 1 vote in any of the following weeks. One guru took a flier on Edgar Ramirez (another outstanding performance) in the first week, but that was it. None of the Straight Outta Compton actors ever charted.

Perhaps the most disappointing non-nomination was Idris Elba, who was highly ranked through most of the season. #5, #4, #3, #3, and #3. So he was right there, expected by 6 – 10 Gurus each week to get a nomination. The only other Supporting Actor who didn’t get in who got that kind of support was Paul Dano, who had a lot of support, but never as strong as Elba’s.

No actress of color, in lead or supporting, ever charted this season.

There is a lot to chew on. Why are there so few films and performances that are perceived to be in play? Why didn’t these potential nominees hold their momentum? Why didn’t Straight Outta Compton ever rank higher than #9, even with SAG and PGA nominations?

In the end, in an objective measure of the top prognosticators’ views over five months of considering these potential nominations, only Idris Elba could be considered to be unexpectedly left without a nomination. That doesn’t make any of the other potential nominees less valuable or unworthy in any way. But it does give a view of expectations from those who do this for a living.

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18 Responses to “20 Weeks To Oscar: The Race & Race – Part 1: Expectations”

  1. Marco says:

    I would add that, yes, Idris Elba can be considered the only black performer who was “really expected to be nominated” come Oscar time. But let’s not forget that the supporting actor category was probably the most crowded, this year: among the contenders (some “serious”, some others dark horses, all names that anyway entered the discussion at some point) left without a nomination this year there are Michael Shannon (99 Homes), Jacob Tremblay (Room), Paul Dano (Love & Mercy), Michael Keaton (Spotlight), Joel Edgerton (Black Mass), Harvey Keitel (Youth).

  2. Bob Burns says:

    Time to start calling out the auteur directors we idolize for the projects they choose and for their casting choices. This isn’t just faceless industry executives, this is guys, white guys with names like Marty and Steven and Woody and David, Danny and Tom and Ethan….. and so on.

    Start asking them why they choose projects that they believe need white casts, and why they work with all white crews.

  3. Daniella Isaacs says:

    I’m sorry to say it, but this posting begs the question: Is it that none of these “Black films” were destined for a nomination, since the prognosticators never ranked them highly, or is it that the prognosticators are (at least unconsciously, at least a little bit) racist, too. I know that sounds harsh, but it all becomes a big circular argument, doesn’t it, with the prognosticators’ subjective calls (to put it as diplomatically as possible) being masked as objective “reading the tea leaves” and the Academy taking cover in what is then seen as “industry/critical consensus.” As I’ve said elsewhere, this is far bigger than just the Academy, and people would do well not to use them as a scapegoat, just as one should never have thought, even for a moment, that racism was suddenly, rapidly declining because people like Halle Barry and Cuba Gooding, Jr. were getting Oscars.

  4. PJ says:

    While it’s true that there were low expectations for nonwhite films, that is exactly what the problem is about…..There is always SURPRISE! If a Kevin Hart film hits #1 at box office but advanced awards buzz for the latest Spielberg snoozer.

  5. Kevin says:

    Great reporting. It seems to confirm that it isn’t that surprising that none of them got nominated, beside Idris Elba and in that case, he might have suffered from the perception that BEASTS OF NO NATION is a TV movie.

    CREED is a great movie that deserved more nominations… STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON too… But CREED could be seen as too commercial (it’s the seventh film in a franchise, like STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS and FURIOUS SEVEN), and COMPTON might be too ballsy for the Academy. As someone pointed out somewhere (I forget where), N.W.A is not exactly as mainstream as Ray Charles…

  6. Karen says:

    The number of films involving people of color are far less then those of Caucasian decent each year, so it could be a numbers thing. There’s just not the same opportunities offered to blacks. It’s like female directors. It’s not fair that’s true, but it could be an explanation for how the nominations played out.

  7. theschu says:

    Dave, I’d be very interested to see a breakdown of non-white nominees/winners over say, the last ten years and then the last ten years before that and maybe even going back another ten years. It would be interesting to see if, despite the lack of diversity in the nominees last year and this year, if there’s been progress in the amount of nominees and winners. I’m inclined to think there has been but I don’t have the numbers.

  8. palmtree says:

    Thanks for this.

    How about David Oyelowo following the same trajectory as Idris Elba last year?

