The Importance of Momentum in the Oscar Race

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” (1982) and “Social Network” (2010) had it, then lost it, respectively, to “Gandhi” and “King’s Speech.” “Platoon” — a film rejected by every major studio — overwhelmed the Academy because of it, and consequently snagged best picture in 1987. Award shows like Golden Globes help build it. Oscar himself has been accused of losing it, time and time again.

“It” is momentum, an elusive formula that can depend on the interplay of a movie’s release date, a studio’s budget, award show wins, and even a star’s campaign. (According to a Variety editor on NPR, Julia Roberts’s superPAC determination to build buzz for friend Javier Bardem by hosting a private screening of “Biutiful” led to the Academy’s new no-endorsement rule.) Even Canada has a say in this complicated algorithm determining the best in American film. And momentum can work for and against not only potential nominees, but also the Academy itself.

The rubber-stamp awards?: the influence of Golden Globes and others “Momentum is now more of an issue than it has ever been,” insists GoldDerby editor Tom O’Neil, who held down the Los Angeles Times’ The Envelope awards beat for years. “You might think Hollywood insiders are curmudgeonly contrarians who, you know, insist on their own ideas of what’s the best performance or the best film, that they might just defy the popular trends and go their own way.”

But with nominations replicating the slate from awards shows like the Golden Globes — down to the winners — “they’re rubber-stamping each other,” O’Neil says. The rare occasion of sweeping awards show has now become commonplace, especially in the supporting actor and actress category. The Oscar offered the promise of the upset — like the year Halle Berry beat out the likes of Sissy Spacek and Judi Dench. Now “The Artist” seems a foregone conclusion, with the biggest suspense on whether Billy Crystal can resuscitate the Oscar telecast itself from last year’s debacle.

Time-shifting Oscar: earlier and earlier broadcast? The last time critics complained of Oscar’s irrelevance, the Academy did something revolutionary: In 2004, the telecast shifted from spring to its current late winter slot. That foreshortened voting season, which may have shafted “Cold Mountain” that year, was supposed to make for a more even playing field for those indie art-house flicks, and in general hand out accolades when those movies were still fresh in people’s minds.

Critics like O’Neil, though, attribute TV sweeps as the real reason for the shift. But maybe the time change did up the suspense, at least in the best picture category. Variety editor Timothy Gray wrote, “For the eight years of 1995-2002, the film with the most Oscar nominations went on to win the top prize 88% of the time. In the eight years since the shift, that drops to 50% of the time. Similarly, a Golden Globe best pic winner went on to Oscar victory 75% between 1995-2002. Since the shift, it’s been 25% … [C]learly there has been some effect. Better or worse? We’ll never know.”

Now that the Academy will end its storied 70-year tradition of hand-counting ballots in favor of electronic voting in 2013, allowing the possibility of an even earlier ceremony, the issue of momentum will become even more frenzied, if not rushed.

Oscar-come-latelies: saving the best movies for last Another thing about momentum is that while it can build fast, it can also burn out quicker. There isn’t an exact formula — yet — that correlates release dates with nominations, but studios tend to push out their Oscar slate in fall and winter. Of course there are exceptions: “The Help” had a summer release (August 10) and “Bridesmaids,” which got Melissa McCarthy the surprising nomination for best supporting actress, debuted even earlier on May 13.

But years like 2006 — in which seven of the films came out before October — are uncommon. Variety noted, “Five of the nine best-pic nominees opened in November or December. It’s become a self-fulfilling truism that year-end films get more awards attention, and the results this year offer assurance the trend will continue.”

A movie has to be an out-and-out breakout like “Silence of the Lambs” — released incongruously on Valentine’s Day, 1991 — to sustain momentum through an entire year.

“That was the archetypal first quarter film we all think,” points out Movieline editor S.T. VanAirsdale. These days, though, aside from the Oscar contenders, January and February can become a dumping ground for mediocre movies. A shame, says Van Airsdale, since “viewers most definitely deserve award- caliber, high-quality, well-made films every month of the year, every weekend of the year. And not just at the arthouse you should be able to go to the multiplex and see wider release that is very intelligently conceived and produced.”

The technique can backfire, as it may have for Warner Bros. Rather than campaign for “Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows – Part 2” (which O’Neil pointed out might be the best-reviewed film of 2011), the studio decided to go with the tried-and-true Clint Eastwood. “J. Edgar,” says VanAirsdale, turned out to be the “Oscar hog that died before it could yield anything.”

But does Canada love it?: traveling film festival circuit The tried-and-true way to build momentum these days is the festival circuit. Early buzz can help garner acting nominations, like Gabourey Sidibe did for “Precious” (she “lost to Sandra Bullock in “The Blind Side“).

That trial run can almost help save studio money. If the films fare well in festivals, they’ll do a one-week release in New York or Los Angeles and spend their budget advertising to the Academy. If it gets a nomination, that can boost box-office momentum in a January release. “It’s a gamble for a lot of these places,” VanAirsdale says.

The circuit has yielded interesting stats along the way. For instance, winning the Palme d’Or prize at the Cannes Film Festival and earning more than $10 million at the box office pretty much secures the Best Picture nomination: That happened with “Taxi Driver” (1976), “Apocalypse Now” (1979) “Pulp Fiction” (1994) and most recently “The Tree of Life.”

The usual route comprises Venice, Telluride, Ontario, New York, and wrapping up in Los Angeles’s American Film Institute.

That yields another interesting coincidence: With the exception of “The Departed” (2006), nothing wins best picture unless it goes through Toronto, where all major media outlets and international press gather. As soon as VanAirdsale heard “Social Network” skipped that Canadian city, he knew the David Fincher flick was doomed. (Fincher’s latest movie, “The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo,” duly paid its respect this year.)

Gratitude gets awarded: good award acceptance speeches You’d think a thank-you speech at another awards show wouldn’t sway Academy voters. Then again, given the history of nominations, they tend to be a sentimental bunch. A good acceptance speech can get you a repeat performance at the Oscars.

“If you win the Golden Globe, that’s your Oscar audition, if you perform well, that contributes to the momentum,” O’Neil says. Gracious thank-yous that got a second chance include Hillary Swank (“Boys Don’t Cry“). Jamie Foxx (“Ray“), and Jean Dujardin (“The Artist“).

Foxx invoked the ghost of his dead grandmother and raised up the Golden Globe award to the heavens as he cried. “What a performance, it cinched his Oscar victory next,” O’Neil recalls. “This year we saw some poignant acceptance speeches by Viola Davis and Octavia at the SAG awards.”

Dujardin’s acceptance was clever in that he said barely a word, instead mouthing his thanks like a proper matinee idol. Because when the mysterious of momentum propels you, sometimes it’s best not to say a thing and just let it happen.