By Stephen Galloway
LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - Is "Avatar" truly the underdog?
That's the way Fox co-chairman Tom Rothman saw the best picture race last month in an interview with the New York Times -- and that was before "Avatar" lost to "The Hurt Locker" at the producers and directors guild awards in recent weeks.
The reality, though, is more complicated. Typically, the movie with the most Oscar nominations is the front-runner for best picture, and here "Avatar" and "Locker" are tied with nine apiece. That gives each an edge over the other eight nominees in this year's supersized category.
But which, if either, will win? What follows is an analysis of some of the factors that might determine the winner.
1. PREVIOUS AWARDS
As recently as early December, "Avatar" wasn't even being discussed as an Oscar movie. The picture hadn't screened for critics; a 25-minute preview at Comic-Con and another 15-minute clip that played in Imax theaters nationwide had drawn mixed responses. If anything, "Up in the Air" was looking like the favorite -- then "Avatar" started to roll out.
The Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. saw it and loved it; trade reviews were raves; and the first major press screening ended in applause. As critics followed with near-unanimous praise and the film began breaking box office records, "Avatar" emerged as the front-runner.
"The Hurt Locker" stole its thunder at the Critics Choice Awards on January 15, taking the directing and best picture prizes. But "Avatar" rebounded two days later at the Golden Globes, winning those races.
Six days later, the Screen Actors Guild Awards gave its ensemble prize to "Inglourious Basterds," but the following day the Producers Guild of America -- which has accurately forecast the Oscar winner six of the past 10 years -- opted for "Hurt Locker." The Directors Guild of America last Saturday gave its top award to Kathryn Bigelow for "The Hurt Locker."
So are the DGA and the PGA the best litmus tests? Maybe. The DGA has been right all but twice during the past decade -- though SAG and the Globes have the same success rate as the PGA, accurate six out of 10 times, and they didn't go with "Locker."
The average Academy member is 57.7 years old.
That number doesn't come from the Academy itself, but from a statistical sample culled by The Hollywood Reporter. (We randomly selected 500 of the Academy's 5,777 voting members, searched public databases to find their ages and averaged them out.)
Most insiders believe the average Academy member is quite a bit older than the average WGA, DGA and SAG member -- especially the latter, given that SAG's large membership includes a host of young actors who have not yet made their mark.
What's unclear is how age will factor in the race. In the foreign-language category, age has often been cited as the reason the Academy has leaned away from cutting-edge pictures like Romania's Palme d'Or winner "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" or movies from European masters like Pedro Almodovar. But will it affect the best picture nominees?
One producer argues yes, noting that the older voters will want a more substantive, issue-oriented film like "Locker," rather than a four-quadrant crowd-pleaser like "Avatar." But another Academy member counters that older members are more likely to appreciate the latter's craft and scope.
The Academy's older-skewing membership in the past has been held responsible for such middlebrow winners as "Dances With Wolves" and "Gandhi." By contrast, the Academy's attempt to broaden its membership in recent years has led it to favor such non-blockbuster movies as "Crash" and "No Country for Old Men." Overall, insiders believe older voters will favor "Locker" or possibly "Up in the Air," both of which deal with pressing issues without an action movie structure.
Of the Academy's 5,777 voting members, 1,205 are actors. And actors historically have voted for actor-oriented films. That's why a movie like "Driving Miss Daisy" beat "Born on the Fourth of July," "My Left Foot," "Dead Poets Society" and "Field of Dreams" for best picture at the 62nd Oscars in 1990. Most insiders believe that actors will veer away from the CGI-heavy "Avatar" and toward "Up in the Air," "Locker" or "Basterds."
To counter this, before the nominations, Fox ran ads touting the work of the actors in "Avatar." Highly praised as her performance has been, Zoe Saldana was always a long shot to get nominated for best actress -- and indeed she wasn't. But the ads subtly reminded voters that "Avatar" was an actors' film and not just a VFX showcase. The good news for "Avatar" is that actors are just one branch of the Academy.
Often overlooked is its hefty base of technicians. After producers and executives (who make up the second- and third-largest Academy branches), the next largest is the sound branch, which includes 405 members. Add them to the 279 members of the visual effects branch and that's a hefty bunch of technicians who might reasonably be inclined toward "Avatar."
4. VOTING SYSTEM
It is quite possible that the movie with the most votes for best picture will go on to lose the race. That's because, when it comes to best picture, the Academy uses a preferential voting system -- the same system it uses in almost all categories when it comes to choosing the nominees. (Curiously, the Academy doesn't use that system in determining winners in any category except best picture.) What this means is that long-standing notions about why certain films win may prove false.
Now, the old fear of "splitting" votes is baseless. In the past, insiders speculated that a movie like "Chariots of Fire" won the Oscar in 1982 because voters were torn between two other best picture nominees, "Atlantic City" and "Reds," dividing their votes between them and allowing "Chariots" to win. Not this time. Under the current system, several rounds of vote-counting take place. If your first choice were "Atlantic City" and your second choice were "Reds," and "Atlantic City" got the least votes, in round two your "Atlantic" vote would turn into a vote for "Reds." That process continues through several rounds, until one movie crosses the winner's line.
Because of this, being the No. 1 choice of a passionate group of voters is no longer enough. Unless one picture clears 51% of the votes in the first round, it will have to count on being placed No. 2 or No. 3 on members' ballots in order to win. There was speculation after the PGA vote that "Avatar" might have received the most votes in the opening round, but failed to get enough No. 2 votes to become the winner.
Will this voting system favor "Avatar" or "Locker?" Many insiders argue that it could work in "Locker's" favor, with "Locker" potentially picking up a disproportionate amount of No. 2 votes from "Up in the Air" or "Inglourious Basterds," as those films fall by the wayside. But that theory only holds water if you believe that "Avatar" is the kind of galvanizing picture that will cause voters to either mark it as their No. 1 choice or express ambivalence with a much lower ranking.
5. OTHER NOMINATIONS
No film in the past decade has won best picture that hasn't also been nominated for either original or adapted screenplay. And only two movies in the past decade have won best picture without having any actors nominated ("Slumdog Millionaire" in 2009 and "Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" in 2004).
Both factors are strikes against "Avatar." Few expected it to earn any acting nominations, but given that the WGA singled out its screenplay, insiders were surprised when it failed to pick up a writing Oscar nomination -- which means that less than 20% of the 382 members of the Academy's writing branch believed it was nomination-worthy. Those historical trends favor "Locker," which drew an acting nomination for Jeremy Renner. Still, Cameron can take comfort: The last best picture winner not to get a screenplay nomination was -- guess what -- "Titanic" in 1998.