Numlock Awards: 2021 End of season Mailbag and wrap-up

Numlock Awards is your one-stop awards season newsletter, and it’s back! Every week, join Walt Hickey and Michael Domanico as they break down the math behind the Oscars and the best narratives going into film’s biggest night. Today’s edition comes from Walter and Michael.

Thanks to everyone for your questions! Let’s dive in.

I did read in a lot of the predictions that Nomadland was the favorite to win Best Picture but a lot of people said that if there was an upset then it would be Minari. Why do you think Minari was the upset pick if it didn’t win any precursor awards? — Cameron Smith

Michael: Here was my thinking on Minari as spoiler.

First, the film was playing well with the actors, a large branch of the Academy (though its vote power is shrinking, as Walter has laid out). Still, Yuh-jung Youn was consistently winning awards at ceremonies like SAG and BAFTA, and Steven Yeun racked up his fair share nominations. The cast also got a coveted ensemble nomination at the SAG Awards, so there was clearly a lot of support for the actors.

Second, Lee Isaac Chung picked up a lot of Best Director nominations — not just at the Oscars, but also at the BAFTAs, the Critics’ Choice Awards, DGA, and plenty of local critics. In general, films that win Best Picture also land a director nomination, so Minari also checked off that box.

Finally, the movie seemed to be peaking at the right time — Yuh-jung Youn’s acceptance speeches would go viral, young co-star Alan Kim was showing up on talk shows like Jimmy Kimmel Live, and there were few, if any, Minari detractors. While the controversy over the way Amazon is depicted in Nomadland clearly did not hurt the movie much with Oscar voters, I thought that Minari could be an upset given its wide appeal and the funky way Best Picture math works.

Is there any relationship between doing well at the Oscars and when a movie has a theatrical release? Do more recent movies get more awards? Is there a sweet spot so voters watch it, absorb it, and thus vote for it? — T.J. Breshears

Michael: There are a lot of theories as to when you should release your movie for maximum awards potential. The New York Times has a good rundown of how the team behind The Father thought about releasing the film. Originally planned for a November release, The Father then shifted to late February (though Academy voters received access back in November). The thinking was: let high-profile movies like Sound of Metal and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom get a lot of attention early on but then get lost in the shuffle on Amazon and Netflix, which have many other offerings. All the while, The Father would be slowly building buzz and exclusively in theaters and on premium VOD. Clearly, it worked.

However, if there were a sweet spot, every movie would be released then. The two buckets tend to be: 1) premiere at some film festivals, build some buzz, and make sure you leave enough time for people to start talking about your tiny indie by releasing in the summer or early fall (think The Hurt Locker or Moonlight); 2) premiere at some film festivals, build some buzz, but let the anticipation slowly mount by holding off on release until Thanksgiving/December, allowing you to peak at the right time (think The Shape of Water or The King’s Speech).

The downside to option one is that your movie may eventually be forgotten — the end of the year is so jam-packed with Oscar movies, it can be hard to think all the way back to early fall, let alone summer movies. The downside to option two is that your movie may not be able to break through in any meaningful sense because the momentum and conversation have already been taken up by other competitors.

So you really do just have to game out, movie by movie, what works best. And that’s why they have awards consultants, who can earn as much as $50,000 for a Best Picture win. (You can read more about what an awards consultant does here, but it’s everything from courting bloggers to sending out screeners to crafting soundbites you hear endlessly repeated.)

Could you do an article on who constitutes the BAFTA membership and how it overlaps with AMPAS? — Jim Poon

Walter: Good question! The fun fact is we don’t know the actual membership of AMPAS. I have the list of invitations for AMPAS going back like a decade, but there’s never any promise the person actually accepted the invitation and properly joined. That still also leaves out like several thousand people who were in the Academy prior to the 2010s.

That said, the good people at BAFTA do furnish a list of their membership. It’s a little onerous to do membership analysis to find out different things about the demographics of a group, but I have done stuff like it before and am down to look into it.

Is BAFTA a good predictor of the Oscars or rather a strong influencer?  In other words, are there some voters who, seeing that Hopkins and McDormand won a BAFTA, but who haven't made up their mind yet, go and watch (or re-watch) their movies and then decide to vote for them? — Jim Poon

Walter: This is a good question. I’m a believer in predictor over influence. It doesn’t make sense to me that a voter would think “BAFTA liked this so I should vote for it.” I just don’t think people vote like that.

I think the influence of the BAFTAs awards proper is, at most, as a platform for speeches. However, that brings me to my second point, which is that like two million people watched the BAFTAs and while obviously I’m skeptical of television ratings as a measure of genuine impact for a lot of reasons, that doesn’t strike me as moving a lot of votes around.

To me, it makes sense if you look at the precursors like they’re polls. A poll takes a chunk of an electorate, asks them how they think about something, then publishes that information, and as a result we can get a sense of the prevailing attitudes in a contest we actually care about. The BAFTAs take the British chunk of the electorate, SAG takes the acting chunk, the PGA takes in the opinions of the suits. They’re reflections of the state of a race and possibly a proxy for the success of an Oscar campaign. If BAFTA tuned into The Father, it’s an indication that other voters are probably too. It’s why we also value nominations, because simply being in the conversation is an indication that someone did rather well in the poll in question.

How do you predict BAFTA?  Does it become like trying to predict the winner of a big city mayoral race. The Democrat is going to win. How to predict the primary though? — Shawn Nelson

Walter: I’m fine not being able to predict the BAFTA. I think a lot of forecasting is admitting what you really don’t think is possible to forecast — like how I don’t mess with writing or documentary awards, or anything much downballot — and the precursor prediction game is not one I really need to or know how to be a part of.

Where do you go from here in trying to predict best picture? — Irish Twilight

Walter: I’m happy with the progress! Again, I suspect that the past several years have been transitional for the Academy; I simply don’t think they’re going to add 700 people a year indefinitely. I think that the number of people admitted in the last 5 years is a whole lot more than the number of people admitted in the next 5.

As a result, as the volatility of the AMPAS membership goes down, I expect we’ll get progressively better at predicting the winner until we hit sort of a maximum. It’s the reason I explicitly designed the model to value recent years far more than more historical years, to stay hot on the heels of the changing Academy. I don’t think we’re there yet, but I think we’re much closer than we were a few years ago. It’s the first year in a minute where I felt like I was probably doubting our instruments too much, but then again it was a weird, weird year.

That may change if the composition of the precursors changes, if for instance the DGA embarks on a membership expansion, but yeah I feel good about where we are on Best Picture, or at least where we’re heading.

Thanks as always for coming along for the ride! See you in a few months, and go enjoy some movies this year when you can.

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