It’s our job as Oscarologists to analyze the race and point you to the likeliest nominees and winners, and in many cases this year that’s easy — or at least it seems easy with the awards for acting and directing going to the same people at nearly every Oscar precursor event. But what about Best Picture? With the changing makeup of the academy and the enigmatic preferential ballot, predicting Best Picture is like trying to solve a math problem with only half the numbers. The cold, hard Oscars truth is that the tea leaves may be unreadable. Our compass needles are spinning wildly. Our Magic 8 Ball says, “Reply hazy, try again.” I think any of the nine nominees for Best Picture could plausibly win.
There are usually some hard-and-fast rules we can rely on. You can’t win Best Picture without a nomination for Best Director. This year that counts out “Call Me by Your Name,” “Darkest Hour,” “The Post” and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” You can’t win without a writing nomination — there goes “Phantom Thread” and “Dunkirk.” You can’t win without a Best Editing nomination — so long, “Get Out” and “Lady Bird.” You also can’t win without a SAG nomination for your ensemble cast — bye bye, “The Shape of Water.” Just like that you’ve ruled out all nine nominees for Best Picture.
Every rule is made to be broken every once in a while: “Argo” (2012) won without a directing nom and “Birdman” (2014) without an editing nom, for instance. But after two years in a row with surprise Best Picture winners — “Spotlight” (2015) and “Moonlight” (2016) — it looks like some of the rules may not apply at all anymore. Maybe none of them do but we just haven’t seen them broken yet. The Oscars only adopted the preferential ballot — in which voters rank the Best Picture nominees from best to worst rather than just picking one winner — so the sample size is still too small to clearly identify new patterns and trends. No way could “The Post” win with only one other nomination (Best Actress for Meryl Streep), right? Well, why not? Just because it hasn’t happened yet doesn’t mean it won’t or can’t in this brand new Oscar landscape.
While the preferential ballot has greatly complicated our Oscar predictions, there’s one change that might be even more significant: the changing demographics of the academy. After widespread criticisms over a lack of diversity in the Oscar nominations — reaching their peak in 2014, when all 20 acting nominees were white, prompting the #OscarsSoWhite backlash — the academy committed to expanding its membership. They began inviting a younger, more ethnically and geographically diverse cohort of artists, not to mention more women. Any meaningful demographic shift takes time, but that was probably at least partly responsible for the “Moonlight” upset last year — no film remotely like it had ever won Best Picture.
And after “Moonlight” won the academy added another 774 new members, which brought the total number of academy members to over 8,000. That’s a significant percentage of industry insiders who are voting this year for the first time. There’s no precursor award that can tell us for sure how they’ll vote. And as the motion picture academy strives to represent more women and people of color, it may move out of demographic alignment with other awards groups whose winners we once relied on to foretell the Oscars, like to Producers Guild, Directors Guild and BAFTAs to name a few.
If all that weren’t enough, academy members voted later than usual this year (February 20-27) as a result of the Winter Olympics. So any influence from those precursor awards might have worn off by the time ballots were cast, prompting voters to strike out on their own even more drastically.
Of course, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. While it’s hard out here for a pundit it’s good for a movie-lover, especially one like me who craves greater diversity, not just in terms of race and gender but in terms of point-of-view and opinions. I want an academy that’s not in lockstep with the awards voters who came before, and maybe then those precursors would be less concerned with influencing Oscar and more concerned with reflecting their own idiosyncratic tastes.
That said, depending on how I feel about the Best Picture winner on Sunday night, ask me again on Monday morning how I feel about all those shiny new voters.
Be sure to check out how our experts rank Oscar contenders in all 24 categories. Use the drop-down menus at the top of each page to see the other categories. Then take a look at the most up-to-date combined odds before you make your Oscar winner predictions. Don’t be afraid to jump in now since you can keep changing your predictions until just before winners are announced on March 4.