Numlock Awards: Why Best Picture has so many upsets

An exclusive interview with Rob Richie about the impact ranked-choice voting has on the Oscars.

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.

Something really new and exciting for today! We’re in the part of the season when all eyes are on Best Picture. While most of the Oscars are decided by just a simple first-past-the-post vote, Best Picture is decided by ranked choice. I, like a lot of you, have been really fascinated by this category over the past several years, enjoying the perceived upsets and just attempting to make sense of a category that resists sense.

A key reason for this is that a few years ago, Best Picture switched to this new voting system which just muddies the predictive waters, while all the other categories use first-past-the-post or plurality voting.

I wanted to find an expert to bounce ideas around with about the precise impact this has been having on the Oscar winners. I reached out to the organization that’s been pushing for ranked-choice voting across the country since the ’90s to get into the nitty gritty of why Best Picture — which alone uses ranked-choice to pick the winners — has specifically been so volatile, while the other categories have been easier to forecast.

This week, I’ve got a great conversation with Rob Richie, the executive director of the organization FairVote. This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity. It gets a little nerdy at times, but read to the end for a really fascinating look within the Academy’s thinking on their voting systems.


Walt Hickey: Can you just talk a little bit about, for folks who might be unfamiliar with ranked-choice voting, the reasons why people pursue it? What is it, and what are the advantages of it?

Rob Richie: On the most fundamental level, a ranked-choice ballot is offering the voter an opportunity to indicate backup preferences — ranked choices — rather than just a single choice. That doesn't matter if you only have two choices, because if you only have a single choice and there’re two options, it doesn't matter because one's going to get more votes than the other. But as soon as you introduce a third choice or more, if you're only limited to a single choice, you're leaving your opinion off the table for the other options. You can get an unrepresentative outcome, when you get into these sort of strategic voting things like, “Well, do I vote for the one I most like? But I think that guy's going to lose. I better vote for this other one, it's sort of a lesser of two evils, but better than the third.”

Ranked-choice voting is designed to both allow voters to be more expressive, in a sort of simple way, and more powerful, by giving them this backup to their first choice, with a second choice and a third choice if the first couple of choices can't help their candidate win. So, just giving your vote a backup gives you more power.

On the outcome side, you're trying to get outcomes that are more representative, so that more voters contribute to the outcome. If you're electing one person, rather than someone being able to win a four-candidate race with 29 percent or something, you've got to reach out to more people and, ultimately, win with more than half, and that's the goal of the system. You add up all the first choices, and see if you have a first-round winner with 50 percent or more. If not, the candidate that is in last place is the loser, first loser. They're out, their ballots go to their second choice ranked on those ballots. You rinse and repeat until a candidate surpasses the victory threshold of 50 percent.

What it means functionally, say in a New York City primary, is the winner is not only more reliably representative, but they also will have had incentives to campaign in such a way that they engage with and touch more voters. Often, particularly in primaries or a nonpartisan city race, the winner not only gets over 50 percent, but actually gets ranked first, second or third by 65 to 70 percent of voters, so that you're having that deeper connection between voter and candidate.

I think it's really interesting, particularly within the context of the Academy Awards, just because the goal of it is to make it so that at minimum, at least half of the Academy has a fingerprint on the winner in some way or another. Right?

Right, and that's based on, we don't really know, I don't think they ever released the ballot data. Right?

Nope.


There's one thing that's a complicating feature is some other awards — like the Emmys used to do this — they used to have a ranked-choice ballot, it was like a point system. In a point system, if you indicate a second or third choice, it could hurt your first choice. You're giving your first choice 10 points, and your second choice gets eight points or something. Then actually, by giving your second choice eight points, that can cause your first choice to lose. There's some people who from that experience think, “Oh, I should only rank my top choice,” or something like that.

That's not true of the Oscar system, where your backup choices only count if your first choice is out.

You have to get more than 50 percent in that instant runoff of head-to-head. You can't win by being, say, everyone's second choice. So, you do have to be a film that some people think is the best, and probably a pretty decent share. It is a system that both balances your need to have enough of the passion vote that you're in the mix of the top two or three, but of those ones, you're the one that's the most inclusive choice, the one that people are also willing to rank second and third, and so on.

