2018 Oscars explained: How I knew ‘The Shape of Water’ would beat ‘Three Billboards’ for Best Picture

2018 was one of the closest Best Picture races in recent Oscar history as “Lady Bird,” “Get Out,” “Dunkirk,” “The Shape of Water,” “The Post,” “Call Me by Your Name” and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” all jockeyed for position over the many months of the season. At best our nearly 7,000 users who made their predictions were able to narrow down the race to three films: “Get Out,” “Shape” and “Three Billboards,” with “Three Billboards” pulling ahead in the week leading up to Oscars. But I stubbornly stuck with “Shape of Water” even though it had as much going against it as it had going for it. It ended up winning Best Picture. Here’s why:

1. “Three Billboards” was divisive — In a plurality vote, when the voters pick just one winner, it doesn’t matter how many people dislike your film as long as enough people love it. But since 2009 the Oscars have decided Best Picture with a preferential ballot where voters rank the nominees from best to worst. So a film with as many potential last-place votes as first-place votes is at a disadvantage. And the backlash against “Billboards” for how it absolves a police officer (Sam Rockwell) after acts of racist brutality, even if that backlash never reached any kind of grand public crescendo, might have been enough to put some voters off in the Black Lives Matter era. That resistance from the motion picture academy might have been even stronger as the organization has sought out more diverse members in recent years.

2. “Three Billboards” was snubbed for Best Director — Many thought Martin McDonagh‘s Oscar snub for Best Director was a fluke like Ben Affleck‘s snub for “Argo” (2012), which won Best Picture anyway. And Picture/Director splits had become unusually frequent: before “Shape of Water,” the two categories diverged in four of the last five years. Was Best Director still even needed to win Best Picture anymore? But Affleck and McDonagh had drastically different circumstances. After Affleck’s snub there was such shock that Affleck ended up sweeping every other Best Director award he was nominated for, including the Golden Globe, Critics’ Choice, the Directors Guild and BAFTA. Awards voters didn’t rally around McDonagh the same way. In fact, by the time the Oscar nominations were announced consensus for Best Director was already starting to form around Guillermo Del Toro for “Shape of Water.” So in this case it seemed like the Best Director snub meant the academy just wasn’t that into “Three Billboards.”

3. “Three Billboards” needed to win Best Original Screenplay, and that was going to be tough — The race for Best Original Screenplay was one of the hardest to predict all season with top Best Picture contenders “Get Out,” “Lady Bird,” “Shape of Water” and “Three Billboards” all jockeying for position. Every Best Picture winner from the last 14 years had won for writing, directing, or both. Since “Three Billboards” was snubbed for Best Director, I thought it needed that writing award to stay alive, and while it was indeed a strong contender there — it had won the Golden Globe and BAFTA — it lost head-to-head against “Get Out” at the Critics’ Choice Awards and “Lady Bird” at the Independent Spirit Awards. “Get Out” also won the Writers Guild Award where “Three Billboards” wasn’t eligible, and that strengthened the momentum for “Get Out” overall, especially as writer Jordan Peele had more and more opportunities to give stirring acceptance speeches. So when Peele won on Oscar night I had a hunch “Three Billboards” was on life support in the top category.

4. “The Shape of Water” won the Producers Guild Award — It’s true, the PGA Award had disagreed with the Oscars for the last two years — going with “The Big Short” over “Spotlight” (2015), “La La Land” over “Moonlight” (2016) — but when it comes to the preferential ballot they’re the only game in town when it comes to replicating the method of voting that the Oscars use. Because “Shape” won PGA we knew that it could win on a consensus-driven preferential vote despite its unorthodox inter-species romance.

5. “The Shape of Water” is uplifting — Granted, films don’t always need to feel good to win Oscar. Just look at gritty Best Picture winners like “The Departed” (2006), “No Country for Old Men” (2007) and “The Hurt Locker” (2009). “Three Billboards” would have fit that darker mold. But on a preferential ballot it might help to be huggable. “The King’s Speech” (2010), “The Artist” (2011), “Argo” (2012) and “Moonlight” were all sympathetic films with a sense of triumph or uplift. Similarly, the heroic outcasts of “The Shape of Water” might have made the film too likable to rank last on many ballots.

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