Numlock Awards: Pre-Oscars Mailbag

This is our inaugural mailbag! This turned out to be super fun so we’re going to send out another one the weekend after the Oscars, so send your questions to

We’ve covered as much as we could — thank you so much for all your questions, and we hope these answers help illuminate the state of the race!

I think the Animated Feature Oscar is going to be one of the hardest to predict this year. All the major awards have so far disagreed. Annie went to Klaus, Producers Guild went to Toy Story 4, and Golden Globe went to Missing Link. Additionally, the Annie Awards gave their indie award to I Lost My Body, which is another Oscar nominee! They haven’t all disagreed like this since the Animated Feature Oscar has existed. Can you talk about any tips for predicting this award this year? It looks like the entire Academy votes in this category. - Cameron Smith

MICHAEL: To crib from Walter’s piece on the producers, I’m going to put the most faith in the Producers Guild of America Awards. The entire Academy does vote on this award, and as Walter pointed out, the PGA has significant overlap with the parts of the Academy that are growing the fastest. The Annie Awards are voted on by the Los Angeles branch of International Animation Film Association — in other words, it’s a bit more niche than the PGA, which has a broader membership base. And the Golden Globes, as we all know by now, don’t overlap with the Academy at all. In this case, the PGA went to Toy Story 4, so I’m expecting Pixar to pick up another Oscar.

It seems like the last few years the Acting races have (seemingly) become foregone conclusions really early in the race. Except for Olivia Colman’s surprise win, the favorites all win. Why are those races decided so early, when other categories seem to be up in the air for longer?  - Wiebkejk

WALT: I think this is mostly right, but I would point out that the fact that there are simply more acting races, so the likelihood that a few of them are tied up with a bow might seem higher. For instance, every director race has basically been wrapped up after the DGA, and if we awarded best male director, best female director, best male second unit director and best female second unit director, there’s a pretty good chance most of those would also be wrapped up really early. 

That being said, I love the upsets because I would hate if predicting the Oscars got boring. Awards shows use their power best when they elevate creative work, not simply serve as coronations. I also don’t mind if a performance is just consistently considered good: it’s interesting that the SAG is great at picking acting winners and kind of bad at picture winners, and the source of that split I think comes from the fact that people truly do vote their passion, not the campaign. 

What are really looking at this year's Academy Awards that you feel will help you quite a bit in projecting winners in 2021 and further down the line? - Irish Twilight

WALT: Best Picture will aways be fascinating; I would like to know if the Producers Guild is genuinely getting better at awarding nominees or if they’ve just been lucky, which is entirely possible given the shallow sample. 

This answers a somewhat different question, but longterm I kind of want to see what direction BAFTA goes. Not to go too far off a tangent, but one personal interest of mine is national soft power as it pertains to cultural exports. Basically, countries use gunships and bombers to force other people to do what they want, but “soft power” is is how Country A gets Country B to do what Country A wants, not by military force but by making Country B desire the same things Country A desires. Britain has always been really outstanding at the application of cultural soft power: I could talk a lot more about this, but let’s just say there’s a reason actors get knighthoods. BAFTA’s place has always been interesting as has that of UK performers, but amid globalization I think that place as America’s primary cultural exchange is in jeopardy. It’s hardly the only battleground, but how linked BAFTA and Oscar are is one symptom of that linkage. 

There’s always a lot of discussion about the awards bodies whose members overlap with Academy voters (I think SAG is the big one, since the actors branch of the Academy is so large). It’s also presumed that these blocs repeat their decisions at the subsequent awards shows. Is it worth accounting for the potential that many voters will change their choices?

Do we think last year the SAG Best Actress vote for Glenn Close remained at the Oscars, or did a significant amount of them pivot to Colman? Or even still, did some supporters of the other nominees that year that weren’t winning awards (Gaga, Melissa McCarthy et. al) figure “well they haven’t been winning anything all season, but I hear Colman has a shot and I love her.” - John

WALT: I think it’s possible, but I would argue that I think the fact that the SAG doesn’t really try to “predict” Oscar Best Picture winners — they’re increasingly bad at that — I think they as a branch may be less susceptible to the flipping. The main difference you’re seeing is probably resulting from the fact that the Screen Actors Guild is an enormous union with 116,000 active American members, and the acting branch of the Academy is 1,300 people, less than two percent of that, some of whom are not American. SAG is good, but it’s not a carbon copy. 

Over the past years the Academy has tried several changes to make Oscar Night more relevant and popular. One of these attempts was to create a Popular Award. Do you think we would see new types of awards in the future? Any chance at some point of a form of Best Collective Character awards for Voice-Acting, Motion-Capture, or heavy makeup / prosthesis performances? Any chance that the Academy would retire an award? Jonathan Coloumbe

MICHAEL: Recent reporting suggests that the Academy may be combining Best Sound Editing and Best Sound Mixing into one sound award honoring both the editors and mixers, so it’s pretty likely we’ll see those awards reconfigured in the near future.

