OSCAR OUTLOOK -- 2/20/17


 Oscar outlook: It's all over, but the shouting – and we'll be hearing plenty of that Feb. 26 at the 89th annual Oscars.

The Academy's final voting ends Tuesday (Feb. 21), closing a long drawn-out season of awards campaigning that started at last May's Cannes Film Festival and continued at festivals in Venice, Telluride, Toronto and New York. An onslaught of honors followed from critics across the country, guilds representing just about everyone who makes movies and some high profile groups devoted to awards giving.

As usual, the pot of gold at the end of the awards rainbow is the Oscars. Thirty-second spots in ABC's telecast of the event are reportedly selling for about $2 million, up from about $1.7 million last year. Impressive as that is, it's only about 40 percent of the $5 million rate that Fox reportedly got for 30-second spots on this year's Super Bowl.

Nonetheless, it all adds up to big profits for ABC as well as for the Academy, for whom the Oscar telecast is its principal source of annual revenue. In 2016 there was about $115 million in ad revenue for the show, itself, and ABC's red carpet pre-show. That was down about 8 percent from roughly $125 million in 2015. Thanks to this year's higher rates, the upcoming ad revenues should be in line with 2015 or even better.

As for the "shouting," not only can we count on hearing the winners' usual Oscar Night shout-outs to their agents, managers, spouses, children, parents and studio heads, but now there's the strong likelihood that we'll also be treated to an evening of rambling but passionate political messages. This is already being referred to in Hollywood as "political diversity" and if there's as much of it as seems likely, it could translate into a show that's pushing four hours.

That would certainly keep everyone on the edge of their seats way longer than they'd prefer in order to find out whose name is in the best picture sealed envelope. To help set up the best possible expectations, here are some thoughts about the nine best picture contenders and why they may or may not do well.

 Although the Academy nominated nine films for best picture, they weren't all created equal. The lucky ones also received noms in three other prime categories -- directing, film editing and acting.

Only three of the nine nominees actually fall into that elite group – "Hacksaw Ridge," "La La Land" and "Moonlight."

"Arrival" narrowly missed being included because it has no acting nom. Amy Adams was widely expected to land a best actress Oscar nom for her performance in the sci-fi drama, but Academy members didn't deliver.

Insiders have speculated that Adams' "slot" went, instead, to Meryl Streep ("Florence Foster Jenkins") in support of her politically charged remarks at the Golden Globes or to Ruth Negga ("Loving") in support of diversity, which is very much on the Academy's mind this year. Or, perhaps, that's not what happened. No one really knows.

Adams did, however, get well deserved best actress nods from the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (Golden Globes), the British Academy (BAFTA's) and the Broadcast Film Critics Association (Critics Choice Awards) -- but she didn't win any of those races.

Landing an Oscar acting nom is very important for a best picture contender because actors make up the Academy's largest voting branch – 1,158 of the 6,687 voting members or about 17 percent of the total. It helps if the actors branch has blessed a best picture contender with at least one of its four noms. Generally, best picture winners also take home an acting Oscar.

Best directing nods have gone hand-in-hand with best picture noms for many years, but not always. In 2012, for instance, "Argo" won best picture, but its director, Ben Affleck, wasn't even an Oscar nominee. Affleck did, however, win the Directors Guild of America (DGA) Award. The best directing Oscar went to Ang Lee for "Life of Pi."

Film editing is widely regarded by Academy watchers as a key nomination because no film since 1980 has won best picture without being a film editing nominee – except for "Birdman" in 2014.

That said, "Hacksaw," "LLL" and "Moonlight" have an enviable edge, but only two of them have really resonated with awards givers who are traditionally good bellwethers for the Oscars.

"Hacksaw" struck out in the SAG, Producers Guild of America (PGA), Golden Globes and BAFTA races and didn't even get into the DGA contest. That's not to say that Academy voters still might not go for Mel Gibson for directing or Andrew Garfield for best actor, but the odds don't favor it.

"LLL," on the other hand, has been winning big all season, including -- the DGA (Damien Chazelle), PGA (best picture), SAG (female lead actor – Emma Stone), Globes (4 wins including best picture-musical or comedy) and BAFTA's (5 wins including best picture).

There's great Oscar momentum now for "LLL" from all those big wins and from the ongoing media coverage of all the lovely acceptance speeches Chazelle and Stone have been making. "LLL" already looks like a winner, which is exactly where a best picture contender wants to be as Academy voting winds down.

On the other hand, there are no sure things where the Oscars are concerned. The Academy's byzantine preferential voting system can generate surprises that it takes an accountant to understand. And other factors besides earlier wins can significantly influence Oscar voting.