I really love this part, and I want to explore that last sentence that you said. A lot of the time when watching the Academy Awards, I will feel very, very good that, if you give me three guesses, I'll get the winner for Best Picture like 100 percent of the time, but picking the one winner is always hard. You always kind of have a sense of, “It's going to be between these three.” Just because, again, you see these revealed preferences over the course of the precursor campaign. But what I'm curious about is just how these ranked-choice races tend to come down? Which is, as long as you're in the top three when it comes to preferences, after that, it just kind of shakes out into the overall majority.


It’s a little more unpredictable in a nonpartisan city race or a primary. So, say, if you’re in New York City, there's Scott Stringer, Andrew Yang, Eric Adams and Maya Wiley. There’s these top tier four or five candidates.

The way voters are, certainly in these nonpartisan races, is there's almost always a real coherence to what the individual is doing. If you ask an individual what they’re doing, they have an internally coherent rationale for how they’re ranking, but it’s not often grouped simplistically. It’s not like everyone that ranks a certain candidate first is going to rank the same candidate second. Which means, from a candidate perspective, if you think that candidate is going to go out, the one who has, say, 10 percent of first choices, there are reasons to compete for that vote because those voters aren't just all going to go to the same person, usually.

You translate that to the Academy, it's like, what is the pattern of when a certain movie is going to lose in the algorithm, what's the rationale for that individual voter? It will be different, right? It'll be like, "Well, I really like this kind of film, or I like these kinds of actors, or this kind of costume design,” or something like that.

There's been these critiques of the ranked-choice voting winners, as somehow being...I don't know, less daring or something. It doesn't feel like that's been true to me — it seems like there have been some pretty interesting ones. But also that there's been a lot of overlap with Best Director. Because obviously people are looking for different things sometimes. But is there a different pattern since the ranked-choice voting era of Best Director versus Best Picture?

No, you're really onto something, because Best Director used to be the gold standard in predicting Best Picture, and there's been a deviation recently. It's lost a little bit of its shine. The DGA has just been getting worse, losing its ability to correctly predict the Best Picture winner.

There's a world in which that's just because the DGA hasn't been as aggressive as the Academy has in expanding membership, but there's also a world in which, realistically, the way that we select the Best Director, both for the DGA and for Best Director at the Oscars, is different than how we select Best Picture. So, that's a really interesting point that you've highlighted.

It will be interesting to see if there are different kinds of movies that win in those — the Best Director movie versus the Best Picture movie. And does that say something about the system, or what the system rewards?

Yeah, to give you a little ammunition there, I think we can look at some of the bigger splits recently. So, you saw Damien Chazelle win for
La La Land, but then Moonlight won Best Picture. You also saw when Green Book won, it beat out Roma, but Alfonso Cuarón did win for Best Director. You're seeing more and more split decisions, but I don't think that you're seeing a pattern in Best Picture when it breaks with Best Director. You’re not seeing only popcorn movies win, or only critical darlings — it’s quite mixed.

I know some point to The King's Speech, but The King's Speech also won Best Director. It's like, “Well, I guess there was support for that kind of movie among the Academy voters.”

The ranked-choice algorithm that's used for Best Picture, the instant runoff concept, is used quite widely. Like in New York City, all these other cities, a couple of states now in presidential races, all the Canadian political parties.

What it does — I think that why it's chosen — is it's a bit of a balancing act. In a plurality system, it's the only thing that matters: your first choice, that's it. And in a ranked-choice, in an instant runoff system, it's pretty darn important. You do want to be in those top three choices, almost certainly, to have any chance to win. It's a compromise between another kind of ranked-choice, where it doesn't matter at all what your first choice is. So, it's sort of somewhere in the middle.

Applied to Oscar world, given how a lot of people have thought about Oscar voters traditionally, they wouldn't want the majority winner to always have to win the Oscar.

The big question that we're leading around to is in a plurality system, the person with the highest floor of support can oftentimes succeed. We kind of saw that, not to dredge anything up, but in 2016 with Trump. He didn't really have a particularly high ceiling of support in those primaries, but he had a very reliable floor, and because of the plurality vote he was able to steamroll.

With ranked-choice, it seems like it's less about how high your floor is, and instead it's more about how high your ceiling is. Where, if you don't have north of a majority, or north of a rival contender, you're going to have a hard time building the coalition that you need.

