It's crunch time for Academy Awards voters. Balloting for Oscar nominations begins in earnest on December 29 and runs until January 8, with the actual list of nominees announced a week later. Predictions are flying fast and furious, but there are a lot of myths and misunderstandings about how the vote actually works. Here's why a lot of what you think you know about how the Academy is likely to vote is wrong.
Myth No. 1: The Academy is a bunch of old-timers who vote according to their old-school tastes. In fact, the Academy has been reaching out to younger film industry professionals in recent years. And the recruiting effort seems to be working. One measure is that the new online voting system has increased overall participation in the vote. This year, there are 6,124 eligible voters, up from 5,856 two years ago. So the result could be some outside-the-box thinking when it comes to nominees for Best Picture, Best Director, and the acting categories.
Myth No. 2: A movie needs to be released in December in order to remain on the minds of Oscar voters. That used to be true; a less charitable interpretation might be that such a notion is a relic of the time when the Academy was dominated by seniors with supposedly short memories. But in recent years, "The King's Speech" is the only December release to win Best Picture. This year, many of the leading contenders are movies released in the final month of the year, but they're up against movies from the first half of the year, like "The Grand Budapest Hotel" and "Boyhood," or movies from earlier in the fall, like "Birdman" and "Gone Girl." Thanks to the now-common studio practice of sending out DVD screeners to the Academy and other awards groups, movies that have been out of theaters for months have as good a shot as films currently playing on the big screen.
Myth No. 3: Hollywood's liberal politics inevitably bias the vote. Again, that may have been true once. Indeed, Los Angeles Times Oscar pundit Glenn Whipp says unnamed Academy members have suggested to him that they'll snub "American Sniper" because they still haven't forgiven director Clint Eastwood for his empty-chair speech mocking President Obama at the Republican National Convention two years ago.
But if there's one thing Hollywood reveres more than liberal politics, it's success -- artistic or financial. And right now, Eastwood's movie seems to be enjoying both. It's earned good reviews, and its limited release this weekend scored $850,000 from Thursday to Sunday, or an impressive $152,500 per screen, boding well for the movie's ultimate commercial success when it goes wide in January. If there's anything Hollywood might be more reluctant to forgive Eastwood for than his outspoken conservatism, it's the critical and commercial failure of this summer's "Jersey Boys." Just six months later, however, Eastwood is effectively erasing that memory and making a renewed case for himself as a director of material that's both popular and Oscar-worthy.
Myth No. 4: The Academy takes its cues from the critics groups. Well, the critics do help define the conversation by generating lists of movies worthy of consideration. It's because of critics that this year's consensus has coalesced around "Boyhood," "Birdman," "The Theory of Everything," "The Imitation Game," and "The Grand Budapest Hotel," as well as performances like Julianne Moore's in "Still Alice," a movie that no one in the public has yet seen.
Nonetheless, critics' opinions can take a movie only so far. Praise for Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz (both longtime Academy favorites) in "Big Eyes" isn't likely to carry over into Oscar support because the movie is underperforming at the box office. Its opening this weekend on 1,307 screens, many of them booked at the last minute when they became available after multiplex chains balked at showing "The Interview," yielded only $4.4 million, or $2,285 per screen. That move may be seen as overreach by the Weinstein company, usually experts in shepherding difficult movies to Oscar nominations. Again, it's okay for a movie not to be a blockbuster hit -- a modest success is fine for a small indie movie -- but commercial failure, even on indie terms, creates a stench that even lofty-minded Oscar voters can't ignore.
Conversely, critical scorn isn't enough to sink a movie's Oscar chances. Reviewers didn't think much of Angelina Jolie's "Unbroken," but the film is a commercial hit, opening this weekend with $47.3 million over the four-day holiday and generating great word-of-mouth among audiences (as measured by its A- grade at CinemaScore). Plus, Jolie's recent good-will tour, in which the once skin-baring actress has dressed primly and behaved like a serious filmmaker, has done its work in rehabilitating her image and adding to the film's luster. (Plus, there's industry sympathy for Jolie after revelations of the unkind words top executives had for her in e-mails stolen in the Sony hack; she's getting the last laugh now.) "Unbroken" is already the kind of movie that Oscar loves --- the kind of historical-epic, World War II, based-on-a-best-seller, triumph-of-the-human-spirit film that used to be Hollywood's bread-and-butter but which the studios have all but abandoned. That there's now a parallel narrative behind the film (sexy actress defies the critics and the suits to make a high-minded film that's also a box office hit) can only help the Oscar chances of Jolie and her movie, just as it did with Ben Affleck and "Argo."
Myth No. 5: Actors make up the largest and most consequential branch of the Academy. Well, it's true that more members of the Academy are actors than any other profession. There are 1,150 of them, making up nearly a quarter of the membership. It's the prominence of the actors that has led to the notion among pundits that the Screen Actors Guild awards are a strong predictor of the Oscars (since the actors who are Academy members are also SAG voters), or that their prevalence makes the Academy more likely than it might be to vote for actors who stretch (say, those like Eastwood or Jolie who become directors). All that is true, up to a point.
This year, however, the actors' branch actually declined a bit, losing 26 members. And the largest contingency in the Academy is actually the unaffiliated voters -- casting directors, executives, publicists, producers, and members at large -- who comprise 1,606 members and make up 26 percent of the Academy. Unlike the other Academy branches, who all pick the nominees in their own categories, these unaffiliated voters have no award category of their own and vote only to nominate the Best Picture candidates. So they make up a huge wild card; how they'll vote for the Oscars' top prize is anyone's guess.