The 2017 Academy Awards had a shocking ending in more ways than one. First, “La La Land” was announced as the winner for Best Picture — surprising no one. Then, as the romantic musical’s producers delivered their acceptance speeches there was confusion on stage, after which it was revealed that the wrong envelope had been read and that “Moonlight” was the rightful winner for Best Picture — surprising just about everyone. So how did it happen?
We’ll probably learn more about that envelope mix-up in the coming days, but how did “Moonlight” win Best Picture in the first place when all the signs seemed to be pointing to “La La Land,” including the Critics’ Choice Awards, Golden Globes, BAFTA Awards, Producers Guild Awards, and Directors Guild Awards, to name a few? Other than critics’ awards, the only top prize “Moonlight” won along the way was the Golden Globe, but at that event it competed in a separate Best Picture category for dramas and didn’t have to go head-to-head against “La La Land.”
We may never know for sure — unless the Russians hack PricewaterhouseCoopers, the accounting firm that handles Oscar voting — but here are my top five theories for one of the biggest upsets in the awards’ history.
1. The Preferential Ballot
The academy has decided Best Picture using a preferential ballot since 2009, and since then the results have been difficult to anticipate, including recent nail-biter victories by “12 Years a Slave” (2013) and “Spotlight” (2015). The instant runoff voting means that it’s not just the film with the most number-one votes that wins. If a film doesn’t receive 50%-plus-one of the winner votes in the first round, second and third place votes are counted until one film eventually comes out on top (read a more thorough explanation here).
The upshot is that passion doesn’t win Oscar, consensus does. Given the rest of the awards results in favor of “La La Land” — including Best Director (Damien Chazelle) and Best Actress (Emma Stone), categories decided by a simple plurality where whoever gets the most votes wins — it seems likely to me that “La La Land” did get the most first-place votes for Best Picture. However, if you’re a voter whose favorite film was, say, “Hell or High Water,” “Hidden Figures” or “Fences” — films that might have been eliminated earlier in the vote tabulations — it seems now that “Moonlight” was likelier to rank second or third on your ballot than “La La Land.”
2. Rooting Factor
The Oscars love underdog stories, from “Rocky” to “Slumdog Millionaire,” and in this year’s race “Moonlight” wasn’t just the story of an underdog, the film itself was an underdog. A critically acclaimed indie made on a shoestring budget and telling the story of a socially and politically disadvantaged character — a poor, black, gay young man living in Miami — had a strong emotional rooting factor. And because “La La Land” seemed so dominant, that made “Moonlight” into the David of this year’s David-and-Goliath story, not unlike when another little-indie-that-could, “The Hurt Locker,” trounced box office behemoth “Avatar.” So even if academy members didn’t all love “Moonlight,” most of them respected it or at least admired its pluck enough to rank it higher on their ballots.
3. “La La Land” Backlash
If “Moonlight” proves the benefits of an underdog narrative, then “La La Land” demonstrates the peril of being the overdog. Under normal circumstances, “La La Land” seems like a much likelier consensus choice: a feel-good romance with infinitely likable stars that hearkens back to a bygone Hollywood era. But it had been the frontrunner for so long that it risked collapsing under the weight of its own sky-high expectations. People who didn’t like the film might suddenly feel more cause to vote against it. Even fans of the film might have wondered if it merited such overwhelming adoration. And that’s not a question you want voters asking when they’re deciding whether to rank your film first, second, third — or ninth.
Perhaps if “La La Land” had won two or three Golden Globes instead of a record-breaking seven, or if it received 10 or 11 Oscar nominations instead of a record-tying 14, it might not have had such a large target on its back.
4. Responding to Donald Trump and #OscarsSoWhite
Hollywood doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The outside world seeps in, and the election of Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton has had a profound effect on the industry and how it perceives itself and its larger societal role. In a year that seems to have been filled with cultural proxy wars that recalled the Trump/Clinton rivalry — Falcons vs. Patriots at the Super Bowl, Beyonce vs. Adele at the Grammys — voting for “Moonlight” might have felt like a symbolic victory in the face of rising anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, white supremacist sentiment.
And let’s not forget #OscarsSoWhite. While academy members might want to get on their high horse about its liberal values in the face of Donald Trump, they’re still trying to get their own house in order after two straight years of whitewashed acting nominees. Hollywood had something to prove on both fronts.
5. The Snub of “La La Land” for Best Ensemble at the SAG Awards
It seemed silly at the time to think that “La La Land” might be vulnerable just because it didn’t get a SAG Ensemble nomination. After all, it was so dominant everywhere else, and it was mostly a two-hander for Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling and hardly an ensemble piece. But its Oscar loss begs the question: was that the canary in the coal mine? That award has proved consequential in recent years. In close races, “Gravity” (2013) couldn’t win Best Picture without a SAG Ensemble nomination, and neither could “The Revenant” (2015). “La La Land” fell short too. No film has been able to do so since “Braveheart” (1995), so maybe it’s finally time to take SAG more seriously, even when a film seems like a decisive frontrunner in every other way.
What do you think led to “Moonlight’s” shocking Oscars upset? Discuss in the comments below, and join the discussion in our forums.