Why the Oscar Pundits Got It Wrong This Year

Kevin Winter/Getty
'Moonlight' director Barry Jenkins and playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney onstage at the 89th Academy Awards.

We all predicted that 'La La Land' would win best picture, and we all owe our readers a mea culpa.

The pundits got it wrong. I don’t mean a few of them; I mean almost every single one, at least among those with any media following and any credibility, my colleagues and I included. We all predicted that La La Land would win best picture, and we all owe our readers a mea culpa.

On Sunday night, a friend emailed me to say he’d bet $300 on Moonlight with 8-1 odds — about the same odds any of us would have given him, if we were even that generous. Had he told me in advance, I’d have scoffed; now I’m eating humble pie.

The thought of the Academy rewarding a $1.5 million movie with an all-black cast its top award was unimaginable — a movie, at that, that had failed to win the big litmus-test awards.

There are lessons in this for all of us — from the journalists toiling in their office bubbles to the studio executives who consistently have avoided taking chances on minority-themed pictures. What Moonlight’s victory tells us, above all, is this: Just as so many of us discovered during the recent presidential election, we’ve lost touch with the voters.

During the presidential election, prognosticators overlooked vast swaths of the country teeming with anger and ready for change; during the Oscar campaign, our own prognosticators overlooked a large group of outsiders hailing from the indie and international worlds.

During the election, observers failed to understand how voting systems can make a gigantic difference to the final result; during the Oscar campaign, we failed to give full weight to the impact of a preferential voting system that may benefit less-polarizing films, even if others get more first-round votes.

There are other lessons, too. Here are five takeaways:

1. SAY GOODBYE TO #OSCARSSOWHITE (FOR NOW)

This week’s Oscars — coming three years after 12 Years a Slave was named best picture — gave the lie to any notion that the Academy as a whole is prejudiced. I argued last year — the year of #OscarsSoWhite, when I felt ashamed to see so few people of color receive nominations — that the fault lay more with the studios than the Academy, more with the men and women greenlighting pictures than the ones who get to vote on the finished films. God knows there’s enough blame to go around, but the real problem lies with the studio heads and independent financiers who have refused to back projects starring people of color. The success of Moonlight, Fences and Hidden Figures alone should make Hollywood question outdated notions of what audiences want. So should what’s happening in television, where African-American actresses such as Viola Davis and Kerry Washington have proved their drawing power. Let’s give the Academy kudos this year for recognizing the merits of a tiny movie featuring characters from a social setting most of its members know nothing about.

2. SAY HELLO TO #PUNDITSSOWHITE

Rarely has the gap between expectation and result been as big as it was Sunday night. If the onstage fiasco (when Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway named the wrong best picture) hadn’t overshadowed everything else, there would have been gasps when Moonlight trounced its opponents. Why? Because the depth of its support had failed to register with the analysts calling each play. Time for our pundits to find better sources. Too often, a narrow group creates an echo chamber in which outside voices fail to be heard. That group consists of a few hundred people — awards campaigners, along with older and less diverse Academy members — who appear and re-appear at the same screenings and cocktail parties, along with the journalists who engage with them and repeat what they’re all saying. As with any opinion poll, we need to sample a bigger crowd. Minority members, foreign members, younger as well as older ones, all need to be canvassed — and not just by reporters who bear an unhealthy resemblance to the people they’re currently canvassing.

3. FORGET THE OTHER AWARDS SHOWS

Awards beget other awards. Or so it is believed. It’s no coincidence that one publicist, complaining about the coverage her client received, asked that we show a photo of him receiving an award. That would plant the seeds for other voters to think of him in awards terms, too. But what these Oscars showed was that the different awards overlap far less than we might think, and certainly far less than in recent years. Not even the hitherto-reliable Producers Guild and SAG awards were able to tip us off to the fact that Moonlight was going to win.

4. RECOGNIZE THE ACADEMY HAS CHANGED

The massive effort the Academy underwent to broaden its membership, adding more women, people of color, indie and international filmmakers, may finally have paid off — and that will have to factor in to future awards campaigns. In the past, only a few outliers (Harvey Weinstein, most notably) were adept at targeting members who lay outside the vast voting pools of Los Angeles and New York; now everyone will have to learn to do so. Hollywood may still be the center of the business and of the Academy itself, but other power centers are beginning to emerge and campaigners will have to target them.

5. UNDERSTAND THE VOTING SYSTEM BETTER

In the old days, winning the Oscar was about who got the most votes. Now members rank their choices in order of preference — and in a tight race, those second- and third-place votes truly matter. One theory (unproved) is that La La Land didn’t get enough first-place votes to lock up a win, and was too polarizing to pick up as many second-place votes as Moonlight did. If true, campaigners will now have to encourage voters (1) to think seriously about their second-place choices; and (2) exclude any movie from their ballot that is considered serious competition. 

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