Oscars 2016: Why no one seems to know what will win Best Picture

This year, your guess may be as good as the experts' when it comes to what movie will win the big prize. Why is the Best Picture race seemingly so hard to predict this time?

Jaap Buitendijk/Paramount Pictures/AP
'The Big Short' stars Steve Carell (l.) and Ryan Gosling (r.).

And the Oscar for Best Picture goes to … well, your guess may be as good as anyone in the industry. 

As movie fans know, there are often one or two films that are viewed as frontrunners for the Best Picture prize in the lead-up to the big night. Through factors including the previous prizes that films have won, movies are viewed as top contenders for Best Picture before the envelope is opened. 

Last year, “Birdman” and “Boyhood” were viewed as the two films vying for dominance. The year before that, “12 Years a Slave” and “Gravity” were called the two rivals for the prize. 

This year? Things aren’t quite as clear. 

The movies “The Big Short,” “The Revenant,” and “Spotlight” are all viewed as contenders for the Best Picture prize, with some critics saying yet another movie like “Mad Max: Fury Road” or “The Martian” could sneak in to win. 

Different subject matter could be dividing voters this year. By the nature of the award, very dissimilar movies are often competing for the Best Picture prize. Movies with different stories and styles – like, for example, 2014’s “12 Years a Slave” and “Gravity” – can be going up against one another. 

“It’s amazing there can ever be any consensus,” Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School, says of the selection process for Best Picture. 

“… ’E.T.’ and ‘Gandhi,’” he says, referring to two films that were nominated for the Best Picture award in 1983. “What do you do with that?” 

And that could be playing into the Best Picture race this year. “Spotlight” is a stolid journalism drama, full of serious discussions and quietly sorting through files. “The Big Short,” which tells the story of various financial experts who foresaw the 2008 crisis, is loud and moves quickly, with celebrity cameos and innovative ways of explaining financial terms to viewers. “The Revenant” is also quite different from its competitors – it’s a wilderness-set, violent drama about a nineteenth-century man trying to live in difficult conditions and looking for revenge. 

“The frontrunners include some really, really different kinds of [movies],” Thompson says. 

In addition, awards given before the Academy Awards have been mostly bestowed on different films.

Awards from the Screen Actors Guild, the Producers Guild, and the Directors Guild of America as well as the Golden Globes are all followed by Oscars fans. For example, in 2013, when the historical drama “Argo” won the Golden Globe for best drama, the SAG Award for best cast, the best director prize from the Directors Guild for Ben Affleck, and the Producers Guild prize for best producers for Affleck, George Clooney, and Grant Heslov, awards season watchers would have viewed it as an upset if “Argo” didn’t win the big prize come Oscars night.

This year, the Golden Globe for best drama went to “The Revenant,” as did the Directors Guild award, but the Producers Guild chose “The Big Short” as their film of the year and the best cast award at the SAG Awards went to “Spotlight.”

The Directors Guild award is often a very strong predictor of what will win (the DGA chose the movie that later won Best Picture 90 percent of the time in the last 10 years), but "Revenant" is not nominated in a best screenplay category, and almost no film has won Best Picture without at least being nominated for a best screenplay prize. You see the trouble everyone's having.

“There is a tendency to look for what got earlier awards and it's all over the place,” Thompson says. 

Thompson says those trying to make an accurate prediction as to what will win Best Picture also shouldn’t count out social issues and, this year, the controversy over the lack of diversity among acting nominees, which led to rule changes for who can vote for the Oscars. 

If voters want to support a movie that has some diversity behind the scenes, Thompson says they could look to “Revenant,” which is directed by Mexican director Alejandro G. Iñárritu. 

“You've got a director, at least,” Thompson says. “You've got some diversity.” 

One group that is probably happy about the lack of seeming certainty? The producers of the Oscars ceremony. 

The telecast has struggled to grow its audience for almost two decades since the 1998 broadcast which saw “Titanic” win Best Picture set a record for viewership. The Oscars still draw an amount of viewers that any broadcast TV show would envy, but last year’s ceremony drew the lowest total amount of viewers in six years. 

“This is probably good news for the ratings of the broadcast,” Thompson says. “There really is the sense this could go any number of ways.”

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