    These two instances of a black actor (both British) receiving so much support for a performance and then missing out on nominations. And it just so happens it would have helped the Academy’s image problem. Were these just two anomalies in the Gurus process? Or was there a reason for this? Genuinely asking.

  9. YancySkancy says:

    Daniela: Well, the prognosticators always have the excuse that they are supposedly just trying to predict what the Academy will do. So even a Guru who loves Straight Outta Compton might think the old white guys in the Academy will never let it in. I guess it’s chicken-or-egg stuff, in a way.

  10. joshua says:

    this is so lame; ok Daniella, do you know what prognosticate even means? They can’t be racist for attempting to predict the behavior of others! They may in fact think the Academy does indeed have a preference for “white” films and this may have partly informed their prognostications, but that in no way suggests that they themselves are a racist group of people.

    oh ya, like Yancy just said, lol

  11. joshua says:

    AND, there’s no way you were “sorry to say it”. I’m quite certain you were the opposite. There’s not a single person who reads this column that wasn’t already rolling there eyeballs about whatever it is you were going to post before even seeing your post.

  12. Movielocke says:

    And yet the pundits all put a goofy Sci fi sequel at the top of their charts and kept it there in every category: result the film got ten nominations rather than 0-3 as usually happens for mainstream may hits, rather it successfully rode a universal campaign to elevate it’s status and push awareness of it as an awards candidate. Thus it was not kicked into the usual outcast ghetto where almost all its brethren are kept segregated.

    Conclusion, pundits could have done for minority performers what they did for the Mario kart movie and ensured nomination (s), instead, they mostly slotted minority performers into token slots at the bottom of their lists. As I said on the other page, this is like bad Search Engine Optimization, getting only token notices by pundits lands minority performers on the metaphorical equivalent of page two of Google search results and from there the SEO behavior is just a self reinforcing negative feedback loop.

    The pundits got a silly blockbuster nominated by shepherding it along every step of the way, no such concerted effort was made for minority performers.

  13. Movielocke says:

    Not to say that pundits are very powerful. The influence is inherently limited. They did as much for mad max as they did for carol and we know how that turned out (miss big categories, performances guaranteed nominations).

    Aggregated lists like the gurus are tools used by voters to parse a years worth of movies, to filter a pile of screeners to figure out what and who to watch. Voters have access to Google and find aggregated predictions on their phones and make snap decisions about what to watch, which is why I say the pundits participating in the aggregation are functioning as search engine optimization for the awards season.

  14. Kevin says:

    I also think pundits have some influence and that if they all put Idris Elba or Michael B. Jordan at #1-2 on their charts all season, that might have helped getting them nominated.

  15. YancySkancy says:

    I thought the pundits only started ranking Mad Max as a serious contender as a reflection of its surprisingly strong showing in critics’ and guild awards.

  16. PJ says:

    That’s exactly what he’s saying. Gurus slept on Mad Max like they slept on Carol. And if you think they are just doing it “to be right”, check the results on Gold Derby. Their predictions are no better then flipping a coin.

  17. Wayman Wong says:

    Just to put things in context: These are all-white prognosticators trying to predict what the 94% white Academy is going to nominate, based on its history. For instance, ”Straight Outta Compton” made the top 10 list for PGA and AFI, and got a SAG Ensemble nomination. However, it probably never charted higher than No. 9 in Oscar nominations, because pundits realize that Academy voters (76% male and average age of 63) are not known for embracing movies about hip hop and black rappers.

    If these prognosticators had to predict, say, the nominations for the NAACP Image Awards, the pundits’ choices would differ and be based more on the tastes and the history of past NAACP Image winners.

  18. YancySkancy says:

    PJ: I don’t think that’s exactly what he was saying at all. Seems to me he was saying the Gurus were pushing Max from the beginning and that’s why it got so many nominations: “…the pundits all put a goofy Sci fi sequel at the top of their charts and kept it there in every category: result the film got ten nominations rather than 0-3 as usually happens for mainstream may hits…”

    I haven’t gone back to look at all the Gurus listings for Mad Max, but I assume any early mentions of it were as a well-reviewed long shot, then its viability rose as the guilds and critics started supporting it. It wouldn’t have made sense for the Gurus prediction lists NOT to reflect that development.

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And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

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