Yeah, and I think that's a great way to say it, with one caveat being that you need enough of a floor to advance out of the first round. You do have to have some core support to be in the mix.

Then after that you better watch out if you have a low ceiling. That's a good way to think about why ranked-choice voting can be interesting, in candidate elections, because you do get these candidates sometimes. Arguably, Trump in the primaries would have been a good example where he did have a ceiling, and he would have had to change that to win in ranked choice.

We actually did a ranked-choice poll during the 2016 primaries, we did it with the College of William and Mary at the time of the Iowa caucuses. And Trump was the plurality first choice and the plurality last choice, among 11 candidates.

He was very polarizing and he did lose the instant runoff at that time to Ted Cruz, who was at his peak of popularity.

That was sort of a pattern we saw, in ranked-choice type polls, that he was generally the first-choice candidate, but he also had a ceiling. That kind of candidate doesn't do as well with a ranked-choice system unless they change their behavior and learn how to raise their ceiling.

Expanding that back to the Oscars, most of, if not all of the precursor awards, tend to be plurality vote systems, first-past-the-post systems. I'm thinking that they're very good for discerning the floor, but they're not as good at discerning the ceiling.


Yes, absolutely.

Roma, it was a Netflix movie, and who knows if the Academy voters at that time just had a ceiling for Netflix movies, or something like that, like, “We're not ready to give up on the cinema yet.” And so that alone might have been the difference for the plurality versus the ranked-choice outcome, which is sort of simplistically looking at it.

That's a movie that does have things that give it a ceiling. Like, obviously, great film, but again, its distribution was Netflix. It is in a different language, which may have presented difficulties for some voters. There is a world in which that's a movie that has the floor that gets it to the top tier of contenders, but it has the ceiling. I think you can also argue La La Land, which is a musical about Los Angeles in an increasingly global Academy, or 1917, which is a war movie, may not be everybody's cup of tea. These are movies that demonstrated having a very robust floor, but lacked the potential ceiling to close the deal, so to speak, under ranked-choice.

Yeah, yeah. Exactly. It's interesting to think about. Then you could get a sort of predictive model, and that's what you're doing. It sounds like you have a pretty sophisticated model for doing your predictions.

It's
fine. I'm very interested in understanding the world, rather than simply trying to model it, but that's one reason that I was really keen to get you on the phone. But sorry, go on.

It's both looking at what's happened in the other award shows, that's going to be a huge predicting thing. And then it's this other one, where you almost have to begin understanding the electorate. That kind of Academy voter electorate, and what are their ceilings? What's going to define them? How is that changing with this infusion of new participants, which is pretty fascinating.

It's a fascinating question, I'm obsessed with it. I'm very interested in voting systems, and I think that it's so cool that the Academy actually makes a go of it and does one of the better ones. It's definitely a really good chance to understand what the benefits are of some of these alternative voting systems.

It's interesting that they chose the ranked-choice system, the single transferable vote, way back in the ’30s for nominations. It really was that insight that they wanted the nominees to be reflective of the Academy voters, so that people felt like they had a stake in the Oscars, which for me is a nice lesson in, “Wouldn't it be nice if we felt that way about Congress?” where you could say, “I have a stake. I have, actually, a voice.” Wouldn't that be nice?

They did that early. You think of some of the other award shows, they're having to have people come in and change the nominations. We have these sort of super people, whatever, this non-democratic process of overriding the nominations because they don't use a fairer approach that just crowdsources, collectively, a set of nominees. There's actually an interesting push to bring that proportional form of ranked-choice voting to the Grammys. It is a lively conversation, within that world.

Can you talk a little bit about when you talked to the Academy about what their goals were when they decided to roll this out?

This is back in the ’90s, and I was just getting going at FairVote, and found out about this use of the proportional form of ranked-choice voting, single transferable vote for nominations. This is in pre-internet land, so I wrote a letter to the Academy, and I got a really nice letter back from the then-Executive Director. It wasn't directly this — I picked up on what I felt his intent was — but basically he was appreciative that I was appreciative of their use of this fair nomination system. He had a line about, “this gives more people a stake in Oscar night.” Then he said something to the effect of, “Well, there's sort of a debate about what we want for winning Oscars. And we certainly want to,” — and this is many years ago, so I'm not quoting it exactly right, but — “we want to have some excitement on Oscar Night,” or something like that.