One of those factors is diversity, which is now a major consideration for Academy members. After two years of widespread criticism for #Oscarssowhite nominations, Academy members overwhelmingly embraced diversity with this year's noms. "Moonlight" is the only member of the trio of elite best picture nominees above that can also lay claim to diversity – and that's a big advantage.

While it hasn't achieved 'LLL's" level of prior awards success, "Moonlight" did shine in a few high profile contests. It won the best picture-drama Globe and also won SAG's male and female supporting actor awards (Mahershala Ali and Naomie Harris).

Although "Moonlight" scored BAFTA noms for supporting actor and actress, it lost in both races – to Dev Patel for "Lion" and to Viola Davis for "Fences." Both "Lion" and "Fences" are also diversity driven titles that are in Oscar's best picture sweepstakes. 

Neither "Fences" nor "Lion" have Oscar noms for directing or film editing, but they both have high profile acting nods. "Fences" is in the best actor (Denzel Washington) and supporting actress (Viola Davis) races. Both of them won in those categories with SAG.

"Lion" has Oscar nods for supporting actor and actress (Dev Patel and Nicole Kidman). Patel brings diversity status to "Lion." He was born in London to parents of Indian descent, who were originally from Nairobi, Kenya. When Patel won the supporting actor BAFTA,  he immediately moved up on Hollywood handicappers' lists of likely Oscar winners and that put "Lion" in the diversity spotlight.

Also working in Patel's favor is that he didn't get a supporting actor nod from the Academy in 2009 for his widely acclaimed performance in "Slumdog Millionaire," which won eight Oscars, including best picture and directing (Danny Boyle). Academy voters could see "Lion" as a way of making up now for ignoring Patel then.

Another diversity driven best picture nominee to bear in mind while deciding whom to commit to in the office Oscar pool is "Hidden Figures." Although it struck out with the Globes, DGA and PGA, and only received three Oscar noms, "Hidden" did walk off with SAG's best ensemble cast award, the guild's equivalent of a best picture win.

"Hidden" has a supporting actress Oscar nod for Octavia Spencer, which shows there's some actors branch love for her -- although Spencer lost in the SAG race to Viola Davis for "Fences."

Spencer won the supporting actress Oscar in 2012 for "The Help." Davis was a best actress Oscar nominee in 2012 for "Help," but lost to Meryl Streep for "The Iron Lady." She was a supporting actress Oscar nominee in 2009 for "Doubt," but lost to Penelope Cruz for "Vicky Cristina Barcelona."

That same race, by the way, saw Taraji P. Henson nominated for "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button." So she also lost to Cruz. Henson, who stars opposite Davis in "Hidden," isn't an Oscar nominee this time around.

Since "Hidden" emerged as SAG's surprise ensemble cast winner, some Hollywood handicappers have been talking about it as a possible best picture upset. It may not have a directing or film editing nom, but it's very strong on diversity with its three stars -- Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe.

Moreover, "Hidden" has something no other best picture contender has this year – three female leads. That's valuable because not only is the Academy committed to promoting diversity, but it also wants to see more lead roles for women. Naming "Hidden" best picture could, in effect, kill two birds with one golden stone.

Moreover, not only is "Hidden" driven by diversity and female casting, but it's also a biographical drama based on three real life heroes. On top of that, it's a story that inspires pride in America, something Academy members may feel very strongly about these days.

The film's storyline strength is evident in this summary by 20th Century Fox, its distributor: "As the United States raced against Russia to put a man in space, NASA found untapped talent in a group of African-American female mathematicians that served as the brains behind one of the greatest operations in U.S. history. Based on the unbelievably true life stories of three of these women, known as 'human computers,' we follow these women as they quickly rose the ranks of NASA alongside many of history's greatest minds specifically tasked with calculating the momentous launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit, and guaranteeing his safe return.

"Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and Katherine Johnson crossed all gender, race, and professional lines while their brilliance and desire to dream big, beyond anything ever accomplished before by the human race, firmly cemented them in U.S. history as true American heroes."

This gives "Hidden" a dimension that none of its best picture competitors have. Academy members like to celebrate best pictures that are about something "important" and that will reflect well on the Academy with its global audience Oscar night.

Ironically, Academy members are in real life the people who actually make all the sci-fi films, thrillers, comedies, westerns and comic book "popcorn" movies that typically get the short end of the best picture stick when they put on their Oscar hats.

But they do pay attention to how audiences respond to the nominated films. "Hidden" will have grossed about $143.99 million domestically through Presidents Day, according to comScore. Its big competition, "LLL," will have done about $134.3 million for the same period, per comScore.

"Hidden's" boxoffice figures are overwhelmingly bigger than industry estimates for the other diversity driven nominees –"Fences" ($55.3 million), "Lion" ($37.3 million) and "Moonlight" ($21.4 million).