As for me, I’m pretty convinced there should be an Oscar for Best Stunts. Bilge Ebiri over at Vulture wrote a pretty convincing push for why the Academy should include a Best Stunts category — first, action movies are a growing part of the movie market so it makes sense to honor some of the craft that goes into them, and second, a bunch of immensely popular films would be in contention, and that never hurts when it comes to the broadcast. I think voice acting and motion capture can be part of the existing acting categories — Scarlett Johansson in Her comes to mind. I would have loved to see her pop up in Best Supporting Actress. Mark Harris wrote in Vanity Fair recently that there should be a Best First Film award — I’m not completely sold on the idea since I’m not sure why first films should be relegated to their own category when so many directorial debuts often perform well at the Oscars (like American Beauty, Beasts of the Southern Wild, and Get Out, to name a few), but it’s something that’s clearly bubbling up.

Parasite is clearly a South Korean film, but is it because of it's director's nationality or the producer's or even the film finance's origins? The Farewell - is a Hollywood movie, but is heavily subtitled that one might think it's a Chinese film. Del Toro won for Shape of Water, but he's a non-U.S. director. Is the movie not Hollywood then

What is the criteria for a film's "nationality?" Rahat Bathija

MICHAEL: I’m surprised to see you all don’t have the Academy’s Rule 13 memorized, but I’ll break it down for you.

Basically, there are a couple of major rules a foreign film must satisfy to be eligible for the Academy Award for Best International Feature Film (known as Best Foreign Language Film until this year). Here are the most relevant rules for the 92nd Oscars:

First, the film must have been released in the submitting country from October 1, 2018, to September 30, 2019. (Kind of a fun thing to note — we’re so used to Oscar season stateside being the end of the year, but any films that came out internationally from October to December aren’t eligible for this Oscar until the following year. So is peak awards season in Japan or Italy or Iran… August?)

Second, the film must feature predominantly non-English dialogue. This rule has been causing some controversy given that the Academy changed the name of the award from Best Foreign Language Film to Best International Feature Film without changing the underlying rules. This year, Nigeria submitted Lionheart, which features only 11 minutes of non-English dialogue. The Academy then disqualified the submission for not meeting the eligibility criteria. Some, like director Ava DuVernay, pointed out that Nigeria’s official language is… English. So unless Nigeria submits a film that is not in its native language, it is ineligible for this award, for the time being. (For those who want more reading on this issue, you can read this IndieWire article.)

And finally, the submitting country must certify that “creative control of the film was largely in the hands of citizens or residents of that country.” As you can imagine, this vague language hasn’t been super helpful, leading to one of my favorite historical footnotes in this category. Back in 1992, A Place in the World premiered and started winning a bunch of awards at film festivals and the like. And why wouldn’t it? The film follows a group of Argentines and their thoughts on hot-button topics as Argentina readjusts to democracy after years of military rule. The only issue? Uruguay submitted it to the Oscars, not Argentina. Argentina actually submitted the un-nominated The Dark Side of the Heart. Uruguay’s submission made the final five and was nominated for an Oscar, before the Academy realized that the film had a cast full of Argentines, was directed by an Argentine, and was shot in Argentina. An investor and co-writer were Uruguayan — that’s it! So, the Academy revoked the nomination and issued a new guideline that “individuals with producer credit whose contributions were essentially financial will not be regarded as satisfying the requirement.”

I could go on and on about this last requirement — it’s disqualified films like Maria Full of Grace and Wolf Totem — but I’ll let you all live your lives.

So what does all of this mean? The movie has to (1) come out in the submitting country in the allotted time window, (2) feature predominantly non-English dialogue, and (3) have been creatively controlled by citizens or residents of the submitting country. As for The Farewell, it actually didn’t come out in China until a few weeks ago, and China chose to submit Ne Zha this year instead. (Next year, The Farewell will not be eligible since it already competed for Oscars in the non-international feature categories.)

What is the impact of being nominated in multiple categories for a movie in terms of its chances of winning specific awards

For example, this year, Parasite is nominated for both Best Picture and Best Foreign Film, as was Roma last year. Does that mean Parasite is pretty much sure to win for Best Foreign Film as none of the other films were nominated for Best Picture and thus the Academy considers them not as good from the start? 

Could we say the same, for example, about Honeyland (nominated for both Best Foreign Film and Best Documentary) and that other non English documentaries (For Sama, The Cave...) have no chance of winning? Jonathan Coloumbe

WALT: Love this question.

First up, the question I thought you were asking: I don’t think the number of nominations in other categories has a huge bearing on Best Picture, and I don’t think real-time wins are especially useful for night-of forecasting. I’ve seen other models that incorporate those things but I’ve never been persuaded that they’re meaningful because they don’t seem to make them any good at predicting the Oscars.

Second, your actual question: the converse, yeah I totally think multiple nominations help in the smaller prizes. The reason is simple, that films competing in multiple categories by definition are more likely to be seen by voters and a small doc with two noms may make it higher on the voter triage list than a small doc with one. It’s also a great indication of the sophistication of a campaign: a film in Best Picture will have a lot more muscle behind it than a typical foreign flick, hence the advantage.

That’s it for now! Remember, we’ll have a post-Oscars mailbag, so send your questions to