The way I read it, I was like, “Oh, right. You actually want upsets.” They actually want a plurality outcome, where not what everyone thinks should win, will win. You want to draw people to Oscar night, and then you want to have like, “Wow, how did that actor win?” So, that plurality voting was actually almost a virtue in that it can be surprising sometimes, which I thought was interesting.

Then when they went to 10 movies, they expanded the number of nominations. They didn't want to a real outlier to win with 14 percent of the vote or something.

I think the expanded field was what allowed them to use a fairer system for Best Picture. It just created enough conjecture and mulling. Kind of that same thing you were saying, “Well, I can get it down to three, but I just don't know for sure which of those three.” That's exactly what they want, right? They want you to not know.

So, even though ranked-choice voting is a reliable, fairer system, the fact that it's a complex enough field that you don't know for sure speaks to their interests of having surprises while they can still have a fairer outcome than some really bad movie winning, or something like that.

It's worked in that sense, in that even the conversation we're having is sort of grounded in, “Well, it's hard to know.” They actually want to have suspense, and not have like, “Well, everyone knows it's going to be Nomadland, so forget it.” Or something like that. And probably it will be Nomadland, but it might be Minari. And that's where people can have these conversations, that ranked-choice voting invites speculation. In a way, if I'm an Oscar organizer, I actually like that.

Can you just tell me, as we wrap it up, a little bit about your organization? Where can folks find your work and the work that you all do?


Yes. So, we're FairVote, FairVote.org, and have carried the lantern for these fairer voting systems since the ’90s. What's been really exciting for us is, in the last five years in particular, it's just taken off. I wouldn't say we're at a tipping point, but we're at a point where, say, New York City is using ranked-choice voting, and we expect maybe a double digit number of Utah cities to end up using ranked-choice voting this fall, and Virginia Republicans are using it to nominate their candidates for governor, and Democrats in four states did it for presidential primaries.

There's now a really fun, lively conversation in Congress, that is an increasing focus for us as an organization, on what we ultimately can do in Congress. Because we do feel that a breakdown of political norms and polarization is creating a real conversation about how to change political incentives through new, better voting systems.

We think within the next 10 years, we all might follow the Academy, in some of its choices.

Share

Numlock Awards: How the BAFTAs and DGA have set us up for Oscar night

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.

We have all the knowledge we’re going to get when it comes to what’s going to happen going into Oscar night. I’ve got a few fun things coming up, but for now let’s see where we’re at according to the model.

To recap the usual spiel: The model works by assigning a weight to each precursor award given the historical reliability of that precursor prize correctly predicting the Oscar. You get a fifth of the credit if you score a nomination and full credit if you win it. You can see the weights for all precursors in this spreadsheet.

Best Actress

Frances McDormand (Nomadland) won the BAFTA, Viola Davis (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) won the SAG, Carey Mulligan (Promising Young Woman) won the Critics’ Choice, and Andra Day (The United States vs. Billie Holiday) won the Golden Globe for Drama. It’s a completely split decision, and anyone’s game.

As the Academy changes, we’re continually hunting for new understanding about how the different precursor awards are getting better or getting worse at rolling with the changes of the Academy. We already went into this year with a pretty openminded definition of what a predictive success looks like given the unprecedented conditions of this award season, but needless to say this one is very much a tossup. Good news is that we’ll get some decent insight into which precursors in Best Actress are really worth looking at; split decisions between SAG and BAFTA are always informative.

Best Actor

Hopkins (The Father) won his fourth BAFTA award, the first major prize this season to not go to the late Chadwick Boseman (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom)

To me, Boseman is still pretty much a lock. The Hopkins win complicates things, but if anything shows the BAFTAs still do love rewarding the local talent. That sort of home-field advantage isn’t to be ignored: this is Hopkins’ third competitive BAFTA, though he’s only got the one Oscar.

Best Director

Chloé Zhao is one Oscar away from pulling off a perfect game! After enormously predictive wins at BAFTA and at the DGA, she’s won every major precursor. As I wrote about last week, Zhao has cleaned up among the local critics’ prizes in a manner that no director, actor or actress has over the past three decades.

