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Oscars 2017: How to become an Oscar frontrunner, in 5 “easy” steps

La La Land’s presumed Oscar dominance has very little to do with quality.

Sebastian and Mia prepare for liftoff at the planetarium in La La Land.
Ryan Gosling has the same expression in every La La Land press still.
Dale Robinette/Lionsgate
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

La La Land is the biggest Oscar frontrunner in years. If it loses Best Picture, it will be a genuine shock — bigger, even, than when Crash came from behind to defeat Brokeback Mountain in 2006.

Damien Chazelle’s effervescent musical hopped into the leading position shortly after its first public screenings at the Telluride Film Festival in September, and it’s remained there ever since. Every so often, a film will flirt with challenging it, then gradually fall back.

And yet there’s a consistent misunderstanding of why the film is such a frontrunner, because its critical notices, while very good, aren’t quite as good of those of some of the other nominees. La La Land’s Metacritic score, for instance, is a fantastic 93. That’s great, but it’s nowhere near Moonlight’s 99. La La Land was raved — but Moonlight was raved.

And as with every major Oscar frontrunner, the film has sustained some backlash, because no movie, no matter how good, is good enough to stand up to this much scrutiny.

So what actually makes an Oscar frontrunner? And why do even the most beloved ones face criticism?

There are five major components of an Oscar frontrunner

Schindler’s List
The 1993 Steven Spielberg drama Schindler’s List is one of the biggest Oscar frontrunners ever.

Think of an Oscar frontrunner as a five-legged chair. The more legs you take away, the weaker it becomes. And if it has all five legs to stand on — hello, La La Land! — then it becomes well-nigh unbeatable.

Briefly, those five legs are: subject matter, critical acclaim, box office, precursor awards, and campaign narrative. Let’s take a look at them one by one, then examine them through the prism of a film that hit all five: Schindler’s List, which won Best Picture in 1994.

1) Subject matter

Oscar favorites usually draw from a rather narrow range of topics. War is a popular one, as are the lives of historically significant individuals. An exciting true story will always help, and a story about show business is a big boost, especially under the current voting system. (For an explanation of why — which is impossible to cover in brief — go here.) Finally, musicals often do well.

Because these topics typically aren’t the stuff of genres like fantasy/sci-fi and horror, the Oscars’ favorite subjects tend to limit the genres that are recognized. Films in less Oscar-friendly genres have won — like the fantasy The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King in 2004 and horror thriller Silence of the Lambs in 1992 — but it always helps to have Oscar-friendly subject matter and genre in your corner. And that means usually having a story that feels like it’s about “real people,” even if those people never actually existed.

Schindler’s List wasn’t just about the Holocaust. It was about a real man who helped save countless people from dying in Nazi concentration camps. What’s more, it offered some degree of uplift, since lives were saved. “Important but uplifting” is Oscar catnip.

2) Critical acclaim

It’s very hard to win Best Picture without earning incredible reviews.

Movies have certainly done it, but the Academy generally likes to feel as if it has critical consensus on its side. And that’s particularly true when it comes to the New York and Los Angeles critics that Oscar voters pay the most attention to.

Schindler’s List had no such problem upon its release in December 1993. Critics frequently remarked on how it set a new high-water mark for director Steven Spielberg, and Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times wrote: “While Schindler's List will perhaps benefit from the surprise that it was made by the director of Jaws and Indiana Jones, the truth is that it's a film any director would be proud to see with his or her name above the title.”

3) Box office success

Of the five categories listed here, box office is the least important — but it’s not unimportant. The Oscar for Best Picture rarely goes to a flop, and it’s only gone to a film that made less than $40 million once since 1978 — 2009’s The Hurt Locker, which brought in just over $17 million.

If a movie is perceived as a major box office disappointment, securing a nomination becomes much more difficult — as we saw with 2016’s Silence, at one time considered an Oscar frontrunner until it was released and very few people went to see it. (Curiously, it’s rare for Best Picture to go to a film that performs best out of the nominees at the box office, too. Typically, the honor goes to the film in second or third place.)

Schindler’s List wasn’t a hit on the scale of Spielberg’s other films, but it did make $96 million after its December 1993 release — or just under $200 million in 2017 dollars. For a film about a serious, depressing topic like the Holocaust, that’s a terrific total, and it only helped bolster the idea of the film as an important one.

Steven Spielberg Schindler’s List
Steven Spielberg holds the Oscars he won for directing and producing Schindler’s List.
Dan Groshong/Getty Images

4) Precursor awards

Precursor awards are the most important part of any Oscar race. They’re the interminable number of awards that unfurl throughout each awards season, including everything from critics prizes (the New York Film Critics Circle, the National Society of Film Critics, etc.) to televised ceremonies (the Golden Globes, the Critics’ Choice Awards, etc.) to industry prizes (the Screen Actors Guild, the Directors Guild, etc.).

There are certain precursors that are better to win than others — historically, the Directors Guild and Producers Guild have had the best track record in foreshadowing the Best Picture winner — but every award helps get movies in front of voters. (For much, much more on how precursors work, go here.)

Schindler’s List lost a couple of minor precursors along the way, but it won essentially every major one, including the rare sweep of the three most prestigious critics awards (the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, the NYFCC, and the NSFC). It won the Golden Globe. It won the DGA and PGA. It couldn’t be stopped.

5) The campaign narrative

This is the most nebulous and hardest to understand component of becoming an Oscars frontrunner — but also one of the most important. A film’s campaign narrative basically amounts to whatever trick a team of publicists can use to promote the film as a compelling, deserving contender relative to its fellow nominees.

