Oscars 2015: It's a Real Race, But Not Between the Movies You Think
Remember just a couple weeks ago, in the days leading up to the Oscar nominations, when there was so much handwringing about how, instead of the populist slate the Academy might have preferred, all the likely nominees were obscure little films that few moviegoers had seen, meaning there would be little rooting interest for viewers and the ratings for the Academy Awards ceremony would plummet? Well, that's not a problem anymore.
There's finally one bona fide blockbuster among the Best Picture nominees: "American Sniper," which has grossed more than $200 million at this writing and may reach $300 million by the time the Oscar show is telecast, four weeks from now.
What's more, there's a genuine cultural battle being fought, at least on the op-ed pages, in blogs, and on cable talk-fests, between "American Sniper" and "Selma." Not that this makes much sense; aside from Best Picture nominations and questions about their historical accuracy, the two films have little in common. Plus, the films aren't as easily shoehorned into political boxes as their supporters and detractors would suggest. After all, "Selma" is a portrait of a moment of moral decision in which neither the traditional right nor the establishment left comes off looking good. And "American Sniper," a film made by a conservative-minded director who nonetheless openly opposed the Iraq War, is confoundingly ambiguous. Clint Eastwood says his movie is an antiwar film, but try telling that to flag-wavers in the audience cheering on Bradley Cooper's Chris Kyle as he blows away the bad guys. Despite what Eastwood says, "Sniper" does not take an overt position on the morality of the Iraq War, of war in general, or of Chris Kyle's actions in combat, with the film noting only the toll that warfare seems to take on the warrior's soul and on his family back home.
At any rate, the box office has already decided the battle between the two films in "Sniper"'s favor. "Selma" has taken in $39 million so far, just one-fifth of "Sniper"'s earnings, and it's not likely to do more than $90 million by the time the Academy Awards ceremony rolls around. If it does make that much, that would be a very good number for a movie with a $20 million budget that has no big stars and focuses on a painful moment in American history that most U.S. moviegoers are too young to remember. It also means there would be a lot of "Selma" fans around to watch the awards show. But they'll be far outnumbered by "American Sniper" fans. (Of course, you could be a fan of both...)
And yet, none of this matters because neither film is going to win Best Picture. Sure, the sheer box office prominence of "American Sniper" will be impossible for Academy voters not to notice, and its six nominations over "Selma's" two gives it a statistical edge, but it's still not going to win any of the top prizes. (Sorry Bradley Cooper, but Best Actor will almost certainly go to Michael Keaton's comeback role in "Birdman" or Eddie Redmayne's physical transformation into the paralyzed Stephen Hawking in "The Theory of Everything.")
Rather, the race still belongs to "Boyhood" and "Birdman," with "The Grand Budapest Hotel" close behind. At this point, "Boyhood" and "Birdman" are neck-and-neck. Sure, "Boyhood" has won nearly every precursor award except two, but they're big ones: the Producers Guild Award and the Screen Actors Guild award for Best Ensemble (the SAG equivalent of Best Picture). Given out this past Saturday, the PGA prize went to "Birdman," and so did the SAG prize the next day. The PGA prize is a strong indicator of the eventual Oscar Best Picture trophy (which also goes to a film's producers); the last seven PGA winners, and 18 out of the last 25, have gone on to win the Oscar. As for the SAG award, there's a strong overlap between the SAG membership and the actor's branch of the Academy, the biggest professional bloc among Academy voters. They're not a majority, but Sunday's win suggests "Birdman" has a lot more Academy support than previously estimated.
Actually the Academy already seemed to have shown "Birdman" more love than "Boyhood," granting Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu's surreal comedy nine nominations to six for RIchard Linklater's drama. (Yes, that's the same number as "American Sniper," but "Boyhood" earned a directing nomination for Linklater, while "Sniper" failed to do so for Clint Eastwood. Historically, it's very rare for a film to win Best Picture without a Best Director nomination.)
Meanwhile, "Budapest" remains a potential spoiler. It has nine nominations, like "Birdman," and it's won a handful of precursor awards, including Best Comedy at the Golden Globes and Critic's Choice Awards earlier this month. Until the weekend after the Oscar nominations, it was, for almost all of 2014, the top-grossing film among this year's Best Picture nominees, with a take of $59 million. (It's since been surpassed by "The Imitation Game," with $61 million, and of course, "American Sniper.") The Academy's traditional lack of respect for comedies will hurt "Budapest" even more than it will the semi-dramatic "Birdman," perhaps leaving the field open for "Boyhood," but at least "Budapest" still has some numbers in its favor.
So by all means, "American Sniper" fans, come swell the ranks of Oscar-show viewers, drive up the ratings, and convince the Academy governors that expanding the Best Picture category from five nominees to as many as 10 wasn't a mistake. But don't be surprised if "Sniper" doesn't win much, and don't blame its losses on liberal politics. After all, "Selma" isn't going to take the brass ring either. In the likelihood of their shared eventual snubbing by the Academy, maybe "American Sniper" and "Selma" fans can at last find common ground.