Best Picture

Nomadland notched wins at BAFTA and at DGA. It’s now the frontrunner going into Oscar night, but this year is very weird and you never really want to say that a Best Picture nominee is a prohibitive frontrunner given the ranked-choice voting used by the Academy to select the winner.

I’m going to get more into this over the next couple of weeks, but ranked-choice voting has an effect of being sort of a referendum on frontrunners. In order to win, a film must (functionally) lead its nearest rivals on at least 50 percent of ballots. The plain and simple of it is that a film simply cannot win if it’s got just 49 percent support compared to its nearest competitors. The Oscar precursors don’t use this style of voting, and as a result what we get is an understanding of what the floor is for support of different films, while what we must know to discern Best Picture is an understanding of the ceiling.

Again, I’ll go into this later, but the result is that Best Picture has been upset-prone lately and there is a reason for it.

Best Supporting Actress

Yuh-jung Youn (Minari) has cemented her lead with wins at BAFTA and SAG. While she’s been in the lead all season, many of her early wins were spread across lots of local critics and as a result this category looked a little murkier a few weeks back. After a decisive two weeks, she goes into Oscar night a frontrunner.

Best Supporting Actor

Daniel Kaluuya has run the gauntlet, and while his performance among the local critics’ prizes was not as decisive as Zhao’s in directing, he’s also run the table at the top awards and enters Oscar night a striking frontrunner with no major competitor.

Numlock Awards: Meet the documentary shorts, five nominees you could watch in an afternoon

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 Michael.

Let’s continue our deep dives into some of the lesser-known categories with the Documentary Shorts, which include everything from an Ava DuVernay-produced doc to a movie featured in a virtual reality video game. The nominees are:

Colette

Colette tells the story of a French resistance fighter who, years after World War II, finally visits Germany and the concentration camp where her brother was killed.

Colette is featured in the virtual reality video game Medal of Honor: Above and Beyond. I don’t know how much folks know about first-person shooters, but Medal of Honor has a pretty fascinating back story. In 1997, Steven Spielberg shepherded the creation of the original Medal of Honor, a realistic WWII-based shooter. A few years later, another long-running franchise got off the ground with its own WWII take: Call of Duty.

As insanely toxic as some of those games’ communities have become, they did originate with a three-time Academy Award winning director who was trying to move games away from fantasy and into historical reality. And Medal of Honor has always been something of the responsible, mature older brother to Call of Duty’s insane younger brother who wrecks your parents’ car on a midnight run to Denny’s.

Speaking of brothers: Colette was directed by Anthony Giacchino, younger brother of Michael Giacchino, who you may know as the Oscar-winning composer of Up and Lost or the composer of, you guessed it, the original Medal of Honor games.

“It was imperative that we go beyond the use of archival footage because we’re running out of time to preserve these oral histories,” Giacchino told the Oculus blog. “Whether this documentary wins or loses, we’re fortunate to have heard Colette’s story and played a small part in bringing healing to one of the last survivors of the French Resistance and all it stood for.”

A Concerto Is a Conversation

Kris Bowers is a young composer who’s worked on the scores of Bridgerton, The United States vs. Billie Holliday, and Best Picture winner Green Book. (Remember Green Book??)

He’s also now an Oscar nominee for the documentary short A Concerto Is a Conversation, which shows Bowers tracing his family history through interviews with his grandfather, Horace Bowers. Horace grew up in the Jim Crow South and hitchhiked his way out in the 1940s, landing in Los Angeles.

Ava DuVernay is an executive producer on the documentary, which is part of The New York Times’ Op-Docs series. The short was directed by Bowers himself and filmmaker Ben Proudfoot who, according to his website, was “once a world champion in sleight-of-hand magic.” I’m not really sure what the world championships for sleight-of-hand magic are, but I’d love to see an Op-Doc on those.

It’s only 13 minutes, and I highly recommend watching it, especially if you are in the mood for a good, uplifting kind of cry.

Do Not Split

Anders Hammer directed Do Not Split, about the 2019-2020 protests in Hong Kong.

“It was very difficult to understand how this would work. How could this small group of young people fight China?” Anders told Vox. “At the same time, it was really something unique to watch how they work together. You could really sense that solidarity among the protesters, and a great deal of sacrifice and this communion feeling in the street.”

As you may imagine, it wasn’t always the easiest documentary to shoot.