Campaign narratives often hinge on the filmmakers or performers themselves, and will sometimes take the form of “This is the most important film of the year” or “This filmmaker is overdue” or “This is the scrappy underdog to vote for if you’re tired of the frontrunner.” (That last one rarely wins.) They’re all about how films end up being perceived within the industry — and it’s sometimes hard to pin down just which narratives were most effective until weeks after the Oscars are over.

Schindler’s List had both the “most important film of the year” and “filmmaker is overdue” narratives in its corner. Spielberg, the most successful director of all time, had yet to win a competitive Oscar at that point in his career (he’d previously won an honorary Oscar in 1987). Had Schindler’s been directed by someone else, it would have been formidable. Since it was directed by Spielberg, it was all but unbeatable.

And it didn’t just win one Oscar — it won seven, including Best Directing for Spielberg, and it became a modern movie classic. But it’s rare that a film manages to cover all five frontrunner components as well as Schindler’s List did, which is why it’s rare to have massive Oscar frontrunners at all. With all of that in mind, let’s look at how La La Land stacks up.

La La Land boasts all five of those components, though it hits some of them more strongly than others

Emma Stone looking at Ryan Gosling's face in La La Land
La La Land has faced controversy over its depictions of race and the jazz community, but mostly emerged unscathed.
Dale Robinette/Lionsgate

La La Land is a textbook Oscar frontrunner, though its campaign narrative seems slightly weaker than the other four points in its favor. Let’s break them down.

La La Land is about young artists trying to make a go of it in Hollywood. It’s also a musical. That subject matter isn’t as strong a combination as, say, a historical docudrama, but it’s close.

La La Land has a terrific Metacritic score of 93, with great reviews in all the major New York and Los Angeles publications to boot. Oscar voters have been reading praise of this film from notable critics for a while now.

Though it’s not the biggest hit in this year’s race (that would be Hidden Figures), lots and lots of people are seeing La La Land; it’s brought in nearly $135 million dollars at the box office so far. That’s a great total for an original musical, and with the benefit of Oscar wins, it will only rise higher.

La La Land has won several precursor prizes, including the NYFCC, the Golden Globe, the Critics’ Choice Award, the DGA, and the PGA. Its main competitor in the Best Picture category, Moonlight, stayed alive by winning the Writers Guild prize, but that’s a weaker predictor than most industry trophies. Hidden Figures won the big SAG prize, but that one is also less reliable for predicting Best Picture. La La Land could have done better here, but not much better, especially with its relatively small ensemble preventing it from snagging major “best cast” prizes.

And finally, La La Land is essentially running on two campaign narratives. The first is “it’s the biggest movie of the year, it has 14 nominations, and you can’t beat it,” while the second is, “in this time of trial, don’t you want to feel happy again?” Neither is a particularly compelling narrative — especially compared to, say, Hidden Figures’ suggestion that voting for it is a way to honor the women it depicts and/or help to right the Oscars’ diversity problems — but neither actively hurts the film, either.

There are ways that La La Land could probably be even stronger, but they’re few and far between. It’s no Schindler’s List, but few Oscar frontrunners are. As it stands, it still has the feeling of an awards juggernaut. That’s why even its fans increasingly seem a little tired of it.

Oscar season is long. Thus, Oscar backlash is inevitable.

Natalie Portman in Jackie
Jackie is just one of many Oscar hopefuls that ended up settling for a few nominations in non-Picture categories.
Fox Searchlight

When the current Oscar season kicked off at the Telluride Film Festival over Labor Day weekend 2016, the US presidential election was still two months away, the Chicago Cubs hadn’t won a World Series in over a century, and it seemed like one of the main competitors for Best Picture would be The Birth of a Nation.

In geologic time, Oscar season is but a blip. But in the lifespans of humans, it seemingly goes on forever. There are endless strings of awards — beginning in early December with the National Board of Review’s announcement of its winners — and endless parties to attend. There are screenings and DVD mailers and long lists of films to get caught up on before voting, to say nothing of arguments with friends about which movies you liked best.

All of which is to say that sometimes, being the early Oscar frontrunner (as La La Land was) can hurt a film’s chances, because it frequently results in exhaustion. A classic example occurred in 2014, when Boyhood kept winning early prizes, and backlash struck hard, resulting in many industry awards floating over to Birdman, which experienced a late surge and ended up winning Best Picture. Boyhood seemed unstoppable, until of all sudden it wasn’t.

This backlash is understandable, and deeply human. After all, no movie — not even the best movie of all time — is so good that it deserves every single award. And the more awards a movie wins, the more its flaws seem to stand out, especially as its detractors delight in pointing them out. A movie that seems like a perfectly nice evening out under typical circumstances becomes the bane of a movie fan’s existence when it steamrolls other films they like better in awards season.

The Oscars have tried to get a handle on this gradual bloat, to the degree that in 2004, the Academy moved the ceremony back a month, from late March to late February, where it’s remained ever since. But that hasn’t stopped the slow spread of awards season for a simple reason: From vendors involved in setting up awards ceremonies and parties to publications that are hungry for ad dollars to publicists and strategists, awards season makes a lot money for a lot of people.

But take heart, La La Land fans: Most Oscar frontrunners do prevail come awards night. Major upsets are few enough in number to have essentially become Oscar lore. And, hey, sometimes losing Best Picture is the best thing that can happen to a movie’s reputation — suddenly, it’s not just a movie a lot of people liked well enough, but the victim of a surprise defeat, which is much easier to sympathize with.

No matter what, so long as awards season continues to take up so much of Hollywood’s calendar, there will be Oscar frontrunners, there will be frontrunner backlash, and there will be the blessed sense of relief on the morning after the Oscars that nobody has to think about this stuff again until the end of the summer.

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