While "LLL" remains the frontrunner and pretty much the safe best picture bet among Oscar bloggers, it does suffer from not being diversity driven and from being a musical comedy drama. That's a genre Academy voters haven't applauded for best picture in recent years because such films aren't about something that's seen as being "important." They lack gravitas, an ingredient Oscar voters love.

The last musical to win best picture was "Chicago" in 2003, which beat four very serious dramas – "Gangs of New York," "The Hours," "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers" and "The Pianist."

It's the same genre issue that works against some of this year's other best picture nominees. "Arrival" is a sci-fi drama and sci-fi's another genre that doesn't get Academy respect when it comes to best picture. Also, it's not diversity driven.

"Hell or High Water" is, essentially, a western drama and there's no best picture love these days for westerns. Here, too, no diversity to celebrate. "Hell" didn't score in earlier prime awards races. It has a film editing nom and a supporting actor nom for Jeff Bridges, but no directing nom.

Other nominees have different built-in problems. "Fences," which has four noms (but not for directing or film editing), is an adaptation of August Wilson's hit stage play. But critics have said it's so faithful an adaptation that it's more theatrical than cinematic. However, it does have the big advantage of diversity.

"Moonlight" is also diversity driven and has a lot more going for it – like eight noms, including directing, film editing and acting. It won the best picture-drama Globe and scored with SAG for male supporting actor (Mahershala Ali), but not for female supporting actor (Naomie Harris).

On the other hand, it's a small indie film that may not be what Academy members have in mind when they think about putting a best picture in front of their worldwide audience.

"Hacksaw Ridge" didn't resonate with earlier awards givers, but it does have directing, film editing and acting noms. It seems to have gotten Mel Gibson out of the Hollywood dog house and that could translate into votes.

"Hacksaw" has a possible advantage in that its World War II storyline is about what's been called "America's Greatest Generation." Many of the Academy's older members fought in the war and are part of that generation. The film's cinematic storytelling and broad visual canvas could also be helpful. But balancing that is its lack of diversity at a time when diversity's more important than ever to the Academy. 

"Manchester by the Sea" has a directing nom (Kenneth Lonergan), but no film editing nom. Its two acting noms are for Casey Affleck (best actor) and Michelle Williams (supporting actress).

"Manchester" was voted best film by the National Board of Review, but hasn't scored since with any of the larger awards groups. Williams has struck out, but Affleck won the best actor-drama Globe and the best actor BAFTA.

But "Manchester" also lacks the advantage of diversity and that's a bigger problem this year than it would have been two or three years ago.                                                     

Bottom line: With so many pros and cons for all nine best picture contenders, Academy members could wind up just spreading the wealth around. That's exactly what British Academy members just did at the BAFTA's and it may also be Oscar's best solution.

They could, for instance, give best picture to "Hidden" and feel good about supporting diversity while honoring a critically acclaimed biographical drama about something "important" with female leads and boxoffice success.

They could vote best directing to Damien Chazelle for "LLL" and feel good about applauding a critically acclaimed original musical drama about a subject near and dear to Academy members' own hearts – Hollywood!

They voted the Hollywood line, by the way, for best picture in three of the last five years – "The Artist" (2012), "Argo" (2013) and "Birdman" (2015).  In two of those three races, the films' directors also won -- Michel Hazanavicius for "Artist" and Alejandro G. Iñárritu for "Birdman." "Argo" director Ben Affleck couldn't win because wasn't nominated by the Academy's directing branch.

Most handicappers expect Emma Stone to win Oscar's best actress for "LLL," just as she did in the SAG, Globes (musical or comedy) and BAFTA races. But Academy members could roll their upset dice here and opt for Isabelle Huppert for the French dramatic thriller "Elle." Huppert won the best actress-drama Globe and looms as a potential Oscar night surprise.

Academy members could feel good voting for Huppert for best actress because she's an iconic actress who at 64 is still very much in her prime. Huppert's earned critical acclaim for her performance in a very well regarded film that's got a serious storyline in which her character outwits a rapist. Voting for Huppert would be embracing a mature woman in a serious lead role, which is right in line with what the Academy wants to achieve on behalf of women through its gender equality efforts.

Moreover, since "Elle" didn't make the short list for the foreign film race and Paul Verhoeven isn't a best directing nominee, Academy members don't have any other way to embrace the movie.

They could vote best actor to Denzel Washington for "Fences," supporting actor to Dev Patel for "Lion" or Mahershala Ali for "Moonlight" and supporting actress to Octavia Spencer for "Hidden" or Viola Davis for "Fences" or Naomie Harris for "Moonlight" and feel very good about hammering home their belief in diversity.

And once Academy members have gotten past those votes, they still have lots of other Oscars to hand out to show some depth of support for their favorites.