“I was also hit by some rubber bullets… I broke my nose,” he told Deadline. “That was the worst that happened to me, and that hurt, but it wasn’t a big problem.”

The topic of the documentary may have been one of the factors contributing to Hong Kong’s TVB station’s decision not to air the Oscars telecast this year for the first time since 1969.

Hunger Ward

Skye Fitzgerald’s Hunger Ward takes audiences inside feeding centers in Yemen, where healthcare workers are fighting against starvation. The film focuses on two healthcare professionals in particular: Dr. Aida Alsadeeq and nurse Mekkia Mahdi.

It took almost nine months just to get the visas to enter the country to film the short, according to the LA Times. After just two hours of filming, Fitzgerald and his crew witnessed a child die.

“We didn’t set out to do an NGO video about starving children,” he told the Times. “We set out to try to do something where, hopefully, at the end of it, people would understand on a deep and visceral level what it’s like to lose a child in 2020 from hunger.”

This is Fitzgerald’s second Oscar nomination — his first was for the documentary short Lifeboat, about volunteers trying to help refugees in the Mediterranean. Despite its subject matter, the film is being released by MTV Documentary Films, because vertical integration makes no sense.

A Love Song for Latasha

A Love Song for Latasha tells the story of Latasha Harlins, who was killed in 1991. The subsequent criminal trial of Soon Ja Du — resulting in probation instead of jail time — right before the acquittal of the officers in the Rodney King case helped spark the L.A. riots of 1992.

Director Sophia Nahli Allison spoke to Harlins’ cousin and best friend to paint a picture of who Harlins was in life.

“I really wanted the image of a Black girl to be seen throughout all of A Love Song for Latasha, that no matter the story we’re listening to, we’re always seeing a young Black girl on the screen, we’re always remembering a young Black girl is who we are discussing,” Allison told Deadline. “It’s never a woman.”

And it seems like viewers are responding to the short doc — Netflix provided some data to Variety in the wake of the Oscar nominations, and A Love Song for Latasha saw the biggest post-Oscar viewership bump, rising 1,802 percent in the seven days after the nominations.

Numlock Awards: The state of the acting races post-SAG

Best Actress is going to be a fun one.

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.

Last night was the SAG awards! It was a really fascinating night, particularly in the Best Supporting Actress and Best Actress prizes. Here’s how we look.

Best Supporting Actress

Based on her incredibly strong performance among local critics, as well as the more modest predictability of the Critics’ Choice and the Golden Globes, Yuh-jung Youn (Minari) has actually been a slight lead the whole race so far. The win at SAG really cements that, and this win will probably get people to realize the true state of the race.

The showdown at BAFTA will determine if it’s a tight race going into Oscar night between Youn and Bakalova, or if Youn is a strong favorite. Either way, last night’s result affirms what the critics indicated.

Best Supporting Actor

Supporting Actor is looking pretty much a lock at this point, with all evidence pointing to a massive lead for Kaluuya. The win at SAG confirms that he’ll be the frontrunner going into the Oscars and the outcome of the BAFTA Awards will tell us whether he’s considered a lock or merely a strong favorite.

Best Actor

I mean this is a lock at this point. This is an outstanding category with incredibly strong performances top to bottom but this is looking like a W for Boseman.

Best Actress

Madness reigns. I have absolutely no idea what’s going to happen in this.

Viola Davis’ win at SAG puts her in striking position for a second Oscar. She’s not up at BAFTA, but this category will not be settled going into Oscar night no matter what goes down in the U.K., so either way Davis is now leading the race.

The only nominees up at BAFTA are McDormand (Nomadland) and Kirby (Pieces of a Woman). Each has been nominated multiple times, but have not won any major televised awards. McDormand has the advantage of starring as lead in the current Best Picture front runner, but has not actually appeared at any of the major televised ceremonies this year.

Given the reliability trends we’ve seen over the past couple of years with this category, it will be very interesting to see which group, BAFTA or SAG, has a better read on the Academy, as both have been getting better and better and we’re guaranteed to have a split decision:

Davis has a few things on her side: Chadwick Boseman is probably going to win an Oscar for the movie she’s nominated for, and the film is available to watch on the most popular streaming service on the planet and is about an hour and a half, a series of facts that makes me think it’s a performance that will get in front of a lot of voters.

That all being said: who knows. This category rules and we have a race and I am very excited to see how it shakes out.

