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Oscars 2017: why La La Land is favored to win Best Picture

Awards season and frontrunners, explained for people who don’t follow awards season.

Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.
Image by: Javier Zarracina

The narrative as we head into the 2017 Oscars and the battle for the year’s Best Picture trophy is that La La Land’s win is inevitable. Even among its detractors and amid some recent backlash (which mostly centers on accusations of the film’s racism and/or cultural appropriation, but which you could definitely argue is a result of its popularity), there’s a concession that it will beat out fellow frontrunners Moonlight and Manchester by the Sea, plus the other six nominees on the list.

La La Land’s frontrunner status is akin to being the top-seeded team in a sporting event. It’ll be a major upset if another movie wins Best Picture, not unlike the way tennis fans are stunned when Serena Williams loses in a grand slam or the way basketball fans take notice when any given NBA team manages to beat the superpowered Golden State Warriors.

Of course, the Oscars aren’t decided by a championship tournament. It’s not like La La Land and Moonlight play a best-of-three series. And being the most critically acclaimed movie in the race doesn’t necessarily mean the Best Picture prize is a lock. Winning it is a lot more complicated than that.

One major factor in creating an Oscars frontrunner is which industry awards a film has won in the months leading up to the Oscars. And a big reason La La Land is favored to win Best Picture in 2017 is that it’s already nabbed some of the bigger honors of this year’s awards season. Most of these awards, voted on by various organizations in the film industry (critics, guild members, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, etc.), include a Best Picture honor — and La La Land has won the lion’s share of them, in many cases beating the same contenders it’s up against in the Oscars Best Picture race.

The result: Best Picture is now La La Land’s award to lose. Here’s why.

La La Land has won the awards that matter, and that matters

The Oscars may be the most prestigious film awards handed out each year, but they're certainly not the only film awards. Many different ceremonies are held in the weeks leading up to the Oscars, and some of them are seen as previews or precursors to what will happen on Oscar night.

For example, the Golden Globes divides its Best Picture award into two distinct categories: drama and comedy or musical. This year, La La Land won the comedy or musical category, but the more fascinating race happened in the drama category, where Moonlight beat Manchester by the Sea. That’s a win in Moonlight’s column, possibly indicating that in a three-movie race between Moonlight, La La Land, and Manchester by the Sea, Moonlight would do no worse than second.

There have also been awards where the three Best Picture frontrunners all went head to head. That was the case at the BAFTAs, and La La Land came out on top.

There’s a longstanding debate over whether awards shows that happen before the Oscars, particularly the Golden Globes, actually predict Oscar winners. But a win at the Globes obviously doesn’t hurt. And it’s important to remember that while the Globes might not directly predict Oscar winners, they’re part of a whole awards season of winners and losers; looking at that awards season from a cumulative standpoint provides a picture of which movies are regularly being recognized and helps determine Oscar frontrunners.

As you can see in the graphic above, these pre-Oscars wins can add up. They can also hint at which Best Picture nominees might go home empty-handed. Manchester by the Sea, which opened to great reviews and the National Board of Review win in November seems to be the afterthought, while Moonlight looks to be La La Land’s only true competitor.

However, as FiveThirtyEight explains, some awards are more predictive of the Oscars than others. Walt Hickey writes:

The Directors Guild awards are the most predictive award that we follow in this category: 19 out of the past 25 DGA winners’ movies went on to win the Oscar for best picture. So La La Land [director Damien Chazelle won the award] is definitely the favorite.

Expert observers will look at the way the Directors Guild (DGA), Producers Guild (PGA), Writers Guild (WGA), and Screen Actors Guild (SAG) voted as Oscar predictors, because members of those guilds are often members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences too. Films nominated for Best Picture at the PGA Awards frequently end up being nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars. La La Land won Best Picture at the DGA Awards and the PGA Awards, Moonlight and Arrival took home WGAs, and Hidden Figures — not Moonlight or Manchester by the Sea — won the SAG Award.

What makes La La Land’s win seem even more inevitable is that the Academy has a history of not rewarding progressive stories like Moonlight (see: Brokeback Mountain’s loss to Crash in 2006 or Carol failing to garner a Best Picture nomination in 2016). That history makes a win for La La Land’s musical escapism — over a movie about a black gay man’s tumultuous coming of age — look even more likely.

And with all this in mind, Entertainment Weekly, Vanity Fair, and the Hollywood Reporter have all predicted La La Land will win.

Best Picture doesn’t necessarily go to the nominee with the best reviews

While having lots of critical acclaim doesn’t at all hurt a film’s chances of winning Best Picture, it’s not necessarily an indicator of an Oscar win.

Criticism of any piece of art is an argument or conversation about whether a movie, TV show, song, or even comic book succeeds at telling the story it wants to tell. It’s about examining what the artwork did or didn’t do well. And individual movie reviews aren’t usually framed as “this movie is better than that movie.” (Think pieces that compare the merits of one artwork to those of another usually come out after awards shows, rather than around individual film, show, or album releases.)

That said, if you look at the Metacritic score for the nine movies nominated for Best Picture in 2017, Moonlight comes out on top, followed by Manchester by the Sea and La La Land. All three scored above 90, indicating that critics overwhelmingly enjoyed these movies. Lion received the “worst” reviews, notching a still-very-high 69. And if any movie was snubbed, it might be Jackie, starring Natalie Portman; the film has a Metacritic score of 81 — as high as or higher than five of the nine Best Picture nominees — but didn’t earn a Best Picture nomination.

A quirky wrinkle that works in La La Land’s favor is that even though Moonlight received the better reviews and won the Los Angeles and Chicago critics awards, La La Land won the Critics’ Choice and New York Film Critics Circle awards. It suggests a split among critics — a sign that Moonlight isn’t the overwhelming critical favorite even though it has the better overall score.

For Moonlight fans and those who love an upset, here’s a ray of hope: Last year, The Revenant won several of the awards that allegedly mattered going into the Oscars, including the famed DGA Award, and was the consensus Best Picture favorite among various publications. But it was Spotlight — which had also won important guild awards, the WGA and the SAG — that ultimately took Best Picture.

There’s always a chance La La Land misses out, of course. But as the recipient of this year’s DGA Award and PGA Award, in addition to being the overwhelming favorite, it will be extremely hard to beat.

Watch: The Oscars’ voting process awards safe movies

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