Numlock Awards: What's it going to take to make Nomadland a runaway?

Plus, Chloé Zhao is working towards one of the greatest award season performances of all time.

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.

Welcome back!

This Sunday is the Screen Actors Guild Awards, which will illuminate — if not, in several cases, end — a number of our acting prize races. Before those races come to dominate, I wanted to look at the race for Best Picture because it’s possible we’re going to get some new intel at SAG that will potentially set up the primary rival to Nomadland.

The Producers Guild awarded Nomadland a win, launching it from first place to, er, very first place. The PGA is a really predictive award, but it’s even more significant this year because of how it appears the season is going to shake out; I hesitate to say that Nomadland director Chloé Zhao has a DGA Award in the bag, but I simply have never once seen, after scouring more than two decades of data, any year in which a director has swept as thoroughly or decisively as Zhao.

Out of 28 local critics’ prizes that have gone out for this year, Zhao has won 25 of them, losing only in Austin (to Lee Issac Chung, Minari), in London (to Steve McQueen, for the Oscar ineligible Small Axe) and the African American Critics Award (to Regina King, One Night In Miami…).

Since the late ’90s, the single best performance for a director among the local critics was Alfonso Cuarón in 2018, who won 20 out of 31 for Roma; Zhao is beating that well before all the awards are even out yet. Moreover, I actually don’t think I’ve seen a performance as dominant as Zhao in any category; Helen Mirren in The Queen in 2006 is the best I could find for any acting performance and she only won 20 out of 29.

If she keeps it up, Chloé Zhao could have put up the single best award season of any contender in decades.

Simply put, after winning an unprecedented number of local critics’ prizes, the Critics’ Choice, and the Golden Globe, I would be shocked — like, leading a crowd of villagers outside of the Directors Guild headquarters with pitchforks and torches levels of “not really cool with this” — if the DGA doesn’t give Zhao the win.

So with that assumption in mind, Nomadland winning the Producers Guild is actually an outstanding sign for its journey; all signs point to a likely DGA win, and if it were to win those two awards it’s impossible for the film to not be frontrunner on Oscar night.

But here’s the wonderful thing about Oscar night: frontrunners don’t always win.

In the past 10 years alone, there have been three occasions — 1917, La La Land, and Gravity — where a film that won both the DGA Award and the PGA Award did not win. Those later years were each upsets, but winning two of the top prizes hardly guarantees the Oscar.

This is part of the changing Academy, and the precursors going from near locks to mere indication. Earlier this season I looked at the reliability of different precursors over time; the DGA and PGA are not looking so hot:

Now, that leaves us with the SAG Awards this weekend and BAFTAs next weekend. Nomadland didn’t pick up a SAG nomination, so this is a chance to shore up some of the competition. We can play out a few things about each depending on how they go down:

  • The Trial of the Chicago 7 does great at both: In this event, the sole film up at both SAG and BAFTA wins at either or both. This would set up the Sorkin film as the main competitor to Nomadland. Should it fail to win at either, it’s increasingly hard to make the case for its Oscar chances.

  • Minari wins at SAG: This would put Minari in the driver’s seat for a few days, and though it’s not nominated at BAFTA, that could work out in its favor: it may leave it as the underdog to Nomadland should that film win at both BAFTA and the DGA.

  • Da 5 Bloods, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, or One Night In Miami… wins at SAG: None of these films are nominated for the Oscar for best picture. For the purposes of the Oscar Best Picture race, this would be a win for Nomadland as it deprives either of the competing contenders any momentum from the win, and cements its lead. If this event were coupled with a Nomadland win at DGA and BAFTA, this would kind of end the Best Picture race.

  • Promising Young Woman picks up a BAFTA win. Though not nominated at SAG, a head-to-head win at BAFTA against Nomadland would instead place Promising Young Woman firmly in the underdog slot with solid endgame momentum, especially given its bump from the Writers Guild Awards.

That’s where things stand. Nomadland is in excellent position now. It’s currently the frontrunner, it needs one easy break to happen for it to be the guaranteed frontrunner, and it just needs to keep up the pace among the British in order to be a prohibitive frontrunner. While it looks like a fairly straight path to drive, there’s no guarantees of anything this year, and as it stands we’ve seen weirder upsets.

Loading more posts…